Tsars, Cars and Coffee Bars. Spending Time in St Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg, Russia. 22nd June 2014.

Travelling had been straightforward up to now. Apart from the occasional difference in speed limits or currency, the Schengen Convention has shrunk Europe by making it smooth and simple to move from one country to another with no border controls for its residents. Only the UK and Ireland sit outside of it now and having to show your passport to leave your own country feels archaic these days. But Russia is a different matter and I’d read enough travellers’ tales to know that entering that country could be anywhere between simplicity itself and a nightmare of immigration and customs bureaucracy. I had loads of luggage on the bike, including two spare tyres, and I wasn’t sure whether Russian customs would declare an interest in them or not.
So on a cool but dry Sunday morning I left the campsite in Lappeenranta, Finland, and headed to the border. On my way through the town I got stopped by the police. ‘Hassle already?’I thought. No need to worry, just a routine breath test, aimed at all passing motorists.As a non-drinker it was a test I’d struggle to fail.
Soon enough I came to the border post. Finnish passport control examined my passport very closely for a couple of minutes. I asked if all was OK and they said everything was fine. I wondered how Russia would be about letting me in if Finland seemed so unsure about letting me out. In the end everything went as smoothly as it possibly could. A rather sour faced young woman gave me a migration form to complete, in duplicate, which had Russian and English on it. Name, nationality, passport and visa number, date of entry and signature. One copy retained, the other handed back to me to be given up on exit. ‘Go to customs’ she said. Right, passport control done, what about customs? Just as easy in the end. Another cheerless woman took the bike registration document and gave me a another form to complete, all in Russian this time. When she saw me struggling she came round the counter, all smiles, to help me complete it. I had to go back outside to move the  bike out of the way and when I came back in a pretty young Russian woman, with good English, helped me to finish it. All stamped up and good to go.Both borders took about 40 minutes all told. Welcome to Russia!

Finland has the most expensive fuel of my journey so far and I’d tried to avoid filling up there. Even so, I had to buy 5 litres despite hoping to get from Estonia to Russia without doing so, where the fuel was well under half the price. About 10kms down from the border I came across a petrol station that would also change my Euros into Roubles and sold coffee to boot. I even ordered it in Russian. Three needs met in one go, perfect.
I soon discovered that Russian roads are not as bad as people led me to expect although sometimes potholes appear unexpectedly, but no worse than Poland for example. That other much maligned cause for foreign fear, the Russian driver, also wasn’t as bad as expected. Once I’d left Germany for Poland I’d found a marked difference in driving habits anyway and as I progressed eastwards I’d found drivers taking markedly more chances with overtaking in particular. This can be unnerving for a biker as you’d be tootling along when suddenly a car coming the other way would pull out to overtake, assuming you would move over to the right to give him room. I first came across this in Poland and the simple reason is that most of the roads are single carriageway, have a shoulder at the side that is at least half a vehicle in width and that slower vehicles will keep over onto it to allow traffic to overtake. Therefore drivers coming the other way also expect vehicles to move over to give them room for their overtake. I soon learned to adapt to this and Russian drivers were no different. So I adjusted the ‘alert’ to ‘relaxed’ ratio once more and got on with the ride.
It was only a bit over 200kms to St Petersburg and it soon passed with a pleasant ride through forested countryside and few towns. Once I reached the outskirts of the city I let the GPS guide me into the centre where my hostel is located. Once in the built up area I began to understand how the Russian driver’s reputation was won. They do like to ‘make good progress’ as much as they can, which means sudden lane changes and every effort made to get ahead. I quickly reached the conclusion that they drive their cars as if they were riding a motorbike in London! Once I’d understood that I had no issues with anything they did. I became used to cars squeezing by me and undertaking in close proximity and I stopped worrying about it once I understood it. But Russian drivers are very disciplined at traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and will almost never misbehave under those circumstances. I understand that penalties can be quite harsh, with driving bans not uncommon.

A couple of the wonderfully decorative buildings on Nevsky Prospekt.

P1000002

P1000009

My hostel was on Nevsky Prospekt, the main road through the tourist part of St Petersburg and considered to be the city’s main street. The city sits on the River Niva and it takes a huge bend round this part of the city. Nevsky Prospekt runs from river to river, with a bridge at each end. I found the hostel easily once I’d worked out how Russian building numbers work. There’s a logic to the system but it’s unfamiliar to the British experience. When you get a street number it relates to the whole building, which could be a block long, not the individual doors into it. So for an apartment block you’ll get a building number and an apartment number on the address. It’s strange when you’re trying to find a business because they often won’t have any identifier other than their name. Sometimes the building will be subdivided, such as 45/1, but it was still very confusing at times.

I spotted the building number, right by a bus stop on the eight lane wide road. Unable to park in the kerb I put the bike on the pavement next to a handy lamp post and went looking. I soon realised the way things worked and eventually found a name plate for the hostel, rang the buzzer and was let inside. Three storeys up I was welcomed into the premises by Veronica, the able assistant to the owner. I was invited into the lounge and met a guy who looked the worse for wear and proclaimed he’d been drinking home made brandy the previous night and it had brought him out in a rash. ‘Serve you right’ I said with a smile as I shook his hand. When I got chatting to him later I discovered he was the owner and had been partying the night before.
This hostel was unlike any other I’d been in so far and by the time I left I decided was unlikely to see again. Isaac, the owner, is a Kiwi and he and his Father started to invest in property in St Petersburg thirteen years ago and bought the apartment that contains the hostel. He lives there too and has a couple of rooms to himself. His living room is filled with recording and mixing equipment. The rest of the apartment is divided into dormitories and large rooms which he lets out to tenants. There is a lounge area and a kitchen for everyone to use with a small dining area next to it. Its location couldn’t be better for visiting the tourist sights. Its a twenty minute walk down to Palace Square, where the Winter Palace can be found, and there is plenty to see en route. The only problem with the hostel is that it desperately needs a refurbishment, mainly to to the dilapidated state of the kitchen which, to be fair to him, Isaac is fully aware of. I don’t normally write much about places I stay in but the hostel figures large in my St Petersburg story. Whatever criticisms I may have of the hostel its location couldn’t be better, halfway along St Pete’s main street.
Once I’d unloaded my gear I was able to put the bike in a courtyard around the back and cover it up. Heading back upstairs I  selected a bed in the male dorm and settled in. Before long a girl came in and it turned out that she was sleeping in here too. She spoke English and told me that there was a another girl in the female dorm who she didn’t get on with so chose to sleep in the male one. She was from Moscow but was working in St Pete. My other companion was an Asian guy who cooked lots of Japanese style soup dishes and slurped them very loudly. I learned later that he had been here with his wife but that she had gone home and left him behind. I discovered much later that he snored too. Slurping and snoring – enough to drive any wife away!

I met a young American in the lounge who teaches English. We had a chat about how to go about teaching a language to people when you don’t speak theirs. Pantomime appears to be the answer. Laugh while you learn I suppose. He told me that Nevsky Prospekt is the longest road in the city and that at night time there’s plenty goes on out there. The balcony outside the lounge window is a good place to observe it from too.
Time to go out for a walk. Apart from anything else I wanted some tourist information as there’s plenty to see in St Pete and I needed to know what and where. The first thing I realised is that the streets are busy. Very busy. Not so much with cars but with pedestrians and I was surprised by it. It was like the West End of London. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but it wasn’t about throngs of tourists, it was lots of people seeming to be going about their ordinary business. Being my first visit to a Russian city, one thing I did notice was the Russian women. They are often tall and slim but they all seemed to dress very elegantly. I felt very scruffy by comparison.
Nevsky Prospekt certainly has some fancy buildings on it. Most of the ordinary buildings, the ones where the shops are and which people live above, are from the 18th century and have the classic look from that era. Five or six stories high, with balconies, big windows and decorative detailing around the roof. Most have been kept looking very smart. Virtually all of them have shops at ground level, of all different types, and often have passageways that go through to courtyards where there are usually more small businesses. Often there are steps going down to a sub ground floor level where there will be more shops or businesses. I very quickly came to understand that these buildings are put to maximum use and that there is a real mix of large and small, local and global trade going on. This gives the street a very lively and busy atmosphere and also provides support for people who live there.

Former Head Office of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Former Head Office of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

As I walked down towards Palace Square the nature of the buildings changed. I was clearly heading to the upmarket end of the street as some very fancy buildings started to present themselves such as the Russia Museum; Singer House, headquarters of the Singer Sewing machine Co; Gostiny Dvor – a huge arcaded shopping centre; Kazan Cathedral, a vast colonnaded edifice which used to be the main Orthodox cathedral in the city. I soon came to a bridge over a canal where it was clear I could have enjoyed a boat ride along it. There were people touting for business, wearing a captain’s cap and calling their routes and fares over a mini megaphone, pushing leaflets into the hands of passers-by. I discovered as I walked around the city that this was a common way of advertising pretty much everything. I was intrigued by the existence of the canals and a subsequent study of the city map showed that the main tourist part of St Pete was actually on islands formed by these canals. No gondoliers to be seen but plenty of motor launches taking tourists on a water-borne tour of the city sights. There were three of these bridges to cross and as I progressed towards Palace Square the street became busier and more crowded. Crossing some of the busy intersections looked challenging but this is where I discovered that Russian drivers will practice discipline. Any driver turning into the street you are crossing will always stop to let you cross if you have the green light so I felt very safe. But woe betide you if you didn’t get across before the lights went red! Then you were likely to be facing a sea of cars which seem to roar and snarl their way towards you. Slow pedestrians have to learn to scamper!

The famous Winter Palace.

The famous Winter Palace.

The Admiralty Building with Peter the Great watching over it.

The Admiralty Building with Peter the Great watching over it.

I eventually found my self in Palace Square and was gobsmacked by the sheer size of it. It is huge. The Winter Palace sits on one side and the Admiralty building sits opposite. In the middle is a column with a statue of Peter the Great sitting on top. That’s all there is and it’s this lack of surrounding buildings that makes the area look so big. It was far too late to visit any of the attractions but I took a walk around the square and worked out a plan for when I did come to visit. I located the Tourist Information office and got some useful maps and leaflets too. One thing I really liked about Palace Square was the numbers of local teenagers enjoying the space on skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, even mopeds. They seemed to claim the space as their own once the tourists had drifted away as if to say ‘You may come and then go but we’re always here and this is ours.’ A fine sentiment in my opinion.
Walking back to the hostel I called into a café and cake shop and had the most expensive cup of lukewarm coffee I’d never enjoyed. A place to be avoided was my considered opinion. Fortunately I discovered a Starbucks just up the street from the hostel so I was saved from a repetition. I Went into one of the little basement supermarkets that Veronica had recommended and bought myself something to eat. So far, a successful day, now only needing to register with the authorities and try to buy some motorcycle insurance.

A Bit of Background.
The history of St Petersburg is tied in with the Tsar Peter the Great. He was looking for a better maritime port for Northern Russia and gained what was a small Finnish port during the Great Northern War in 1703. He immediately set about building it into his capital city and replaced Moscow in that role in 1712. Apart from a four year period when Moscow was capital again, St Petersburg held that title through to the Communist Revolution in 1917. It’s name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 to de-Germanise its name and subsequently to Leningrad in 1924. Post Communism it regained its original name.
Peter The Great set about building a capital city suitable to match the status of the Tsars and such buildings as the Winter Palace, the Summer Palace, The Peter Hof, the Admiralty, the Cathedrals and many others were the result. Built in the Baroque style, following a fire in 1737 many new buildings were erected, most of those in the Neo-Classic style. The other great builder in the city was Catherine the Great who, amongst other works, had the banks of the River Niva lined with granite to create the embankment that can be seen today. Surprisingly, the first permanent bridge wasn’t built until 1850, pontoon bridges being used up until then. A city ordinance from those times decreed that no building could rise higher than the Winter Palace, accounting for the pleasant cityscape that the area presents to the visitor. The city suffered badly from Nazi shelling during the siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, a total of 872 days. The city became largely depopulated during this time as many of the occupants either starved or escaped.

When I got up next day I couldn’t find my camera. I know I’d brought it back into the hostel with me but it wasn’t amongst my belongings. This was a disaster. There’s no point in being in one of the world’s major tourist cities and not having any way of photographing it. After much searching I reached the conclusion it had disappeared. I remembered having it with me in the lounge the previous night and I think I left it there. Someone had clearly picked it up and I hoped would hand it in. Isaac said he’d make enquiries with the residential guests for me. I spent a bit of time with Isaac and met his American friend Doug, who’s lived in St Pete for twenty years. He and Isaac were finishing off an album based on poetry Doug had written and put to music. I listened to a couple of tracks and was suitably complimentary and although I thought the poems were only average I did like the musical arrangements. The tone of the poems was anti-establishment so that helped too. Also there was Isaac’s girlfriend Kassenya, a very pretty young woman who is some kind of performance artist. She’s well know in Russia apparently and performs abroad too. It seems that Doug and Isaac are also well known, around St Petersburg at least, for their recording work. It seems there was to this hostel than met the eye.
Today’s main task was to get registered with immigration. When you visit Russia it is necessary to do this if you are going to be in the country for more than seven days. Had I been a hotel based tourist this would be done for me by theml but it wasn’t something the hostel could do. Veronica had written a note for me to take to the nearby post office where the forms could be obtained and subsequently handed in for processing. I went down there and presented Veronica’s nicely written note to the clerk and she rattled off a load of Russian at me but didn’t hand me any forms. Fail! So I left there and went down to Starbucks for a nice Americano and to nurse my wounds. It was clear that registering wasn’t going to be easy.
Having nothing better to do with the afternoon I took a walk up to the Museum of Erotica and spent an interesting and amusing couple of hours looking at paintings, drawings and self propelled sex machines. I never knew there were so many ways of having fun without a partner, and extra fun with one, and the application of engineering ingenuity was fascinating!

The Kazan Cathedral at night.

The Kazan Cathedral at night.

I called in to an Asian style restaurant for a nice Chinese meal and went back to the hostel to sit in the lounge and write for a while. A little later Isaac came in with Kassenya and another girl, Bebe. They were enjoying a drink and after a while the makings came out and a joint was rolled. Well dear reader, I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t resist the temptation and enjoyed a puff or two.This was the first time anything tobacco related has crossed my lips in over twenty four years but I enjoyed it none the less. Later another girl arrived, Nastasiya, who Isaac clearly fancied like mad. So we all had a very pleasant evening chatting, enjoying another joint and I was highly amused by the interplay between Isaac and these three girls. He was trying to win favour with Nastasiya, was rejecting Kassenya in the process and poor Bebe, who clearly wanted him to herself, didn’t get a look in. Great fun to sit back and watch until I decided to call it a night at about 1am. It had certainly been a different day.

By the next day it had become clear that my camera had gone. I suspected that one of the permanent residents had found it and kept it but had no real way of knowing. Isaac had asked everyone about it but with no result. So today’s task was to replace it. I liked the camera very much and had bought it because it was dust proof, waterproof and robust, as well as being a good camera in every other sense. So I wanted the same one again and Veronica helped me by getting onto the internet and eventually finding one at an electronics store in the city, and not too far away from the hostel. It was a click and collect type system so I ordered it, along with a replacement SD card, and set off to collect it. About a forty minute walk up Nevsky Prospekt and across the bridge got me there. and then I had to pay and wait for it to be brought out. On the way back I bought a new case but couldn’t get the spare battery that had also gone. So an expensive but successful trip out. I’m very annoyed at my own stupidity in leaving it lying around but also very angry at the dishonest bastard who kept it.
Later on I met Isaac’s Father, David. He has his own apartment attached to the main one as he spends about six months of the year in St Pete. He’s about my age and is retired. He enjoys the cultural life here. Great life if you can do it. He took the trouble to give some advice on how to pick up Russian women too. How kind of him.

Next day was to be a busy one with The Hermitage firmly in my sights. I already knew that this was a big place with plenty to see so I made sure I was up and about at a sensible time.
When I got there next morning I went into the entrance courtyard and saw a long queue for the pay kiosk. Fortunately there were also machines that sold standard tickets and the tickets to permit camera use. There wasn’t any queue to speak of for these so I’m guessing the kiosk queues were for concessions and groups. Russians get a 25% discount, but that also meant queueing up. I think that had I been Russian I’d pay the extra and avoid the wait. The ticket only cost RU400, about £8, which I thought was a bargain. I was more put out by the fee for camera usage at RU200, especially considering that nobody ever asked to see it.
Once inside I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom, free, and then I got the essential audio guide and made my way to the first floor to start the tour. The building is huge and has three floors stuffed full of fabulous works of art. The décor is incredible and to me counts as art as much as the rooms’ contents. Built in 1732 it was home to the Tsars until their demise. It was Catherine the Great who named a part of the palace The Hermitage and started to collect works of art to put in it. It suffered a disastrous fire in 1837 but was rebuilt almost to match the original with some alterations. Successive rulers extended and altered it up until the time it ceased to be their home.
The Hermitage has justly earned a reputation as one of the world’s greatest art collections. It is stuffed to the rafters with classic works by classic artists and I spent a total of seven hours walking around, trying to do so in a logical way so that I wouldn’t miss anything. For this an audio guide was essential as it led me through the different rooms and I was able to listen to the stories behind the exhibits and, as I have done in several other places, learn more about them than merely starng at them and reading the cards would ever have taught me. The museum has paintings and sculptures by all the greats of course but also displays work from antiquity and from Russia too. I won’t attempt to list what I saw, there’s just far too much. But put it on your bucket list, you won’t ever regret it.

A taster of what’s in the Hermitage.

This is just the stairs!

This is just the stairs!

Picasso.

Picasso.

 

The kind of colourful scene that I enjoy.

The kind of colourful scene that I enjoy.

Tragedy in colour.

Tragedy in colour.

On the way back to the hostel I spotted a fast food place selling Bliny. This is a well known Russian dish and consists of a thin pancake filled with meat or sweet filling, depending on which course you’re having them for. So I chose a set menu and it wasn’t bad but nothing much to write home about. So I’ll stop.

Veronica had managed to get hold of the forms for registering so next morning we filled them out and went back to the post office. No dice once again. It seems that the post office has only just started doing this work and the staff hadn’t been trained. So we went to a business that would do the paperwork for me and RU1,000 later it was all done. I was relieved that this issue was now sorted out but annoyed that I’d been forced to pay £20 for something that should have been free. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing whether not being registered would lead to trouble with the police or border control staff. My understanding is that the rules are not enforced very much but there’s no way of knowing what the attitude of an individual official would be.

Today’s cultural target was the Museum of Russian Art. I was beginning to surprise myself with how keen I was to see all this art as it’s not something that had bothered me much in the past. I suppose it was location and circumstance that had maybe awoken a latent appetite. On the way there I couldn’t resist visiting the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. This place sounded quite savage if nothing else so I felt the need to find out all about it. Apparently the spilled blood was that of Emperor Alexander II who was fatally wounded during an assassination attempt and the church was built on the site of the evil deed. It’s a very decorative and fancy Russian Orthodox building but I didn’t go in as there was a queue.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ Our Saviour, on the Spilled Blood.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ Our Saviour, on the Spilled Blood.

At the museum I got the essential audio guide and spent a happy few hours wandering around admiring the iconography, paintings and sculpture. One thing I couldn’t understand was why, at 8pm they were ushering me out when the museum didn’t close until 9pm. Later on the penny dropped – I was an hour behind as the clocks had gone forward when I crossed into Russia. So I’d spent the last few days running an hour late!

One of the lesser known features of St Pete is that the river bridges, not being high enough to allow larger ships to pass underneath, are raised every night to allow these ships upriver to load and unload. They start to lift at around 01.30 and are lowered at around 04.30. Veronica told me it was quite a spectacular sight and worth going to see. I set off down there about 1am and was pleasantly surprised by how good the city looked at night with all the buildings brightly illuminated. The new camera was working overtime. I got to the embankment and waited until the bridges started to lift, which happened in sequence, starting with the lower ones and working up river. The ships that came through were very work-a-day but watching the bridges come up was good to see but not exactly spectacular. But it was worth the walk and I didn’t regret the late night. In fact it was nice to be in the dark. During the summer St Pete enjoys what are referred to as ‘white nights’ where twilight starts about 11pm and the sun comes up again within a few hours. A northerly latitude of sixty degrees is the reason for it.
Back at the hostel Isaac had a party on the go but I was to tired to join it and went to bed. I did get involved inadvertently when two of the guys attending it came crashing into the dorm later to go to bed.

Not quite Tower Bridge, but not a bad try.

Not quite Tower Bridge, but not a bad try.

Superbly illuminated building on Nevsky Prospekt.

Superbly illuminated building on Nevsky Prospekt.

I didn’t have too much on the agenda next day so I got up late, went to get my registration and generally loafed around. I’d promised I’d take Veronica out for a meal to thank her for all the help she’d given me and we went up Nevsky Prospekt to a rather swanky shopping centre and into a rather swanky Asian/Italian restaurant called Moskva. We sat out on the roof terrace and we really needed the blankets they supplied as a chilly evening breeze had picked up. There was a great view along the street and the food was excellent. She chatted about her life and her plans – she’s at university in St Pete and her job at the hostel is just for the summer. A pleasant evening in nice company to round off a lazy day.
David, the English teacher, had said to me that Nevsky Prospekt can get exciting at times and I was beginning to realise what he meant. When the traffic quietened down in the evening the street became a racetrack with fast cars and loud bikes enjoying traffic light GP’s until gone midnight. One afternoon I even saw a car produce a 360 degree handbrake turn! The road was clear at the time but even I thought it was a bit outrageous.

My last day in St Pete was to include a visit to the Peterhof, a complex of grand palaces and gardens out on one of the islands. This is another of Peter the Great’s projects, built partly because he was rich enough to do it and partly to celebrate his maritime achievements in gaining a new seaport for Russia. The biggest building is the Grand Palace and the most notable feature of that is the Grand Cascade. This is a series of water cascades and fountains with very decorative statues and motifs and the water falls down to the Sea Canal which links the palace to the nearby sea. Getting there involved taking a fast motor launch from the embankment opposite the Winter Palace for a forty minute ride across the harbour area to the palace.

But before I got anywhere near doing that a major incident occurred which had the potential to completely ruin my trip.
I left the hostel to walk down Nevsky Prospekt and as I neared Palace Square a couple of young guys came alongside me, one each side, and started hassling me about going to their restaurant and shoving menus at me. Now this behaviour is not uncommon in foreign cities and these touts are usually genuine. Not these two. After half a minute or so one of them went away and I realised something wasn’t right. Checking my bum bag I found it had been unzipped and my wallet and passport had gone. The other guy was still there so I grabbed him and started shouting at him, demanding to know where his mate was with my property. I immediately realised this wasn’t the best thing to do. Firstly he was younger, taller and fitter than me so force wasn’t going to get me anywhere and secondly I decided it would be better to try to see where his mate had gone with my property. Of course he’d melted away into the crowd by then and I was left standing there cursing my luck and my stupidity for falling for a typical thieves trick. The problem was that these two guys were very friendly and pleasant but insistent, enough to distract me long enough to achieve their aims.
I had just started walking back towards the hostel to I could report the theft and cancel my cards when a young Russian guy grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back to where the theft had just happened. He pointed to a window sill next to the street and there was my passport sitting there, obviously having been discarded by the thieves. I was stunned, amazed and grateful, all at the same time and I thanked him profusely. The thought of having to replace my passport, and the Russian and Kazakh visas inside it, filled me with dread. But I still had no wallet so I started my walk back to the hostel again. I’d gone about five hundred metres up the street when another young Russian guy stopped me and handed me back my wallet, muttering something about ‘Two Gypsies’. I was even more amazed this time, thanked him profusely and gave him RU1,000 (about £20) as a reward. When I checked the wallet everything was still in it, including all my cash, although it was obvious everything had been taken out and put back in. When I checked again later I realised that the paper section of my driving licence was missing, which puzzled me. But at that moment I thought I was now the luckiest man alive. No need to go to the police. No hassle about replacing lost cards or driving licence and no loss of cash. So I turned back and carried on down to the river to get the boat to the Peterhof.

As the day wore on I started to get more and more uneasy about the whole experience. The return of the wallet all seemed a bit too easy somehow and I started to think it was probably deliberate and done to allay my suspicions. That part of their plan certainly worked and I was thinking now that they may have cloned my cards ready to sell them around the world. So when I got back to the hostel I rang up both credit card companies and found that worrying about cloning was pointless as they’d hammered my cards within moments of taking them then returned them to me. Even if I had rung up the card companies straight away it would have been too late. How did they do it? Well some outlets in Russia use a ‘chip and sign’ system. I’d already experienced this when I filled up with fuel after I crossed the border. It by works by placing the card in a chip and PIN reader but a slip is then printed for you to sign. It seems to be used by smaller businesses as some kind of, I assume, cheaper half way house to the full PIN system. I learned later that a local business had completed a total of seven transactions on the three cards before the automatic system kicked in to decline further attempts. Total of about £12,000. I’ll get it all back but it’s cost me dear in international phone calls and having to stay in one place while the new cards were sent to me. There’s no doubt that once you get outside the EU all these simple things aren’t simple any more. I was fortunate in that I had a second cash card which I didn’t keep in my wallet, thus enabling me to still draw cash and function normally.

So in amongst all of that I also visited a major tourist attraction. How was it? It was another magnificent afternoon of Russian Tsarist opulence. Peter the Great built it in the early 1700’s and it was extended by Catherine the Great in the middle of the century. It suffered severe damage in the siege of Leningrad during WW2 but rebuilding started straight after the war and is still going on today.
The notable parts of the complex are the formal gardens and the Grand Palace. I took a tour round the house and was very impressed by the décor and furniture There are wonderful wooden panels with gold inlay.  I learned they could beat the gold to within a few microns thick – very impressive. There was plenty of silk wallpaper and each room was colour matched and furnished in a particular style. The rooms were, as with other palaces I’d been to, arranged so that the public rooms were entered first and by all visitors and then became more restricted and private, and often smaller, as you went deeper into the palace. The grand ballroom is over 300 meters square and is fabulously decorated. It was all well worth the RU550 entrance fee but I thought RU500 for the essential audio guide was a bit steep.

The Peterhof and the Grand Cascade.

The Peterhof and the Grand Cascade.

 

One of the many fountains. You really have to like the colour gold to be rich, it seems.

One of the many fountains. You really have to like the colour gold to be rich, it seems.

The tree lined Sea Canal.

The tree lined Sea Canal.

A walk around the grounds was equally impressive with very nice formal gardens which had ponds, statues and fountains in various places. But the biggest draw was the Grand Cascade which sits just below the Grand Palace which itself is built on a 16 metre high bluff. The cascade is formed of a series of steps down which the water flows into the sea canal. There are statues and fountains along each side of it and also one large one, the Samson Fountain, in the middle of the pool at the bottom. This fountain and statue is to celebrate victory over the Swedes in the Great Northern War in which won Russia the port in the first place. None of the fountains use pumps. There are reservoirs in the upper gardens, fed by natural springs, and the height difference is enough to provide the pressure. A remarkable technological achievement, especially for its time. I liked the fact that some of the fountains were designed to tempt visitors into their range by various means and would then switch on automatically, soaking everyone. It was a hot day and people were having plenty of fun with this. I just sat and watched.
Another fast boat ride back to the city followed. On the way I saw a new stadium being built next to the river, no doubt for Russia’s hosting of the world cup. Good to see it all under way in plenty of time.

Ex navy motor cruisers mean a fast ride across the harbour.

Ex navy motor cruisers mean a fast ride across the harbour.

New stadium already nearing completion.

New stadium already nearing completion.

Back at the hostel I got stuck in to sorting out the mess the theft had left me with. Next day I was due to leave St Pete, Moscow bound, so I was hoping for an early night. A couple of French guys had arrived in the room too so peace and quiet wasn’t on the agenda.
In fact these two guys woke me up early, which I didn’t mind, and that’s when I discovered they were running in the St Pete marathon. All the way from Paris – that’s what I call keen!
I was packed and turning wheels before 9am which was just as well because Nevsky Prospekt was clearly part of the marathon route and may have been closed had I left much later. As it was I had my own marathon to complete – a 750 kilometre ride to Moscow.

B&W photo of the Opera House, just to experiment.

B&W photo of the Opera House, just to experiment.

First Impressions.
If Russia is St Petersburg then I’m in for a good although expensive time. However I strongly suspect it isn’t. St Pete is a big tourist city with plenty of touristy things to do and to spend money on. I believe it will be typical in at least one respect though, that being the quality, standard and presentational care with which their national treasures are displayed. Russia is renowned for its culture, literature and art and this has been the case since the Romanov Tsars took the reigns. St Pete presents some of the finest examples of this history and is perhaps the most westernised of Russia’s cities. That should come as no surprise as the Romanovs were well known for their liking of French, Italian and British art and artifacts. It would be impossible to recommend St Pete highly enough. Just make sure you have a fat wallet. Oh, and hang on to it very tightly!!

But what about the Russians themselves? As I’ve travelled further east across Europe there has been a definite change in the way people behave towards each other. I’ve found that nice, polite way of responding to each other that we’re familiar with in Britain and nearby had gradually diminished. If you smile at someone they don’t smile back. If you hold a door open for someone they just walk right past without a word. I’m not sure if this is a hangover from communist days when maybe it was necessary to not trust people in public or whether it’s just something in the Eastern European make up. I really don’t know. But once you engage directly with a Russian then all is fine and you will receive warmth, help and kindness. Being a busy tourist city St Pete isn’t the best place to judge these things anyway.The other impression from St Pete is that Russian cities are busy. All day long. The pavements always had plenty of people on them and the roads were always full of cars – except late in the evening of course. And they’re clean too. There was always someone with a dustpan keeping the pavements clean and there were litter bins everywhere. People look smart, especially the women, and buildings are mostly well maintained. Shame about the roads though. As mentioned earlier, Russia seems to thrive on small businesses selling all the bits and pieces that people need. I like that as it ties everybody together and must surely help maintain a good sense of community. It meant that Nevsky Prospekt, surely one of the greatest tourist thoroughfares anywhere, retained something of the feel of a local high street, but without the boarded up shops. All in all my experiences have been positive, apart from the obvious, and I’m looking forward to visiting more places, meeting more people and learning more about this fascinating country as I travel round it.

4 thoughts on “Tsars, Cars and Coffee Bars. Spending Time in St Petersburg.

  1. Graham Speller says:

    Hi Geoff, we were in St P in 2010 and enjoyed it very much. Shame those who think it’s ok to steal attempted to spoil your experience. Good ish outcome I suppose. Glad everything else was as good as we remember though. We have very positive memories of a special experience. Keep safe.

  2. Dave and Jean Keys says:

    Hi Geoff. Fascinating posts – keep them coming as we are enjoying reading them. Sorry to hear about your unfortunate brush with the criminal elements of St Pete. You are obviously enjoying your travels and having some great experiences. Eric is away in China at the moment so the Keys family is on the move!. Stay well and happy travelling. Dave and Jean

  3. Hi Dave and Jean. I’m pleased you’re enjoying my scribblings, it makes all the effort worthwhile when people tell me that. I’m still suffering the effects of that theft in that I’m having to stay in one place while my new cards etc are delivered to me. I’m currently in Omsk, Western Siberia. But at least the enforced wait gives me chance to catch up on my blog.
    I’m looking forward to hearing from Eric about his trip. I very much want to go to China but I haven’t worked out how to go about it yet.
    All the best, Geoff

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s