They Came to Russia on a Tour
Bleary-eyed and hungover from a wild night in Talinn, Estonia, the group of 30 Topdeckers roll into Saint Petersburg, straight to the front door of the Azimut hotel. An included hotel dinner displays all manner of foreign foods — foreign to Russia, that is — catering to the diverse nationalities of hotel guests. Soup, noodles, rice, chicken, beef and steamed vegetables are plentiful. A tokenistic selection of cured herring and pickled cabbage goes almost untouched. A couple of drinks in the Sky Bar allow the opportunity of taking in the City of White Nights in all its glory from a comfortable lofty height, before succumbing to the stupor induced by a sleep-deprived, alcohol-infused trek across seven countries in 20 days.
After a hotel buffet breakfast, the all-too-familiar bus is reclaimed for a driving tour of the top sights of Saint Petersburg. Phones and cameras in hand, they dismount in search of the most instaworthy spot in front of Saint Izaac’s Cathedral and the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The brave might attempt to find local fare at dinner, but are inexorably lured by the tourist-geared restaurants or familiar cuisines found on every corner. Maccas run?
The second and final day in Saint Petersburg involves a guided tour of the Hermitage Museum, located in the Winter Palace. A mustsee for any visitor, it inevitably seems that it sees every visitor. An evening at the ballet concludes the ultimate Saint Petersburg experience, topped off with champagne in a plastic cup. Ypa!
30 Topdeckers roll out of Saint Petersberg and onto Novgorod by bus again. A walking tour of the ancient city is worth the time, as is the strange drama theatre designed by Vladamir Somov. The food, not so much. Novgorod specialises in various schnitzelled meat paired with either rice, spaghetti and tomato sauce. Not sure if this is what Novgorodians eat these days or what they think tourists eat… but there was no sight of the famed honey mead, medovuha.
The more home-like than home bus takes the Topdeckers on to Moscow, a long day of driving, filled with typical Russian traffic on approach to the capital. The dry guide laments the state of Russia’s roads, traffic and taxes in a most relatable monologue that captures universal disappointment in government.
The Izmailovo hotel complex has a delightful disregard for its location, gargantuan and opulent in ’80s style kitsch. Utterly drained by doing nothing, the group converge in the hotel dining room for the buffet dinner.
Customary driving tour, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Red Square, GUM department store. Check, check, check, check. Selfies in Red Square wearing fur ushankas, despite the 30˚C sunny blue sky summer day. Dodging tourists in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral for ultimate ‘gram shot. A tour of the Moscow Kremlin, which leaves mouths yawning and eyes closing, because who really cares how many wives Ivan the Terrible had?
The evening commences with a Russian Folk show, displaying the intertwined history of tradition, story, song and dance. Free shots and skewers of cheese expose the group to what our guide calls a typical Russian reaction to free stuff: chaos. The evening continues to a Speakeasy, named for Schrödinger’s Cat, specialising in bizarrely themed cocktails: handbag cosmopolitan anyone? From there, it’s time to dance the night away at Propaganda, Moscow’s oldest club. Despite Russian menus and cheaper alcohol, nothing about Propaganda or Kot Shrodingera would be out of place in the Melbourne nightlife.
Severely hungover or potentially still drunk, the caffeine-fortified group descends into the infamous Moscow Metro for a tour of the unique stations that had been designed to bring beauty into the lives of the communist workforce. A blur of stations and fascinating histories compete with pounding headaches, now unpleasantly reminiscent of the techno bass of the club.
After retreating to the hotel for much-needed naps, they venture out for a guided tour of the Kremlin Armoury, where all that glitters really is gold. A restaurant near Revolution Square serves as the venue for the last supper. The familiar dishes geared at tourists are a salve on still-delicate stomachs. Next to the hotel, Izmailovo markets are a perfect place to furnish the group with the last-minute essential Russian trinkets: babushkas, ushankas, hip flasks and T-shirts emblazoned with a shirtless Putin riding a horse.
After a final Russian hotel buffet breakfast, Bus-Home departs the Hotel at 0900h sharp, leaving the dust to settle in the wake of the six-day Russian adventure. Goodbye comrades, next stop: Latvia!
Cover by Aurelien Romain