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Destination Russia: A Book of Travel Stories that Bring the Enigma to Life

We consider ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. A major portion of the venue along the Black Sea was devoted to showcasing its host country’s diverse regions, ethnicities and cultures in a fascinating conglomeration of displays and interactive activities.

Russian honor guard lined up in uniform
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

How curious is geography, above all if we learn it on land, in person, with our eyes and feet, like the first geographers used to do. And in the way in which inquiring and attentive travellers still do, studying language, customs, music, the local cultures, but who are always amazed when the time comes to touch them for real, to chat together. – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

Our visit only served to whet our appetite to discover even more about this vast, enigmatic country, which spans two hemispheres and is bordered by two great oceans and fourteen other nations.

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Image by step-svetlana from Pixabay

Our Russia bucket list contains several specific experiences we’d still like to have – the Trans-Siberian Railway, a river cruise down the Volga – and destinations we’d like to explore in depth: St Petersburg and Lake Baikal.

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Photo by Betsy Wuebker

“Where are you from?” she asks. He just waves his hand, generally pointing far away: “North”. It’s really a matter of perspective. We are right on the border of the Arctic Circle and what for us is the farthest North, is probably to him the most southern place he ever reached in his life. – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

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The reality is these dreams may never come to fruition. Similarly, others who have not yet been to Russia may never get the chance, either. This is why I heartily recommend  “Destination Russia. A ship and a cat in the tundra and other extra-ordinary encounters”. Fresh off a successful run in its native Italian language, this newly translated version demonstrates the best aspects of travel writing.

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Authors Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre have created a portrait of Mother Russia using a series of vignettes that deeply resonate. Their memoir rings true on several levels.

Russian men playing backgammon
Photo by Betsy Wuebker

The more you go North, the more the world narrows. And even time seems to shorten. So much so that here just a few hours on a train are enough to cross two continents, two time zones and several centuries of history. – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

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The format of this book contributes to its authenticity in a number of ways. First, by presenting stories of individual encounters in exactly the way travels are remembered, the separate stories not only stand alone, but also together create a greater whole.

Destination Russia

After which, turning to me with a look of understanding, he touches his index and middle finger to the side of his throat. A gesture we know well, and which in Russia has an unmistakable meaning. “Shall we drink?” – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

Street vendor in Sochi, Russia
Photo by Betsy Wuebker

Secondly, the depth and breadth of the authors’ experiences throughout the country spans east and west, north and south. Not content to confine themselves to St. Petersburg or Moscow, to which the typical visitor might travel, their experiences range from the urban to the remote.

Within that context, we are treated to the details of everyday life. We learn how people are dressed, the geography of their surroundings, and what they eat.

Apartment block in St. Petersburg, Russia
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

She welcomes us to her lovely Moscow house on Kutuzovsky Prospect for a dinner that is an exhibition of typical Russian cuisine: cucumbers, caviar, smoked salmon with butter and bliny, the traditional round scones. Then pel’meni, a kind of ravioli stuffed with meat, served with smetana, the tasty sour cream, and syrniki, savoury fritters made with tvorog cheese. And then prianiki, spiced cakes with honey, and halva, a dough made with sesame seeds and filled with peanuts. Everything paired with several toasts of vodka and kompot, a sweet blackberry syrup. – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

Cafeteria in Adler neighborhood, Sochi, Russia
Photo by Betsy Wuebker

These vivid descriptions brought back memories of our own: dishes served up cafeteria style three times per day in the restaurant of our Sochi guesthouse, Pete googling a picture of a fried egg to show the cook what he wanted – Russians there eat the same things for breakfast as they do for other meals.

The shop is a true food emporium. The refrigerator aisle is full of cheeses, cold cuts, milk, cream and eggs while the shelves are bursting with tins of meat and fish, blocks of black bread, pickled vegetables, tomatoes, biscuits, rice, Chinese noodles, sweets and cigarettes. At least one third of the displayed goods is composed of beers, vodka, liquors and champansky. We quickly realize that the magazin is as a matter of fact the true social centre of the village. – Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre

Just as the plaza might be the meeting place on Mallorca or in Cartagena, or the apotek might be where you encounter your neighbors out picking up cigarettes or something to drink in Scandinavia, the description of the ubiquitous Russian magazin evoked encounters we had in the suburbs of Tallinn and near the Adler beachfront in Sochi.

Neighborhood food store in Adler, Sochi, Russia
Photo by Betsy Wuebker

The most engaging parts of the book are the descriptions of individual Russians. These convey the intensity and heart that so captivated us during our visit. Just as we were, the authors were warmly welcomed and at times, solicitously cared for. This should be reassuring to travelers who may be on the fence about visiting.

Cossack security guard in Sochi, Russia
Photo by Betsy Wuebker

Primarily, Destination Russia is compelling because of the skill in which its portraits are painted. Individuals come to life in their milieus, and become part of the greater Russian landscape, as well. From this, the reader gets an impression analogous to the country itself.

English speaking readers will be charmed by the linguistic quirks that occur in this translation from the original Italian. This aspect lends a layer of authenticity such as you might experience with a good friend telling you these stories over dinner and a nice bottle of wine or two.

Get this book not just because you’re curious about Russia, but to enjoy the kind of engaging storytelling you’d get from a friend you trust. Even if you never visit Russia, after reading Destination Russia you’ll feel like you know it in living color.

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Fabio Bertino

Monday 8th of July 2019

Thanks for wonderful review!

Meg Jerrard

Sunday 7th of July 2019

I loved reading this book, and am so inspired to travel to Russia now! I love how much of an authentic picture it paints of parts of Russia beyond the tourist cities - the real Russia that we don't often get the chance to see!

You're photos from Russia are fabulous, I hope you do have the chance to travel back at some point soon :)

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