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Dreaming of a White Christmas… with Cosmonauts

airfare Albertina museum Austria Azia Baltschug Kempinski Belmond Belmond Grand European Hotel Bolshoi Catherine Palace caviar Chile Christmas Christmas Day Christmas Eve Christmas Markets figure skating Graben Hofburg Imperial Castle Kärntner Strasse Kempinski Kohlmarkt Kremlin Moscow Moskva River Mozart Musikverein New Year New Year's Nostrovia Red Square Russia Russian Russian alphabet Russian Ballet Sapsan Fast Train schnitzel shopping sleigh ride souvenirs St. Basil's Cathedral St. Petersburg St. Stephen's Cathedral stroganoff Travel troika ushanka Vienna Vienna Philharmonic Viennese opera house vodka

Plans change and due to astronomical airfare, which included 10 hour layovers, we’ve passed on the trip to Chile and we’re bound east instead of west. The flights are booked and hotel reservations have been made for Vienna, Moscow and St. Petersburg. We’ll be leaving our hiking boots and summer clothes at home and instead will be loading our bags with hats, scarves and plenty of layers. We’re off to the lands of schnitzel, vodka and stroganoff…and lots of snow. (main image source)

We did lose out on $100 with the cancellation fees for our Chile accommodations, but we’re saving a bundle on the airfare. The hotel pricing at 5 star hotels in Vienna, Moscow and St. Petersburg also can’t be beat during December. Many tourists steer clear due to the cold weather and lack of sunlight, but upon further research we’ve learned that the cities and their sites are even more accessible due to the decreased number of tourists.  I foresee us kicking around the Kremlin and Catherine Palace with hardly another tourist in sight. Plus, I know when I envision Vienna and Russia I often think of the locals bundled up and the snowy streets. The chance to visit these places at a time which epitomizes this outsider’s view makes it feel that much more authentic.

We arrive in Vienna early on Christmas Eve day. Luckily the famed Christmas markets will still be open through the evening to meander through. There are also various concerts held at churches around the city as well as at Musikverein, home to the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the Schönbrunn Palace on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I have my heart set on seeing one of the performances of Mozart’s classics in his former home city. We leave Vienna on the 27th so we’ll have plenty of time to stroll and explore the beautiful city. (image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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We are holing up at the DO & CO Hotel in the city center  which is located in a pedestrian-only plaza and directly across from St. Stephen’s Cathedral as well as within walking distance of some of the most famed Vienna attractions: the Viennese Opera House, the Hofburg Imperial Castle and the Albertina Museum. It also doesn’t hurt that it is located on the intersections of Graben, Kärntner Strasse and Kohlmarkt which just happen to be the best streets for shopping in the city (even if it’s just window shopping).

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The morning of the 27th we fly to Moscow and arrive late afternoon where we’ll be met by our driver and tour guide to begin our Russian journey. We’re planning on a mix of a driving tour and pedestrian tour which we’re in the midst of hammering down (details of and which I’ll share closer to our departure), but we’ll have a private guide with us throughout the trip when venturing astray from the Russian hotels. So far the itinerary is packed with visiting nearly every historical building and museum, local cuisine, seeing a performance by the Russian Ballet at the Bolshoi, caviar and vodka tastings, figure skating in Red Square and some serious souvenir hunting by yours truly.

We’ll be staying at the Baltschug Kempinski in Moscow, running a bit astray from my boutique hotel favoritism. We have stayed at the Cirgan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul however and loved our stay there. It seemed smart to stick to a brand we know being so unfamiliar with the country and it being a bit of a “hot time” between the U.S. and Russia. The hotel overlooks the Moskva River and is a 10 minute walk to St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square. (image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, all others)

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I have no doubt that in between all of these activities there will also be many things lost in translation but that is just part of the fun of travel. In preparation for this, I am currently studying and learning the Russian alphabet along with some basic phrases (please, thank you, excuse me, do you speak english) to help us get by. We’ve already gotten “Nostrovia” down which I am going to assume we’ll be saying quite a bit, especially since we’ll be there over New Year’s. It’s also the small cultural differences that are good to know, such as not to ask someone “How are you?” unless you are willing to really stick around and listen. This isn’t a phrase that is used as a friendly greeting as we do in America and many other countries. I’m sure we’ll get plenty tongue-tied but one thing I have learned in my travels is to at least make an effort in the local language. You’ll be surprised at how many more smiles than scowls you’ll receive.Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 1.10.06 PM

From Moscow we are headed to St. Petersburg via the Sapsan Fast Train, a 4 hour journey, on December 30th. My husband majored in Political Science in college with a focus on Russian history so I know he can’t wait to visit the former capital. I am most excited to visit the palace of Catherine the Great and for the troika (traditional sleigh ride) through the countryside. What says winter in Russia more than zipping through the forest in a sleigh just as the former Tsars used to do? By then I’ll hopefully have found my “ushanka” souvenir to keep me warm.

We’ll be staying at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, which again isn’t exactly boutique, but one of our favorite hotels in the states is part of the Belmond collection so we’re sticking with something tried and true this time around. The hotel’s restaurant, Azia,  is also supposed to be one of the best in the city. Located in the heart of St. Petersburg, we’ll meet our guide at the hotel each morning before we set out on the day’s exploration. New Year’s in St. Petersburg should be interesting and we’re excited to experience another culture’s celebratory traditions, adding to a list of nations where we’ve welcomed in the New Year. (image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, all others)

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Of course I am more than curious about the acclaimed vodka and caviar offerings in Russia. But more than that, I am so excited to try both Austrian and Russian cuisine which I am completely unfamiliar with. Besides stroganoff and schnitzel, my palate is a blank page so to speak. I have a feeling it is going to be rather indulgent. I’ll just add to the New Year’s resolutions to be a bit less indulgent in 2016, but in the meantime I’ll be salivating with the anticipation of all of these delectable morsels. (image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)

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When we first had to hash out whether we were going to scrap our Chile trip due to the airfare or not I was pretty disappointed. I had spent so much time researching where to stay during the height of the tourist season in the country. I had mapped it all out, but the airline gods were not in our favor. Now we have a new adventure that has presented itself thanks to more affordable airfare (without any annoyingly long layovers) that will be, in my opinion, even more exciting and an incredible learning experience. When life gives you lemons make lemonade…or add the lemon juice to your Russian vodka! Nostrovia!

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