Russian to St Petersburg

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Sunday, March 6, 2005

March 6th.
We landed mid afternoon to a somewhat chilly welcome -6 degrees with an overcast sky and almost straight away made our first (of many) embarrassing cock-ups...we were suffering from less than 6 hours sleep in the last 48 (thats our excuse and we're sticking to it)we entered the crowded arrivals hall and without really looking around joined the first que from the many forming in front of us. As we shuffled further into the hall we saw the people in front of us starting to undress, first winter coats then jumpers etc we duly follwed suit as the line grew shorter people began taking their shoes and socks off, strange we thought, but the security guards ahead seemd least theyre taking security here seriously we thought. As we became slightly uneasy at the severity of the checks we saw up ahead we started to look around the rapidly emptying room and noticed that we were the only non locals in the que and where drawing some rather strange looks as we removed our shoes and socks in front of the metal detecting security gate, at the last second we realised that we were in (you guessed it) THE WRONG QUE! we had joined a que for an internal flight... the onlookers nudged oneanother and we turned a nice bright shiny shade of red! We quickly re-dressed and scuttled towards the passport control area which by now was deserted apart from the stoney faced officials waiting to stamp our visas.

With what remained of our dignity somewhere in our boots we met our driver (his first words were "hello speak no eeengleesh" ) and drove to our home for the next 4 days the hotel Vesta just off Netsy Prospekt in downtown St peteresburg.(great location and pleasant clean room).
The drive in was conducted in virtual silence as we soaked in our surroundings, trams which looked like 'Lenin originals' with rusted fittings and dented sides (this didn't deter the locals from cramming into them until only their faces could be seen squashed against the steamed-up windows) an authentic remnant of the soviet era.

Our non english speaking driver punctuated our journey by shouting over his shoulder and pointing to the passing sights "Leneeen" (a statue we presumed, not the man)"Poooshkeeen" etc etc.As we approached the centre the buildings improved in granduer and by comparison to the outskirts turned distinctly european in style, more like Paris or Rome than 'Stalingrad'.

After settling in at Vesta we hit the streets (Dark by now)to find something to eat. Yes we took the easy option and scoffed a KFC (ashamed to admit it but true)had a quick walk down Netsky Prospect the main (and Moscovites joke), the only street in St Peterburg. We went to bed at 9pm and slept solidly till 8:30 the next morning.

March 7th
Took a buddie guided tour for 3 hours to get our barings and learn a few basics about St petes.(recommended, we learnt a lot that benefitted our stay and were able to ask allsorts of questions about getting around, eating, costs etc as well as seeing the main sights and learning some basic russian phrases, much easier than a phrase book!)

All the attractions in st petersburg are close together and within walking distance during our guiuded tour we had most of them pointed out to us along with a basic history lesson our guide joked that Russia had an 'uncertain past'(rather than future) as there are so many different versions of it...his parents were surprised when he told them the version now being taught in schools compared to the soviet era versions they had been taught.

We covered a lot of ground and managed to see the central square, hermitage, Admiralty, eternal flame, Saviour on the spilt blood,Mikhailovsky Palace and the Russian museum, and across the river Neva to the Kunstkammer,Peter&Paul fortress.

After our tour we decided to visit the saviour of the spilt blood church under our own steam.. This was an impressive onion domed church much like St Basils (the one in red square that everyone has seen)The interior has somne stunning mosaics which took 12 years to complete and apper like oils paintings the detail is so great. (apparently the interior is far superior to that of St Basils in Moscow which is rather plain brickwork).

We thewn decided to visit the Russian Museum which holds some of the finest religious Icons in russia (Kandinsky). we had been on our feet for 6+ hours and were ready for a sit down and a hot meal so we found a nearby restaurant which cost us 7GBP (total)for beer, water and a meat'n three veg dinner...excellent!

The costs overall so far have been quite reasonable the most expense has been entry to museums. (we have kept a record of everything we have spent and will include details in future entries for the benefit of other wouldbe travellers.)

Following a heavy day of footslogging we decided to warm-up and go to bed early (still suffering from constant tiredness all we need is five mins of inactivity and we start to stare blankly into the distance... we've called it TT or Travellers Tauper.)...And so to bed by 7:30pm!!

March 8th
Today was to be our mammoth museum day,1st on th list was St Issacs (actually a church but called a museum)This is the highest point from which you can get a view of the city ...from the colonade around the main dome (the 4th largest dome in the world). It was designed by a 20 year old architectural student and constructed in the early 19th century using an entirely wooden scaffolding framework.

The museum in St Issacs is rather low key but contained some great photos of locals growing cabbages infront of the cathederal during the war and the decay in which the building had fallen during the soviet era when all religious buildings lay uncared for.
(to prove the point some were even turned into urinals (had a nice touch that stalin).

However...The views from the colonade are fantastic overlooking the cityscape and over to the river Neva leading to the Gulf of Finland in the far distance, well worth the effort of climbing a spiral staircase to the top. Great I thought what a view, as I decided to move further round the dome....then wham ...the wind hit me and boy was it COLD. at ground level it was a chilly -9 but up here with a gale blowing it was Bl***** KKKOLD!! and the railings which were designed only to retain either midgets or anyone crawling on hands and knees on the wooden planking provided.
I played hero and selflessly helped two russian women in high heels! Back down the open steps to the spiral staircase to the applause of their petrified freind who rather wisely had decided to wait for them at the base of the dome.
I met jane (who also opted to stay at ground level) and basked in the glory of my chivalrous bravery her opening comment on my exploits... "they're obviously very easily impressed...but I still think your a tosser".(isn't 16 years of marriage wonderful!)

Revenge was soon to be mine as on leaving St Issacs and walking across the park Opposite Jane slipped and fell in the snow...not a simple tumble... this was a pantomime pratt fall ...feet in the air, slap on the ground, keystone cops cracker! even some passing russian soldiers burst out laughing.(I stopped laughing about 2 days later)

We arrived early at the Hermitage (having prebooked our tickets on the internet to avoid the que's)to discover no real ques to speak of... and we also had to join in with everyone else to collect our prebooked tickets! But the effort payed off when we entered the the only word to describe the palace itself and the exhibits (even if you dont like museums this one is worth a highlights whirlwind tour) the Trophy Room which contains a magnificent display of renoir, matisse,cessane, van gogh, etc etc in an almost 'matter of fact' way are hung side by side, and other rooms containing Leonardo da vinci, van dyke (dicks older brother?),Rubens,and on and on it goes . You are allowed incredibly close and if assistants were not sat watching, you could easily touch these masterpeices they are not roped off or otherwise protected (the odd glass case etc).

The state rooms and other perfectly preserved palace rooms including one made largley from Malachite (a bright green semi precious stone)are also well worth a viewing. There has to be something for everyone here and we happily spent the entire day pootling from room to room marvelling at the incredible collections. (we like museums and especially this one, did you guess?).

The Hermitage (winter Palace) also has an internet cafe 1GBP per hour (fast connection) and plenty of cafes (though a bit pricey for what you get).

Following a full day we ate in a local restaurant and went to bed around 10pm (it's an age thing).

March 9th

Today we visited the Kunstkammer a museum created by Peter the Great to satisfy his facination for the unusual / grotesque. He would pay large sums of money for any strange artefacts and the museum bears testament to this by it's strtange contents (though some have been removed when deemed to be too much for modern sensibilities)..jar after jar of pickled creatures and human 'BITS' hands arms feet of Giants, midgits and babies including a large collection of feotus' with every immaginable deformity; cyclopse, two heads etc etc...pretty grusome stuff..rather like a traffic accident you know you shouldnt look but you can't help it!
There was also a decaying section which covered relics from all ethnic groups known at the time it covers Africa Mongolia China etc and does have some interesting exhibits, traditional costumes and original impliments etc..

A great story is told that when the museum was starting to wain in interest after Peters death, the man trusted with looking after the exhibits decided to create a nice little earner for himself by selling vodka... yes you guessed it the vodka came from the exhibit jars!!!! (nice thought nextime your having a quick Smirnoff down the local).

After lunch we took a stroll around the Peter and Paul fortress on the banks of the frozen river Neva. This is a massive fortress with 20 metre thick walls which were used as a prison for over 200 years (no one ever escaped during this time!).

Whilst walking along the base of the fortress walls we came across a group of SUNBATHERS we were wrapped up in multilayers of warm clothing with scarves pulled up to just under our eyes to protect against the biting cold and these people were stood against the wall with trousers dropped to the ankles men and women alike, sunbathing. (is it me, or are they crazy?)as if this wasn't enough they then filed towards a large rectangular hole cut in the river ice and plunged in, swam 20 feet and then casually got out to a waiting they did it and survived I will never know!

Overall we have enjoyed st Petersburg but have found the russians we have encountered so far to be rather a miserable unsmiling and on occasion surly bunch with little concept of customer service and we felt that the 'have a nice day' culture experienced in the states is a few years away yet. (thats certainly not a bad thing in my book)But possibly a few more smiles returned by shop assistants or anyone 'serving' the public would improve the visitors experience greatly.

Tonight we catch the midnight train for we'll post another update from there and some pictures ASAP

Love Aubrey & Jane.
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