By Kasim Ali-Khan
I have never thought of Russia as being a romantic place but after 3 weeks touring, there is definitely some passion and you can see why. They have written their own history with a strong belief that Stalin was a “Great leader” despite the fact that he butchered 9 million of his own people. Talk about a stiff upper lip they have taken several upper cuts and that was the demeanour I expected. Whether dictated to by the powers above or their love of football the Russians were fantastic people across the 5 cities I visited.
The vast metropolis that was Moscow had the world’s most beautiful (and deep) underground stations that would never fail to amaze in the details the artisans of the various states invested in the stations. From intricate mosaics, to beautiful artworks and even a station of stain glass windows it was a true gallery and with trains every 60-90 seconds we have a lot to learn about mass transportation. The Kremlin was majestic and St Basil’s cathedral with its quirky coloured domes and a maze of little praying and reflective spaces had fantastic acoustics. Hearing an A Cappella choir bellowing out the chants in their low base sounds resonated deep in the soul and made the hairs on your neck stand to attention. Magnificent!
On to Kazan, more cathedrals, and the influence of the mogul leader Genghis Khan (apparently, I am a descendant) within the architecture and the ethnicity. The long Bauman Street provided entertainment with pubs and cafes along with a lot of French supporters cheering their team. ‘Détente Cordial’ for sure, as this was the first test of how supporters of 2 nations greet, and emerge as a happy collection of passionate supporters enjoying the spirit of sportsmanship, such was reflected throughout my trip. Boys done well, but not well enough as they lost to the French 2-1, the eventual winners of the tournament.
Next – Samara, the space capital of Russia and where the first man on the moon was managed from. We stayed with the Danish team in a FIFA approved hotel and enjoyed the best hotel food on the trip. We managed to hold the Danes to 1-1 and most of us feel this was the game we should have pushed to win. Still no Timmy Cahill!! Samara is on the vast Volga River, over a kilometre wide in parts and apparently freezes over in winter. They even created a beach along one side with volleyball and plenty of entertaining. In addition Stalin’s very deep Bunker in the event that it all turned to Borsch!!
For the final game we ended up in Sochi on the Black Sea, with history going back to the Egyptian trading routes. In 2014 Sochi hosted the winter Olympics an hour north in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana. You go from the hot and humid coastal city, one of the longest cities in the world at 142km, to the crisp air of the hills and the snow. Temperatures dropped by 10 degrees heading there along the highway and the general infrastructure that cost over US$50billion to build and host the games through mountains, it is indeed an engineering feet.
Sochi is also known as the seaside resort for the wealthy and connected Russians who escaped for their summer holidays. One famous Dacha we visited was built by Stalin in the hills and all with a paint called Stalin green to blend in with the trees in the surrounding hills. Quirky little things like having low treads on the stairs as he was a small man as well as small beds and a swimming pool that was half filled so the great dictator didn’t drown made me smile. The game against Peru was disappointing on the football front and surprising on the support front that Peru had sent 32000 supporters to cheer on their team and outnumber the Aussies 3-1!!
No tour of Russia would be complete without a trip to St Petersburg and the Hermitage. A fantastic collection of art started by Catherine and Peter the great had a collection the Louvre would be proud of and a building the French would envy. St Petersburg is made up of 36 islands linked together with bridges that all have a timetable of opening up to splendid pomp and ceremony and Tchaikovsky blurting out at 2am with crowds jostling for position. Bizarre !!! When you are on your last legs of a 3 week vodka /football binge I was expecting a day too far but the splendour of St Petersburg and the Hermitage, St Isaacs and the bridges kept us up through the last hours of a magnificent tour. Well done the French on getting the trophy and well-done Russia on fantastic hosting.
"The Kremlin was majestic and St Basil’s cathedral with its quirky coloured domes and a maze of little praying and reflective spaces had fantastic acoustics."