TRAVEL writer Tommy Walker is in Russia as the World Cup is in full swing. Here is his report so far.

The Northern Echo: Saint Basil Cathedral. Picture: Tommy Walker

Vibrating Volgograd

Last week I arrived in Moscow, and this week I watched England snatch a last-gasp victory against Tunisia. It was buzzing to say the least! The hours travelled to Russia, the hours travelled inland to Volgograd, the wait for England’s World Cup opener all came to fruition. It had an away day feeling to this game, with England fans being the minority. Yet, the euphoria experienced when England won was one of the best I’ve ever experienced in a football match – and I’ve been to a fair few!

Harry Kane grabbed his second of the evening as myself and the rest of the 1,800 travelling England fans went into utter delirium. Up until then, I’d accepted we might have to settle for a draw despite looking like a fresh, new team under Gareth Southgate’s vision.

The game itself, played at the Volgograd Arena, was largely dominated by England and in the first half it should have been out of sight. But still, a victory is a victory and it’s good to see England create many good chances. Not since 1966 v Portugal in the World Cup semi-final had England created more chances in the first half of World Cup football. That shows a sign of optimism.

Volgograd which is into the deep west of Russia is only a few hours away from the borders of Kazakhstan. It took many travellers around 15 hours to get into Volgograd, most by train or bus. I took the overnight bus, which wasn’t comfy at all, add in the fact daylight ends at 10pm and rises again at 4am, I didn’t get much sleep. But, it was absolutely worth it.

Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, is famous for the Battle of Stalingrad during WW2 where Germany forces fought against Soviets in an attempt to cease control of the city. It was here, an away day sized army of England fans travelled to see their teams World Cup opener.

The World Cup in Russia

Just like four years ago when I went to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, football has been in the air and it’s been fantastic to experience.

Although the Brazilian carnival atmosphere doesn’t exist in Russia, the friendly vibe has grown as the tournament has opened. Many fans have been flooding into Moscow the past week, most notably fans from South America. The Peruvian fans have been like the Irish fans of the Euro's, out-singing everyone and just having a fantastic time.

Locals of Russia, many of whom don’t speak fluent English, are generally enjoying the tournament, despite numbers not at their maximum. This doesn't seem to bother many of the fans but it does mean there's a lack of quality interaction with the locals. Something that in Brazil made the whole World Cup better because everyone was in on the party together. Food prices are steady and the beer prices range from about £3. There isn't too much of a spike in prices, especially British prices - for me it's cheaper than Hong Kong where I'm currently residing! If you’re thinking of coming to Russia, hotel prices are understandably higher than normal with cheap options from £50 and upwards, if available.

To keep busy there have been plenty of touristy things to do in Russia. I've visited some fantastic buildings such as the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Motherland Calls in Volgograd, the latter being one of the tallest statues in the world. The food is starchy, meat, potatoes and bliny (pancakes in Russian) and has been quite good. As for the drinks, the vodka has been flowing a lot more than usual, as you’d expect!

Trouble In The Past

Of course there has been worry from England fans about the prospect of trouble from Russian hooligans and that has been evident when leading up to the game v Tunisia. Marred by controversy at the Euro's 2016 in France (I reported on the trouble for BBC Tees Radio in Marseille), many England fans have declined to come to Russia because they have expected trouble.

Marseille was an unprovoked and military like attack from Russian thugs, cowardly if anything. It appears some Russian fans just see England fans in that light - a group of hooligans like it was in 70's & 80's. No one has told them that despite the odd Danny Dyer film influencing the football madmen and the fact you can get a banning order for something as frivolous as falling asleep at a match in England - football hooliganism doesn't happen like it is use to, if barely at all.

Nothing has happened of note in Russia, yet.

The Russian police haven’t been overly aggressive, although they do love to boast that proud sense of power and protection, if that’s what you can call it. I've noticed a couple of times authorities interrupting harmless celebrations and unnecessarily re-directing fans from getting from A to B. On the opening day, I was on the way to the FIFA Fan Fest - a space for thousands to watch the games on big screens - some police decided to tell people that the Fan Fest wasn't available and they were closing off people entering. Yet, fans from South American countries, who are currently the majority of fans at here in Russia, didn't care and without trouble, barged passed them to enter the FIFA Fan Fest vicinity. I followed suit of course!

Speaking with local journalists, Russians who have had a criminal record in the past 20 years for related offences have been warned by local authorities to stay at home and stop any urges to cause any violence. Russia is on show to the world so after the first game went off without any incident, there’s more optimism that there won’t be so much hooliganism after all. Still, my feeling is the minority of Russian fans want to antagonise England fans and according to my Russian friends 'just love to fight'. Fingers crossed nothing happens though.

Stay Tuned

Still, I'm excited for exploring more of Russia. Next up is England’s game v Panama in Niznhy Novgorod - unknown to many of us – where I’ll be attending. Like all of you, I’m confident we’ll get a win there and confirm our knockout stages spot. I’ll be writing some more features during my time here in Russia, the games, the adventurers and anything else worth reporting back to you with.

Ciao for now.