Friday, July 13, 2012

St. Petersburg weekend escape

 My parents have been visiting Finland these last few weeks and we had also planned to make the train trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg.  We road the fancy Finnish "Allegro" train which has been in service for a year or so now, and makes the journey all the way to St. Petersburg in a quick 3.5 hours.  So, after filling out our Visa application and coughing up approximately 120 euros per person, we were ready to make the trip.  A post Soviet world doesn't mean that politics are thrown out the window, because they are charging Americans more than 3x what they charge Finns for their Visa!  Finns can make the trip on a mere 35 euro Visa.  I cry not fair!   But what to do, just suck it and try to not be an ugly American.  :)

The train left on the exact minute it was supposed to leave and we zoomed off on our first Russian adventure.  The ride was smooth, seats were spacious and it was relaxing.  The only real hassle starts when you arrive at the Russian border and the customs and passport control start coming around and asking questions.  In my best impression of an American trying to speak a foreign  language, I gave a polite Russian dobryi den "good afternoon" and then spasibo "thank you".  I actually got the Passport controller to speak Russian to me exclusively, so I felt proud.  :)  Finally, we arrived at the Finlandskiy station in Peter.  Anxious anticipation overcame our family as we stepped off our train and spotted a sign that would be our race car driver, who would drive us to our hotel.   He only spoke a few words of English, so I again did my best impression of Russian for the driver.  He sped off through the outskirts of town and headed toward our hotel which is close to the tourist center.  I cracked a few smiles from the front seat as my parents looked liked they were both about to have a heart attack as the driver floored through town, weaving in and out of traffic.  To me the wild ride so to speak is part of the overall adventure of exploring a foreign land.

After arriving at our hotel, we were soon ready to meet our Russian guide, Ania for a walk around town.  I decided since this was my first trip to Russia and I was with my parents that a guide would smooth things out a bit and help us get oriented with the city.  Ania was peppy and very friendly and soon took us out into the center of the attractions.  We walked by the several bridges connecting the Neva river to both sides of the city and then walked over to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress.  This Fortress had a small church that featured a mausoleum of the past Czars and Czarinas.  I personally am not an expert on Russian royalties, but since my mom was very interested in this history she was rattling off many facts while walked around.  We spotted the tombs of the famous Romanov family, as well as Catherine and Peter the Great.  Since we had a guide for only 4 hours and time was of the essence, we strolled onwards back across the Neva towards the Church of the Spilled Blood.  This Church with the infamous name is probably the only church in St. Petersburg that is in the traditional Russian orthodox style. This style is famous in Moscow and most people know of St. Basil's church.  After that visit, we ventured down to the Nevsky Prospekt via one of the many canals of St. Petersburg.  This is another European city claiming that it is the "Venice of the North".  One of numerous cities making this claim, hoping to get an increase in tourist dollars.  A list that includes Bruges, Belgium and Stockholm, Sweden.   I am not one who gets too impressed with shopping districts, so we all decided to ditch the famous shopping street (Nevsky Prospekt) and headed down an alleyway passage to get to the famous great Senate square.  This square is quite mammoth in size, makes the claim as the largest square in all of Europe.  The guide made that claim, so I guess it is accurate.  The day was winding down now and we were starting to hear a rumble in our tummies.  So, after visiting the famous square we strolled down past the Winter Palace and headed back to Vasilievsky Island were we were staying.  The guide showed us a restaurant that she recommended for dinner.   We didn't eat much Russian food on the trip, but tried the borscht soup at the German restaurant where we dined.

The second day of our adventure meant trips to the famous Hermitage museum and other random strolling around in the city.  We also had the guide for and additional half a day and she made the Hermitage maze easier to navigate.  The Hermitage is known as the second largest museum in the world, next to the Louvre in France.  It supposedly would take about 8 years to see every piece in the museum.  We weren't able to even attempt to see a fraction of the museum, so our guide Ania had a nice plan to see the main highlights in 3 hours time.  It was a nice museum, but very crowded as you can imagine.  Hard to compare it to the Louvre in Paris, but it definitely held it's own.  It even featured painters from the impressionist and post impressionist periods as well as Dutch, Spanish and Italian masters.  The museum itself is housed in the Winter  Palace of the Czars and Czarinas and many rooms were gilded in gold.  All in all, the Hermitage is definitely a must visit for art lovers and Royal family fans.

The afternoon was spent revisiting some of the sights that we saw on Friday with the guide, but didn't have a chance to actually enter.  For example, we went inside 2 churches that the guide just pointed out the day before.  We also strolled a bit down the flashy Nevsky Prospekt shopping street and again I wasn't all that impressed.  I guess fancy shopping just doesn't appeal to me when I am visiting a new city.  I like to get away from commercial aspects and take the time to actually soak in the city and the culture.

The third and final day in St. Petersburg was the journey to the famous Peterhof palace using the speedy hydrofoil.  Peterhof was the summer home to the Royal families.  This is perhaps the best way to get to Peterhof palace, but it is quite expensive compared to other street options.  We actually enjoyed the boat ride over and enjoyed seeing parts of the city away from the tourist center.  We arrived at Peterhof and paid our admission price and then started walking on the massive grounds with the gardens, water fountains, gold statues and buildings.  The shear size of the grounds were quite impressive, but then I started to make comparisons to the Versaille near Paris.  While this palace was quite expansive and serene, it just didn't have the overall charm and pristine gardens of Versaille in Paris.  I later learned that the Russians imported much of the French culture into their palaces.  We covered a decent amount of terrain on our feet but noticed that every building charged an admission fee.  Peterhof is very impressive, but the "nickel and diming" for entry into every single building was a huge letdown.  We decided against entering anything additional for a fee and just took in the peace and solitude of the gardens.  After strolling around for several hours we took the hydrofoil boat back to town and made one last walk around the tourist center before heading back to the hotel for the final time.  We later got our luggage and found our race car driver #2 for a lift back to the train station .  This time we got another Mario Andretti style driver as he floored the gas pedal and raced in and out of traffic making it to our train station in record time.  This had me wondering is it just a coincidence or do drivers in St. Petersburg truly just enjoy this kind of frantic driving?

Back on the train was again a pleasant and hassle free experience.  We arrived back in Finland around 11:00pm and were left with pleasant memories of a special weekend in Russia.  Even as an American who must pay exorbitant amounts for the required Visa, I recommend a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia.  The city was easy to navigate on foot and it felt safe, even safer and friendlier than I had imagined it to be.