From Russia With Love

Trip Start Jul 17, 2013
Trip End Nov 15, 2013

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Monday, September 9, 2013

Our journey to St. Petersburg started very early on Monday morning, as our flight departed from Warsaw at 6:30 am.  Public transit was not operational at this time, so we were forced to take a taxi to the airport, at a cost of $20.  We did not check-in online beforehand and were annoyed to learn that Baltic Air charged an additional $14 per customer to check-in at the airport.
A one-hour flight brought us to Riga, Latvia where we had a quick layover and enjoyed a tasty slice of pizza, surprisingly better than anything we had in Rome.  Another one-hour flight delivered us to our destination, and with a two-hour time difference, we arrived at noon.
Getting to the apartment address was straightforward; a bus ride to the metro and then a couple of train rides, at a total cost of $2 each.  It took about 45 minutes.  Our apartment was located on Nevsky Prospekt, considered St. Petersburg's main street, an excellent location.  Unfortunately, no one was there to meet us.  We had been communicating with two people at that point; the owner, Scotty, who told us that someone would meet us at the Cafe outside the apartment, and the manager, Tanya, who sent us an email while we were flying, but without access to wifi, we didn't know that we were to go to her office, located about a 30 minute walk away.  After waiting for about ten minutes, I was able to scam some free wifi and picked up the manager's email.  I stayed with the bags while Blair hoofed it to the office to get the keys.    
When Blair returned, finding the actual apartment within the building was somewhat confusing.  Ornately designed, massive 5 or 6 story buildings that butt up against each other, line the streets of St. Petersburg.  Each has a gated archway entrance that leads to an inner courtyard, where more archways lead to more courtyards.  It's a tricky, windy business.  After a few failed attempts, we found the right door, located right beside a sex shop.  Handy.  
Inside the main door was a sketchy, dirty stairwell that smelled strongly of cat pee, a most unwelcome entrance.  With more than a little apprehension, we opened the door to our second floor apartment.  We were instantly relieved when we took in our newly renovated, immaculate, spacious surroundings; a large, open concept living room and extremely well-equipped kitchen, two large bedrooms and two bathrooms and more light switches than we knew what to do with.  The master bedroom had blue lights on the ceiling, concealed by swooping folds of fabric, creating a rather cold effect - good for an ice bar but not so much for a bedroom.  Interesting choice.  The bathroom was massive; a large shower with two shower heads and a huge bathtub.  Heaven.  We paid $190/night - a great deal in St. Petersburg considering the location and quality of the apartment. 
Nevsky Prospekt (Avenue) is famous throughout Russia and was originally planned by Peter the Great as the beginning of the road leading to Moscow.   A few of its many sights include the Stroganov Palace, 18th century churches and cathedrals, an enormous 18th-century shopping mall and a mid-19th-century department store. The author, Dosteovsky, used the avenue as a setting in several of his works.  The Nevsky today functions as the main thoroughfare in Saint Petersburg and the majority of the city's shopping and nightlife are located on or right off of the Nevsky Prospekt.
We've had several people ask about the process of obtaining a visa for Russia.  The only complexity we encountered was obtaining the required invitation letter, which was done for free by Real Russia, the travel agency we used to book our Tran-Siberian rail tickets.  Otherwise, it was pretty standard.  Since we needed to either physically appear at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa or else use the services of a visa company, we had to use VisaHQ, who managed the application for us at a total cost of $165/each.  We filled out a very long form online and sent in the invitation letter along with our passports.  It took about three weeks to receive the passports with the visa sticker inside. 
While investigating the process of obtaining the visa, we came across the requirement of registering your visa once you arrive in Russia.  Our research indicated this was either necessary for all stays in Russia longer than 7 days, or only for stays in any one location longer than 7 business days, depending on where we looked.  The owner and manager of the apartment told us that we had to register if we were going to be in Russia longer than 7 days, which they could take care of for a fee of $45, and which would take 3 business days.  We checked with Real Russia, who said we only had to register if we were going to be in any city for longer than 7 days, so we decided to take our chances and based our decision on their advice.   So, if you don't hear anything from us for a couple of weeks, please contact the Canadian Embassy in Moscow.
Scotty, the owner of the apartment, resides in Russia for the summer months and lives in Florida for the rest of year.  He sent an extensive email (about 5 pages long) giving us tips and advice for our stay in St. Petersburg.  It was also very entertaining.  Here is an excerpt of the beginning of Scotty's 'Insider List'.  
"Caveat:  This is not a type of tourist guide you have ever read in your life!  It's not for the faint of heart!  But I believe in every advantage being in my arsenal so here we go!  I want you protected while your visit St Petersburg so your going to hear the good the bad and the ugly in my write up!
The following information is designed to save you $$ money $$!  And enhance your vacation!  There are those of you who will not  appreciate my guerrilla tactics to saving money!  And I apologize to you in advance for my unorthodox tactics.  There are others who will appreciate my tactics and to you I say thank you.  Enjoy I write this to assist you at every juncture. 

Important Tip:  Bring from your home those 6 Hour Energy Drinks in the small red bottles!  You're going to need them.  Also you may wish to pack your favorite STRONG Coffee!  Your going to use them!  This is a vacation not for sleep, but for your education and amazement.  You want sleep go to the beach!  You can night dream anytime but not on this trip!!  You're going to be busy in St Petersburg and believe me you're not going to have a lot of  time for Sleep!  There are Coffee Shops all over St Petersburg. “Use Them to stay awake”.  This is an important Tip!"

A small sampling of information included:
  •  Hitting up the Radisson Hotel on the corner for freebies like an English newspaper, city & metro maps, complimentary nuts and chips at the bar (must order a draft beer), baggage check if flight is leaving at night, with all the recommended actions and dialogue.
  • If you see a big wad of cash on the street, do NOT pick it up.  Or if someone asks you in English if the money is yours, ignore them.  
  • Ignore pretty much everyone that tries to talk to you.  They are out to steal or beg from you.  If you encounter an aggressive type who is hassling you, Scotty advises to, "Stop, move to within 1” of their face with your face and tell the go get the F______ out of your way or they are going to have a problem of their life.  Then back up keeping your eyes trained on theirs, turn and walk away." 
  • 30% of the cars in St. Petersburg are taxis however only 5% of the 30% are advertised as cabs.  It's called the Underground Transportation Market and very common throughout Russia.  They are usually normal, old, four-door cars that are black or red with single drivers.  People trying to supplement their income and are a fraction of the cost of an actual taxi.
  • Sleep only 3 hours per night.  There is simply too much to do and see!
  • Restaurant, supermarket, fast food, bakery and cafe recommendations.  Carl's Jr. is better than McDonalds by far. "In Russia Carls Junior does not serve Frozen Hamburger they only serve Fresh meat.  The place is 20% as busy as MacDonald's because you cannot get a free toy here."
  • The must see sights and how to get tickets for half price or free.  
  • Join an English tour for free.  "The Tour Guides know you're a Freeloader and because Freeloaders are usually bigger tippers, they like them."
  • The "top bar on the planet" is called 'Purga I' and they celebrate New Years Eve every night of the week.  In Scotty's words, "Now it's going to seem very quite and sedate in before 12:00 midnight.  Your going to be thinking why is Scotty so high on this dump anyway?   What in the blankety blank is so special here?   But at 11:55 a rabbit is coming by to give you a sparkler and at 12:00 am this place is going to explode!   Watch the TV monitor as the President ushers in the New Year and more importantly see who the president is???   Now start drinking and engage in the revelry because it New Years and your there to party!    You hear it here, no matter what do not miss this place, even if your sick and dying, you need to die here."
If anyone is planning a trip to St. Petersburg, let us know and we will forward you this insightful and entertaining email.
We went to Scotty's recommended grocery store a few blocks away, which felt like a high-end Sunterra, only with more products and more tasty deli items.  We bought two large bags of groceries for $135.  The cost was similar to what we would pay in Calgary.
At sunset we walked to the Church on Spilled Blood, which was an amazing sight.  I haven't seen anything more beautiful, with the exception of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The entire surface area of the interior was resplendent in brilliant murals, which I thought at first were painted, but were actually composed of tiny mosaic tiles.  Breathtaking.  Access cost $8/each.  I told Blair that it has ruined me for all other cathedrals and churches, and it's a good thing we are nearing the end of our European tour.
The church was built by Tsar Alexander III as a memorial to his father, Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881.  While Alexander II was travelling by carriage, a bomb was thrown by a member of the 'People's Will' movement, which only damaged the bullet-proof carriage.  The Emperor emerged to check out the damage and a second party member threw another bomb which landed and exploded at the feet of the Emperor, fatally wounding him.  The church is built on the sight of this attack and was extended into the canal so a shrine could be built on the exact spot where the Emperor lay dying.
The walk was chilly.  Temperatures ranged from 10-19C and the breeze was quite cool, especially in the shade.  St. Petersburg is at a latitude of 59.57 North, which is roughly the same latitude as Whitehorse.  The sun doesn't set between June 11 - July 2nd, and these nights are called 'white nights'.   
St. Petersburg was originally settled by Swedish colonists.  Tsar Peter the Great wanted a better sea port for Russia, so during the Great Northern War in 1703, he captured the fort located on the Neva River at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea.  The city was built by conscripted peasants (serfs) from all over Russia.  Tens of thousands died while building the city.  
Peter originally wanted the city to mimic Venice and Amsterdam, and built a series of canals in which inhabitants would travel by boat, but over time, bridges were built for convenience and the original canal project was never finished.  In the winter the canals freeze over and people can skate on them - I would love to come back with my skates in tow.  
Compared to other grand cities of Europe, St. Petersburg is massive in scale.  The city blocks are two or three times the length of normal city blocks - similar to blocks on the Las Vegas strip.  A base comparison, I know, but it's what it reminded me of.  Opulent, baroque buildings sometimes encompassed the entire length of the block.  The streets consist of six lanes, the smaller streets four, while sidewalks can easily fit fifteen people across.  We felt dwarfed by the city even though there were no high-rises.  We regularly stumbled upon palaces which are now museums.  I was wonderstruck on our first venture out.
We visited the Hermitage, which includes the Winter Palace, and the Palace Square.  The Hermitage is one of the world's most well-renowned museums, with a large array of collections of art and culture dating back to the 10th century.  It was big and beautiful and we were very tired at the end of the day.  
We had heard about the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the Kirov ballet troop.  Luckily a performance of Romeo and Juliet was playing one night during our stay, so we went to the box office hoping to get tickets.  There were only two types of tickets available for that evening's performance: $150 tickets and $10 tickets.  Can you guess which ones we purchased?  The clerk at the ticket booth warned us that they were bad seats, and when Blair asked how bad the seats were she replied, "50/50".  We weren't sure what that meant, but Blair and I both have perfect vision so we weren't concerned about the distance from the stage.  
After arriving at the theatre, we admired the famous, historical building before starting our climb towards our seats.  Eventually we reached them - located on the side at the very end of the top row - and realized that the clerk was being literal with her "50/50" description; you could only see half the stage.  We had a good chuckle about that.  Throughout parts of the performance we watched an empty stage but had a great view of the orchestra.  The dancers were magical - the ballerina playing Juliet a dream to watch. 
Other sightseeing activities included a chilly river boat cruise on the Neva river and canals which cost $13/each.  We couldn't find one that offered the tour in English so we tried to pick out the sights using our guidebook.  It was a great way to see the city.  We also checked out the Peter and Paul Fortress, where Peter the Great built the first stone buildings in St. Petersburg.  The cathedral located within the fortress entombs the Tsars and members of the Romanov family.  We walked and walked and walked and passed by so many palaces, majestic government buildings and beautifully manicured parks that they all seemed to blend together and were too numerous to name. 
By chance, we happened upon some sort of religious/military parade right outside our apartment on Nevsky Prospekt.  About 10,000 people streamed by; men wearing religious clothes holding crosses and pictures of Mary and Jesus, civilians and men in various military uniforms.  The parade was silent except for various groupings of people quietly singing, what I assumed to be, religious hymns.  It was almost eerie. 
We also started to prepare for our upcoming six day Trans-Siberian train journey.  We went to the food bazaar that Scotty recommended and purchased a large quantity of dried fruits.  We also saw whole rabbits on display at the meat counters in addition to a very wide variety of meats.  Ewww.  Since our laptop is filling up with pictures we were only able to download a few movies, so we are going to have to rely on books for our entertainment on our week-long journey to Asia.  We luckily found a bookstore with an English section.  This initially caused a bit of confusion, as when we asked the clerk if the store had an English section, she thought we were asking for "English sex".  It was too difficult to clear up the misunderstanding so we left the conversation and luckily found the right section.  I picked up 'War & Peace' by Leo Tolstoy, a book I've always wanted to read, which is especially apt since it's set in Russia.  And it's 1,400 pages so I should be adequately occupied.
For the most part, navigating though the city was easy.  Although they use the Cyrillic alphabet, metro stops and other words were displayed in our Latin alphabet as well.  When we happened to look especially confused, an English speaking Russian would come to our aid and tell us the right direction to go or the right bus to get on.  Fortunately we did not have to use Scotty's advice on how to handle aggressive interlopers.  Most everyone was quite friendly and very helpful.
I'm sure we only saw a tiny fraction of the city and could spend weeks here.  We did so much walking during the day, which tired us out by the end of it, that we didn't experience the nightlife or a New Year's Eve celebration.   I would happily come back and sleep during the day and tire myself out during the white nights.  
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gerald on

Thats, so interesting to read!!!!!! Take care~~~~~~~~~~~g

Fran Bezaire on

Scotty is quite the advice giver - sort of like dealing with a bear attack, eye contact and back away..... The city sounds amazing, sort of disappointed you didn't take in New Years Eve, I would have loved to hear about that place. Enjoy the train & War and Peace.

Marvin Hunt on

What the hell? Any rodents worthy of setting up on a knoll with a bipod and bag of spitz?

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