Russia / St Petersburg - 2008

I realized that I had lived more than 30 years next to Russia and visited some 35 countries but never crossed the eastern border of Finland. So it was about the time to book a long weekend in St Petersburg. As visa is still a compulsory to visit Russia I contacted a travel agency called Lähialuematkat in Helsinki. I realized that their "all-inclusive" package with visa, train tickets and hotel was actually cheaper than arranging everything by yourself so I ended up on a sort of packaged tour! The service was very good so I can recommend this company for anybody travelling to Russia.

Check out the photo gallery.

I spent three nights in St Petersburg which is definitely not enough if you want to explore the city properly. But as getting there was easier than I thought it would be easy to come back. 

01.05.2008 Helsinki - St Petersburg
It is Vappu in Helsinki - after a brief visit to Kaivopuisto I head for the railway station. I take the russian train that is half empty. I spend some time in the restaurant that offers interesting variety of russian dishes.The waiter speaks some broken Finnish. Crossing the border takes a while but there is surprisingly little hassle. It is already dark when I arrive in St Petersburg so I just take a taxi (an old Lada) to my hotel that is a huge and ugly concrete building from the Soviet era. It has been renovated though and my (business) room is good by my standards. Not much to do tonight so I go to bed. 

02.05.2008 St Petersburg
There is a decent breakfast included so after some overeating I head to downtown area. Sun is shining and it is a warm day. First thing I realize is that the city is huge and the downtown area has very few ugly buildings from the Soviet era. Instead there is endless number of beautifully restored buildings from the late 19th century. I just walk around for a couple of hours to admire the beauty of the city and check out the compulsory sights like St Isaac's Cathedral and Hermitage. Later in the afternoon I also check out the exhibition in Hermitage - actually the building itself is more interesting than the huge collection of classic art. There are also numerous impressive parks everywhere that are perfect places for chilling out.

Some first impressions of Russia:

  • You have to queue everywhere: if you want to buy a ticket to underground, if you want to visit a museum...
  • People speak English surprisingly poorly (or they are not willing to speak it)
  • People are often rude (especially when queueing - you don't hear too many "excuse me's")

The language barrier seems to be really strong - as if I was in France. There is very few English street signs to be seen - knowing at least the cyrillic alphabet would be very beneficial.

03.05.2008 St Petersburg
The main activity for today is to visit Petershof - the luxurious palace on the outskirts of the town. I take a local minibus there - it is packed with locals and seems to make frequent stops. Fortunately there is a couple that is going to the same destination and they keep asking the driver for instructions.

The main draw of the place is the numerous fountains around the palace but unfortunately they are not in use yet. But anyway the palace and the grounds around it are impressive - just the sheer size of the place is unbelievable! I have to queue for about half an hour to get in to the palace. There is guided tours but unfortunately they are all in Russian. Anyway the palace is somehow unreal as there is gold and art everywhere. It is hard to describe the numerous and luxurious rooms in words - you better check out the pictures. But after visiting the palace it is easier to understand why Russians of 21st century fancy gold and luxury...

I return to downtown in the afternoon and visit Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. I'm not a big fan of christian churches but this one is really fascinating - mostly because of the architecture and the mosaics - the whole interior is decorated with huge mosaics that must have taken years to create.

04.05.2008 St Petersburg - Helsinki
I'll be leaving in the afternoon so as the first thing I take my bag to the left luggage at the Finland station. The lady does not speak any English but I manage to get my bag in a locked room. I should have enough time to visit "Kunstkamera" the local Etnographical Museum that has a room full of artifacts from Peter the Great's "anatomical collection". Except for that room the museum is utterly boring but the macabre anatomical collection is so weird that it is worth visiting. Basically there just are numerous glass jars that contain malformed babies from the 18th century - preserved in some liquid. I did not quite get the idea why Peter the Great was collecting such monstrosities but It was anyway Russia first museum! Not for the fainthearted though. 

I have just enough time to climb to the top of St Isaac's Cathedral before returning to the train station. This time it is a Finnish train that is fully packed with Finns - the journey is rather painful as there are some stupid kids making noise and there is constant traffic to restaurant and back.

Anyway a nice getaway for a couple of days and much more to see than in the Nordic capitals nearby! 

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