Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg)

After leaving Germany last week, we headed east to Russia.

I'm probably being a bit dramatic, but even as I type that, I'm still a little in disbelief that we just spent a little over a week in Russia. Visiting Russia was something that we (mostly me- Haley) have been so excited about and probably a little nervous about as well. With all of the political mess of the world, Russia comes with a stigma and tends to be a little shrouded in mystery. We didn't exactly know what to expect, but I think it's safe to say that it exceeded our expectations.

As we've traveled from country to country, we have found ourselves fascinated by the history and culture of each place that we've visited, and Russia was no exception. Its history of being a country ruled by one family of czars for over 300 years, becoming a communist country in the early 1900s and then a republic in 1991 is so interesting. It's a history that the Russians don't seem to shy away from, but instead they talk about it and it seems to influence their everyday lives.

While in Russia, we visited Moscow for 3 days and Saint Petersburg for 5 days. Even with being the two largest cities in Russia, they are so different. Moscow is huge and the capital of Russia. It has more of a down-to-business, big city feel similar to New York City where everyone has places to go and people to see. It is full of reminders of the Soviet Union and looks more like the rest of Russia (or so we were told). Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, looks much more European. It sits on the Gulf of Finland with Finland being only about 3 hours away by car. The people were a little more friendly and appeared to be much more accustomed to tourists. It is full of canals and rivers and colorful buildings that line them. It is very similar to what we had been seeing the last month in western and central Europe. Both cities are full of beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedrals with interiors that take your breath away. They both have friendly, kind people. And they both are so interesting to explore.

We started our week in Moscow. Sitting on the Moskva River, it is a beautiful city with old and new buildings as far as the eye can see.

While there, we spent time in the Red Square and visited St. Basil's Cathedral, which is probably the one that you think about when you picture Russian Orthodox cathedrals. It was filled with amazing, bright murals on all the walls. I loved it (and want to paint our house like this...not sure that Perry will go for it though...).

We spent an afternoon exploring the Kremlin and the cathedrals and gardens that are inside the walls of the Russian government complex.

Moscow's metro system is BEAUTIFUL and a tourist attraction in-and-of itself. It is full of mosaics, murals, sculptures and reminders of the Soviet Union. We spent a morning just riding one of the lines around (the Brown Line) and getting off at different stops to see each one.

The city has many lovely gardens and parks that we enjoyed strolling through.

We visited a super interesting area called the Izmailovsky Market. It was beautiful and bizarre all at the same time. It had several shops and restaurants and kind of reminded us of an old amusement park that had been closed and taken over by vendors.

And after enjoying several days in Moscow, we hopped on a high-speed train to Saint Petersburg.

As mentioned before, Saint Petersburg is beautiful and full of waterways and European-style buildings. It was founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703 when he decided to move Russia's capital from Moscow in order to plan a city on the Gulf of Finland. He was inspired by western Europe and invited architects from there to help plan and develop a city in the midst of what was then only forests and rivers.

The Russian Orthodox cathedrals in Saint Petersburg were unbelievable. Two in particular were especially impressive.

St. Isaac's Cathedral is huge and full of amazing murals and Russian Orthodox icons inside. It also has an area on the top where you can climb the stairs to see views overlooking the city.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is definitely my favorite. This cathedral was built by the royal family on the place where Czar Alexander II was mortally wounded (hence the name "Spilled Blood"). The interior of the cathedral is full of mosaics made entirely of tiny tiles about the size of a U.S. dime. It was breathtaking.

Aside from visiting these two cathedrals, we loved walking around the city and seeing the waterways and buildings, including the Kazan Cathedral and the Peter and Paul Fortress. This 18th Century fortress contains the Peter and Paul Cathedral where almost all of the czars of the Romanov family are buried, including Peter the Great.

We spent a day at Catherine's Palace, which is a palace outside of the city that Peter the Great built for his wife, Catherine I. It was amazing inside and outside.

We took a river and canal cruise that took us through the Neva, Fontanka and Moyka Rivers as well as the canals linking them throughout the city.

We spent the day at the State Hermitage Museum, which was formerly the Winter Palace of the royal family. It is the second largest museum in the world behind the Louvre in Paris. It has over 30,000 items ranging from famous works of art by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rafael, Rubens, Rembrandt and so many others to Egyptian and Greek antiquities to a really beautiful clock called the Peacock Clock that we were able to see "perform". It was quite impressive. And since it is a former palace, the building itself was a site to behold.

Overall, our time in Russia was wonderful. As mentioned before, it exceeded our expectations on all accounts, and we would both recommend visiting there to our family and friends. Yes, the culture is different from that of the U.S., but so many times we found ourselves realizing that it was more similar than different. And yes, the language barrier did make it difficult, but so many people were helpful when we needed it. I think visiting Russia reminded us of the importance of not relying on stereotypes and expectations to guide what we think and believe about a culture and a people. I think it showed us that if we go into something with an open mind and open heart then we can break down walls and truly learn from the world around us.

In all honesty, we wondered when we decided to visit Russia whether we would regret it and spend all our time in our hotel overwhelmed by the language and other barriers of the culture, but what we found was so different. Instead, we learned about a new place and enjoyed every minute of it.

So today, I hope that we can all look at the world around us with open hearts and minds. May we make every effort to break down barriers instead of building them. And may we learn from cultures and lands different from our own and be inspired by that knowledge to better the world.


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