It may be the capital of the earth's biggest country, but it's not its biggest city. At times it looks like an administrative megalopolis from Alphaville, with monumental slabs of buildings and wide, grey roads. However, it's off these grey thoroughfares that the pre-Stalinised Moscow survives, with golden onion domes peeping through the narrow, winding inner-city streets and the glowing windows that hint at the secret interiors of a million apartment blocks. The most famous attractions include the Kremlin and Red Square.
Settled in the 9th century and for 600 years Russia's pioneering artistic and political centre, Novgorod lies at the heart of Russia's history. Lying just 190km south of St Petersburg, the city was annexed by Ivan III, razed by Ivan the Terrible and methodically trashed by the Nazis, but there's still a lot left to see. Its Kremlin includes the Byzantine Cathedral of St Sophia, the Millennium of Russia Monument, the icon-filled Chamber of Facets and the research-based Museum of History & Art. Across from the Kremlin, Yaroslav's Court includes medieval markets, churches, arcades and palace remains. The Church of Our Saviour-at-Ilino is arguably one of Russia's most charming, with playful ornamentation and gables, and an interior boasting Byzantine frescoes.
With the Caucasus mountains as its backdrop, the Black Sea resort of Sochi is Russia's Odessa and Yalta. With its subtropical climate, warm seas and adjoining trendy resort complex of Dagomys, the resort has long attracted heads of state, foreign tourists and Russians alike. Gardens are a feature of the town, as are therapeutic establishments and the dachas (country houses) of the powerful and famous. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.
Russia's most European city has been dubbed the Venice of the North for its palace-lined waterways. Peter the Great's beautiful creation managed to escape the architectural incursions of Stalinism and its grandiose relics of tsarist days are virtually intact. Lying on the Gulf of Finland, and sculpted by islands and the sinuous Neva River, the city is a geometric vista of orderly elegance, with nary an onion dome in sight. Attractions include the State Hermitage Museum, Peter & Paul Fortress and the Nevsky prospekt.
The main artery of the Russian heartland has always been the 3700km-long River Volga (Europe's longest), which slowly meanders from Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, all the way down to Volgograd, from where a tributary runs off to the Caspian Sea. The Volga-Don Ship Canal links it with the River Don, bound for the Azov Sea. Cruisers and steamships ply the Volga's waters, the most interesting section is between Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don. Towns en-route include Kazan, one of the oldest Tatar cities in Russia, which features a limestone kremlin and several mosques; and Lenin's birthplace, Ulyanovsk, replete with attendant memorabilia. Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad, is best known for the decisive and protracted battle fought here during WWII. The city has since been built from scratch, and appropriately grim museums and monuments proliferate.
A jaunt on the Trans-Siberian Railway is the way to see this massive country. The six-day, 9446km journey takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, passing through endless forests of birch and pine, log-cabin settlements and vast steppes. Life on the rails can be boring or fascinating, depending on the nature of your travelling companions, your choice of paperback novels and the friendliness of your carriage attendant (a vital factor). The route takes you past Siberia's Lake Baikal, a waterway as big as Belgium and home to the world's only freshwater seal, and multicultural Irkutsk, the most appealing city you'll pass along the line. Ulan Ude is home to the country's seat of Buddhism, the Ivolginsk Datsan. Those who get into the rhythm of the stops and starts, and the passing parade of trees and far-flung towns, will find it an experience never to be forgotten.
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