A few days in St Petersburg

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2011

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Sunday, September 19, 2010

The flight to St Petersburg was only 40 minutes and soon we landed at the airport. It was clear that we were in Russia. The airport looked old and gray, and the unknown Cyrillic words surrounding us made us feel like we were in another world. The customs and immigration was a short wait, and we entered the big unknown without much problems.

Once outside our transport was already waiting for us. The guy was silent while driving us to our hotel which was arranged by our travel agency. We booked our Russian adventure through Monkey Business, a travel agent based in Beijing but our contact is a Dutch lady. There was some miscommunication here and there, but always resolved without much hassle or problems. So far so good. The agent had booked us the Engecon hotel in St Petersburg, close by the center of the town and the famous Nevski Prospect.

The Hotel was actually a hostel that had a couple of rooms with a private bath. I would not give this place even one star. When we arrived an uninterested teenage girl gave us the key without much welcoming gestures. The room was adequate and less spartan then the hostel in Cappadocia, but that's about it. We had to drag our luggage up the stairs to an elevator that took us up to the 5th floor, From there we dragged everything down the stairs to our room. For some reason they like stairs in this hostel.

Tired from the flight, and hungry for some food, so looking for some expert advice we went downstairs to ask the reception girl for some suggestions on where to eat. Her response was, ' You are in st Petersburg, go anywhere'. Not very helpful at all.

The weather outside was kind of the same as Helsinki, a little rain and then sometimes a little more rain, and occasionally a shower. Therefore we did not went too far out. We entered the first decent looking restaurant we could find, which happened to be a Japanese sushi place. We had a feast here as the food was surprisingly good. So we enjoyed various rolls and skewers. After our feast we conquered the rain and found our way back to the Engecon.

We had a good nights sleep and I watched some Russian TV, they had an old episode of Top Gear, which i love. Apparently they sync every show in Russian, which is quite amusing. The voice they had for Clarkson was quite fitting to the character. After that I watched about 30 minutes of Conan the Barbarian, with 'Arnold Schwarzenegger', which also sounds very funny in Russian.

The next morning we first headed down to enjoy our breakfast which was included with the room. It was very basic but enough for us two. Around noon we were picked up by Anastasia our guide for the day. We had booked a city tour through one of the partners of our travel agent. She was right on time and walked us around the town of St Petersburg telling us about the history of the Tsars and Tsarinas that made this city what it is.

The city is very young and was founded by Peter the Great. You can see that it was planned carefully as the roads are wide and buildings are orderly placed, Peter the Great was a big fan of Holland where he learned the art of carpentry and ship building. He wanted St Petersburg to be like Amsterdam, with canals, bridges and waterways, In the old center we saw some bits that had a bit of resemblance to this. We walked along the city sights and Anastasia did a good job describing them to us in great detail. She added a bit of personal touch to the historical content. At the end of our tour we bought some tickets for a Jazz boat cruise for the next day.

After Anastasia left us at the end of the tour we were on our own in the middle of the city of St Petersburg. We noticed how fast people walk here and how they take pride in pushing people around. I am a big guy, but still the locals would try to walk straight through me pushing and elbowing their way over Nevski Prospect, the main street where it all happens. A lot has changed here and in the rest of the old soviet union since it fell apart. You see the signs of prosperity and despair virtually next to each other, This lime green Lamborghini parked in a street of old soviet buildings is in my opinion the perfect capture of what Russia is today, the land for much, for a few.

First thing on our agenda was to get some lunch. Yes McDonald's was everywhere, but we try to avoid this place at all costs. Anastasia advised us to go to a local food chain that serves some authentic Russian food, so we did. The food was nice and had a very home cooked feel to it. And the Russian beer next to it was evenly nice. After being re energized we went to look for some book stores to find something to read on the train later this week. We succeeded in buying some novels , a lonely planet on Beijing and a couple of dices to play dice games.

On our way back to the hotel we found a nice Japanese restaurant that looked very inviting. It was about dinner time, so we went in and enjoyed a good meal in a very interesting atmosphere. The place was decorated in a modern airport style with arrivals and departure times of fictitious flights on a big electronic board in the back. Quite a difference from our authentic lunch earlier that day.

Back at the hotel we tried to get on the web with our rather useless 3G sim card that we picked up at the airport, The speed was frustratingly slow, but we managed to read some news and get some mails.

The next day we stretch out stay at the ho(s)tel for as long as possible. We have to check out at noon, but our train to Moscow does not leave until midnight. So from noon till midnight we are not only homeless but also ho(s)telless. We leave the hotel no earlier than five to twelve and head out towards the biggest collection of art in the World, The Hermitage museum. The weather has cleared up a bit so we decide to walk our way to the Nevski river. We did not have any breakfast yet, and as we pass the Japanese restaurant where we enjoyed our meal the day before, we were kind of pulled in by temptation. So we gave in, and enjoyed our brunch in the same airport atmosphere, as our dinner yesterday.

Fulfilled we continued our walk to the Hermitage. On the way we found that St Petersburg is a big wedding destination. At most of the sites we find brides and grooms acting like models, with their photographers circling around them like a flock of seagulls. Even the gloomy weather does not prevent this.

We arrive about 2 hours before the museum closes, that's fine for us, because this is just the amount of time we would spend in a museum before being overdosed by the offering of historical masterpieces. As usual we got an audio tour and we walked through the rooms and passed the highlights of the collection. They show only a small percentage of the entire collection in the Museums which are now all over the world. I've been told there is even a branch in Amsterdam. The collections are mostly gathered by the Tsars and Tsarinas, especially Katarina the Great. She even had one hall in the building rebuilt as one of the Rafael rooms in the Vatican, interesting to see this copy of the real thing that we just have seen a few weeks before. Throughout the collection we see a lot of copies of interesting artwork, like some of the mosaic floors of the Vatican and more. In a way it's a good thing that the Tsars just had a similar thing made instead of heading out to 'collect' it, like the Roman royalty did.

Fortunately the Museum was not that busy as it was end of season, so we could walk freely without being overrun by tour groups with screaming tour guides. Surprisingly the collection is not protected in a paranoid way like you will find at the Louvre or other top line Museums. We can freely make pictures, and come so close to the pieces that you could literately touch them. Not that this would be wise to do, it would probably extend your visit to St Petersburg indefinitely, but anyways. We found it well worth the time visiting the Hermitage, yes it is a big tourist attraction, but for a reason, it is truly impressive.

After our Hermitage experience our feet carried us over the bridge to the dock from where our Jazz boat would leave later that evening. We still had more than an hour to wait, so we descended down into a bar called Die Kneipe. They served nice local brewed beer and awesome sausages. We rested our legs while feasting on the products of German immigrants.

As it was time to board our boat we headed down to the dock across the street. We were seated at a table for four. But I could not imagine four people sitting here as there was ample leg room for me. Yet they did seat two other people across form us. They were visibly unhappy with the situation and tried to move tables. I tried to break the ice by asking them to help out with translating the menu, which was of course all in Russian. The guy was very uncomfortable with his tiny bit of English, the girl was a bit more proficient. But then again, they did speak more English than I do Russian. After a couple of minutes the couple was rescued by a waiter and assigned to another table. Everybody happy again, and we have our private table.

As the boat took off the band started playing. The Jazz turned out to be loud Blues sung with the raw voice of a proficient smoker in a strong Russian accent. We tried to ease the pain with a bottle of wine and a dessert. The boat toured around the river and gave us some nice views of the Nevski shores at night. We learned from Anastasia yesterday that one of the bridges across the river was built by the same company that build the Eiffel tower in Paris, and indeed it looked similar, a great chunk of steel, but then horizontal.

Back ashore we made our way back to the hotel as slow as we could walk. We had quite some time to kill before our pickup for the train. Once we reached our ho(s)tel we had to wait for not more than fifteen minutes before our driver showed up. Again a Russian with little to no English, silently driving us through the dark streets of St Petersburg.

At the station he helped us find our train, number 55. It was waiting at the platform and soon we could enter to our first train experience in Russia. We got ourselves 1st class tickets as this gives you a private cabin with two berths. We were glad that we did, as we merely managed to fit all our luggage in the compartments under the beds and above the cabin. The bed in the cabin was just big enough for my 2 meters length, it all just fits.

As we settled in, the train slowly started to move. It felt reassuring knowing that we can stow all our luggage and fit ourselves in a train cabin as well. Now we know the next legs to Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar won't be that much of an issue. We opened our newly acquired books and read for a bit before the monotone sound of the tracks rocked us to sleep.

Tomorrow we will wake up near Moscow, life is good!.

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