A spectacular view of St Basil’s, the famous and iconic cathedral on Red Square in Moscow.
A spectacular view of St Basil’s, the famous and iconic cathedral on Red Square in Moscow.

It’s time to rush over to Russia now

BETWEEN the history of murders and sainthoods of old Rus, the insurgence of Napoleon, and the reign of the Soviets and communism, incredible Russian architecture arose and outstanding artefacts were acquired.

Modern-day Russia has preserved a lot of that dynamic history and made it accessible and affordable for overseas visitors and locals.

It's a destination I was hesitant to visit on my own, hence my choice to sign up for a 16-day tour with Australian company Academy Travel on the promise our tour leader, Dr Matthew Dal Santo, would take us behind the tourist banter and into the history behind the events that have made Russia such a fascinating place to visit.

We started in Moscow travelling for three hours, past the never-ending high-rise residential buildings, through the incredibly congested traffic on the eight-lane highway, to the town of Suzdal.

This church, just outside of Suzdal, was built in about 1234 and was the first one constructed from limestone.
This church, just outside of Suzdal, was built in about 1234 and was the first one constructed from limestone.

Away from the madness, the countryside was lush, but the homes of the locals were small and simple, often timber construction. It was a timely reminder of how tough life would have been for the serfs.

On the way to Suzdal we stopped at the Sergiev Posad monastery, which is thought to be the spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its blue "onion" domes above are reminiscent of Constantinople, which provided the foundation for the orthodox church.

Suzdal was the start of the many, many visits to churches, some of which dated back to the 1100s - all important to understanding the growth of Rus, its governing structure and tsars. It was here that the churches moved from timber to limestone construction.

Every inch inside these churches is covered with dazzling icons, beautifully detailing the many stories of the faith.

Bishops hats for sale, but not to the public, at Sergei Posad near Suzdal.
Bishops hats for sale, but not to the public, at Sergei Posad near Suzdal.

Nearby is Vladimir, founded in 1108 by Kiev prince Vladimir Monomakh. It replaced Kiev as the capital of Rus.

From Vladimir it was a short train trip back to Moscow, with the train announcer proudly declaring we were arriving in the "hero city" of Moscow. It's home to 12 million people in the city itself and 20 million or so across greater Moscow.

By late September the temperature was heading downwards, so out came the thermals. Luckily the central heating was already turned on. Normally, across the cities, it's on from October 1 until May 1.

Moscow is old outside, modern inside. It throbs with commerce and tolerates eager visitors who are thrilled by the architecture, culture, history and artwork.

We did the obligatory and fabulous Bolshoi Ballet visit where we saw the prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova dance, marvelled at the interiors and ceilings of the Metro stations, waved hello to Mr Putin while we wandered in the grounds of the Kremlin, and delved into the tsar and Soviet history sites.

St Petersburg's massive The Hermitage Museum.
St Petersburg's massive The Hermitage Museum.

Red Square is impressive and confusing. On one side is the huge mausoleum housing Lenin, on another side the flame of the unknown solider guarded by stern young military men who only move precisely at the changing of the guards.

On another side is St Basil's Cathedral with its nine church domes of varying colours and styles. Turn to your left and there on the final side is the GUM department store with just every top (read expensive) European fashion brand.

There was so much to see I have promised myself a return visit to take in this incredible city at a much slower pace.

Soon the group hopped on the comfortable train for the three or so hours' trip to St Petersburg.

The city was built on swamps with no arable land nearby to help feed the serfs, but it was the perfect location to give the tsar access to the Baltic Sea.

Here Peter the Great changed Russia forever as he forced it to move towards modernisation and Europeanism. The Court spoke French and spent up big. It was also the time when Rus was renamed Russia.

Catherine the Great's palace, about 20km outside of St Petersburg in Pushkin.
Catherine the Great's palace, about 20km outside of St Petersburg in Pushkin.

Several leaders later, Catherine the Great ascended to the throne and made her mark both on Russia and across eastern Europe. Her palace in Pushkin, just 20km out of the city, is said to rival the Palace of Versailles. It is certainly another example of exceptional architecture, and excessive wealth.

Apart from some 200 gilded palaces and countless domed churches, the nobility acquired incredible artwork from across Europe. Much of it survived the world wars but was then confiscated from the ruling families to be preserved and displayed for the people.

The Hermitage and its adjacent General Staff Building artwork collection, which has earned its status as world-class, the Yusupov Palace and the Carl Faberge Museum are everything they say they are and much, much more. Original paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse, van Gogh and Kandinsky are just a hand span away from the visitor.

Coincidentally, the Yusupov Palace visit was very special as an old school friend of mine is a relative of the family. If her family had stayed in Russia, she would have been an empress. Alas, they escaped to Paris and beyond, but left a magnificent home and more outstanding artworks for the world to enjoy.

 

One of the delicate Faberge eggs on display in St Petersburg's Carl Fabrege Museum.
One of the delicate Faberge eggs on display in St Petersburg's Carl Fabrege Museum.

 

We attended the Kirov Ballet for the delightful and colourful Don Quixote, performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, which has a very different feel to that of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Not to be missed is the Leningrad Blockade Memorial. It is a stark and sombre reminder of the 900-day blockade by the Nazis of then-called Leningrad from 1941-44.

In St Petersburg on May 9 - Victory Day - you will often see citizens carrying a photo or piece of memorabilia of a family member who fought during WWII.

If you thought going to Russia would be like visiting the Outback, think again.

Zipping past us in the cities were Uber Eats-style delivery cyclists, while we regularly spotted Burger King and McDonald's stores.

Ignore the grumpy face reputation; Russians are welcoming.

And celebrate the cleanliness.

The cities are impeccably clean, bar the occasional cigarette butt.

"Spacibo'' to the Russians for a memorable experience.


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