TRAVEL: win­ter won­der­land in Rus­sia

Ali­cia Pyke vis­its Moscow and Saint Peters­burg in De­cem­ber for an un­for­get­table white Christ­mas.

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Hav­ing my photo taken with Santa is a tra­di­tion I’d long out­grown but then, I’d never ex­pected to meet the jolly man in Moscow. “Privet, Santa,” I wave, de­lighted when he beck­ons me over. “Who’s Santa?” he jokes. “I’m Fa­ther Frost.” It’s a small dif­fer­ence, but em­brac­ing the Rus­sian way of do­ing things is es­sen­tial to cel­e­brat­ing a white Christ­mas here.

It’s a few days be­fore the 25th and we’re at a Euro­pean-style Christ­mas mar­ket along­side a Moscow boule­vard full of speed­ing cars and sirens. Get­ting a feel for the city means fol­low­ing the crowds to Red Square. Here we find an out­door ice-skat­ing rink and stalls sell­ing mulled wine. Be­tween the twin­kling lights of the GUM depart­ment store and the psy­che­delic domes of Saint Basil’s Cathe­dral, it’s like find­ing our­selves in the cen­tre of a Christ­mas card with a twist: heady stuff, es­pe­cially when we pass the Square’s more som­bre

land­mark of Lenin’s tomb near vast walls hous­ing the Krem­lin.

While Rus­sians cel­e­brate Christ­mas on Jan­uary 7, ac­cord­ing to the East­ern Ortho­dox cal­en­dar, there’s plenty of sea­sonal fun to be had from around De­cem­ber 20. And Rus­sia’s rich win­ter food is per­fect for Christ­mas. By all means, splurge on caviar at Moscow’s fa­mous Café Pushkin, but copy the lo­cals and call for a bas­ket of pip­ing hot pirozhki too. These fried pas­tries filled with meat, cheese and pota­toes re­mind us to seek out the lo­cal com­fort foods such as pel­meni (steamed ravi­oli served with sour cream), gol­ubtsi (stuffed cab­bage rolls) and that old favourite, beef stroganov.

Cen­tral ho­tels in Moscow can be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive so we stay at an Airbnb-listed apart­ment in­stead. To keep costs down, we also use the vast city’s un­der­ground sys­tem – chal­leng­ing with all signs in

Cyril­lic, but worth the ef­fort to ex­pe­ri­ence the sur­pris­ing beauty of the Soviet-era sta­tions de­signed as “peo­ple’s palaces” com­plete with mar­ble col­umns, sculp­tures and mu­rals. Mayakovskaya and Prospekt Mira are two of the most spec­tac­u­lar, but there are many hid­den beau­ties so do look around when you head un­der­ground. It’s from one of these sta­tions that we board the high-speed Sap­san train tak­ing us 635km north to Saint Peters­burg in less than four hours. The change of pace from gritty, bustling Moscow is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent: traffic is calmer and the of­fi­cial build­ings are pretty rather than im­pos­ing.

Saint Peters­burg’s ar­chi­tec­ture is so ap­peal­ing that we wake up on a freez­ing Christ­mas morn­ing de­cid­ing to spend the day walk­ing among the neo­clas­si­cal con­fec­tions lin­ing the banks of the Neva River. If you’re short on time, make a bee­line for the but­ter­cup-hued Ad­mi­ralty com­plex – home to the Rus­sian navy – and the mint-green Win­ter Palace, best known as the main build­ing of the Her­mitage Mu­seum. If tour­ing the Her­mitage, give your­self as much time as pos­si­ble. The world’s sec­ond largest mu­seum af­ter the Lou­vre, its daunt­ing col­lec­tion in­cludes more than three mil­lion pieces.

A trip to the bal­let is a must in Rus­sia, and ours hap­pens to be ex­tra spe­cial:

we score tick­ets to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker on Christ­mas night at the ex­quis­ite Mikhailovsky The­atre. The build­ing dates back to 1833, when the Ro­manovs were still in charge. Con­tin­u­ing our theme of a royal Rus­sian Christ­mas, we walk through the snowy streets for a late din­ner at Tsar. Filled with an­tiques, the restau­rant cel­e­brates the deca­dence of pre-rev­o­lu­tion Rus­sia. Tsar’s menu is tra­di­tional, start­ing with Salad Olivier, a med­ley of pickles, peas, pota­toes, eggs, meat and ap­ples smoth­ered in may­on­naise, fol­lowed by salmon fresh from the Gulf of Fin­land. Petits fours fol­low as we’re treated to an un­ex­pected floor show when Fa­ther Frost ar­rives to lead a hearty Christ­mas singalong.

He’s also brought a troupe of cos­sack dancers and bal­leri­nas who per­form breath­tak­ing Dirty Danc­ing-style “lifts” in the nar­row spa­ces be­tween tables. It’s shock­ingly good, and like many things in Rus­sia, a lit­tle hard to be­lieve un­til you re­lax, smile and re­alise this is just how things are done here.

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The psy­che­delic domes of St Basil’s Cathe­dral. BE­LOW: Ali­cia meets Fa­ther Frost.

ABOVE: Prospekt Mira sta­tion in Moscow. The Win­ter Palace in Saint Peters­burg (top) houses the Her­mitage Mu­seum (be­low).

FROM TOP: A view of Saint Peters­burg; Pushkin Patis­serie in Moscow; when in Rus­sia, see­ing a bal­let is a must.

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