Artic Circle Luxury Rail Trail
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Hauntingly beautiful shades of emerald and jade dance across the firmament, as if a celestial artist were painting the midnight sky with light. Travelers catch their breath at the spectacular sight of the aurora borealis, as the legendary northern lights conjure visions of enchantment and mystery.
A group of adventurers will spend 12 frosty winter days in search of this natural wonder caused by the sun’s magnetic activity. But the hunt is just one part of an unforgettable experience that lies ahead as the travelers venture far above the Arctic Circle aboard the Golden Eagle, a luxurious private train, for a journey through Russia. And because they’re traveling by rail, they’ll have no worries about security checks or baggage weight. Want to come along?
Seeing St. Petersburg
The adventure begins at historic St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and its cultural capital. Known for art, lavish architecture and rich history, as well as traditions that have inspired literature, music and visual art, St. Petersburg is an unforgettable destination. Don’t miss the UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprised of the Historic Center and related groups of monuments. The Hermitage, founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, and one of the largest art museums in the world, offers works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Rembrandt, as well as Impressionists Gauguin, Matisse and Van Gogh, and modern art by Picasso.
Then move on to Peterhof, an imperial palace inspired by France’s Versailles and built by Peter the Great. Peter’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, expanded the palace and the surrounding park, which features a romantic system of fountains. Other spots to see are Catherine’s Palace, the famed Amber Room, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the cosmopolitan Nevsky Prospekt.
After three exciting days exploring St. Petersburg, climb aboard the train for a sumptuous dinner of caviar and a ride through a winter wonderland that will carry you across the Arctic Circle. The train approaches the station at Kirkenes, a charming small town in the far northeastern part of Norway, where it slows to a stop.
Visit the breathtaking Snow Hotel, where igloo-like guestrooms built of sparkling snow and decorated with ice sculptures glow with soft blue light. Or take a dogsled pulled by a team of huskies on a run across the frozen lake and tundra. Keep an eye out for reindeer!
When it’s time to bid Kirkenes goodbye, board the train again and settle in as the whistle blows and the engine picks up speed. Next stop: Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic. An important port during World War II, it was bombed heavily by Hitler’s army, and although most of the city burned to the ground, the people refused to accept defeat. After the war, Murmansk received the title of Hero City for its resistance to the Germans, and commemorating that noble Russian defense is the Alyosha, a 30-meter statue of a soldier overlooking the city.
During the Cold War, Murmansk became a port for Soviet ice breakers, and you’ll be able to tour the Lenin, the first one in the world to run on nuclear power. Now a museum ship, it serves as a showcase for today’s Russian nuclear fleet.
Other places to visit include the Arctic Research Institute Exposition, the Northern Navy Museum, the Regional Arts Museum, the Regional History Museum, and the Shipping History Museum. And be sure to enjoy a dinner of king crab, considered to be an invasive – but delicious – species brought by the Soviets to the Murmansk strait during the 1950s.
On to Petrozavodsk
All aboard for Petrozavodsk! Although archaeological discoveries suggest people lived here as long as 7000 years ago, and there were a number of active lakeside villages during the Middle Ages, the main settlement dates back to 1703. Prince Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov founded it as Petrovskaya Slovoda at the request of Peter the Great, who needed a new iron foundry, and it was incorporated as a town and renamed Petrozavodsk during the reign of Catherine.
The town is known for its Neoclassical architecture, including Round Square, built originally in 1775 and later reconstructed twice; and the 19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Visit the city’s museum, founded in 1871, and stroll an area along the Gulf of Petrozavodsk lined with postmodern sculptures. One well-known landmark is Lenin Square, where a large, Soviet-era statue of the Russian leader stands sentry.
If weather permits, board a hovercraft and skim over to Kizhi Island’s UNESCO-listed open-air museum, which features tools, dishes, furniture and utensils from centuries past. Take time to view the fenced Kizhi Pogost, which contains two historical wooden churches and a bell tower.
The Golden Ring
Climb aboard again as the train begins to chug toward Vladimir and Suzdal, two of the communities that make up a circle of ancient towns, some of which date back to the 12th century, known as Russia’s Golden Ring. They offer beautiful countryside views, ancient architecture that includes churches, fortresses and monasteries, and a peek at provincial, traditional Russian life not as westernized as larger cities.
For almost 200 years, Vladimir was the capital of ancient Russia, and it boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Golden Gates, and the Assumption and St. Demetrius cathedrals. It is also home to several museums and art galleries, including the Vladimir Regional History Museum, one of the oldest in Russia.
In Suzdal, visit the city’s very own Kremlin, predecessor to the Moscow Kremlin. It was built by Prince Yury Dolgoruky, who founded an outpost that eventually became Moscow. Among the city’s historic ecclesiastical buildings are the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, its dramatic blue domes flecked with gold, and the Wooden Church of S. Nicholas. Take time to walk the frozen Kamenka River and watch the horse-drawn sleighs — or take a sleigh ride yourself.
Your final stop: Moscow, much feared during the Cold War and now one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations on the planet. It is the world’s most populated inland city, yet more than half of its area is covered with greenery, including a large urban forest.
The heart of the city is Red Square. The Kremlin, once a medieval fortress, is now the home of Russia’s president, and his official residence, the Grand Kremlin Palace, dates to the 16th century. At the Kremlin Museum Complex, you’ll see a collection of clothing worn by Russian royals, several churches and the Patriarch Palace.
Visit the Lenin Mausoleum, where you can walk past the embalmed body of the Russian leader, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, built in the mid 16th century. Moscow is home to several notable museums, including the Tretyakov Gallery, which houses a collection of Russian art, and the Pushkin, where you can view Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings, along with works by some of the Old Masters. In the Garden of Fallen Monuments, you’ll see statues of leaders like Dzherzinksy, Stalin and Brezhnev, placed there after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Stop by the Church of the Ascension, built to commemorate the birth of Ivan the Terrible, and admire its conical wooden tower. Christ the Savior Cathedral, the tallest Orthodox church in the world, was destroyed by Stalin in 1931, but finally rebuilt shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now your visit is at an end. But memories of the dancing aurora borealis, a spectacular show performed by nature, and the breathtaking architecture and art that tell unforgettable stories about human history, will stay with you long after you return home.