More Russian than Russia itself

Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
Trip End Apr 04, 2006

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

For all its trials, for all its mistakes, the story of Russia at the end of the 20th century must be counted as a kind of revival, a resurrection

- Robert Kaiser, Russia: The People and the power (1984)

St Petersburg, Russia
Prague time +2hrs
Days to get to Prague - 8

A fustrated Henk. Now there's a first
Taking overnight trains was so run of the mill for us by now that I'm not even going to mention the trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. I won't even mention the fact that soon after boarding the train I saw Henk get real mad (or was it frustrated?) with the lack of luggage space on the train. I remember that only because it was so un-Henk like. But as I said I'm not going to mention that here. This is about St. Petersburg. Or more precisely the 2 days we spent in St. Petersburg. We disembarked the train from Moscow in the ingeniously named Moscow train station and quickly found the nearby HI St. Petersburg hostel. We scored 2 beds in a 6-bed dorm but it turned out we had the room to ourselves. And at 510 roubles a night it seemed such a bargain compared to the 800 roubles we had paid in Moscow. Here's hoping we can stay out of trouble by avoiding any lone Swiss travellers.

St. Pete's
It doesn't take long to realise that visually St. Petersburg is a very different city from Moscow. Whereas Moscow is a dull, grey city with unimaginative structures, St. Petersburg is a fairy-tale city of incredible weathered architecture complete with canals, baroque palaces, cathedrals and buildings made from pink granite with yellow & green facades. It was founded by Peter the Great, the then ruling tsar, in 1703 and built on a mosquito-infested swamp at the mouth of the Neva River on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Peter hated Moscow and wanted to create a modern capital for a country that he deemed to be stuck in the Dark Ages. Military scuffles with Sweden meant Peter had thousands of Swedish prisoners of war at his disposal and he soon succeeded in creating his dream. In 1713 St. Petersburg became the nation's capital and it remained the heart of the country until the 1917 revolution ended the Russian dynasty, with the victorious communists moving the capital back to the more easily defensible Moscow in 1918. For the next 80 or so years the city was more or less ignored by Moscow and many of its buildings went into disrepair. But with local boy Vladimir Putin now pulling the shots in Moscow, the city, and its crumbling palaces, have profited from central funding and today St. Petersburg, Europe's 4th largest city, is one of the most enchanting and impressive cities on earth.

Doing our own thing
We spent the whole of the first afternoon in the city walking up the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, and taking in the sights. Well, I say we but the Henkster and I managed to loose each other outside Kazan Cathedral and didn't hook up again until later that night in the hostel when he returned from the ballet. Yep, the Henkster splurged a little and took in a visit to the ballet, one of the things to do in the cultural melting pot that is St. Petersburg. Not that I did. Even if it is the thing to do I know I'd have found it as boring as watching cricket. But seemingly the Henkster is into that sort of thing? Amazing how you get to know ones travel buddies.

Moving on is harder then you think
Anyway, as we were quite content with our sightseeing that day (and Henk with his cultural experience) we decided, ahead of schedule, to attempt to catch the early morning bus to Helsinki the following morning. I say attempt because we hadn't actually gotten tickets and weren't altogether sure that the bus was actually running. We had investigated our options and had been told some sketchy information that the bus may or may not be running in the morning and if so it would be leaving from outside the Grand Hotel Europe at 8:15am. Well, we took our chances and having prepared to say goodbye to Russia we lugged our bags, in a snow shower, to the hotel. Once we got there we discovered yes, there was a bus waiting to depart, but it wasn't going to St. Petersburg. Or so the drivers reply of "njet" to my question of "St. Petersburg"? had me believe. So we headed back to the hostel where we able to have the shower we couldn't have when we first got up (as they were closed) and we were treated to breakfast served by a babushka who gave us the impression it was her food we were eating. And so with another day in the city we found ourselves with a bit more time to investigate reliable ways to get to Helsinki. With (cheap) options limited we eventually bought tickets for an overnight bus trip that evening and spent the rest of the day seeing more sights. As always folks the accompanying photos tell the complete story.

The Fruitless Banya search & The Grocery Store
One of the final things we did just hours before getting the bus to Helsinki was search out a banya, a Russian bath house. We though the notion of having a few beers while naked in the presence of Russian men in a steaming hot sauna while belting each other with bushes of dried branches sounded like a fun and fitting way to end our Russian experience. But a combination of dark streets and outdated information from Lonely Planet meant we were frustratingly thwarted there also. Probably for the best. So instead we went to a local grocery store where, aside from our stash of souvenir money, we managed to spend our last few roubles, even down to the last kopek, stocking up on supplies for the trip to Helsinki. The girls in the store were sure glad to get rid of us. But I bet Russia will miss us. Yep, it's been a blast. Like always I aim to be back at some stage. But for now, if only for a flying visit, Scandinavia and Finland beckons.
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