Moscow and the Golden Ring
May 1st 2004 saw the accession of 10 new states to the European Union and this seemed an ideal time to finalise plans to visit at least four of those together with Russia and Belarus during the summer months. Living in France our journeys throughout Europe are easier than many readers may find, since we can ignore the problems and costs of crossing the English Channel and our standard French insurance covers all the new and old EU states, and all other countries for trips of less than 3 months, without additional costs. Also having been asked to assess campsites in many of these countries, for entry into the Alan Roger’s Guides, we were keen to finalise our trip and to get going.
Our idea was to travel through Switzerland, Austria, and to assess new campsites there, and then go through one of the other new members, the Czech Republic, on route. It always seems to take longer to depart then we think, plus we needed to see the postman, le factuer, since he was going to keep all our post for the 14 weeks our journey was to take. Having confirmed with him the arrangements we duly departed.
By the next afternoon we were queuing at the Swiss Customs Post in the Jura only a few miles from our first nights stop. A quick look at our passports and having asked how much money we had with us we crossed into the only western European country we would visit that wasn’t a EU member. We managed to stop at the Post Office and buy a vignette for the Swiss motorways, which cost 40CHF (£18) for the rest of the year and the period ending 31st January the following year.
During the next 14 days we stayed at and inspected sites, small and large, for possible entry into the Guides. These sites were in the Jura, Valais and Graubünden Cantons and campers had recommended many of them. As well as looking at the sites we had ample opportunity to visit numerous tourist spots including Neuchatel, Lausanne and St Moritz. In Zermatt we could not resist the ride up the cog railway to Cornergrat.
The first sites we were due to inspect in Austria were in the East Tyrol and Carinthia, so our route would take us first into Austria, then into Italy, before going back into Austria. After World War 1, the southern part of the Tyrol became an autonomous province of Italy. So being geographically isolated from other parts of the Tyrol, the East Tyrol (Ost-Tirol) grew closer to its Carinthian neighbour. We bought a 2-month Austrian vignette a few yards past the manned border crossing at the tourist office. It cost 29€ (£16) and is for vehicles up to 3.5 tons, and you need a vignette for a caravan as well as the towing vehicle.
Over 3.5 tons you must purchase a “GO” box which charges a set fee, per km, to a credit card, by prior credit, for every journey you make on an Austrian motorway. The “GO” box is fitted to your windscreen and receives signals from strategically placed transmitters on motorway bridges and signposts. Almost all motor caravans, over 3.5t, would come within category 2 and would be paying € 0.130 per km. At toll tunnels vehicles with a “GO” box have a specific entrance booth and the toll is added to “GO” costs. More information on this system can be found at www.go-maut.at.
Our only problem with the Austrian toll system, having bought the vignette, was having crossed the Europabrücke, the highest road bridge in Europe, before entering the Brenner Pass. A toll of 8€ is payable for vehicles under 3.5T, but the booth attendant looked at our 6.8m A class and asked for the registration papers. Of course this document is in French and shows three weights, 3.15T (empty) 3.5T (maximum) and 5.5T (maximum with trailer). He left the booth to find someone who could decide if our weight was really less than 3.5T. After 15 minutes, he returned non-the wiser and decided to charge the 8€. Apart from that our journey through the Brenner Pass was uneventful, and we were back in Austria later that afternoon. The moral of this lesson is to have a German translation of your registration document for this type of trip.
The next two weeks saw us stay at and inspect numerous campsites in Carinthia, Styria and the Vienna areas. Austrian campsites are excellent, with good facilities, wonderful locations and a very friendly and helpful welcome. One of the best sites we visited was Camping Berghof, on the banks of the Ossiacher See near Villach, which had just about everything as well as a Spar supermarket on site. Although the small site at Bairisch Kolldorf near the Slovakian border in Styria comes a very close second. On route I could not resist a visit to the spa, designed by Hundertwasser, in Blumau, with its very modern design and spa waters at 36o C. That was a great and relaxing diversion. So after about 4 weeks we found ourselves in Vienna ready to enter Czech Republic.
We had agreed not to do the tourist bit in the Czech Republic because we really had to get to Poland and would come back to the Czech Republic and Slovakia another year. The trip to Poland was to serve two purposes, firstly to visit and inspect 15 campsites and secondly to meet some German and English travellers for a group trip into Belarus and Russia. With the group we would visit Moscow and the “Golden Ring” before going north to St Petersburg and returning through the Baltic States, where again we would be inspecting campsites.
After an early morning start we crossed the Czech Republic border close to Poysdorf, on route 7, heading towards Brno. After a couple of kilometres I stopped to buy the necessary motorway vignette at the Shell petrol station. I only had Euros but that presented no problem and I paid 7€ (£4.60) for a 10 day vignette. Strangely this has to be stuck on the right hand side of your windscreen and is valid for vehicles up to 3.5 T. As we approached Olomouc we saw an advert for a soft drink called Semtex and we reminded that not far away is where they mine the real Semtex! Within 4 hours of entering the Czech Republic we were at the border town of Česky Tešin and crossed into Poland with minimal formality. In Poland we planned to initially to inspect 11 campsites and spent the first night at one of the sites in Bielsko Biala. You don’t need a vignette for Poland yet but I have little doubt that will change when all the roads they are building are completed.
The next morning saw us travel the short distance to Oświecim, a name that means very little to most foreigners but its German equivalent, Auschwitz, evokes fear in almost everyone. It was here that the Nazis established their largest concentration and extermination camp. Auschwitz is synonymous with death, cruelty, the annihilation of the Jews and the Holocaust. It is a massive graveyard. No visitor can leave unmoved. The site is now a UNESCO World heritage site.
The next morning we travelled to Wieliczka for a guided tour, in English, of the famous salt mines. It was 2 hours well spent and cost 47Zts (£8) each. Whilst you have to go down over 400 stairs the ride back up in the miners 4 storey lift in total darkness is quite an experience. The mine has been worked for hundreds of years and you descend to the third level 135m (420 feet) during the tour. This is a diversion not to be missed.
So after lunch we made the journey south to Zakopane the Polish winter capital, which is on a par with the best alpine resorts as an upmarket ski resort and is to be home of the winter Olympics in 2006. We camped at a small family site with only 24 pitches just north of the town. While some go hiking in the mountains, we were content to admire the scenery from the windows of a cable car gliding to the summit of Mt Kasprowy Wierch and from the funicular railway ascending Mt Gubalówka. Later in the day we like many other visitors gathered in Krupówki, the town’s central pedestrian area that is lined with cafes, restaurants and numerous souvenir shops. From the campsite you can enjoy views over the tree-clad hills to the west or the snow-capped mountain peaks, all over 2000m, to the south.
Our journey around Poland continued for another 18 days, visiting various campsites all, but one, was of good or of excellent quality and many will make in to the Central Europe version of the Alan Roger’s guide to be published in 2005.
Our journey to Belarus and the Russian Federation was really to start in Warsaw, where we were to meet our fellow travellers either at Tesco’s car park or in a local campsite. We had planned to get to Warsaw about 3 days ahead of the trip starting, since that would give us time to get up to date with the washing and ensure the van was it tiptop condition, at least mechanically. Outside it was already quite dirty but it seemed wrong in a country where water is an expensive commodity to “waste” it washing the camper. We spent the last two nights before Warsaw at a lakeside campsite near Kretowiny and then arrived at the Warsaw site as planned.
A good stop to Tesco’s supermarket, on route, enabled us to stock up. At the campsite and in a few hours all the levels etc had been checked and corrected in our two year old, Mercedes based, Rapido. In reality it only needed oil and screen washer fluid, but at least everything was checked and was OK. The forthcoming four-week journey, would take us to Brest, Minsk, Moscow, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius before arriving back in Poland, a total of a further 5000kms (3125m). Our fellow travellers, German and British, duly arrived over the next two days and we talked about the excitement that was ahead of us all. Fortunately we had been learning some German and we, like everyone else, had CB radio fitted to ensure we kept in touch whilst travelling even when a few kilometres apart. Being a group of 13 campers we had arranged an interpreter to be with us from the Belarus border to St Petersburg. You could not do this trip if you cannot read Russian, speak Russian and deal with the numerous Russian police checkpoints, without permanent help.
The Belarus border is some 200 Kilometres from Warsaw and that would take about 4 hours, and our information was that the border formalities could take anything between three and six hours to complete. Fortunately our luck was in, the border formalities took only three hours, the first part is just form filling and bureaucracy, as long as you have the correct visa, and once you have entered Belarus but still not clear of the border formalities you have to pay a transit tax of 16 € and compulsory health insurance of 3 € per person. Border staff were helpful, polite and patient so it was a long but pleasant experience. Once clear of the border, Brest is just 3kms away and we had booked to camp in the Intourist Hotel car park, where electricity is provided, toilets available and because we were quite a large group showers were made available. A Russian Orthodox Priest came to bless the campers for a safe onward journey and we shared the traditional bread and vodka.
We spent a few hours sightseeing in Brest, at the fort and a museum that showed mainly items confiscated at the border, and left the next morning for Minsk. Here we camped just to the west of the town in a former nuclear missile launch site. It is strange to have a missile launcher as a neighbour, as you camp, but the facilities were reasonable and included a restaurant. The campsite had also arranged a day trip for us to see the sights of Minsk with an English-speaking guide. Inevitably we had checked the situation regarding the events of April 25, 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded. Although Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, an evil dark wind of that day brought 70% of the Chernobyl radiation into Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belo Russians have been moved as a result and a large part of the country is a no-go area and will be until perhaps 2525. So we kept well north of the problem area. Our tour of Minsk was fascinating and our first real chance to met Russians going about their daily chores. The large market hall was really surprising and full of good cheap products.
The Russian border is 300 kms from Minsk and again lengthy waits were promised.
Fortunately things went well after what we thought was an initial hiccup, when we were told to follow the HGVs. However within 3 hours all the vehicle formalities were finished. You must have 3rd party insurance for Russia and this cost us 2315 RUR (£46.25) and was purchased at the petrol station just before the border, but it could have been purchased from a Dutch company for the same price before we left home. It does not seem possible to get this from either a French or English insurer. Armed with registration documents, Russian insurance documents (2 copies), Passport for the vehicle owner and customs declaration we queued for the payment of 150 RUR (£3). Then we visited the police office, with the same forms, they issue the necessary importation clearance. I was told in Russian that my new camper had already been imported into Russia, through our interpreter I said that was not the case and the officer muttered something about “b***** computers” and signed and sealed the clearance certificate. When we were all ready we drove through, just showing the clearance form, and we were in Russia, no one checked the visas or passports for passengers. But these had to be taken to the nearest police station when we stopped for the night and another fee of 20RUR (£0.40) is payable.
In about 50kms we were in Smolensk where we camped at a campsite with good showers and a small restaurant, which is well signposted off the main road. Our arrival was planned so the moneychangers we already on site offering better rates than the banks for Euros and US Dollars. They were not interested in the slightest in Sterling and that was a problem we found at many banks in smaller towns. Fortunately there were automats in every town we visited so getting Roubles was never a real problem, particularly important because no petrol stations and very few shops accept plastic and cash is therefore essential.
The next day of our journey into the heart of Russia involved a 380kms drive into Moscow (Mockba) where we were to stay at the Danislovski Monastery, the home of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, in our campers. This is a unique arrangement and not generally on offer but it meant that we could spend 3 whole days camping in the centre of Moscow. The 4th Moscow ring road, which we had to use, is something of a nightmare, 6 lanes each way and jam-packed, with endless, rusty, huge Lorries whose chassis’s seemed to be going in a different direction to the vehicle, added to the adventure. The use of the CB made sure we were in the right lane and left at the right exit even if we could not see our fellow travellers. The dreaded message “move to lane 2”, when we were in lane 4, came as a shock but it did seem that Russian drivers were as afraid of us as we were of them and gave us room to manoeuvre.
The monastery is only 4 stops on the metro from the city centre so we had ample opportunity to see the sights of Moscow; the Kremlin, Red Square and enjoy a river trip on the Moscow River and an evening visit to the stunning state circus. Plus of course spending what seemed like endless hours bartering for almost every possible souvenir. At Red Square we came across a very strange sight, the square was closed to pedestrians and guarded by police, to permit a political rally by the communist party. Only 15 people were at the rally, which took place in front of Lenin’s tomb, and it just shows the extent of change since the late 1980s. Sadly our visit to Moscow, only too soon, came to an end.
Leaving Moscow is almost as much fun a arriving. We had to use the newly completed 3rd ring road to get to the M7. From the Monastery we seemed to go in ever decreasing circles until we were on the ring road. It only has 3 lanes each way and was comparatively quiet; once again CB made sure everyone was in the correct lane and exited as necessary. The continuing M7 turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer; it was just like the Old Kent Road in South London. Constant traffic lights, cavernous potholes, pedestrian crossings, chaos and trolley buses made sure that our loose convoy spread out over some distance. That in itself was not a problem since our route was quite clear and were all heading for Vladimer, and the Golden Gate, the beginning of the Golden Ring. Within 45 minutes we were back in the Russian countryside, the now usual mixture of poor farmland, small hamlets, mixed forests, silver birch trees and a large flat plain.
From Vladimir our route would takes us around the Golden Ring, through a series of cities and towns in central Russia, which are remarkable for their ancient history and abundance of historical and cultural monuments. The area became the centre of Russia in the 20th century after Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, had lost its leading role in political and cultural life. In reality most of the monuments are churches, monasteries or convents that were vandalised by the soviet regime. Many were closed, turned into warehouses or swimming pools or even worse left semi derelict for many years; plus a large section of the ring lies in an area that was a prohibited zone for foreigners for many years. It is only over the last 10 to 15 years that they have been returned to the local and religious communities who have been painstakingly restoring them back to former glory. So for the next 10 days we were destined to visit numerous churches, and other religious establishments, learning much about their history and particularly the Icons and artefacts. Our path would lead to Suzdal, Ivanovo, Privolzhsk, Kostroma, Yaroslavl and Sergiev Posad. We would met many fascinating and interesting people and learn much about the Russians and their lives. The photographs that accompany this article give just a brief view of the many interesting buildings that we saw and the sheer beauty of the internal decorations and Icons that adorn their walls. Whilst at the end you might have information overload, you will certainly leave with a sense of awe, compassion and understanding.
Just south of Kostroma we stopped at a small church that was still undergoing renovation. Along side the church were some fairly poor buildings, although lots of building work at the rear showed that new premises were underway. The smaller buildings were an orphanage run by the sisters with 10 residents of varying age. They were expecting us and happily showed us the church and then invited is to the orphanage for tea and an opportunity to see, and discuss, their work. Like most Russian orphanages they are totally dependent on charitable donations to look after the children in their care. We had, fortunately, been warned about this visit and had stocks of new children’s clothes and medical supplies for their use. The visit was fascinating, thought provoking and a highlight of the trip, however, we left wondering what more we could do to help their work.
Russia in many respects, at least in the rural areas is a third world country, poverty is widespread and the lifestyle has to cope with 6 months of freezing weather, with temperatures down to minus 40, followed by 6 months of a very hot humid climate. It is in everyway a country of extremes.
Whilst generally the roads are bad or even worse, the supply of petrol and diesel seemed initially well organised with service stations regularly placed along the main roads. However we were soon to learn that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Almost everywhere diesel was just over 10 Roubles or 20p a litre, petrol was slightly dearer at about 14 Roubles or 28p it might not be the best quality and probably has limited additives but it never caused us any problems. The real problem with fuel supplies, especially when 13 western motor caravans or cars and caravans arrive is have they got any, 3 of our group needed petrol and the rest needed diesel. Twice the diesel was limited so we had to try again after a few kilometres.
But the real challenge was getting served at all, no garage was prepared to open the pumps and let us fill up as normal. Generally the passenger had to stand at the cash desk with a handful of Roubles or you had to pay in advance. Sometimes this meant you were full before the money ran out and rig behind got a windfall of a few litres, or you still had room left for a bit more in which case you paid some more and the pump was switched on again. Always filling up was a lengthy procedure with delays occurring while the cash desk assured itself that the last customer had paid in full before the next could be served, this was even with our two Russian speaking guides being present and actively running backwards and forwards between pumps and till. If you lucky to be at the head of the queue you had plenty of time for a coffee and a rest while everyone else tried to get the fuel they needed. Most of the group could cope with fuel stops every 600kms (375m) but the 3 petrol vehicles always had to stop sooner, we tried all sorts of combinations to speed the process up but in the end resigned ourselves to the inevitable lengthy halts.
Russian campsites are few and far between and certainly not up to western European standards, in reality many are the car parks of hotels or tourist centres. Elsewhere toilets are basic latrines, with large wooden plank seats, and usually are just a hole in the ground. Most are far from being clean and they do tend to smell, they certainly test your strength if you are forced to use them. In some campsites, that were not fairly modern hotel facilities, no member of the group was brave enough to use the site toilets even to empty their own on-board cassette toilet. Good facilities in your caravan or motor caravan are essential as is a very good water filter if you contemplate using the local water, after boiling, for cooking or drinking rather than carrying a larges supply of bottled water. Despite these problems and challenges are journey continued.
On route to St Petersburg we had a brief diversion into Novgorod, a fairly large town with a fascinating Kremlin and Sculpture. We all parked easily in a large car park only a few minutes walk from the Kremlin. Keith who was travelling alone with his caravan went walkabout in the town, as normal, but when it got close to our departure time he realised he was not sure of the way back. Speaking no Russian other than please, thank you etc. he approached a taxi driving who instantly seemed to understand where he wanted to be, so in he got and was quickly transported back to where the rest of the group were waiting. Much to Keith’s surprise the taxi driver refused any payment and seemed pleased that he had been able to reunite another driver with his mobile home. The sculpture is another story, it is metal and shows all the Russian heroes and famous people, and during the war the Nazis, cut it into several pieces so that it could be transported to Germany. The Russians saved the day and recaptured this stunning work of art and rebuilt it. The real problem we had was discussing this with our fellow travellers, in the end we decided to follow the John Cleese maxim of “don’t mention the war”
From Novgorod we continued north to St Petersburg and arrived late afternoon on a Wednesday, the traffic was horrendous. The difference, from our entry to Moscow, is that there are many more western cars in St Petersburg, the majority appearing to be 10 year VW Passats. The city, built by Peter the Great, was built on swampland and spans the River Neva. We had to cross the city centre and the Neva before turning along the quayside for some kilometres to reach the campsite, Hotel Camping Olgino, which is just off the M10 to the north west of the city. The traffic jams just seemed to get worse until we reached a diversion, which having gone around in a circle was going to take us back over the Neva. This was definitely not what we wanted so the whole group was forced to make an illegal left turn at the base of the bridge back onto the quayside. Stunned Russian drivers gazed in amazement at our attics but we did get back on the right road.
The campsite is next to a soviet built conference centre and is perhaps the only western style site we had come across, and it is clearly the only site near St Petersburg. It did have basic facilities, and electricity points, but was somewhat unkempt and a little overgrown, however it was to be our home for 5 nights. The real bonus is that right outside the gates there is a bus stop with a good regular service to the nearby Metro station. So the centre of St Petersburg was less than an hour away and offered lots of tourist opportunities. The Hermitage was something not to miss; my real interest was the display of Rembrandts and Impressionist art. All had been stolen by German troops during the invasion of France and subsequently removed by Soviet troops when they entered Berlin. The inevitable arguments continue, primarily between France and Russia, as to who is the rightful owner. We were told if you spent 1 minute looking at each exhibit you would have to spend 15 years in the Museum. So our half-day tour barely scratched the surface.
Although for me one of the most interesting visits was to the Siege memorial and museum. Leningrad, as it was during the soviet period, was besieged by German troops for some 872 days, and over I.5 million residents died during the siege. However I think I have to concede that the best trip in the City was to Swan Lake performed by the Russian Ballet.
One day we got into the city centre and caught a hydrofoil to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Palace some way to the west. Although it was totally destroyed during the war it has been painstakingly and lovingly rebuilt since then and is a popular tourist site and is well worth a day trip. In reality St Petersurg has so much to offer you are spoilt for choice so get a good guidebook.
Having left St Petersburg, on our last day in Russia, we stopped just before the town of Kingisepp and filled up with fuel. At this garage we spent the last of our roubles on Vodka etc just to ensure we only had what we needed to leave the country and no more. At the border we had to pay a fee of 50 roubles (£1) but that is subject to change so we had a 50-rouble note and some coins left. You cannot leave Russia with Roubles in you possession.
Before we arrive at Ivangorod and just before the police control point we had to turn into “park ferme”. As we entered we got a form and here we had to pay the fee and in return we got a stamp on our form. We were then allowed, a few vehicles at a time to proceed towards the border. Through 2 control points and then we joined another queue where one at a time we had to report to the window with all your documents, including especially that customs clearance we got when we entered Russia. As directed we then moved forward and our vehicle was searched. At the next window all passengers presented their passports to the same guard who just inspected the vehicle. When this was completed we drove out of Russia but not yet into Estonia. The Estonian border guards spoke English so a quick look at our passports and we were through. Departure was tinged with a mixture of relief and sadness; it had been a wonderful and fascinating journey. We were already beginning to think about our next trip and the possibility of seeing more of Russia despite the language, poor roads and inadequate camping facilities. Everyone we had met was friendly, helpful and kind and we would miss the daily thrills and challenges.
Our journey was to continue through the Baltic States to Poland where our small group of travellers would say their farewells and continues their journeys home. As I said at the beginning it is not possible to undertake a journey like this on your own, and certainly impossible to camp in Moscow. So we are particularly grateful to Perestroika Tours who had organised the tour so efficiently. If you feel up to the challenge then find out more about their tours at www.mir-tours.de You won’t regret it; it will be the journey of a lifetime.