From Russia with love... (too cliched?)

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Where I stayed
Aboard the Princess Maria

Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Friday, October 1, 2010

So, we caught the overnight ship (the Princess Maria) to St. Petersburg and the ship was... how shall we say it... stark in its 'beauty' (i.e. expensive but quite old and none of the modern niceness that we expected for the price we paid). Neither the room nor the ship’s furnishings lived up to the rather ridiculous amount of money we ‘backpackers’ handed over, particularly since there were none of the cheapest cabins available and we had to order a ‘B-class’ cabin – I shudder to think what E-class cabins looked like if we were in a better one! Anyway, they seemed quite proud of the fact that the B-class cabin had 9 metres square of room even though large proportion of that was bathroom and entry space... Enough about the ship (we’ve taken too many nice ones to appreciate what we’re doing methinks!), more about Russia. Well actually, more about the ship – it got in about an hour early!!! – so we had to bolt out of our room, sans breakfast and sporting what I can only assume was rather dishevelled appearances to explore St Petersburg.

As we got off the ship, there was a cute little brass band playing our welcome and a not-so-nice cool breeze making me wish I was still snug in bed. We managed to find the shuttle bus into the city with not much trouble (although there was only one seat left in the van part, so I had to sit up front with the driver who was none too talkative). I didn’t mind sitting up front because I got to see so much more of the surroundings as we entered the city from the docks but it did feel a bit weird. Weirder still was the little Japanese man sitting in the first row behind me who leant forward almost so that he was between me and the driver and took shot after shot after shot on his expensive-looking camera. The noise of the shutter became irritating as did the feeling of my neck being breathed on by some strange man (I was wishing at this point that cameras still had film so that at least I’d get a break whilst he reloaded!), so at the first point I could (when some people got out of the minivan at a stop before the city), I jumped into the cabin of the van. Quick as a flash, he pulled the door open and sat in my old seat. It was amusing – all of us crammed in the back, with a very keen little man in the front taking 20 pictures of the same scene as we sat at a red traffic light. KaCHICK, kaCHICK kaCHICK...

Andrew and I jumped out of the minivan at the first stop and had a good look at the map. We walked for ages. I thought my feet would drop off. I suppose, upon reflection sore feet were the least of my worries. The drivers are absolutely crazy. They gun you down. Seriously. The little green man. He means nothing. Basically when the light goes from red to green man, you have to just stare the first driver who’s turning around the corner dead in the eyeballs and walk. If you miss that opportunity for ‘operation eye-lock’, then you wait for the next set of lights. Or die, which ever comes first. Scary stuff I tell you!

Anyway, so we started off taking a stroll along one of the canals called the Bolshaya Nevka River, taking in the crisp morning and the pretty buildings along the river. We found an interesting statue of a guy on a horse, unimaginatively called the ‘Bronze Horsemen’, I didn’t check, but I imagine he was made of bronze. Either that or he came third. Who knows... We then made our way to a grand old building called St. Isaacs Cathedral (whenever I hear the name ‘Isaac’ I cannot help but think of Isaac Hayes, especially in his role of ‘Chef’ in South Park and it is nearly always inappropriate to think of that, but I digress...) and it is according to my little map guide: ‘one of the finest architectural monuments of the XIX century... able to accommodate ca. 10,000 people’. It has ‘112 solid granite columns weighing up to 114 tons each’. So yeah, pretty massive and impressive and I’m not sure that the photos do it justice.

We next toddled on to something called the ‘Kazan Cathedral’ (or Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan), although it was an extremely strange shape for a cathedral, I must admit. It had these long, sweeping outdoor wings to each side, with the cathedral situated in the middle. Quite odd, or at least unorthodox. Well, perhaps not unorthodox, considering it’s Russian orthodox. Now I AM confused! J

We then moved on to... another church! Yes, this time it was the quaintly named ‘Saviour on the Blood’ and is apparently built as a memorial to Russian emperor Alexander II on (and I quote my map guide here) ‘the very spot of crucial terroristic attempt upon him’. Eww, but very, very colourful. Gaudy almost... Kind of like a gelati, Kremlin-style.

We found some nice gardens and parks, and Andrew took a picture of a police man with a very large machine gun on his back without his knowledge or permission. We quietly slunk away from there, our puffy silence punctuated only by nervous giggles. We met some beautiful dogs outside a place called ‘Smolny Cathedral’ (it seems all the Russians do is drink vodka, pray and run you over in their cars). They came over for a pat and a sit with us and I missed my doggy.

We then took a walk along the Neva river, discovering a strange, half-woman, half-sphinx, half-skeleton (yes, three halves... well actually it was the front of a woman, backside of a sphinx and whole right-hand-side of state was a skeleton). It was kind of creepy, so we pushed on and discovered some military men marching along in dress uniform. They must have been going to one of the million weddings I saw that day. These Russians like to get married too! Some kid darted in front of me when I was walking through a narrow section of footpath and I accidentally bumped him (not hard or anything, like he didn’t fall or anything like that) and his mother (unfairly) gave me a massive piece of her mind as if I’d done it deliberately. It was so frustrating not being able to explain and I was quite annoyed about the incident for AGES! Grrrr!

We discovered an artillery museum and Andrew was extremely excited by the big guns on display he even ran back later to get a picture of some cannons he’d missed. Strange boy. I was more amused by the sight of the sunbathers trying to get a tan on the banks of the river, which normally would be fine if it wasn’t about 8 degrees outside. Also, I didn’t think it was that appropriate to be in your knickers, sunbathing between the river and St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral (inside the fortress of the same name) but nevermind – I guess the vodka must keep their insides warm.

We kept walking and found ourselves inside the square outside the ‘Winter Palace’, next to ‘Alexander’s Column’ where there were yet more of those people who dress up in Baroque clothing and stand in your pictures then demand a fee (it was entertaining viewing as they tried to explain in Russian to some poor, hapless tourist, that they wanted their fee!). The ‘Winter Palace’ walls (both on the river side and the square side) were beautiful and ornately painted. Facing the Winter Palace on the other side of the column was a building named ‘Main Headquarters’, which of course begs the question ‘of what?’, but there was little information. It could be the main headquarters of cheese for all I know. I think it is actually for staff of the palace, but who knows. It had a nice statue on top.

We had done a lot that day, so we walked slowly back to our bus stop, intending to catch the last bus back to the ship. Andrew jogged off to a shop to buy a badge to put on his blanket (he gets one in every country he goes to) and I waited at the bus stop. To my consternation, our bus pulled up. About 15 minutes earlier than expected! I was worriedly trying to ask the driver whether this was the last bus or not but he was quite rude and just pointed to the back of the bus (minivan), refusing to answer my questions. The people seated in the minivan just smirked at me until I just walked away quite irritated and the van drove off. I was cold, tired and hungry and we’d potentially just missed the last bus! So, Johnsen jogs around the corner about 2 minutes later all happy that he’s got his badge, to be confronted with the news. We decide that if no bus comes before 5:15 we would have to scurry (on our poor, tired feet) back down to the docks (a substantial distance away, but doable). Luckily the bus came around and the driver was nice (or at least nicer!) and we got in and then back onto the ship with very little trouble (except a stupidly long line through immigration!). The sunset whilst we were leaving port and we reflected that it had been a tough, long day, but worth the whirlwind trip to Russia.

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