Travel to Saint Petersburg, Russia

I woke up at 4:30am, heaven help me. Crawled out of my bed, strapped on my backpack, on autopilot. Slowly marched to Helsinki’s Central Station and waited a few minutes for the Allegro high speed train to Saint Petersburg to pull into the station. I found my seat and at 6am my bullet into Russia was zooming eastwards towards the border town of Vyborg. Once you cross into Russia it really feels as if you have entered into a different world. While the lake filled hinterland remains consistent as a landscape, dilapidated buildings and Soviet style architecture start to become the norm. The train coasted past small Russian farmsteads with children chasing after chickens and a family riding a donkey along the riverbed. Once I had my Russian Visa checked and verified I exhaled, crossed my fingers and closed my eyes. I said a little prayer, “Dear God please let me survive Russia. Let me reveal her secrets, find inspiration in her people and places and above all avoid jail time, theft and mental break down.”

When you are planning a trip to Russia everyone who has been (or lived there) will tell you with a chuckle, “no one smiles, no one is helpful, they don’t care that you are there, it’s incredibly expensive, don’t be “gay”, avoid police and be careful of pick pockets.” I arrived at St. Petersburg Finljandski station properly paranoid, ready to exchange my Euro’s for Rubles and clutching my wee hotel map that spelled out directions in a confusing Russian diagram. As I marched in search of the metro I was immediately whelmed. All of the men were dressed in track suits and sucked on cigarettes. Older woman were dressed like portly Tammy Faye Bakker’s with cheap nail polish, heinous makeup and dedicated frowns.

Once at the Metro I experienced 30 minutes of heightened panic and anxiety as there were no money changers on site and the five ATM’s available either did not have English menus or after rejecting my bank card announced, “institution not recognized.” I lugged my bags over to a tellers desk and with a face of desperation offered five euros for a metro token (which actually costs under 1 USD). I figured she’d pocket the change and smile and let me through. Barely looking at me she just frowned and waved her hands away. I wanted to scream into a paper bag. I then ran back to the ATM’s and tried my VISA card. It seemed like each machine was going to reject my card but I got very lucky with the last one. I was hoping to take out around 300 USD worth of local currency to last me for the duration of my stay but the maximum they allowed me was 1000 rubles or 30 USD. A total waste of money as I was being charged some 5 USD just to make the transaction. But in the end I didn’t care, I jumped up and down when I heard that rolling spin of money from within the machine.

I immediately strapped on my bags and headed deep into the underbelly of Saint Petersburg’s subway system. Thankfully the city is sort of tourist friendly so English is visible on their metro maps. I had to make two transfers in crammed subway cars all the while trying to avoid getting mugged or lost. Once at the correct station I walked quickly along the cities main street Nevsky. The street smelled of stale cigarettes but the sun was shining and I at least knew I was walking in the right direction. My hotel was located very close to the Kazan Cathedral. Once I arrived I let out a huge sigh, giggled, dropped my backpack on the ground and the small Siberian front desk agent let out a laugh and asked, “you are alive, welcome to Russia.”

I had a quick shower, plotted a few to do’s on my map of the city and then ran out onto the streets to enjoy the blue sky and sunshine. My first stop was Kazan Cathedral whose great neoclassical colonnaded arms reach out towards Nevsky Prospect. Built between 1801 and 1811, its design by Andrei Voronkhin, a former serf, was influenced by St. Peter’s in Rome. Inside, the cathedral is dark and traditionally Orthodox, with a daunting 80 meter high dome. There was a long queue of believers waiting to kiss the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, a copy of one of Russia’s most important icons.

Once back outside I walked along Griboyedova canal to the cities famed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (officially known as the Church of the Resurrection). This multi-domed dazzler, partly modeled on St Basil’s in Moscow, was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Alexander II, despite his reforms, was blown up by the People’s Will terrorist group in 1881 (hence its gruesome name). It is now most commonly known as the church that took 24 years to build and 27 years to restore. Just behind the church I entered Michailovsky Garden’s through an iron gateway. The gardens were full of pedestrians and tweeting little birds with the first of springs bulbs sprouting through the gardens. The large Russian Museum stands proudly on one side, flanked by a u-shaped pond.

I rushed back to my hotel as I would be meeting my local tour guide for the next three days, Olnev Alexander (and his beautiful girlfriend) who I had connected through via my Russian friend Masha. Olnev and his girlfriend were a fantastic addition to my stay in Saint Petersburg as they allowed me to have an open and uncensored dialogue about modern day Russia. We hopped in his car in search for an ATM where I could take out additional Rubles for the rest of my stay. After this success (imagine me jumping up and down, clapping, in the basement of a grocery store) we enjoyed my first Russian dinner at Restaurant Pelmenya. After dinner I was hit by a wave of exhaustion (I had been up shortly after 4am that day remember) so bid my two new Russian friends goodbye and headed to bed early.

I was very fortunate to be in Russia during one of their most important holidays, Victory Day which celebrates the day “Russia beat the Nazi’s” in World War II. I woke up early and ran to Cafe Singer to grab a front row window side seat overlooking Nevsky Prospect where over the course of the next few hours I watched thousands of Russians marching proudly, holding Russian flags and fists full of carnations.

After I had indulged enough in the parade festivities I marched over to The Russian Museum located in the former Mikhailovsky Palace. I spent the next two hours gawking at Russia’s finest collection of Russian art. The palace was designed by Carlo Rossi and built between 1819 and 1829 for Grand Duke Mikhail (brother of tsar Alexander I and Nicholas I) as compensation for not being able to have a chance on the throne. Immediately in front of the museum is the pretty ploshchad Iskusstv, in the middle of which stands a statue of Pushkin, erected in 1957.

Once I had successfully overdosed at the Russian Museum I walked back to my hotel and was pleased to walk right into another Victory Day Parade which celebrated the countries veterans. I found the scene to be very touching as Russian youth screamed “Thank You!” to hundreds of the countries grandmothers and grandfathers who rode vintage wartime vehicles dressed in their military uniforms with hundreds of medals and ribbons on their shoulders. Obviously Russia has a rich military history and it was interesting for me to observe such a connected and patriotic crowd.

That evening I enjoyed an early dinner at Zoom Cafe and then met up with Olnev and his better half for refreshments at posh Receptoria Cafe located directly across from Admiralty Gardens. After a quick shot of espresso (which cost 8 USD no less) we walked to the river where we joined eager crowds for a Victory Day fireworks display. The fireworks were a bit odd as they started shooting them into the sky before it was even dark out. The park smelled of cigarettes and cheap beer. Russian families and gangs of tweens cheered with “ohhhhs and ahhhs” as each colourful plume popped into the early evening sky. As Olnev drove me back to my hotel I commented on the ever present smell of cigarettes and stale beer which grace the streets of the city. I noted that if a similar event had taken place at a park in Canada the smell would feature the sweet smell of Marijuana. My driver laughed and joked that I would never smell cannabis on the streets here unless I wanted to spend time in prison.

The following morning I woke up really early, with a huge smile on my face. I am such an art history nerd and had dedicated my entire day to one of the worlds cultural treasures, The State Hermitage Museum. Mainly set in the magnificent Winter Palace – a stunning mint-green, white and gold profusion of columns, windows and recesses, with its roof topped by rows of classical statues – The Hermitage fully lives up to its sterling reputation. You can be absorbed by its treasures for days and sill come out wanting more.  The Collection began with Catherine the Great, one of the greatest art collectors of all time. Nicholas I also greatly enriched the collection, which he opened to the public for the first time in 1852. It was the post revolutionary period that saw the collection increase threefold, as many valuable private collections were seized by the state, including those of the Stroganovs, Sheremtyevs and Yusupovs. The enormous collection (over three million items) almost amounts to a comprehensive history of Western European art, and for as much as you see in the museum, there’s about twenty times more in its vaults.

Rather than crooning forever about my romantic morning and afternoon at one of the worlds finest museums I’ll first start with a few tips. Wake up early, be the first in line, avoid the crowds in the summer. If you have a student ID or even an old one (aka mine was my University Student Card, circa 2003 high school graduation picture) you will get in the museum for free. Highlights of the museum include: ancient Egyptian exhibit, The Grand Jordan Staircase, Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, Rembrandt’s infamous Return of the Prodigal Son, Caravaggio’s Lute Player, Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker and endless rooms which redefine the word opulent. The crowds were crazy and it was only the first week of May. I can’t fathom the chaos of peak season in July and August. The Museum is full of little old Russian ladies, many of which pass out in their chairs as they “monitor the crowds.” I smiled so hard at one of them that I was able to turn her frown into a mute glare. I considered this a huge achievement! Be sure to plug yourself into your iPod, I was found dancing to Robyn’s Hang With Me on repeat. Doing a little boogie woogie with Rubens and Poussin is always refreshing.

I spilled out into the street feeling inspired but mostly hungry. I marched over to The Idiot Restaurant where I accidentally got drunk on a pint of beer and complimentary shot of vodka. Once finished lunch I stumbled back into the street and headed to the cities famed St Isaac’s Cathedral where I spent the next hour sobering up while dancing to M83’s Midnight City. The golden dome of St Isaac’s dominates the city skyline. The French architect Auguste de Montferrand won a competition organized by Alexander I to design the cathedral in 1818. It took so long to build – until 1858 – that Alexander’s successor Nicholas I was able to insist on a more grandiose structure. Special ships and a railway had to be built to carry the granite from Finland for the huge pillars. The interior is filled with the mesmerizing glint of gold.

My final day in St. Pete’s was unfortunately spent avoiding torrential rains (with very little success). I started out walking along several of the cities most iconic bridges to Peter and Paul Fortress. Half way there the sky cracked and buckets of water poured down on the city. My shoes were absolutely soaked, my eye lids were filled with droplets of dew and my shirt clung to my skin like a wet towel.

Dating from 1703, the hexahedral fortress is the oldest building in St Petersburg planned by Peter the Great as a defense against the Swedes. It never actually saw any action and its main use up to 1917 was as a political prison; famous residents included Dostoevksy, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother Alexander. You can still see their cells in the eerie Trubetskoy Bastion. The iconic Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral whose 122 meter tall, needle thin gilded spire is one of the defining landmarks of the city. Its baroque interior is the last resting place of all of Russia’s pre-revolutionary rulers from Peter the Great onwards. The Commandant’s House houses an exhibition which showcases the 1917 revolution which features a vivid painting of the great flood of 1824 that all but swept the city away, and a model showing how the Alexander Column in Palace Square was erected.

The rain was still pouring down on the city as I decided to throw my towel in and march back to my hotel with a quick stop for a meal en route. At one point I couldn’t help but laugh. I was honestly so wet people looked at me as though I had just jumped out of the river. I was cold, cranky and in dire need of sustenance. I had been wanting to visit the cities famous Stolle Bakery and had a little star marked on my map. I was absolutely disheveled so eating at any fine dining establishment was totally out of the question. I stumbled into a shop which had a large poster of baked goods in the window. I assumed this was Stolle and when I asked the woman behind the counter she smiled and nodded. I ordered a bowl of ham salad, beef pastry, pint of local brew and slice of berry cake. I paid up front and then as she was preparing my meal I looked around and noticed that I was in the wrong place. I asked her again if I was at Stolle and she gave me a sly grimace and pretended not to understand me. What a sly fox she was! I sat for the next twenty minutes gobbling up a mediocre meal (the worst of my entire trip), slowly getting a bit buzzed from my pint of beer and starting to shake as my cold clammy skin started to get to me. I immediately ran into a shower at my hotel with a great sigh of relief. I rung my clothes into the sink, hung them on a chair and enjoyed a much deserved nap.

My final evening in Saint Petersburg was a whirlwind tour of last minute to do’s with Olnev. We first stopped at The Vodka Museum for one last meal and then drove around the city for two hours. We darted through residential streets, grabbed a cup of tea at a cafe and munched on eclairs overlooking an old battleship. We walked over a few canal bridges and visited a glowing cathedral before hopping in his car one more time bound for the train station. I had to admit I had a frog in my throat. I was getting a bit nervous now as I readied myself for a 3rd class Russian sleeper train experience.

My train left the station just after midnight and arrived in Moscow the following morning just before 10am. My 3rd class ticket was just under 20 USD so was trying to be cheap (minus the cheerful). Olnev made sure I found my seat and asked a few of the local Russian’s to take care of me (aka make sure no one robbed me blind in the night). The 3rd class train car is packed full of bunk beds all of which are open concept. I unfortunately got a top bunk which was almost impossible to maneuver myself into. You really have to be an acrobat to get into the thing. I spent the evening clutching my most precious belongings. I slowly fell into a deep sleep as the train headed south to the capital. My last memories before fading away were the thundering heart beat of the trains engine and creaking of the jolting train cars which reminded me of the slow cracking of broken bones.