How I prepared for my trip to Germany and my first time in Moscow

October 2016. It marked my first self-made adventure. Germany was my destination of choice, a country close to my heart. With twelve years of German language study under my belt and a prior visit through a school exchange program, it seemed fitting that it would be the first country I explored independently. The prospect of delving once more into its rich culture and varied landscapes, this time with my boyfriend, filled me with excitement.

My preparations, looking back, were far from perfect. But let me tell you how it all unfolded. It started with purchasing tickets, a task I dove into headfirst. I stumbled upon a website for a new airline in Russia and discovered what seemed like a dream deal: tickets from Moscow to Munich for a mere €45 per person. Without a second thought, we booked them, failing to consider the timing – it was Oktoberfest…

For those unfamiliar, Oktoberfest is a massive festival, one of the world’s biggest. Panic set in as we realized our oversight. Hotels, usually booked months in advance, were either fully booked or priced beyond reason. Desperate, I turned to Couchsurfing, a platform that, a decade ago, was free but now required payment. Armed with rudimentary English and a barebones profile featuring only a photo of me volunteering at a dog shelter, I sent out dozens of messages seeking accommodation. Rejection after rejection came until, after nearly fifty attempts, a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a response from a girl in Munich. Against all odds, she agreed to host us, citing the photo with the shelter dog as a sign of my character. And so, against all odds, our journey began.

After sorting out our flights, the next task was choosing the cities we wished to explore. Nuremberg was first on our list, and luck was on our side as we managed to find a free apartment there. Stuttgart followed suit, where a generous friend offered us accommodation. However, our luck ran out in Cologne, where we booked an Airbnb room that turned out to be our worst lodging experience. Surprisingly, the best experience came from our Couchsurfing host – and it wasn’t just because it was free!

But let’s rewind a bit to Moscow. Yes, I’m Russian, but this trip marked my inaugural visit to the capital. Having spent my entire life in Pskov, my birthplace, and later relocating to Saint Petersburg at 17, Moscow was an entirely new experience for me. For those unfamiliar with Russia, let me warn you: Moscow is in a league of its own. It’s a city unto itself, incomparable to any other, and to me, it felt like stepping into another country. The streets are impeccably clean, the buildings well-maintained, and public transport seamlessly connects every corner. The city center, in particular, is a sight to behold, boasting endless opportunities for leisurely strolls.

My journey began with a wave of new impressions that swept over me from the moment we boarded the train. In Russia, there’s a clear divide between those who adore trains and those who loathe them. Personally, I’ve always fallen into the latter category when it comes to Russia’s old trains. They’re slow, outdated, cramped, and equipped with less-than-pleasant facilities. Spending an entire night on the train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow was never an appealing prospect. However, in 2016, a new era dawned with the introduction of a revolutionary train known as the Sapsan (in Eng: Peregrine). This superfast marvel changed the game entirely, reducing the travel time between the two cities to a mere 4.5 hours – a feat unimaginable compared to the sluggish night buses and trains of yore. And let me tell you, the comfort level was unmatched, courtesy of Samsung’s impeccable design. It was on this journey that I discovered a newfound appreciation for trains. From that moment on, I understood the allure of train travel.

Yet, despite the city’s charm, I couldn’t shake off my disapproval. Having grown up surrounded by historical landmarks dating back to the 10th century in Pskov, I expected Moscow to offer a similar glimpse into the past – but I was sorely disappointed. Instead, everywhere I looked, I was reminded of the Soviet era. While some may admire the constructivist architecture, I found it to be a source of melancholy.

During our two-day stay, we barely scratched the surface of what Moscow had to offer. My advice to fellow travelers: always do your research on a city’s historical significance and compile a list of activities beforehand to avoid disappointment. While some may thrive on spontaneous exploration, I found myself inadvertently bypassing the city’s highlights. It wasn’t until a second visit in 2022 that I began to appreciate Moscow’s allure, yet even then, I couldn’t quite bring myself to love it.

Arriving in Moscow at 7 p.m., we still had some energy left for a brief outing. A friend met us at the train station, and together we headed to the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, known colloquially as VDNH. Despite its uninspiring name – a relic of the Soviet era – VDNH turned out to be a pleasant surprise. On that first evening, we were treated to a mesmerizing fire show, set against the backdrop of the expansive square. It instantly became my favorite spot in Moscow, a must-visit for anyone in search of unique experiences.

The following day, we opted for a budget-friendly sightseeing adventure aboard the Moscow Monorail. Though it only spans 4.7 kilometers (2.92 miles), it offered a cheap alternative for cash-strapped students like us. Peering out the windows, we caught glimpses of iconic landmarks like the Ostankino Tower and Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. However, our excursion was cut short as we ventured into the city center to meet my distant relatives – whom I affectionately refer to as uncle and cousin – for an insightful tour of Moscow’s past.

We concluded our visit on Red Square, a place both awe-inspiring and somber. While some may deem it small, to me, it felt vast, especially as the crimson hues of sunset washed over its iconic landmarks. Yet, amidst its beauty, I couldn’t shake the chilling realization of the lives lost on this historic ground.

Our final day in Moscow was marred by missteps. Accustomed to the pedestrian-friendly layouts of other Russian cities, we naively attempted to explore Moscow on foot, starting with a visit to Moscow-City, the bustling business district. However, my lofty expectations of gleaming skyscrapers were shattered by the reality of dusty windows and lackluster facades. Disheartened, we retreated to Vorobyovi Gori on foot, a decision I regretted as fatigue and frustration set in. From that moment on, I vowed to plan my travels with meticulous precision.

And with that, we bid Moscow farewell and headed to the airport for our flight to Munich, eager to embark on the next leg of our adventure.