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To see all Russia’s highlights, follow a bride

I had been warned that Russians keep their distance from foreign travelers. This was not going to deter me in my efforts to make a friend or two in St. Petersburg or Moscow when I joined a Globus tour to this fascinating country. Confidently, I thought that if I learned a few quick phrases, I might be able to bridge the gap. I mastered “Privet” for “Hello,” “Spasi Bo” for “Thank you,” and “Skolko eto stoit?” for “How much is it?” I tried these phrases out at MacDonald’s, Subway, and souvenir shops, receiving back stares and a few giggles. Evidently, I learned the wrong phrases for breaking the ice, but not for long. I added to these typical sentences ones much more appropriate to the Russian locale. After all, I had descended upon cities of weddings and wedding talk is what I needed.

Russian newlywedsFrom May through October, every day of the week, one can join in the merriment of weddings in Russia. Following the country’s custom, the groom will pick up his bride at her home in the morning. They will go, attended by friends and family, to the government office for their marriage registration. If they choose to have a Church service, this will follow. Then they will drive in a caravan of the wedding party from scenic site to scenic site, enjoying champagne, chocolates, sandwiches, and photo shoots at each destination. In the evening they will probably hold a reception of 20-150 people, dancing and singing and eating and drinking, all in merriment of their special day.

Much to the good fortune of visitors to Russia, the bridal parties virtually embrace all in joyous celebration. In St. Petersburg, the brides, grooms, and their attendants flock to Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. This serves as a special photo shoot, with the gold-draped onion-domed church smiling upon the newlyweds. The adjacent Griboe dova Canal seems to babble in merriment. Tsar Alexander II who was murdered here in 1881 seems to rise from his grave, acknowledging that he is a prominent member of the wedding party and bestowing his blessing upon the couple.

Then the wedding party might be off to the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace. At one time the director of the Hermitage reported, “I can’t say that the Hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not the second.” With such a reputation, the newlyweds stop momentarily at the site, as if to beckon the artistic greats to bestow their talents and blessings upon them. They will not have time (and perhaps energy) to tour inside and view the 2.7 million exhibits, but this will not deter them for looking upward as if winking to Van Gogh and modeling for Rembrandt.

Russian newlywedsA quick wave to Picasso’s masterpieces at the Hermitage and the wedding members drive off to Peterhof Palace and Garden. This luxurious palace and grounds was built for Peter The Great. It has more than eighty original marble statues and sculptures, and it seems as if each one was built to serve as a backdrop for the happy couple. They drape over the statues, bend toward the 147 fountains’ waters, munch on pastries, and raise toast after toast of sparkling champagne. Cameras click to capture the bliss. One wonders if at any moment Peter The Great will emerge, coaxing the young couple to splash in one of the trick fountains that look down upon the coastline.

Next the wedding party stops at Catherine Palace and Park. The ornate palace of white and gold provides a perfect setting for more photos, more eating, more drinking, and more merriment. A 1400 acre park, complete with fountains, bridges, the Agate Pavilion bathhouse and the Great Pond, embraces the newlyweds and all who join in on the celebration.

At St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the wedding caravan might stop to cast their eyes at the gold dome. The church is the third largest domed church in the world, and there is a 300 step climb for a spectacular view of St. Petersburg lying below. Do not expect the bride and groom to ascend to the dome, however. They will quickly snap photos and drink champagne at the church entrance, enabling the beauty of its 19th century architecture lovingly to bless them.

Good chance that a world renowned “Swan Lake” will be performed in the evening at either Alexandrinsky or Mariinsky Theatre. But in the afternoon the wedding party will stop at one of the entrances or perhaps at the park in front of Alexandrinsky. Costumed tsars and other dressed-like royalty might be invited to join the group for more smiles than a camera ever thought could be captured. Feeling like a prized ballerina, the bride knows that she has stolen the show. It is as if natives and tourists have bridged the miles. All give greetings to the wedding parties and realize that the world is in good hands when love abounds.

Moscow will not let wedding joy of St. Petersburg outshine its own city splendor. A favorite spot for brides and grooms, and their many old and newly made friends, is Sparrow Hill, a hill on the right bank of the Moscow River and one of the highest points in the city. The bridal party welcomes all to join them as they gather on an observation platform that provides a panoramic view of the capital. It seems as if the whole world stops for a few minutes to tell the couple “Congratulations” as people on the river boat tours wave and nearby skateboarders even pause.

Red Square and its immediate surroundings provide a wealth of wedding photo opportunities and merriment. This once served as the site of executions and military parades; now the country’s largest and most expensive department store complex, GUM, sits on one side and the Kremlin walls and Lenin’s tomb sits on the other. On a busy weekend a lucky tourist can see a number of wedding parties as they parade from the 18 towers of the Kremlin.

St. Basil’s Cathedral stands magnificently at the head of Red Square. No Russian bride and groom would omit a stop at its iconic domes. The entrance takes on radiance of wedding joy as the wedding party crowds together for the perfect picture at this 1561 architectural masterpiece. St. Basil’s consists of nine separate chapels, each with its own individually shaped and colored dome. It seems as if each chapel and each dome blesses those beneath.

Close by sits Alexandrovsky Garden with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at its north end. Newlyweds bring flowers, have their pictures taken, and hope to time their arrival with the hourly changing of the guards. A solemn aura reigns here as the bride and groom reflect upon national heroes who fell for their motherland between 1941 and 1945. As the newlyweds pay their respects, the eternal flame seems to symbolize not only fallen soldiers of World War II but also the hopes of those entering marriage that day.

The brides might cajole their grooms to include a photo shoot at GUM, located at the northeastern side of Red Square. It is a bright, bustling department complex with over 1,000 fancy shops. Chocolate miracles and ice-cream delights offer their welcoming touches at the entrance. Tiffany’s and Cartier play their respected roles among many of like-kind. Any photo shots taken here are bound to show the brides’ eyes twinkling and the grooms’ lips moaning, with onlookers chuckling at this battle of the sexes.

St. Petersburg claims fame to Alexandrinsky and Mariinsky Theatres, while Moscow’s most celebrated and most political ballet company is The Bolshoi. Picture celebrating and party making might occur on its entrance steps, but one will escape any tones of political squabbles. Talented dancers and directors might be spotted, but none will upstage the bride and groom for this is their debuting moment as husband and wife.

Coronations of old took place in Cathedral of the Assumption, which even houses the wooden coronation throne built for Ivan The Terrible. Wedding parties flocking to the church will not descend from thrones or carriages, but a Hummer limousine or a deluxe Mercedes might surely transfer the occupants to this beautiful site. In the afternoon sunlight, the church’s five golden domes and many windows glisten, providing accompanying sparkle to the shared bubbling champagne.

Russian NewlywedsNot far away sits Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built in the 19th century to commemorate the Russian army’s victory over Napoleon. It was destroyed on orders by Stalin only to be rebuilt in the 1990’s. And, if luck will have it, visitors will see newlyweds gather here, as if symbolizing the strength of their enduring love.

It did not take long for me to realize that additional vocabulary would surely be useful for making friends and enjoying Russia. I kept my “Privet” (“Hello”) for a typical everyday greeting. I kept my “Spasi Bo” (“Thank you”) to express my heartfelt gratitude to Globus for the fantastic tour they organized. And I kept my “Skolko eto stoit?” (“How much is it?”), handy to know at any souvenir shop. However, new phrases brought me into the Russian wedding culture. My recommendation is to travel to Russia, spot the brides at every turn and exclaim to them, “Vi zamechatel’naya para” (“You are a beautiful bride.”) Then turn to the lucky groom with the greeting, “Pazdravlayu” (“Congratulations.”) He’s bound to smile back and nod in agreement. Then as the wedding party leaves one site for another, send them off with “Zhelaya Schast’ ya” (“Happiness always.”) It’s bound to spark a friendship from your land to theirs. After all, who isn’t happy at a beautiful Russian wedding?

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