From Russia With Love

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Saturday, September 8, 2012

So here we are on the move again and this time by sea on the St Peters Line Ferry from Helsinki to St Petersburg. 14 hours through the night through the Baltic Sea.  Little did we realise when we booked this element of our trip just how much fun this would be.  We were welcomed on board the boat by someone in the rattiest looking Captain Seagull costume and had our photo taken whilst we were bent over double laughing at the costume, needless to say we did not buy the photo!  We got on board the ship and found our way to our cabin on level 6 of the ship, we had splashed out and had a room to ourselves with a bathroom and a sea view (or window as you call it on a boat).  Once we were settled in our little cabin we went off to explore and we could not believe the size of the boat, you could put the entire Condor fleet in the car deck.  There was a cinema, a night club, at least 3 huge bars, a casino, 5 restaurants, a gym, swimming pool, sauna and numerous shops.  We were gutted that the trip was only 14 hours, if only we could get this boat to take us to Japan!  So we set sail and treated ourselves to a drink in one of the bars overlooking the back of the boat and watched our final sunset in Europe.  We then had a delicious pizza in a very nice Italian restaurant and had some more drinks whilst we watched the cheesy dance show.  Next was the nightclub, this was not very busy but the small crowd provided more than enough entertainment.  We had one young Russian who thought he was Lady Gaga, he whipped off his top and proceeded to dance on one of the podiums for the night, he had however abandoned his extremely drunk friend who was holding onto the bars surrounding the dance floor like his life depended on it and then for no apparent reason he dropped his trousers and pants and fell over, his friend just carried on his dance routine and some other poor soul picked him up and propped him at the bar.  Later as we left the nightclub, the entertainment reached an all-time high as Lady Gaga had his drunken friend propped up in the lift with his face squashed against the lift mirror, brilliant!  So it was off to bed and we had a great sleep listening to the hum of the boat engine and possibly helped by the numerous drinks?! The next morning we woke up to the view of the harbour in St Petersburg, feeling slightly the worse for wear and wishing we could stay on the boat another day even if just to have a lie in!

So off the boat and through passport control, our visa stamped and we are finally on Russian soil.  We highly recommend the St Peter's Line Ferry to anyone who is looking for an alternate route into Russia.  If you come in on the ferry you can even visit St Petersburg for 72 hours without the need for a visa (useful tip)!

We had planned to get the metro from the harbour in St Petersburg to our hostel, but seemingly the maps we had been using lied and the metro was not actually at the harbour.  So we hopped on the free bus that the ferry offered to get us into the centre of St Petersburg and hoped that we would be able to find our way from there. Well, this did not really go to plan.  We hopped off the bus as St Isaac’s Cathedral, found a map, found the nearest metro station and headed in that direction, or did we?  We are still not sure how we got it wrong but we dragged our bags down the longest street in the world, were welcomed to the Cyrillic alphabet with a bang with street signs that may as well have had directions to the moon for the good they were to us.  We at this stage also discovered that living in St Petersburg is like living in the movie 'The Fast & The Furious’ as everyone seemed to drive luxury cars and they drove them like they were trying out for the F1 team.  What really added to this experience was the water truck which drove past spraying us and the road (I am assuming to clean the roads) just to make the high speed races that bit more dangerous!  At this point we had our first "what are we doing here, shall we just go home" moment.  Instead we hailed a taxi and were transported at break neck speed to our hostel.  However our delight of getting to where we needed to go was ruined by the look on the taxi driver’s face when he pointed out the address that we had given him.  We looked across the street to see a building completely covered in scaffolding with a few window holes cut out and a small yellow sign advertising our hostel.  Even the taxi driver looked horrified for us and asked if we had rung them recently!?!  We made our way into the building, and at the top of 4 flights of stairs (which had an odd smell of potatoes about them) we found our hostel, thankfully it was there, open, intact and we had a room.  We dropped off our bags, found some lunch and set off to explore.  We made our way to Nevsky Prospect, the main street in St Petersburg and set about seeing some sights, we planned to go on a (now obligatory in every city) boat tour but typically they had cancelled the 5 o clock boat and told us to come back at 7. So we had a walk around the canals and discovered that the Russians are very keen on public displays of affection, some of them far too explicit to include in this blog!  We also soon discovered that you can’t just walk aimlessly down the street in St Petersburg, every pavement, Metro and zebra crossing has a keep right rule and straying to the left will lead to you being trampled by angry pedestrians.  This is taking orderly to a whole new level!

 Next we followed another tradition of this trip, to eat the food from anywhere except the country we are in, so we found an English pub!  Once we were fed and watered we headed back to our boat trip and were welcomed on board with a plastic cup of cheap fizz.  As the boat set off the heavens opened so the view was a bit obscured but never the less we were getting a nice audio tour explaining the sights, we went out into the open water of the Neva River and zoomed along the canals getting a lovely tour whilst everyone outside is ducking for cover from the rain.  The weather was really beginning to turn here in St Petersburg, it was definitely coat weather and we even unearthed our gloves in case it got any colder, remind me again why we are heading to Siberia in the autumn?!

Back to our hostel and our first real night of backpacking, shared toilets and the midnight trip to the loo hoping not to bump into anyone in the corridor.  The next morning we went into the kitchen for our free backpacker breakfast to be welcomed by three angry looking Russian girls who had eaten every scrap of free breakfast going and looked at us as if we had walked into their kitchen.  We scavenged the remains of the cornflakes and some warm milk and hid in the corner whilst the mean girls scowled over, making a mental note to buy something for breakfast the next day.

 So this was our only full day of touring St Petersburg so what better way to see it than on a hop-on-hop-off bus! Ear phones at the ready and away we go.  Here we saw all the main sights, the Hermitage, Palace Square, and the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood, which was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded, and the Summer Gardens planned by Peter the Great.  The next stop was the Cruiser Aurora which is a battle ship which was used in the Revolution and also in the Russia-Japanese and First World War.  Again Tim was very excited to go on board and see the ship and yet again he was disappointed.  We arrived at 2pm to be told that the next boarding would be 3pm and then after a little wonder and a cup of coffee we were queuing to get on.   As we got to the front of the queue they put the chain back across and shouted something in Russian.  At this point we gave up and hopped back on our bus to the next stop, the Peter & Paul’ Fortress.  This is on a small island in the Neva River and was originally called Hare Island due to its Hare population.  Now there is a rather cute Hare sculpture on a tree trunk in the river alongside the bridge over to the island and seemingly it is lucky to throw a coin to try and land it on one of the surrounding trunks.  Two coins each later we are not feeling very lucky, but felt it was 4 Roubles well spent (about 7 pence).  Peter & Paul’ Fortress was founded by Peter the Great and the initial hexagonal fortress had a small wooden church devoted to the apostles Peter & Paul.  Later the Cathedral Church replaced the wooden church and this seemingly has the best bell system of any cathedral I have been to, we were treated to a bell rendition of “Yesterday” and “Nutcracker”, surreal but brilliant.  The fortress is full of little museums but the entrance was at least 5 each so we passed on them.  Instead we ventured outside the fortress to get a view of the river and were treated to another surreal Russian experience.  The weather was sunny but with a bitterly cold wind and grey clouds threatening, but when you could find a sheltered spot in the sun it was probably about 20 degrees.  Well the locals are obviously keen sun worshippers and have found a spot on the edge of the fortress where they go to sunbathe…. They were all sat or stood in the line against the fortress walls in their bikini’s and trunks arms in the air sunbathing, such an odd sight with tourists walking past in coats and hats.  As we got back to our bus the grey clouds finally won and the rain came again, the open top bus had a cover but within a few minutes the rain was so heavy it was coming at us sideways and drove us inside so we missed the last 10 minutes of the audio tour hiding from the rain.  We found ourselves back at St Isaac’s Cathedral and sadly still don’t know anything about it.

After the bus tour we headed to the World Press Photo exhibition.  A favourite exhibition of ours, so we were delighted to find out it was in St Petersburg at the same time as us and just a street away from our Hostel.  We made our way there again battling with the Cyrillic road signs and found ourselves looking at the dankest looking building with a strange turnstile entrance and a constant stream of people going in, we just followed the crowds.  We then went through a courtyard of falling down buildings and entered a corridor of a building which looked on the brink of collapse but we carried on and followed the posters and 5 floors up finally found the exhibition.  Seemingly it is a very popular exhibition as the stream of people we followed were all headed here too.  World Press Photo is an annual competition of photographs which have been used in the press to document world events, the Tsunami, the Arab Spring and the Mexican drug wars all features heavily but there were also some more light-hearted nature and sport shots.  A great show and a real inspiration to keep on snapping, one day maybe we can be in the right place at the right time to get an iconic snap!

Already it was our final night in St Petersburg and we are back at the hostel packing for our next journey.  The Sapsan fast train to Moscow, 650 Kilometers in 4.5 hours at an average speed of 200km/ph.  Bags packed and off we head to the Metro, having done our research we knew we needed two tickets for the Metro, one for us and one for our luggage, so we went prepared and the scary looking security man looked at my bag and took only one ticket, typical, oh well that’s one souvenir to keep as it is a little coin and is only worth 50p so not going to break the bank.  I have forgotten to mention the St Petersburg metro so may as well tell you here.  It is a bit like walking into a museum at home.  Pristine, clean, fresh with stunning gold light fittings the full length of the platform and in every walkway.  We have read that these are still considered Soviet style compared to the Metro in Moscow so we can’t wait to see them!

Next stop Moscow!

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