I’ll be honest, I’m a summer baby. I love the beach, the long, balmy nights and not having to remember to take an umbrella with me when I leave home in the morning.
In my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, as soon as the weather turns grey and I’m arriving home from work in the dark, you’ll hear me counting down the days until spring or feverishly trying to book a weekend away somewhere warmer. But that was all before I experienced a Christmas overseas in the northern hemisphere.
Winter over there is just, different. Largely, I’m sure, it’s the presence of snow that makes everything seem a little bit more magical. But it’s also the attitude of the locals. Rather than persevering at a freezing rooftop bar for an after-work drink, they head to cosy places with open fireplaces for mulled wine or visit a quaint Christmas market with friends.
And then there’s winter fashion. Aside from looking excellent, the coats, hats and boots are genuinely functional enough to withstand temperatures below zero, and public places and transport are appropriately heated. In the wise words of one of Intrepid’s local Russian leaders, “the real Siberian is not the person who doesn’t feel the cold, it’s the person who dresses properly for it.”
The winter cuisine is incredible
It feels like Russian food is designed to warm you from the inside out; comforting soups and stews, satisfying pastries and hearty meat dishes. Pelmeni, small meat dumplings, are Russia’s national dish and normally come slathered in butter and sour cream for a wintery meal.
If you prefer seafood, a bowl of ukha, a clear fish soup will be the perfect way to warm up after a long day of exploring. Otherwise, a stack of traditional Russian pancakes (like the kind you’ll enjoy at a tea party in a St Petersburg family’s apartment on Intrepid’s Russian Highlights – New Year trip) is always a good shout.
There are less tourists to contend with
It’s fair to say that a winter adventure isn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect holiday, which is excellent for those of us who are willing to brave the colder weather. It means less foreign tourists in some of the busier areas and more opportunities to interact with the locals. Over Christmas and New Year most Russians have time off work, so when you visit places like Veliky Ustyug, the home of Father Frost or Santa Claus as he is known in the west, you’ll see plenty of Russian families, but not many foreigners. This is also good when trying to get the perfect holiday snaps in popular destinations like St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum or Moscow’s Red Square.
A train ride makes for cosy respite from the cold
While cold weather at home might mean a drizzly commute to work or braving the frost to walk your dog in the evenings, winter when you’re on a holiday in Russia equals picturesque landscapes and fairytale-like villages dusted in snow. A journey on the Trans-Siberian railway is the perfect way to see a large portion of this massive nation’s most beautiful towns and countryside. While the train journey is days-long, you’ll struggle not to be mesmerised by the snow-covered plains of Siberia as it scrolls past the icy windows of the iconic train.
When you’re not glued to the view, there’ll be plenty of time for card games, catching up on reading and enjoying conversations with your travel companions and some of the friendly locals on board – plus, chances to stop at the various train stations for local snacks like hot, spiced potatoes or cabbage stuffed pierogi to break up the journey.
Christmas and New Year’s traditions are magical
Coming from Australia where Christmas falls in the middle of summer, my family’s Christmas traditions involve a lot of cocktails by the pool and inexplicably sweating through a traditional roast dinner (often when it’s above 30 degrees Celsius). The festive season in Russia, however, is on a whole other level. In the Russian Orthodox religion, Christmas actually falls on January 7 and New Year’s Eve on December 31 is the more lavishly celebrated holiday.
On Intrepid’s Russian Highlights trip, you’ll spend New Year’s Eve in Suzdal in a local family’s home, where you’ll enjoy a glass of tasty mead, with the cathedral bells tolling in the background as you help prepare a traditional feast. It’s customary in Russia to ring in the New Year with a shot of vodka to say goodbye to the old year and a glass of champagne to toast the new one. The alcohol will help keep you warm if you want to head out into the streets to join the locals in dancing around a giant, decorated Christmas tree, while singing local festive tunes.