Zdrastvutye! Welcome to Russia. Your festive adventure begins with a Welcome Meeting at 6 pm today, where your insurance and next of kin details will be collected. Please also have two copies of your passport, visa and migration cards ready. Your leader will collect one; the other is for you to keep on you at all times whilst on the trip. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where the meeting will take place – if you’re going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. After the meeting, take to the snow-covered streets for an orientation walk and maybe share you first Russian meal with new friends. Perhaps experience the wintery charm of Red Square, dripping with light, as skaters glide across an ice rink. There’s so much to see and do in Moscow, and with limited time here on the tour, perhaps arrive a few days early to fully uncover the secrets of a city where the sights of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union brush up against the modern world. During free time in Moscow you might relive the nation’s turbulent past at Victory Park, travel back to the beginnings of Russian art at the Tretyakov Gallery, or pick up some souvenirs at the Izmailovo Markets. Otherwise, perhaps step inside the colourful St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Legend has it that tsar, Ivan the Terrible, had the two architects blinded so that they couldn’t build anything as beautiful again.
Today, with a local guide by your side, enter cobbled Red Square, where beautifully decorated Christmas trees stand tall next to the brightly coloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, the opulent GUM Department store, the fairy-tale building of the State Historical Museum, and the imposing walls of the Kremlin. From the days of Ivan the Terrible to the military parades of the Cold War, the square has long been at the heart of Russian history. Catch a glimpse of revolutionary leader Lenin at his austere eternal resting place before entering the Kremlin grounds, home to the oldest and most important churches in the country, and where many Tsars and Tsarinas are laid to rest. Walk through the soaring towers and cathedrals of the political and spiritual heart of Russia before entering the Armoury Museum, home to an eye-bulging former royal collection of ambassadorial gifts, Faberge eggs, coronation robes and glittering jewels. Afterwards perhaps take the metro to see elaborately decorated stations unlike any other. From sculptures depicting the glory of the soviet days to ornate chandeliers and stained glass windows, these are the ‘Palaces of the People’.
This morning, leave the big city behind and head east by train to the countryside and Suzdal (approximately 4 hours). The town is a main stop on Russia’s legendary Golden Ring, the circle of towns that played an important part in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church and hold the memories of significant events in Russian history. The fairytale-feel historic small town of Suzdal is filled with contrasting examples of early Russian architecture, where onion-domed monasteries stand next to decorative little wooden cottages. Here there are opportunities to drink mead by the riverside with a symphony of cathedral bells in the air, and peek inside the crumbling churches that line the narrow streets and alleys, made even more magical beneath the snow. Tonight you’ll make new friends for the year ahead with a homestay in the city’s quiet streets. Lend a hand with the preparation of a traditional Russian feast and ring in the New Year with your hosts. Wave goodbye to the old year with a shot of vodka and toast to the new one with champagne. After the bells chime midnight, wrap up warm and head outside. Stroll the streets to greet neighbours and offer them best wishes for the coming year.
Get to know the town a little better today with a walking tour of this ‘open-air museum’, where old buildings and churches sprout like mushrooms. Take in the sights – the grandeur of the Kremlin, the carved stonework of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the trading square, market and monasteries. Afterwards perhaps explore the museums housed in the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery, where hours can be spent and that is just as impressive as Moscow’s Kremlin. Otherwise, maybe walk the length of the frozen river, spanned by snow covered wooden footbridges, where men fish in the ice and children slide along on sleighs. Warm up in a local cafe with some hot tea, pancakes or the Suzdal specialty of medovukha, a honey-based spiced mead.
Continue north on the Golden Ring of ancient towns by private vehicle to Yaroslavl (approximately 3 hours). The city of Yaroslavl is situated on the Volga River at its confluence with the Kotorosl River, some 250 km northeast of Moscow. The Historical Centre of the City of Yaroslavl is the oldest part and the kernel of development of one of the most ancient, rich, and well preserved Russian cities (a UNESCO site). Enjoy free time here to wander the historical old town which sits between the rivers Volga and Kotorosl. The town is dotted with onion domes like no other place in Russia, much of that beauty remains unscathed by Soviet development.
Yaroslavl – Overnight train
In the morning explore the city’s wealth of architecture with a local guided walking tour. Marvel at the Spassky monastery (Saviour monastery), that was founded in the 12th century at the place where Kotorosl river meets Volga river. For an additional cost, you can get to the top of the bell tower. Save your breath though, because you’ll need to climb quite a steep staircase. The reward is a great panoramic view of the city. Explore the outside of the beautiful Church of St. Elijiah the Prophet (Ilya Prorok). This church is closed in the winter months however the exterior alone is something to marvel at, viewed as one of the most complete and best-preserved monuments of Yaroslavl. We will then wander down to the river bank and take in the views. Later this afternoon we will climb aboard to ride the rails deep into the heart of the country. You’ll experience the unique adventure of Russian train travel overnight to Yadrikha, the closest station to Veliky Ustyug (approximately 15 hours).
Trains on this journey are simple but comfortable. You’ll travel 2nd class on this trip. There’s a toilet/bathroom at the end of each carriage with a small sink and cold water. An attendant is assigned to every carriage to look after your comfort and safety (although service standards can vary greatly). Each compartment has four bunks with luggage storage space inside. Bedding is provided, although some travellers still prefer to bring their own sleeping sheet. There’s hot water available for making drinks or instant meals, tea and coffee. Sometimes snacks and drinks are available for purchase on board and most trains also have a dining car although with a limited menu. Please note that in many cases, due to high demand for tickets on this route, the group is not always together. It’s likely that at least some members of the group will be sharing compartments with other travellers, either foreign or local, particularly if your group does not divide evenly into four. A brief word about drinking on the train: Social drinking is common on trains in Russia and can be an enjoyable way to meet local people as well as interact with your fellow Intrepid travellers (in moderation). While alcohol is often available for purchase on the train, spirits (including vodka) should only be consumed in the dining car. While we certainly want all our Intrepid travellers to have a great holiday it’s important that you show due respect for your fellow group members, and keep in mind that many of your local companions use the train as a means of transport to get home or to work.
Depending on the seasonal train schedule, you will either arrive in Yadrikha early morning or mid afternoon. From there it’s around a 50km transfer to Veliky Ustyug. This small provincial but picturesque town was well off the map until the powers that be declared it to be the official home of Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Claus. Ded Moroz, or Father Frost, waits in his log cabin in the dense taiga forest through the summer, reading the letters from all Russia’s children. He then delivers them their gifts at New Year instead of Christmas, and in person rather than leaving them under a tree. He often wears blue rather than red and can be seen with his granddaughter, Snegurochka. Have some time to explore the Ded Moroz residence, and perhaps do some gift buying yourself from the local handicrafts workshop, full of Russian-style Christmas kitsch. There is lots to do and see here and you will easily fill the afternoon with snow & ice activities or just enjoying the “christmassy” atmosphere.
Kuznetsovo – Velikiy Ustyug – Overnight train
Today we will drive 20km to the village of Kuznetsovo where there are traditional Russian homes. Here you’ll join in some very traditional Russian village folk games and enjoy a local lunch while here. Use some free time to explore the town – wander along the left bank of the river Sukhona and look at the Museum of History, Art, and Architecture. We will transfer to Kotlas train station at approximately 8pm for long but exciting train journey to the imperial capital of St Petersburg (approximately 24 hours).
Train – St Petersburg
Sit back and relax in your warm compartment as the train travels through the winter landscape on the way to St Petersburg. Get out the cards, read a book and share a chat, or a drink, with the locals and learn more about their culture. The train schedule can vary greatly for the trip from Kotlas to St Petersburg, but currently you will arrive in late evening on Day 9. A living museum, St Petersburg is a blend of baroque European architecture and Russian royal history, built by the Russian tsar Peter the Great whose legacy can be felt in its enigmatic streets and showcase cathedrals and museums. After arriving and decamping to your central hotel, maybe head out for a walk along Nevsky Prospect to stretch out your train legs. Perhaps attend a local Russian Orthodox Church service – it is Christmas Eve after all.
Take the day to explore this beautiful city brimming with historic centres, including one of the world’s premier art collections at the Hermitage museum, and stroll through the perfectly preserved Winter Palace ballroom and throne room. Perhaps browse the Udelnaya flea market or climb the belfry of Smolny Cathedral for a rare high view of the city. Maybe gorge yourself on culture with a world-class performance at the Mariinsky Theatre. In the evening make new friends with a visit to a local family’s home to see how an average Russian lives and finish your New Year adventure with a traditional tea party. Not all family members speak English but your leader will be on hand to interpret and with their warm hospitality you’ll be feeling like one of the family in no time.
This Russian winter journey comes to an end today. There are no activities planned and you are able to depart the accommodation at any time.