The Russian psyche is as extreme as the weather, and possibly - at least in part - because of it. It's not just the vastness of a country which never seems to end; in Russia everything is bigger - the singing, the laughing and the crying. Life is lived to the maximum. Here are our recommendations for the top five things to do in Russia.
Eating caviar with a ladle
Tthe days when it didn't cost much are well and truly behind us, but caviar here is still much more affordable than back home. Which caviar to choose? Forget about caviar from the Caspian Sea, which used to produce 90% of caviar. Overfished and living in polluted water, wild sturgeon in the vast inland sea are threatened with extinction and their wild caviar has been banned from sale for about ten years. Instead, you can taste Ossetra, European, or beluga, the most expensive caviar in the world because very few sturgeons of this species remain and they need to be over 20 years old before their eggs can be collected: only 660lb of beluga caviar is produced annually, hence the exorbitant prices.
The very finest grade is actually thealmas, which means ' diamond ' in Russian, special premium caviar, which also comes from the beluga: its white eggs, almost translucent, are the most expensive caviar in the world. Let's forget the ladle and take a small spoon, made of mother-of-pearl - decreed the only material that doesn't alter the taste of this black gold.
Outdated futuristic architecture
The USSR produced oversized, angular stone buildings that still line every city's wide avenues as architectural reminders of the era. But the one-time USSR also produced, at the time of the Cold War between the two superpowers, a whole range of Sixties buildings, an ode to a radiant future, like incongruous space ships that had landed in the centre of the city. The Cyber Institute or the St. Petersburg Passenger Terminal, Melnikov House in Moscow, and, here or there, a metro station, a bus stop, take us straight to an old science fiction film.
Spend a day in the Hermitage Museum
... or two - the museum has so much to offer they also sells two-day tickets. All the buildings that make it up - the Hermitage Theatre, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Small Hermitage, and finally the Winter Palace - almost all located on the banks of the Neva, are a jewel in themselves, which UNESCO has included on the World Heritage List.
The breadth and depth of the collections is staggering: The Hermitage is the largest museum in the world in terms of exhibits: (more than 60 ,000 objects on display at any one time in nearly 1 ,000 rooms, while nearly three million objects are kept in the archives), and, with its 16,000 works, the largest collection of paintings, from Rembrandt to Rubens, from Matisse to Gauguin, from Leonardo da Vinci to Pablo Picasso.
Catching the Trans-Siberian Railway
For the classic version, end-to-end, it's from Moscow to Vladivostok. For the international option, you can travel from Moscow to Beijing, via Mongolia, stopping in the capital Ulan Bator. If you take the 'schoolchildren's route', you will stop at every station; well, not all of them, there are hundreds, but you will be able to take the pulse of the towns the train passes through along its 5,771 mile journey. At mile 594, visit the churches of Kirov; at mile 1,328, the city of Tiumen, green on the banks of the River Toura; at mile 2,072, Novosibirsk, generally large and ugly, but with a pretty green train station, and, opposite a statue of Lenin, the largest opera house in the country, even larger than the Bolshoi; at mile 2,546, Krasnoyarsk, on the banks of the River Yenisei, with its eclectic architectural styles.
If you have a little time, after so many hours on the train, go and stretch your legs by of the rocky walls of Stolon Nature Reserve; at mile 3,221, this is Irkutz, 'the Paris of Siberia', a major stop. When you get back on the train, don't fall asleep : the views of the forests and Lake Baikal are breathtaking. Take a break in Slioudianka, at mile 3,300, at the tip of Lake Baikal, to go for a walk around its waters; at 3,505 miles, you have to stop again, at Ulan Oude train station, capital of Buryatia, so go on into the steppes, to see Buddhist monasteries and giant shamanic circles, a taste of Mongolia; at 4,798 miles, you will stop at Chimanov, because you are in Amur Oblast; at mile 5189, you are in Birobidjan, in the autonomous Jewish Oblast, built in the 1920s and whose central square is adorned with a huge seven-armed candelabrum. At mile 5,771 ,you have reached Vladivostok. Shall we go back the other way ?
Check if Red Square is as beautiful as in French crooner Gilbert Becaud's song 'Nathalie'
Is Red Square empty? To be honest, there's no chance (unless you visit on a cold, rainy night at 3am). Is Red Square white? Well, that's possible on a winter morning. But, red and full of people, it is sumptuous, bordered by the red walls of the Kremlin, with the many lights of St. Basil's Cathedral flickering.