9-13th May 2008

Great Expectations?

As Lufthansa had bumped us off the flight back from Berlin in January we had 350 euros each to spend on a trip somewhere and so booked a flight to St.Petesburg which is a direct flight from Munich. Bev had studied russian there for 3 months in the late 80s and so we went back as part of her 40th celebrations to see what had changed.

My expectation of Russia was clouded by hitherto poor impression of russians and the guide book supported this with stories of black market activity, problems with immigration and so forth and so I was sceptical to say the least of how much we would enjoy the trip. This was further compounded by the tales of mass tourism crowding the palaces and museums whilst being ripped off left, right and centre. These myths were about to be dispelled.

The plane arrived on time and we stood in the immigration queue for 10 minutes. The immigration officer asked no questions, stamped the visa and the immgration card and we were through with no problems. We filled in a currency form but the policeman wasn't bothered. I queued for 5 minutes at the exchange counter and received rubles at the same exchange rate as in Germany. Quite frankly, less hassle than arriving at Stansted!

A 30 minute ride into town from the airport for only 50 cents with the "marshrutka" mini-bus is cheap by anyones standards and is the yard stick by which to measure the prices charged by restaurants, etc. The K3 
marshrutka screams up the main boulevard from the airport screaching to a halt on its worn out brakes whenever anyone waives it down or wants to get off. It was a bank holiday in Russia for the 9th May victory celebrations and a few passengers were abit worse for wear but proved not to be boisterous.

Our hotel was not far from the main square and people were streaming through the streets heading towards the Winter Palace where the organised celebrations were taking place. We joined them but wondered where they got their beer from as there were no opportunities to buy any in the square or along the route. The crowd was mostly of young people but a few die hard communists were waving the red hammer and sycle as a reminder of who was in power when the Nazis were defeated. On stage, camp sailors and soldiers danced to derisory whistling but in the end a bit of cossack whooping wooed back the crowd.

Due to the celebrations, all the restaurants were full and the one near the hotel said we could wait for an hour if we wanted. We went back to the hotel to ask for tips on where to eat. They made a phone call and within 5 minutes we were back in the "full" restaurant reading the good food and wine menus! Odd, but I tried not to read too much into it. The place had a simple rustic look to it notwithstanding an impressive wooden bar shaped like a galleon! The food however turned out to be haute-cuisine of the small and expensive variety. The wine, a white Antinori was in perfect condition and reflected western prices plus a bob or two. The guide book states that the russians view soft porn with equanimity and one shouldn't be surprised at strip shows during dinner. Our restaurant had the ubiquitous widescreen telly on the wall which at some point started to show luvvly laddies with no clothes on. Nevertheless the show was stollen by the resident parrott who when suitably teased would slide down the outside of his cage to screach at the kids through the window. He obviously was the last remnant of the pirate theme bar which had now turned into a nouveau-cuisine, video striptease joint.

Saturday City Tour

At 8am, Julia Ivanushkina waited for us to finish breakfast and then we set off briskly for a whistle stop tour. We took the metro to the south of the city and met up with the other half of our tour party, an older american couple who were on a river cruise from the Baltic to Moscow. Peterhof palace lies about 25km away from the centre and Julia's people mover driven by her stoic husband dropped us off at the palace ready for a 10 o'clock start. Julia had successfully secured a slot reserved for tour parties which seem to get a half an hour start on the general public and so we entered the palace with no queue and more or less no one around. We were expertly guided through the golden rooms with history and anecdotes from Julia's flawless memory. She adopted the role of Catherine the Great and retold stories in the first person which is a neat way of avoiding the droll tour-guide syndrome. I only saw one other couple whilst we were going round and so another pre-conception was laid to rest. Peterhof is a relatively small palace, suited to its role as summer palace and indeed the royal party never stayed here long. The weather was turning out to be on our side and we strolled through the lower gardens in cool sunshine. The famous fountain cascade in front of the palace had been turned on for the first time following the winter thaw and along with the sunshine we were lucky to be visiting when we did. Julia opted for the hydrofoil ride back to St.Petersburg, and we sat hungry and tiring whilst the soviet craft glided noisily, smokily but smoothly across the flat Baltic up the river towards the Winter Palace. Julia's husband scooped us up in the MPV and whisked us off to the Yusupov Palace which was on the wish list from the americans. Yusoupov was not a member of the royal family but was rich enough to rub shoulders with the elite. Rasputin was part of the russian court at the time and it was at the Yusoupov Palace where he met his fate, a botched murder which ended up with him coming back from the dead only to be shot a second time when trying to run away. The Yusoupov Palace is another of St.Petersburg's fine mansions with gilded decor and luxurious rooms and this one even had its own small but perfectly proportioned theatre, styled just like the grand opera houses of the time. By the time we left at around 3pm we were hungry and tired and Julia was quickly becoming tagged as a slave driver!

We stuffed our faces with pies and tarts at one of the Stolle pie shops where they claim to sell home made stuff however they weren't as good as mine! Nevertheless quite the right food for refuelling between tourist attractions. The next stop was at the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, a curious name given to comemerate the murder of Alexander II who's carriage was bombed from which he later died of his injuries. A church was commissioned in tribute and designs were submitted with the most eclectic one being chosen. However it took 20 years to build and coincided with the revolution of 1917 and as the soviets recognised only functional art, the church was left empty and periodically used as a vegetable store room and more noteably as a mortuary in WWII. The church was restored slowly but the coming of the tourist age has seen the finishing touches made to what is one of the most stunning interiors you will ever see. Completely decorated in mosaics, the walls and ceilings depict stories from the Bible. Picked out in blues and gold, Jesus stares down from the main cupola where an unexploded bomb had crashed through right between his open arms where it stayed until after the war ended. Sadly and curiously the building is stilll not used as a church and is now firmly a pantheon to tourism. Due to its position in the city centre and to its iconic onion shaped domes, the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is destined to become St.Petersburg's most defining symbol.

We parted from Julia and her man-with-van, having handed over the best part of 300 euros for 9 hours guided tour for two people including transport and all attractions. Regardless whether thats expensive, one things for sure, as long as you get your moneys worth you can't complain and as a result I'm now a convert to private tourism...but can we find a Julia in every city? A perfect day was rounded off with a boat trip through the canals but the guide on the boat wasn't in Julias league however we were past caring enjoying a sit down and a pleasant hour in the evening sunshine.

Sunday Bike Tour

Next up was Nikolei from Peter's Walking Tours and his laid-back bike ride around the suburbs of St.Petersburg. He's a dude, and thinks nothing of riding on the pavements and crossing where its not allowed, bumping down 1 foot kerbstones and picking his way through oncoming traffic. Nevertheless he was Julia's peer as a tour guide recounting stories from the history of the royal court, the soviets and WWII. Perhaps we were lucky, but the licensing scheme which tour guides have to undertake guaranteed us reliable and interesting tours. The bike tour cost 20 euros each for 4 hours entertainment and was certainly worth the money. We rode out to Smolnyy on the north-east peninsula of the city, an interesting group of buildings built by royals and used by Lenin and Kirov. For future reference its possible to visit the Tauride Palace where Lenin had his first office following the revolution, on Friday afternoons at 3 for free, apparently just turn up. We rode westwards along the south bank of the Neva crossed at Liteynyy Most and headed out of town to the parks on the islands north-west of the city. Coming back through Petrograd Side we stopped to view the huge mosque from the outside and a few more places where Lenin and his supporters were supposed to have stayed. Finally back through Mars Field, past the Church of the Spilled Blood and finally a stop off at a watering hole run by one of Nikolei's mates, a bar in a the disused royal stables with wooden pallets for seats placed on a square of sand, apparently an idea from a german girl! One strawberry yogurt smoothie later, it was back to the lock-up to hand back the bikes, just in time, coz there was barely 2 hours before we had to get over to the Kirov for some ballet!

The Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet is a classic, grand opera house, although the atrium was not particularly interesting as it had no windows and was rather small for so many people. The Staatstheatre in Munich is much better for parading around in ones finery. Nevermind, the auditorium has the usual 3 tiers with a royal box and our seats were just to its right. Unfortunately, in their wisdom the owners have decided to replace the classic rows of red velvet seats with wooden dining chairs which results in a scruffy disorganised look. Tonights clientel revealed the tourist nature of the occasion and I recalled a couple of previous ballets from touring russian companies in Germany who performed bits of pieces of well known scenes interspersed with sycophantic applause. However tonights performance was a proper 2 act ballet, the german "Das Glaserner Hertz" and the first act set out the familiar story of betrayal and unrequited love. For act 2 the libretto went out of the window as 40 minutes of dream scenes saw the performance improve and was more interesting and expressive. We've seen this style of libretto before and quite frankly why bother with a story, just dance!

When in St.Petersburg don't bother looking for bars in the city centre, other than on Nevskiy Prospekt coz there aren't any. We wandered back from the theatre towards the river never passing one but our desperate state was rescued by a small stand selling draught lager and we sat in the warm setting sun on the riverbank and sank a couple of cold russian beers. I dragged Bev into MacDonalds on the way back as a nod to the days following Perestroika when the first MickyDs opened in Moscow to much press speculation. The golden arches are ubiquitous the world over and "McChicken" is understood in russia just as it is everywhere.

Vasilevsky Island

On Mondays in St.Petersburg most atractions are closed for the day, and so we set off to revisit the accommodation Bev used as a student when studying russian. It was a colder, cloudy day which eventually turned to rain but we found the buildings which are still used as student lodgings and certainly don't look any more comfortable than they would have been 20 years ago. We went inside and had a nose about and were recorded by the CCTV and the lady on the desk. The rain saw us scarper back to the hotel to collect wet weather gear for a well earned shopping spree.

Dinner at the Sadko restaurant near the Mariinsky theatre was a dot on the card as far as I was concerned and this turned out to be one of the unexpected treats of the trip. A fine place with impressive decor, excellent service, good food at reasonable prices and a long, long wine list. The whole ambiance was perfect save for a group of antipodeans doing their best to live up to their boisterous reputation but it didn't spoil the caviar bliiny and russian shampers that we started with. Searching for good places to eat had proved to be a bit frustrating but this place made up for it and further endeared us to russain culinary knowhow.

Winter Palace & The Hermitage

Tuesday, our last few hours before flying home took as to the world famous Hermitage gallery. I hadn't heard of it before, and the mad dash for the kiosks at opening time was abit off-putting. Bev had purchased tickets on-line to jump the queue which is exactly what we were told to do and felt abit awkward trying to elbow in at the winodw in front of 100s of other people. The spectacle wasn't really necessary as an hour later I bet there were no queues, still we didn't have much time and so set off round the enormous Winter Palace in search of art. Room 1 took us through an excellent visiting collection of islamic artefacts including some breathtaking jewellery. I suspected that the collection doesn't make it to the West all that often and Russia is probably a good bridging point for us nasty westerners to glimps eastern treasures. We dawdled through the small english section and realised all too late that the best bits were in the last part of the palace, the bit specifically built as a painting gallery. We therefore had to rush this bit to give us time to get to the airport and a future visit will see us do the Hermitage in reverse order!


St.Petersburg's legacy stems from it being the seat of the royal court for 200 years in which time it received more than its fair share of  palaces and other royal commissions and this is what all tourists come to see, but as the city was the scene of the 1917 revolution and was besieged by the Nazis in WWII it has other sides to its history. Additionally theres the soviet period which left its indelible mark on some of the architecture. Consequently if you brush up on some basic history before you come there are more things to see in St.Petersburg than just palaces. Moreover the white nights offer a fascinating lifestyle to visitors not used to bright daylight at midnight. All this coupled together its not surprising that the city is a popular destination for russians and foreigners alike and its therefore clear why Putin invested so much money in restoring the city following Perestroika. What about a Baltic tour? Start in Estonia, go to St.Petersburg, then Helsinki and perhaps finish in Stockholm? A cruise perhaps joining all these places together in one floating hotel?