St Petersburg to Moscow
Saint Petersburg Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
March 11th, 2007 – by: Nige820
Of course, ‘doing Russia’ sounds a bit like many of our stateside cousins claiming they’ve ‘done Europe’ in five days when, in reality, they may have scratched the surface of a handful of European capitals.
The first taste of the work and attention to detail required to plan such a trip surfaced quite quickly. We chose the following March as a good time to go, and decided we would plan the whole operation ourselves, rather than subscribe to an official tour. Oh yes, we were going to ‘rough it’ and show ourselves - to more than an odd raised eyebrow from friends and family - that we were more than capable of putting together a little holiday in the former Soviet Union. And time constraints for other trips meant we had to bring it all in in seven days. Piece of cake! Now, where to start? Ok, we needed visas - should be straight-forward enough. But wait: to get a visa, we had to have an invitation from somebody already resident in Russia. We didn’t know any Russians.
We flew to St Petersburg with our carrier of choice, British Airways. It had to be via London, but there wasn’t much waiting around and we had a pretty seamless, trouble-free journey.
The Petro, situated on Malaya Morskaya, was an amazing hotel, far exceeding our expectations. It was spotlessly clean, well appointed, roomy and furnished to a standard approaching sheer luxury. And every single member of staff went out of his or her way to make our stay perfect and - dare I say it - always with a huge, beaming smile. Once settled into our gorgeous room, we nipped out to do a little exploring.
The hotel’s Baron Restaurant, too, was something else. We had heard that Moscow was the most expensive city in the world to live or stay in, so we figured St Petersburg wouldn’t be so far behind. We were absolutely right (a meal for two with a bottle of red coming in at around £90 to £100) but the menu, and the way it was cooked and presented, we absolutely exceptional. When I’m abroad, I very much like to partake of local food and drink, and the Baron serves up Russian cuisine at its very best; dinner rapidly became something we really looked forward too.
It was as we ascended to our seventh floor luxury apartment (I hesitate to call it just a room) that we discovered what turned out to be one of the real highlights of the Petro Palace: adjacent to the lift was the incredible Sky bar. This ultra trendy yet oh so relaxing bar was open each evening (until the wee small hours) and was literally a stunning window on the bustling world below, affording superb views of St Isaac’s Cathedral, The Hermitage and beyond. Small bar stools in the main window allowed us to relax over a Russian Standard and dreamily pass a very pleasant hour or two watching the world go by, while more comfortable sofas adorned the main floor area, and were perfect for intimate little gatherings.
Sunday dawned, and we breakfasted amply in the morning room. Ready for our first real day of adventure, we packed the camera bag, wrapped up warm in hats, coats, scarves and gloves and bravely set forth into the city. We had read in our ‘Rough Guide’ that we should carry our passports with us at all times in case we were challenged by some figure of authority, so these we secreted away in a secure pocket of the bag. We were soon glad we had, as not one hundred yards down the road we were about to be challenged by a couple of men in uniform. We must have looked every inch guilty criminals as they walked directly toward us and then, at the last minute, changed course and crossed the road.
As we headed toward the city centre, and generally in the direction of the Winter Palace, we stumbled upon an expanse of parkland, which proudly boasted a bust of Lenin at its centre. “I must take some pictures of that,” I said, reaching for the camera. We both made for the clearing, and I was happily snapping away when Jamie nervously tapped me on the shoulder and motioned to a fine looking building on the far street. Oh bugger. Here were some more of those uniformed men, and this time, without a shadow of a doubt, they were heading directly for us. “Obviously we shouldn’t be taking pictures of the statue,” I said rather hysterically, almost as if it were Jamie’s fault.
The next few days settled into a spirit of relaxed adventure, as we discovered the highways and byways of this imperial city. Outside of our hotel, the spoken English was something of a rarity, making life more than a little interesting at times, but in the main we got by with next to no trouble. It was probably by about late Monday afternoon that I realised my slightly irritating sore throat was down to the appalling air quality in the city, and, once aware of it, there were times when you could actually taste the smoggy fumes as an endless stream of traffic trudged by. To compound the problem, the perpetual lanes of cars, lorries and buses were regularly punctuated with older Ladas, Moskviches and Trabants - cars which were all outlawed in the UK due to unacceptable emissions.
Another common sight on Russian roads is the ever-popular Volga, a strictly-Soviet automobile which was, it would seem, mainly available in black or navy blue. This huge, relatively ugly vehicle looks like the type of car you would be bundled into the boot of, your rotting corpse then left to languish at the bottom of a frozen River Neva, the obligatory concrete block tethered securely round your middle. Oh dear, I’m getting stuck in a forties Hollywood movie again, although life in St Petersburg does sometimes feel as if it’s in black and white with an occasional flash of red; little did I know what Moscow would bring.
Consultation with our ‘Rough Guide’ informed us that March was possibly the worst time of year to visit the country: having missed the twinkling beauty of the frozen winter, we were not yet in the full throws of spring, so could expect everything to be a thawing mush.
Determined to take our midnight train to Moscow, we ventured out to Moskovskiy vokzal (Moscow Station) situated on the famous Nevskiy prospekt, the main shopping and commerce street in St Petersburg. The station is at ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square), a vast, traffic-clogged intersection. Our initial enquiries seemed fruitful, and before we knew it we’d purchased overnight train tickets for Wednesday’s train, meaning we’d fetch up in Moscow at 8 o’clock Thursday morning. As I handed over my visa card to complete the transaction, I felt a wave of slightly anxious excitement at the prospect of this great journey; we were going to achieve our goal of making this a two-centre trip.
The remaining days leading up to our midnight assignation were spent exploring as much of St Petersburg as we could. This was made even more pleasurable by the discovery of a superb ‘local’, the Chaika Restaurant, nestling quietly on Griboyedova channel embankment, just off the main hustle and bustle of Nevskiy prospekt itself. The ‘Seagull’, complete with its predominantly nautical theme, proved to be a first rate hostelry, refreshing our palate regularly with authentic blinis and the like, all washed down with a glass or two of Baltika or the equally delicious Stary melnik. On the wall in the main lounge can be found a huge sheet of paper, on which patrons are encouraged to leave ‘clean’ graffiti. Having left our own mark, both Jamie and I spent a pleasant half hour reading these small records of social history; hard to believe our own contributions will soon be two years old.
Wednesday evening came around soon enough, and the concierge at the Petro Palace had organised a car to take us to Moskovskiy vokzal in time for our witching hour train. The washed and uniformed chauffeur turned up in his leather-trimmed Saab turbo, and conveyed us to the station in great style. Our adventure had begun. On arrival at the station, we soon identified our train and handed over the tickets. Our berth was basic but adequate, and we took turns taking pictures of one another as we posed in what was to be our ‘room’ for the night. We were just settling in when, to our horror, the cabin door was flung wide and we were joined by another traveller, who grunted ‘good evening’ in his native, Russian tongue, and proceeded to undress. As the full impact of the situation hit us, I muttered to Jamie “I think you’re sitting on his bed.” Minutes later, another passenger joined us too; we were in a four-berthed cabin, and would have to share with these two strangers who spoke no more English than we spoke Russian. In an attempt to prevent sheer panic turning to blind terror, we readied ourselves for bed and climbed into our bunks. We might well be murdered in our beds, but at least we’d wind up in Moscow by morning. Clearly more comfortable with this ‘everyday’ situation, our fellow-travellers were soon fast asleep, untroubled by similar thoughts of perishing at the hands of clearly homicidal foreign cabin mates. The night passed slowly, as wariness and heat conspired to keep us awake, but eventually the conductor was heard banging on the door; it was our six-thirty alarm call after which we were offered tea. Still mindful of the possibility of a gut-full of lamblia, we politely declined and joined the queue for the bathroom, although I think I was slightly cleaner before I went in. We did, however, get to enjoy the final forty-five minutes of our journey watching our approach to Moscow from the train windows.
As we disembarked the train at Leningradskiy vokzal, we decided it would be a good idea to buy our return tickets straight away. It's a very good job we did, as securing these tickets, and indeed our passage back to St Petersburg was the devil's own job. Nobody - not one operative - in the whole of St Petersburg station spoke a word of English. Extracting information about train times was like pulling teeth, and the whole experience made the Moskovites appear difficult and unfriendly. It took a very panicky one hour and twenty minutes to make ourselves understood and actually find someone willing to sell us our tickets, only to discover that they wouldn't take any form of credit or debit card; it had to be cash or nothing. Bollocks. So a further fifteen minutes was spent running around outside the station to find an ATM and, you guessed it, when we returned, the only saving grace of a kiosk that was offering us any kind of lifeline had shut up shop and nice girly had disappeared. I think attitude and perseverance alone allowed us to finally procure our tickets, which were for the 10pm train that evening. Phew! What a thoroughly Soviet experience.
Fighting off the cold rain and black skies with a more than welcome bottle of red stood us in acceptable stead to explore the Kremlin, Red Square, St Basil's Cathedral and all the other delights which this incredible city has to offer, and we were actually just getting settled when the time came to catch our train back to St Petersburg (again sharing with two unknown Russian counterparts).
Upon arrival at Moscow station in St Petersburg, we were approached by a rather unkempt looking Russian gentleman determined to give us a taxi ride. In no state to complain or fight back, we reluctantly accepted, and soon found ourselves in his dark green Lada, fast in the back courtesy of child locks, expecting to be robbed, murdered or otherwise dispatched, our used corpses being flung into the freezing Neva at any moment. In fact, he simply took us to our hotel, pointing out landmarks on the way (we hadn't the heart to tell him we'd already spent the best part of a week here) and demanding the same fare we'd paid our lovely Saab chauffeur the day before. At that point, who cared? Being fleeced for a few rubles was the least of our worries; I just needed to go to bed for a few hours before enjoying our last day in this beautiful city.
As is usually the case anywhere, our last day and a half in St Petersburg flew by. We revisited old favourite haunts, not least Chaika and our beloved Sky bar, before readying ourselves for the journey home. And you know, despite the difficulties, trials and tribulations, we loved our first experience of Russia. It was certainly a country we wanted to explore a great deal more. Sure, it was tough at times, but then, as I've already said, great adventures are not always easy to have.
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