by David Sutcliffe

From the aeroplane window I could see the signs of a decaying city, poor quality housing and rampant crime; the legacy of a political system that did not work – but enough about Leeds, I was heading for Russia.

Moscow is a vast city (the largest in Europe), but is easily manageable, especially on a weekend when the traffic is far lighter. There is a palpable sense of being somewhere special, a feeling that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. The constant reminders of a recent past that would have precluded such a visit – constructivist architecture, statues to Lenin, the remarkable propaganda artwork of the Soviets and the ubiquitous hammer and sickle.

But, Russia is much more than that. No longer is it, as Churchill said “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. I found it to be a very welcoming country, very open about its history, whilst all the time moving on fast forward from the 19th century straight through to the 21st.

We arrived late into Moscow and didn’t get a real impression until the following morning when I looked out of my bedroom window across the Moscow River to St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square and the Kremlin. Stunning. I cannot recommend the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski strongly enough, everything you would expect from an international 5-star hotel, with a perfect location.

An English-speaking guide is essential and ours took us around all the sites mentioned above, together with the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (the largest church in Russia, previously destroyed by Stalin and turned into an outdoor swimming pool, and eventually built anew in the 1990s!), the Metro (like an underground palace), and to the Bolshoi ballet (a real experience whether you are a fan or not).

After a couple of nights in Moscow we boarded the train to St Petersburg. I would recommend the day train for this 5 hour trip north, it was very comfortable and even had film entertainment (although this was in Russian!).

St Petersburg has an entirely different feel to Moscow. Very European and stunningly beautiful - in my opinion prettier than Paris or Venice. Built on a swamp as the new capital of Russia, it is a city of outstanding grandeur, exuding the opulence of Tsarist Russia. It was from here that the Tsars, notably Peter and Catherine the Great ruled for 2 centuries, before their downfall in 1917.

Those who are culturally inclined are more than catered for with several museums and palaces. Probably the most famous is the Hermitage, one of the World’s greatest art galleries, the vastness of which is difficult to imagine. Outside the city centre we visited Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great’s Summer Palace in Peterhof.

If shopping is more your idea of a relaxing break then Russia’s most famous street, Nevsky Prospekt, is a walk into the heart of the new Russia – a ritzy, buzzing mishmash of shops, restaurants, bars and art galleries. It is also the location of St Petersburg’s most luxurious hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe.

Only a 3½ hour flight from Heathrow, this makes an ideal 7 night tour. Alternatively, a city break in either destination would be equally rewarding.