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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Moscow and St. Petersburg with Cosmos Tour

Many have forewarned us against traveling to Russia but these were based on perception and the things we see on the movies.  Russians are normally portrayed as villains, whether as a spy or a human trafficker.  Somehow these hollywood movie puts a stereotype in these innocent people who just like you and me, are pre judged because of their race.   After reading through forums about the safety of traveling to Russia, it seems like a safe place to be.  Knowing that these are just perceptions, we took the chance to explore Russia and took package tours to be on the safe side.  I absolutely love Russia, their people and after going around on the subway, honestly, I feel more safe here than in New York.

First things first, book a tour or hotel, a visa support guaranteed by a hotel or tour agency in Russia is required to enter Russia specifying the exact dates of stay,  Read here for more information on applying for visa in the Phillippines.

Since we found it too inconvenient to  get different visa support from different hotels  on our own,  there seem to be no travel agent willing to process it unless you get a tour with them, we decided to get a tour through  Baron Travel with Cosmos Tour. We paid about $2000 for 8 days/7nights tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Since this is my second time to join Cosmos Tour, I got 5% discount by signing up with their membership card.   Cosmos Tour is generally cheaper than other operators because it uses standard/three stars hotel, the food is not all inclusive, selected tours are likewise optional.  In a gist, the itinerary went like this...  those in italics, we did on our own:

Day 0 Arrive in Moscow, Russia (Pre-tour arrival)

We arranged for airport pickup transfers with for 53$.  Check into your hotel. The rest of the day is free for you to explore the Russian capital.  We explored Arbat Street during our free time.  Planned a night tour of Moscow with  but we were stood up.

Day 1 Moscow (free time)

Signed up for a free walking tour of Moscow but ended up exploring the Red Square on our own, went inside St. Basil, shopped around the alleys, gum mall and spent leisurely time at the Gum Mall overlooking the red square with a glass of good russian vodka, Beluga.  Tonight, meet your Tour Director and fellow travelers. (D)

Day 2 Moscow

Sightseeing with a Local Guide this morning will include a drive into Red Square, then a walk past St. Basil’s, a visit to the Kremlin and one of its cathedrals, and one of Moscow’s famed underground Metro stations. Free time to join other optional activities or do your own exploring of Russia’s fascinating capital. (B daily)  In the evening, we went to watch ballet at Bolshoi Theater.

Day 3 Moscow (free time)

We opted to explore part of Russia's Golden Ring: Vladimir and Suzdal with the highlight of which was the organic lunch at a farmer's house. U$720 for 4.

Day 4 Moscow. Excursion to Sergiyev Posad–Overnight Train to St. Petersburg

Enjoy a day excursion that includes a visit to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergiyev, founded by St. Sergiyev, one of Russia’s most revered holy men. To this day, thousands flock to the monastery not only as an act of religious belief but also to see one of Russia’s greatest and most splendid architectural treasures. It is also used by filmmakers because of its five-tiered bell tower, uniquely beautiful and equally photogenic. After dinner in Moscow, transfer to the station for your overnight train to St. Petersburg. Overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 4-berth, second-class couchette. (B,L,D)

Day 5 St. Petersburg

See the highlights on the city tour with a Local Guide. Created in 1703 by Peter the Great, this city was made the capital of all the Russias. Although not one of Russia’s oldest, it is steeped in history, particularly from the early 20th century to the end of the World War II when it endured one of the longest and cruelest sieges in modern history. A whole afternoon to do some individual exploring and to get to know more about this fascinating city. (B,L)  We spent the rest of the day people watching at the hotel's neighborhood at 6-7 liniya (between Bolshoy and Shredny Prospekt, Vasileostrovskaya metro station) Checked-in at Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky

Day 6 St. Petersburg

After breakfast, join the included visit to the Peterhof Palace and its gardens. This historic building was almost totally destroyed during World War II and was most lovingly restored to its original splendor just a few years ago. (B)  While the rest went for the optional tours, we were dropped off at Nevsky Prospekt. We walked to Fontanka river next to Shuvalovsky Palace (Nab. Reki Fontanki 21) and did the canal cruise with for 650 rubles (14 euros) compared to cosmos's 35 euros.  Stayed up all night long and watched the draw bridge open near the hotel at Bolshaya Neva River.

Day 7 St. Petersburg

There is no greater attraction in this city than a visit to the Hermitage Museum, housed in the Winter Palace built by the Swiss/Italian architect Rastrelli in 1754 during Empress Elizabeth’s reign. It remained the home of the imperial Russian Royal Family up to 1917. Its collection of paintings spans all eras and is particularly well known for its French Impressionist and modern art. The inside architecture is of outstanding beauty; note the magnificent Jordan staircase. A day to be remembered. (B)  For convenience, we joined the optional tours of cosmos to Catherine Palace and Peter and Paul Fortress.  Capped the night with another round of vodka by the riverbanks near the hotel.

Day 8 St. Petersburg

Your vacation ends with breakfast this morning. (B)  We flew back to Moscow for our onward international flight back home.

Optional Tours in Moscow offered by Cosmos Tour:

By Night No doubt you have seen pictures of the famous Moscow buildings illuminated at night but there is nothing like actually seeing them before your eyes! On this special evening tour by coach you will see Manezh Square, the new underground recreation centre "Hunting Row" with Alexander Gardens, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Monument to General Zhukov, the Resurrection Gates with Our Lady of Iberia Chapel. Several stops will be made en route including the panorama Platform of Moscow University and Hill of Bows with Victory Park and the Fountains.
Approximate value: €32 EUR per person

Cathedral Christ The Saviour Under the guidance of a local guide visit the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which is the tallest and largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world. When the last of Napoleon's soldiers left Moscow, Tsar Alexander 1 signed an agreement declaring his intention to build a Cathedral in honour of Christ the Saviour. Construction work began on the Sparrow Hills in 1817 but as the site proved insecure a new site was chosen in 1837 closer to the Moscow Kremlin. The Cathedral took many years to build and the scaffolding was only removed in 1860. The Cathedral was finally consecrated on May 26th 1883, when Alexander 111 was crowned. However, on December 5th 1931 the Cathedral was dynamited and reduced to rubble. Eventually a new Cathedral was build and consecrated on August 19th 2000. During the visit you will have the opportunity to go up to the viewing platform on the roof of the Cathedral.
Approximate value: €33 EUR per person

Moscow Circus A stay in Moscow is not complete without having seen one of the famous circuses. There are 2 venues used - depending on the time of the year. One of them is the oldest circus in Russia being built in 1880. It has gained world popularity due to the skill of its trapeze artists, animal trainers and clowns. The other venue used is nowadays the biggest stationary circus in the world and can seat almost 3,400 people. It has produced over a hundred different performances starring the best Russian and foreign circus artists from many different countries.
Approximate value: €50 EUR per person

Moscow River Cruise Join an original and fascinating evening cruise on the Moskva River through the historical centre of Moscow. The cruise lasts just over an hour and there will be a guide on board to provide you with information about the sights seen from the river. The route includes the Kremlin, the Saint Basil Cathedral, the Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Variety Theatre, the Red October confectionery factory, a monument to Peter the Great, the Krymsky Bridge, the Gorky Park, Vorobyovy Gory hills and Luzniki Stadium. These famous city attractions look completely different and special when seen from the river.
Approximate value: €36 EUR per person

Tretyakov Gallery With a local guide visit The State Tretyakov Gallery, which is a national treasury of Russian fine art and one of the greatest museums in the world. The date of its foundation is estimated as being around 1856 when the young Tretyakov first acquired works by Russian artists of his day, with the aim of creating a collection, which might later grow into a museum of national art. His big desire was put into practice in 1892 when he presented Moscow with a large and already famous gallery containing over 2,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures.
Approximate value: €39 EUR per person
Optional tours in St Petersburg offered by cosmos tour:
Ballet Take advantage of a unique opportunity to see one of the famous ballets at the Hermitage Theatre, which is one of the oldest theatres in Russia. It was built by order of Catherine the Great in 1782-1785 on the site that was once Peter 1's Winter Palace. The first season in the Theatre was opened in November 1785 with a comic opera and then in the 1980's the entire building was restored and apart from Russian ballet performances it is also used for musical festivals. The repertoire of the ballet performances change each year so exact programme will only be known once the tour starts. Approximate value: €103 EUR per person

Canal Cruise Join a fascinating canal cruise to see the beautiful Russian city of St. Petersburg from the water. The cruise starts in the heart of the city on the Moika River before going on to the main waterway - the Neva River, where you can see Peter and Paul Fortress, the turquoise minarets of the Muslim Mosque and the legendery cruiser "Aurora". The cruise then takes you on the Fontanka River where you can marvel at amongst other sights, the Summer garden with numerous marble statues and fascinating railings, Field of Mars and the building of the State Circus. You continue into the Kriukov Canal seeing St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the building of the Mariinskiy Theatre. The boat then takes you back into the Moika River and the heart of the city, having made a complete circle around the historical centre of St. Petersburg.
Approximate value: €35 EUR per person

Catherine's Place Don't miss the opportunity to visit one of the most fascinating monuments of world's architectural and gardening arts of the 18th and 19th centuries - the Palace and Park ensemble of Tsarskoye Selo, under the guidance of a local guide. Its 3 parks occupy an area of 600 acres on which rise magnificent palaces, grand monuments, intimate pavilions and sculptures. In the centre of the ensemble is Catherine's Palace which contains exquisite decorative objects, furniture, unique collections of porcelain and both Russian and Western European paintings.
Approximate value: €48 EUR per person

Nikolaevsky Palace & Fourchette For a true Russian evening out why not join this excursion to Nikolaevsky Palace. The Palace was originally built for Grand Duke Nicole Nikolaevich in 1853. In 1895 it housed the Kseninsky Boarding School and then in the early 1918 the building was taken over by the Trade Union Council and renamed the Palace of Labour. On entering the Palace you will be greeted by soft music from a string quartet an after being seated you can enjoy a Russian show performed by folklore groups of the city. Lyrical dances and original Russian songs will help you learn more about the Russian soul. During the interval you will be served Russian refreshments and a glass of Russian champagne.
Approximate value: €47 EUR per person

Peter & Paul Fortress A local guide will show you round this fortress commissioned by Peter the Great and built in 1703 as a protection against the Swedes. It stands on Hare Island and is one of the most historic parts of the area - in fact it eventually became St. Petersburg. The Fortress became a notorious prison for people such as Dostoevky, Trotsky and Lenin's eldest brother as well as many revolutionaries. In the centre of the complex is a beautiful Cathedral with a golden spire, which is such a contrast to the grim, depressing jail. Inside the Cathedral one can see the tombs of most of the Tsars and Tsarinas from the 18th century, including that of Peter the Great himself.This fortress on Zayachiy Island is the historical core of St. Petersburg. Ordered and planned by Peter the Great in 1703, it is a monument of military and engineering craft.
Approximate value: €28 EUR per person

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