"Venice of the East" to the "Venice of the North"

Trip Start Jun 28, 2013
Trip End Oct 05, 2013

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Where I stayed
Cronwell Inn Stremyannaya St. Petersburg
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We both slept fantastically well and are feeling right on European time... except now we have flown two hours East again, and are about to embark on two days of ludicrously timed activities - the night before we take the morning train to Finland, we will be returned to our hotel at 4am!! 

It was lovely waking up at a civilised time and walking down to the airport.  We got to Security right on 7am and happened to be the first to be ushered into a little side room where a fresh team of security officers was just starting for the day.  The rollers that scoop your stuff through the X-ray machine were motionless and there were none of those trays that are usually standing about for you to put your stuff into.  So we started the laborious process of unpacking - liquids & gels out of the handbag and the sponge bag inside the cabin bag; laptops both out of the laptop bag, phones and wallets into the laptop bag; moneybelts off and onto the conveyor belt along with all the other junk... and at THAT point (now some five minutes after he's been standing there watching us doing all this) the tough German security officer says, "VAT are you DOINK?" It would appear that we were supposed to guess that the trays for the various bits and pieces are still all tucked in their shelf alongside the conveyor and we were supposed to get them out ourselves.

Then, at the far side, the personal scanner wasn't working properly, so the tough female guard told me brusquely to wait while she got a new one; she scanned me with that and then had the most thorough feel I've ever had from anyone I wasn't in an intimate relationship with.  

So after all that excitement, I was very ready for my breakfast.  We found a quiet table at a pleasant cafe and caught up on photos and so on.  Even here I fell foul of German custom by attempting to take my money to the till rather than waiting to have it collected.  "No, you MUST sit down!" said the waitress.  Ooops, sorry.

To our surprise, the plane was way more spacious and comfortable for only two hours than the long-haul one had been.  We had about twice as much legroom and the staff seemed friendlier too. I didn't risk the breakfast again, though!

The German countryside was so pretty beneath the fluffy clouds - you could see how it was REALLY all thick, impenetrable forest, but small villages with their associated little collection of fields had been carved out of it every few kilometres.  The cloud got too thick to see anything for the middle part of the flight, but coming down over Russia you could see a similar sort of thing in the deep countryside, but then more and more really grotty looking factory-farms and awful huge multistory state housing as you got closer to the city.  The area around St Petersburg is as flat as a billiard table (which makes sense, as it was a swamp before the city was built) with lovely windy rivers.  Apart from the grotty bits, it was green and quite pretty.

The airport was way smaller than I expected for a city of this size and importance.  The air-traffic control tower was still just a little red-and-white striped building in a field, and we walked down a flight of steps onto the tarmac (is one expected to kiss it?) and were then squashed very tightly into two buses and trucked across to a concrete bunker of a terminal containing metal seats that looked as if they would be excruciating to sit on for five minutes, let alone a couple of hours.  The Russian idea seems to be that nothing should be any nicer than it has to be - why pad seats when metal ones will do?

On the other hand, passport control, which has been looming so large in my 4am fretful dreams for so long, was as smooth as silk.  There had been some fierce announcements on the plane about filling in forms for bringing in foreign currency, anything of value of more than 1500 euros, etc etc - but in the end we didn't even get an immigration card, and found ourselves in a very short queue below a sign demanding our passports, visas and immigration card.  The man behind me said soothingly, no, they don't want them anymore, so I just trotted obediently up to the window, put on my best smile and handed over the passport containing the precious gilded visa.  Glance, stamp, stamp and I was done.

We emerged, blinking, from customs looking around for a board with our name only to be hailed by Gray's contact, Phillip, who he entertained in Sydney some years ago.  We felt rather honoured that he had left his doubtless very busy job to come and collect us.  He is rather dour and difficult to talk to, but one doesn't know if that isn't a language or cultural thing as much as anything.  His English is very good, and he did thaw a bit as we drove along, so hopefully it was just a standard Engineer's grumps at being called away from the lab when he was in the middle of cool stuff.

St Petersburg is a glorious city - or perhaps one should say was a glorious city once and would be again with a good coat of paint and someone to clear away the forest of overhead tram lines, electricity wires and the like.  Apparently the buildings were built by Italian architects, and there is also a smattering of charming Art Deco ones and a few wonderful Soviet era ones with those soaring verticals that were presumably intended to take your mind off your misery.  These line wonderful wide boulevards, so the street facades are just breathtaking.  From a distance, anyway. From closer you notice the sad and peeling paint, the crumbling cornices and the nasty tacky neon signs advertising global brands.  I have uploaded some photos, although I would like to spend some quality time in Photoshop straightening up the perspective as it's a pity to photograph those lovely gracious facades with a regular lens.

Phillip dropped us at our hotel, which is just off the Nevsky Prospekt, and is comfortable if a little odd - the sort of ancient wardrobe made of shiny veneer that one would expect to see in a fairly prosperous Soweto home, and a rather grubby olive-green flecked carpet that one would rather not walk barefoot on.  We dumped our stuff and headed straight out to walk the length of the Nevsky Prospekt down to the river, with me getting in the way of the busy commuters by stopping and gawping at the amazing facades all the way down.  The road is very wide but the fact that it seems to have no lanes marked adds to the traffic chaos.  (On the way from the airport we saw two traffic accidents, but no-one seemed to care terribly much. Or be in the least surprised.) 

The road crossed three canals running parallel to the river.  Standing on the parapet looking down, one could be in Paris - the same long tourist boats and high walls - just the stately Italianate facades down the sides to tell you it's somewhere quite different.  Interestingly, they also have those very Parisian cylindrical structures displaying posters of upcoming events, and the parks down near the river could be the Tuilleries.  

The Hermitage is an absolute wedding cake of confection, all blue, white and gold - so over the top it makes you want to laugh and caper.  It, at least, is gorgeously well maintained, and lies between the river (the bit that one always sees in photos) and a large open space with another Parisian style structure, a big column.  On the far side is a huge arch a little like Milan, leading back to the Nevsky Prospekt.  Fat Russian babushkas and pregnant girls were sitting about sunning themselves on the cobbles.

We arrived back at the Cronwell Inn in time for afternoon tea, which apparently is part of the deal, like breakfast.  We sat down and in no time a smiling waitress delivered two cups of hot water with tea bags (what happened to the samovar??? Or at least the cherries in the bottom of the cup that Jina promised I'd be offered?) and a plate of very nice cakes - just what we needed.  We are going to try to eat fairly early despite the bright afternoon sunlight outside as our itinerary for the next few days doesn't seem to leave much time for frivolities like sleeping.

Later: Went around the corner to a restaurant recommended by an app I downloaded.  It was down in a cellar, and very quiet which suited us well.  We had a lovely young waiter who spoke a bit of English and was able to suggest some things off the menu - we ended up with Beef Stroganoff (served with a nice ratatouille)  and Chicken Kiev (and what were basically chips) - sounds a bit mundane but they were very nice, and of course now we can say we have eaten the real deal.  "Oh, but this Chicken Kiev is nothing like the one we had in St Petersburg, of course!"  Actually, truth be told, they WERE quite different, the Beef Stroganoff especially.  And the "ratatouille" was basically the same veggies as I am used to using, but just briefly fried rather than cooked soft, so less of a melange and more of a bunch of nice chopped veggies.  Sadly, I still couldn't manage a whole meal, but at least I was able to try everything on both plates without ill effect.

Gray has immediately fallen into a sound sleep - he had a very good beer, but said it was very strong (and probably not helped by the fact that he was drinking Cally and Peter's Hamm beer before 7am!!)  I had better join him although it's very hard to convince myself to do so - the sun is still bright outside even at 10:15 pm.
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