My week in Russia

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I traveled to Russia during the 2018 football World Cup to watch the Tunisia-Belgium game. To be honest, I was very apprehensive about everything, starting with flying Aeroflot (a direct flight from Washington) despite the fact that it belongs to the Flying Blue consortium….. I imagined grey and rundown buildings, limited choice of western style restaurants and shops, heavy police surveillance due to the World Cup… It was everything but that! Also, people were warm, polite, and friendly, and there was so much to visit and to do! I loved both Moscow and St Petersburg. I was simply fascinated. Below are 6 facts that amazed or surprised me, but first let me switch to French for an overview.

J’ai passé une semaine en Russie a l’occasion de la Coupe du Monde 2018 et regarder le match Tunisie-Belgique. J’avoue avoir beaucoup appréhendé ce voyage, du vol en Aeroflot (c’était un direct de Washington !) bien que la compagnie fasse partie de Flying Blue, tellement j’étais imprégnée par la manière avec laquelle la Russie etait décrite en Occident (un seul son de cloche) . J’avais occulté le potentiel touristique et culturel du pays. Donc à ma grande joie, j’ai trouvé Moscou et St Petersbourg très charmantes, les russes plus chaleureux et décontractés que je ne le croyais, et une organisation de la coupe du monde impeccable.  Ci-dessous les 6 choses qui m’ont le plus marquées :

1- Russia has a little bit of France, Italy and the US. Moscow and St Petersburg are large and lovely cities, well designed, with many beautiful old buildings. The cities are colorful, from pastel colored buildings (light blue and green, warm yellow, pink, and red) to Disneyland style Russian Renaissance architecture . Orthodox churches and cathedrals are so beautiful. Moscow has a few pedestrian streets, with restaurants, bars, shops, and street music bands. St Petersburg has a canal, and a boat ride takes you through the city streets and majestic buildings. I have to stay that it was summer time, it was sunny and hot during the week we were there, and the days were very long!

2- The vestiges of the Russian empire are very visible and embedded in the modern society. Some palaces have been preserved during the Revolution, and many have been restored and are now well maintained, some became museums that are visited by locals. We heard that Russians love to visit thei

r palaces, get on a canal ride in St Petersburg (many boats have only Russian audio guide). In St Petersburg, it is a must to visit the State Hermitage, one of the world largest art museums. It was founded by Catherine the Great who was the women with the longest reign in Russia (30+ years). It is the Russian Louvre, and you would need several days to visit it. Peterhof palace, forty minutes away from St Petersburg by boat (or  hour drive), is another must. Located on the Baltic Sea, it used to be the Summer  palace of the Tsars. It is the French Versailles with a beautiful and geometric garden and several fountains.

3- The cities were super clean all the time. It was impressive. And it can’t be that Russians are well behaved and don’t throw trash on the streets. We were thousands of tourists, or rather football fans, occupying the streets from dawn to dusk (which is almost the whole day in Russia this time of the year!). No, it was being constantly cleaned!

4- We felt very safe with limited visible security. The only security we could see were the security check points in areas where public gatherings were expected (e.g., FIFA fan zone and Red Square in Moscow) or when we left the stadium after a game; no ID control, no random control, only a few police officers here and there…There were no pick-pocketing, no annoying pushing, no harassment…it was pleasant and friendly.

5- We ate very well, especially given that we were traveling with kids. Both cities had a good choice of international restaurants…with diverse menu, fresh salads, and a good selection of wine. The restaurants were also charming. I highly recommend the steakhouse Steak Shop & Show and Pizza Napolitana in St Petersburg. Even the Moscow train station has an art deco coffee place with delicious croissants, and an ice cream store with beautiful chandeliers. Waiters were usually professionals and helpful.

6- Last but not least, the Tunisian soccer fever was amazing and unforgettable! The day we landed was the day before Tunisia played its game against Belgium. Moscow streets were occupied by festive Tunisians. There were reportedly between 15,000-20,000 Tunisians in Moscow at that point. Tunisians were singing and shouting and flying the Tunisian flag high, very high…we reunited with friends and family. The day of the game was also memorable even though Tunisia lost badly to Belgium (Tunisia did score 2 goals!).

So as Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness”. Travels teaches us tolerance and understanding, it also helps put things into perspectives.