St. Petersburg is ringed with locations of historical and artistic importance. Below are a sampling of some of the trips that SRAS groups have taken in the past as part the cultural package offered with SRAS Programs in St. Petersburg. Note that not all trips are taken each session and trips themselves may differ from session to session.
Weekend Trip to Novgorod: Meeting History and Locals
By Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019)
About one month into our semester, the SRAS students took a weekend trip to Novgorod, one of the oldest and most important cities in Russian history.
Located between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is believed that Novgorod is the birthplace of Russia, since it was here in 862 that Prince Rurik proclaimed the modern Russian state. His dynasty went on to rule Russia for more than 750 years. Novgorod, which was one of the biggest cities in Europe over a thousand years ago, was a major center for trade, literacy, democracy, and religion.
Our trip started off with our group meeting at the train station in St. Petersburg with our guide Sergey. Sergey has been our guide for most of our activities in St. Petersburg, and he joined us for the weekend in Novogorod. Since this is a local train, there are no seating arrangements; its first come first serve. Luckily, we got there early enough to butt our way into the train as soon as the doors open, and everyone was able to get a seat. After a nice three-hour train ride, we arrived to Novgorod, and made our way to the hostel for the night.
Bright and early the next morning, our group met for breakfast at the hostel, and then headed out to start our day. We walked through the center part of the city, and made our way to School #1, one of the oldest working schools in the city. Here, we met with one of the English teachers, and learned about the history of the school. Some of the older students then took us in small groups for a tour around the school, and then we had an amazing opportunity to speak to several students in small groups. I was pleasantly surprised on how well some of the students were able to speak English, and we were able to learn a lot about their lives here in Russia, and we were able to share a lot about our own culture.
After this, we walked to the school’s museum, which focuses on WWII, and how the city and the people living there were affected. The museum consists of several items dug up from near the city that were lost during the war. Several of the students also participated in these digs, and presented to us the items that they had found. It was fascinating to see these items and hear their stories.
After a delicious lunch near the school, we had a truly cool opportunity to do some Russian crafts. Birch tree (береза) bark is used in several traditional styles of Russian crafts. It was also used as paper in ancient Novgorod. We went to a workshop located in an old monastery, and learned about the history using birch bark to make things. We were even able to make a little rocker (like the kind that babies have) and a bookmark!
That afternoon, we took a boat tour on the river. It was quite cold outside and I eventually went inside to warm up, sit, and watch the river pass by. It was really interesting to listen to the audio guide which explained the history of the city, as well as what could be seen along the river.
After a free evening, and another night at the hostel, we were ready for another full day of excursions! We started the day by having a tour of the Novgorod Kremlin with an incredible tour guide. After, we walked across the river to continue the tour of the city. Soon, we got on a bus, and were taken to the oldest monastery. This was one of my favorite churches I’ve seen in Russia, because of the beautiful blue copulas with golden stars sprinkled on them.
A little farther drive away, we went to the Vitoslavlitsy Museum, an open-air museum of wooden architecture. During the weekend that we visited, they were having their annual cabbage festival. This was the weekend in the past that all the cabbages were picked and pickled in preparation for the winter. I was able to get a container of this traditional dish, and it’s some of the best pickled cabbage I’ve had in Russia!
After our full day, we were dropped off back at the train station, and we all made our journey back to St. Petersburg. Overall, the weekend was a wonderful weekend trip out of the city, and it was great to see a smaller town of Russia!
Banya and Dacha: Authentic and Immersive
By Charlie Bacsik (Summer, 2018)
For my spring semester abroad, I’m studying right in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m surrounded by a ton of cute cafes and diverse restaurants, and I’m within walking distance of several popular attractions in the city, such as the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. However, being in the city center also means that, at times, it can feel a bit too “touristy” and disconnected from traditional Russian culture. Luckily for my fellow SRAS classmates and me, we were able to get outside of the city limits and explore a more conventional side of Russian living.
The Cultural Coordinator for SRAS in St. Petersburg, Sergey, was kind enough to invite all of us out to his home in the small village of Bor. The town sits northeast of St. Petersburg and the commute, which included both a metro and a bus ride, took roughly an hour. Once we stepped off the bus, it was clear that we were in for a memorable day. The neighborhood was quaint, quiet, and surrounded by piles and piles of pristine, fluffy snow. As a Texan who had rarely ever seen snow, I was instantly mesmerized.
Sergey escorted us to his house, where his wife, Irina, was waiting for us. After exchanging brief pleasantries and passing along our gifts of wine and sweets to Irina, we all bundled up and headed outside for our winter activities! We took a small hike out into the surrounding forest, and Sergey, who enjoys skiing and snow trekking, allowed us to use his equipment (skis, ski boots, snow tubes, extra warm socks, and coats). I quickly found out that I do not have a natural talent for skiing, but I did have loads of fun on the snow tube!
Afterwards, we all got to enjoy our very first Russian banya experience! Sergey and Irina own a small banya house right on their property, and Sergey regularly hosts friends and family who want to enjoy some traditional relaxation. The banya was heated by burning firewood (some now have electric heat sources) and you could also add scented oils to the embers to make the heat room more tranquil. The guys in our group used a birch scent, which is typically considered more manly, while us girls used eucalyptus and juniper. In most public banyas, people typically do not wear any clothing, but swimsuits were okay for this session. Sergey also taught us the correct way to beat your back with birch branches. This is an old tradition that might sound daunting, but it doesn’t hurt and it actually serves as a massage and circulation-booster. Typical banya experiences include a jump into cold water after sitting in the heat, but Sergey had a better idea. Once all of us were sweating and ready to cool off, he had us run outside and roll around in the snow, then run right back inside. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience!
Sergey treated us to snacks and cold beverages (kvas and mors) while we were in the banya, as well as a delicious dinner of turkey steaks, potatoes, and borscht. After our banya session, we all took quick showers, and then settled in for some tea and sweets. Our eventful day ended with some poorly sang Russian karaoke and nice conversation around a small fire. Sergey and Irina were so gracious in welcoming us into their home and truly gave us all a taste of authentic Russian culture. I couldn’t be more grateful for such an amazing experience.
Sergey and Irina- My fellow SRAS classmates and I thank you sincerely for your warm generosity and hospitality
Long Weekend in Moscow: Exploring Russia’s Captial!
By Charlie Bacsik (Summer, 2018)
When I told my family that I would be studying abroad in Russia, they all seemed to ask me the similar question of would I get to see the Kremlin, Red Square, or St. Basil’s Cathedral. I always found these inquiries to be comical because all three of these are located in Moscow, yet I would be studying in St. Petersburg. Luckily for me, SRAS offered me the opportunity to see the grand city of Moscow over a long weekend. Needless to say, my family was very pleased with the pictures I sent them afterwards.
The trip even happened to be on a holiday weekend, so we got to spend four days in the city, when the trip is usually only three days.
Most of our expenses were covered by the program and it’s actually fairly easy to stay in budget with cheap cafes/restaurants that are in abundance across the city. If you’re looking for a fancy evening out on the town, you can’t go wrong with making a reservation at the White Rabbit. It’s been featured on famous culinary shows, such as Chef’s Table, and recently ranked as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. While the menu certainly has its expensive dishes, there are fabulous meals that won’t completely break the bank!
When we first arrived in Moscow, I was surprised by the drastic difference in the pace of the city compared to St. Petersburg. While both are major cities, Moscow is certainly the larger of the two, with more than two times the population of St. Petersburg. The hustle and bustle of the city was both impressive and exhausting, but ultimately allowed us to get the proper Moscow experience.
The Moscow Metro, as crowded and chaotic as it may have been, was another impressive element of the city. With fourteen lines (excluding the Monorail and the Moscow Central Circle) and seemingly countless stations, it was an adventure navigating the underground system. One thing that really stuck out to me was, unlike the St. Petersburg Metro, the Moscow system lacked English translations on many of the major signs. One of my fellow classmates came to Russia with essentially zero knowledge of the Russian language, and she commented on the difficulty that some foreign tourists may have when trying to read the directional signs. Nonetheless, if you can at least make out the Cyrillic characters, navigating the Moscow Metro is certainly manageable.
Our four days in Moscow included many memorable events, such as a full walking tour of Red Square and the city center, a visit to the Bunker 42 Museum, and a tour of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the second largest mosque in Russia. For me, four days in a city is typically more than enough time to see everything I wish to see; however, with the plethora of museums, exhibits, and unique restaurants in Moscow, four days was simply not enough.
It’s safe to say that I greatly enjoyed my time in Moscow, and if given the opportunity, I would love to travel back. While I’m still glad I chose to study in the quieter setting of St. Petersburg, Moscow’s metropolitan and never-sleeping atmosphere is undeniably charming.