When you are going to visit distant Russia, you have to choose whether to do it in winter or in summer. The bravest travelers choose the exotic Russian winters, therefore this post will be about celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord in Russia.
We hoped that the temperature wouldnt be lower than – 5 to -10°C, but when we landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, the captain of our airliner announced cheerfully, “Welcome to Russia. The weather in Moscow is fine and sunny. The ambient temperature is 22 degrees below zero.” Oops! Surprise! Surviving became our main goal. We wanted impressions of Russia, but not chilblains.
Our Russian route was not traditional:
- Visiting the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in the old Russian city of Sergiev Posad which was the residence of Russian Patriarchs till 1983.
- Then a real Russian village 120 km from Moscow.
- And at last a Russian bath, Russian cuisine, and other winter entertainments.
However, we could not resist visiting Red Square and Vasilyevsky Spusk square in Moscow. We entered Red Square and saw Joseph Stalin alive right in front of the Spasskaya Tower.
“Why are you alone, comrade Stalin? Where is Vladimir Lenin?”
“His hairdo does not allow him stand in such cold for a long time. He is warming himself somewhere.”
We chatted with him and took pictures with him for a symbolic 10 dollars using our own camera, but there was a professional photographer nearby who could “shoot” you for the same money. Your picture would be ready in five minutes.
My God, what have they done with the square? Now, you hardly could call it red. (The name of the square comes from the old Russian word which means beautiful.) The left half of Red Square was occupied by an ice rink, and in the right half, they constructed an ugly fence around the Mausoleum of Lenin. A narrow passage to St. Basil’s Cathedral was all that was left of the once wide and beautiful square. Well, despite this, Red Square still was photogenic.
Meanwhile, there was Russian winter outside. Frost paralyzed our fingers and they refused to push buttons. Cameras complained of a low battery after each couple of shots. Cruel cold! Two more shots and we moved on.
St. Basil’s Cathedral was built in the middle of 16th century in honor of the conquering of the city of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible. The Cathedral appeared to be so unbelievably beautiful that Ivan the Terrible blinded the masters to prevent a second construction of the miracle. I should warn you that this miracle is interesting only on the outside. Don’t waste your time on its interior.
We left Moscow for the city of Sergiev Posad early in the morning. Our road turned to the north, and the temperature slowly, but steadily continued to drop. There are huge traffic jams within a fifty-kilometer radius of Moscow in any season. We endured the 40 km to the former residence of Russian patriarchs for three hours. It was the right time to eat and drink something hot before sightseeing.
Of course, we chose a restaurant with Russian cuisine. Believe it or not, Russian cuisine is varied and tasty. The main thing is to choose the right place. An old Russian city located not far from the capital is perfect for that. Among other nice things, local prices are lower than in Moscow. To speak honestly, local people are also different from the Muscovites.
We chose a table near the fireplace. “Beauty, we are chilled. Please, bring a samovar!” At first, a cup of tea with honey, then red caviar, a salmon, and mushroom julienne. Then, please, borsch and vodka with horseradish. The last is essential for a Russian winter. Three hours of excursions are waiting for us.
The variety of dishes in Russian cuisine is huge. We wanted to try everything at once, but we were forced to choose. Russian traditional dumplings with meat for the gentlemen, with salmon and red caviar for the ladies, then “Pike monastic,” and a rabbit under mushroom sauce.
Meanwhile we looked around. Some time ago, this restaurant was a guest house, and even the members of the last Russian royal family stayed there. A special place, the Trinity Sergius Lavra (the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church), is just across the street.
The restaurant owners did not go cheap on the interior. Everything is solid and good, comfortable and cozy. Even the dishes and the cutlery were made to order. It turned out they have a good chef as well, and not bad prices. Five thousand rubles (160$) for five persons is laughable by Moscow standards.
But souvenirs were expensive, therefore we took just a couple of photographs and went to investigate the main goal of our visit, the Trinity Sergius Lavra.
The monastery was founded by Sergius of Radonezh. People from distant corners of Russia always went to see him, to get his blessing, and after his death to venerate his holy relics. Saint Sergius was proclaimed the patron saint of the Russian land in 1422. Nowadays, the relics of St. Sergius remain in Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity of the monastery, and there is a huge lineup to them even in the middle of the working week.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity Sergius Lavra always was considered a special place. Every member of the Russian royal family was baptized here. The most famous Russian icon painters, Andrei Rublev and Daniil Chyorny, painted the cathedral.
The frescoes in the Holy Trinity Cathedral are unique. Christs eyes are looking directly at you, and it feels as if he sees right through you. I have never seen anything like it. There was a time when the miracle icon of Trinity created by Andrei Rublev was kept in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Now it is stored at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
We took a long walk and were half dead from cold. It was time to go. We still had to tackle the 80 km back to our village.
Russian villages have stayed unchanged for many centuries. The same old rickety houses, smoke from the chimneys, older women who kindly ask you on the street, “Where are you from, sweetheart? Visit our church. It is ancient. Several generations prayed in it.”
But you would have to be very brave to leave a warm house! Yesterday, the temperature came down to -32° Celsius. “May I stay at home? I don’t want to skate!” But everyone went to skate, even the huge dog of our hosts. At first, we cleared a path to the lake through mountains of snow. In some places, the snow was knee high and in others, waist deep. We took shovels with us, because if you want to skate, you must clear the snow from the lake (well, not the whole lake). Clearing the lake of snow kept us much warmer than skating on it did.
The next day, the bravest of us went for winter fishing to the Volga River. It was not far from our village, around forty kilometers. We went through endless fields and forests by quads. You will not find such a fun in a city.
The third day we spent preparing for the great Christian feast, the Epiphany of the Lord. For real Russians, the traditional Epiphany is not possible without dipping into an ice hole. The villagers made an ice hole in the same lake where we skated yesterday, and a service took place right there. The priest blessed the water, and according to the old Russian tradition, everyone could dip into it starting from midnight to the next midnight.
No matter how persistently the locals tried to persuade us, we refused to jump into the ice-cold water. Certainly, we did not want to catch a cold and be coughing for the rest of our vacation. We decided not to risk it.
The Russian bath is quite a different story. Well, we endure plus 70°С better than minus 30°С. The steam was wet, hot, and amazingly fragrant thanks to herbs. First five minutes, we spent relaxing and getting warm; then a ritual began. I took a steamed birch broom and began to thrash Victor. Then we jumped into a snowdrift and repeated the whole procedure five times. After that, it was time for buckthorn tea with honey.
Unfortunately, all vacations must end, and we decided to thank our hosts with the farewell dinner with Victors favorite dish. He loves it and cooks perfectly. He brought the recipe from Middle Asia. Under his guidance, we made splendid hashans, a kind of dumplings.
Chopped lamb with onion, garlic, and black pepper. The whole house was filled with the fragrance, and the taste was … yummy. Even Italy’s best ravioli cannot compare to this tasty dish.