From Russia with Love

Picture the scene. I’m completely naked, I’m lying face down in a sauna containing at least six other naked men, we’re all wearing white felt hats and there’s a heavy set guy standing over me sweating profusely in the 100 degree heat holding two bunches of birch leaves which he is using to rhythmically massage and beat my naked body. After 15 minutes of this I’m told to leave the sauna and submerge myself in the basseyn, an ice-cold plunge pool. Afterwards I take a swim, freestyle (if you get me), in an extravagant Romanesque decorated pool. My skin feels amazing, my circulation feels like it’s won the lottery, and I’m feeling totally euphoric.

It’s a lazy Thursday afternoon and I’m in the Sanduny Bath House in Moscow. Founded in 1808, Sunduny is the oldest public bath house (banya) in Russia and is made of several hothouses, spacious lounge zones, restaurants, swimming pools and classical Russian steam rooms. The Russian banya is one of the best and most authentic experiences you can try in Russia and along with the Moroccan Hamman and Japanese Onsen, among the best bath experiences in the world.

For many people Russia is still a bridge too far, a country to be feared and not to be trusted. Our television screens are packed with images of former KGB operatives and Russian mobsters and the people are stereotyped as being cold and serious. But this wasn’t the Russia we encountered, not even close.

We spent eight nights in Russia split evenly between St. Petersburg and Moscow and what we found was a well-organised, clean, safe country. The people were friendly, helpful, polite, well-behaved and fun loving, and both locations were packed with history, culture and great food. The transport systems are excellent and affordable in both cities (you can get an all-day ticket in Moscow for around €3 which allows unlimited travel on the bus and metro) and both cities have an abundance of amazing parks, museums, restaurants, bars, art galleries, bathhouses, markets, theatres, cathedrals, and shopping.

While both cities feel very European, St. Petersburg feels very much like a Scandinavian city, which is perhaps no surprise when you consider it was Peter the Great’s desire to make Russia a major European power that led to its founding and it’s only four and a half hours by car from Helsinki. The location, previously a Swedish outpost, was captured at the start of the Great Northern War (1700-21) and since then has been subject to revolution, siege and several renamings (including St. Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad).

The Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is built on a network of canals and waterways reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice and with some 342 bridges spanning the city a boat tour is a good way of getting your bearings and learning some basics about the history of the city (for example, that many of the buildings are painted yellow because historically it was the cheapest colour to produce). The city is also home to some of the world’s best museums including the world-famous Hermitage Museum, which is housed in the stunningly beautiful Winter Palace (worth a look even if museums aren’t your thing), boasting a collection of over 3 million pieces. The city also has several stunning cathedrals (cathedrals to Russia are like temples to Cambodia/Thailand, they are everywhere) including the beautiful St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood, and of course the Peter and Paul Fortress around which the city was built. St. Petersburg has some great bars (try Terrassa which has great views of Kazan Cathedral) and restaurants (Mansarda has excellent views of St. Iassac’s Cathedral) and is a great place to see some traditional Russian folk dancing (be warned, these shows are mainly for tourists, but we went to the Russian Cossacks Show and loved it).

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg

From St. Petersburg we travelled to Moscow by train. We booked a first-class sleeping berth for two people on one of the overnight trains which cost £88/€99 per person including breakfast served in your cabin. The train also includes a Murder on the Orient Express type dining carriage (although with less murder and more vodka) where you can order dinner if you are hungry upon boarding. Alternatively, you can take the high-speed Sapsan train which takes about 4 hours travelling at about 200km/h and costs around £75/€84 per person.

 The Red Arrow train takes approximately nine hours between St. Petersburg and Moscow

Moscow has it all. One of the world’s most famous cities and a population of over twelve million people it’s steeped in history and oozes culture. The capital is bursting with energy, packed with cool bars and restaurants, factories and warehouses converted into art galleries and post-industrial nightclubs, and parks that are overrun with healthy, active, sporty types. Moscow gives you the feeling that the people there are enjoying life and for visitors there’s just an endless number of things to do, see, and try. Yes, there’s the obligatory visit to the Kremlin, an impressive 800-year-old fortress containing a number of beautiful cathedrals and the apex of Russian political power, and of course the Red Square and the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, but there’s also Gorky Park (the best park I have ever visited), the Bolshoi Theatre, Izmaylovsky Market, the Museum of Cosmonautics, VDNKh park, Sanduny Baths, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Park Zaryadye and Lenin’s Mausoleum, to name but a handful of the city’s attractions. And no trip to Moscow is complete without doing a tour of Moscow’s metro stations (see below) where you can visit some of the most beautiful marble-faced, frescoed, and gilded works of art you will ever see on a public transport network (look out for the soldier and his dog whose nose is rubbed for good luck). Even the train carriages have paintings hung on the walls. Spectacular!

Winston Churchill once said that Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It certainly is. And that’s why you should visit.

Top tips: Download one of the taxi apps such as Gett or Yandex. Normal yellow taxis, which could be hailed in the street and used meters, disappeared after the fall of Communism. Also, try some Russian food. Gogol in St. Petersburg is excellent and has a large menu of traditional cuisine, try the traditional Russian milk mushrooms with dill, or Yat restaurant, which has excellent dumplings and a great selection of vodka.

Russian milk mushrooms with dill in Gogol restaurant, St. Petersburg

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