#8 - JRL 7252
THERE'S MORE TO RUSSIA THAN JUST CAVIAR
July 16, 2003
By Maria TUPOLEVA
Perhaps it is not the first tourist destination that comes to mind, but seven and a half million foreigners visited Russia last year alone.
Russia has an image as a land of forests, bears, matryoshka dolls, vodka and caviar. As it happens, untrodden spots do make up an incredible 60% of Russia's territory, and pancakes with caviar amply spread on them are a local delicacy for all those who are lucky enough to come for Shrovetide, the best time for old folk cuisine.
Moreover, as is the case with any other nation, Russians tend to cluster in big cities. Moscow is a megalopolis with a population of about ten million and it offers a great many interesting excursions.
Exquisite two-storey 18th and 19th century mansions stand side by side with modern glass-and-concrete skyscrapers. The city centre is a hospitable mix of luxury boutiques, modest shops, a wide variety of restaurants, hi-tech cinemas and a great many theatres.
Naturally, the Kremlin, Red Square and St.Basil's Cathedral are symbols of Moscow throughout the world. The Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and the Private Collection Museum have art treasures on display to impress even the most sophisticated connoisseur, while the world's best performers regularly appear at the Moscow Conservatory and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. There is also a multitude of nightclubs and casinos.
The Moscow's many hotels provide accommodations catering for the most demanding tastes.
However, if you have never been to Russia before, then it would be advisable to go to St. Petersburg after Moscow, especially as this year marks its tercentenary. The city looks a vast open-air museum with an inimitable atmosphere. Many of the historical features can be seen by boat along its many rivers and canals, with their beautiful bridges and embankments.
The city's streets and avenues, all designed straight as the crow flies, are in stark contrast to Moscow's picturesque winding lanes, while there are also exquisite public gardens, including the Petrine era Summer Garden, which is the most famous of them all.
Any cultural programme ought to start with the Hermitage, one of the world's richest museums, with vast collections of paintings and sculptures, without mentioning the sumptuous interiors of what was the Royal Winter Palace.
St. Petersburg, to which Russians familiarly refer as "Peter", is indelibly linked with the name of Alexander Pushkin, the best of Russian poets. He loved the city and spent his most prolific years here. His museum house on the Moika Embankment is a more of a pilgrimage destination, than a tourist site. If you know Pushkin's works, the city will impress you as populated by his larger than life characters.
Once in St. Petersburg, don't forget to visit the Royal estates in its environs-Peterhoff, Pavlovsk, Gatchina and Tsarskoye Selo. Here, opulence goes hand in hand with refined taste. Europe's foremost architects-Charles Cameron, Giacomo Quarenghi, Carlo Rossi, Pietro Gonzago and Bartolomeo Rastrelli-worked on the city and the estates round it side by side with their Russian colleagues.
Early summer, during the White Nights, is the best season to visit St. Petersburg.
Metropolitan cities cannot give an exhaustive idea of a country. Small-town charm amply adds to it. If you are after the genuine old-world air of provincial Russia, make a tour of the Golden Ring, a Central Russian itinerary across historical centres-Vladimir, Suzdal, Bogolubovo, Rostov the Great, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Murom and Yaroslavl, with memorable samples of mediaeval architecture; Sergiev Posad, Russia's foremost ecclesiastical seat; delightful towns on the Volga - Uglich, with its evergreen tragic legends, and Ples, a beauty spot frequented by artists; long-established industrial seats-Gus Khrustalny, with its cut glass, Ivanovo, with cotton prints; and Rybinsk, which combines the air of an old commercial heart with pioneer industries of today.
You can also visit old towns along and outside the Golden Ring if you take a boat down the great rivers Volga and Oka to Nizhni Novgorod or on as far as Astrakhan on the Caspian shore. A trip of five to ten days will be sheer pleasure on board a luxury tourist liner. You will see old churches, monasteries, forts, and provincial museums with precious canvases on display-treasures amazing to see in those quiet little places.
Kizhi isle in Karelia's Lake Onega is the gem of European Russia's north, and has grown to symbolise it. Built in 1714, its Transfiguration Church of twenty two cupolas is the best-known of all wooden churches extant in Russia. The Intercession Church of 1764, with its nine cupolas, and a belltower with a graceful hipped roof, of 1874, stand close to it to merge in an ensemble of unforgettable harmony. You can see it if you go on a river and lake cruise from Petrozavodsk to Valaam and Kizhi islands, and back to Karelia's capital.
As the tourist sector develops, Russian mountain skiing resorts are getting ever more popular with tourists, especially Krasnaya Polyana, where President Vladimir Putin regularly enjoys one of his favourite pursuits on vacation.
Krasnaya Polyana is up to the most demanding taste. Indeed, some athletic pastimes it offers are quite exotic. Thus, you can ski in tow after a low-flying helicopter. The four-star Lazurnaya Peak Hotel has a casino, Turkish steambaths, Russian troikas, and snowmobiles to rent.
Moreover, if you prefer more extreme tourism, then Russian exotics abound in Siberia and close to, and along the Pacific coast. Lake Baikal is a fine place for fishing and hunting, while adrenalin addicts can test them rafting down mighty Siberian rivers-the Ob, Lena, Yenissei and Irtysh.
However, if you prefer a less exhausting time, then sunbathers enjoy themselves in Sochi, Russia's principal seaside resort. Its sand beaches stretch 150 kilometres along the Black Sea coast. The country's best holiday hotels-the Radisson SAS Lazurnaya and the Radisson SAS Lazurnaya Peak Hotel-are in Sochi. They cater to all tastes, and have won several international prizes.
Every tourist is an avid souvenir hunter, so some facts and figures on Russian folk crafts come in handy.
Khokhloma is a seat of hand-painted wooden articles. The craft emerged more than 300 years ago. Local artist craftsmen put out cups, bowls, saltcellars, chairs, shelves and what not, painted all over with scarlet flowers and black leaves against a golden background. Every article is covered in two or three coats of varnish, and glazed in a furnace to give the varnish a gold tinge so that it is hard at first sight to discern simple wooden dishes from precious gilded vessels.
The whole world knows Vologda lace of flaxen, silk or cotton thread. The craft emerged at the turn of the 18th century to come to a peak two hundred years later. There were more than 39,000 lace-makers in the Vologda Province in 1913, as against 4,000 in 1893.
The lacquer miniature painting of Palekh emerged in the 15th century. The village was famous for icon-painters. Today, Palekh is far better known for lacquer boxes whose miniatures treat folk tale and ballad themes. Rooted in Byzantine art, the mediaeval manner of painting passes from generation to generation, with gossamer gold brushstrokes portraying gracefully elongated figures in flowing line against a black lacquer background.
So, in reality, there is a whole lot more to Russia than dolls, printed headscarves and vodka. St. Basil's Cathedral maybe a global symbol for the country, but tourists can discover a great deal more for themselves.