Archive for April, 2010

April 14th, 2010

St. Petersburg travelogue

As the frequent readers know, we visited St. Petersburg for a few days about a week ago. In Finland, Easter is a four day weekend, which is perfect for local travels. In Russia, Easter is celebrated later due to their Orthodox calendar, and thus it was a normal weekend there.

Russia requires visas from Finns, so you just cannot go there at a whim. Instead, we prepared the trip for two and half weeks beforehand. For example, we sent our passports to the travel agency that took care of the visa formalities for us. Fortunately there are such services, because just filling the visa forms was pretty complicated deal.

Our train departed Helsinki at 7.23 in the morning, so the day started pretty early in Espoo. For some odd reason, we were not that tired — maybe the excitement kept us going throughout the day. Our return tickets were also to the morning train, but I managed to change them at Helsinki railway station. Some people had cancelled their trips, and we were lucky enough to get seats to the afternoon train.

The train ride takes about six hours, but it was almost an hour late due. There were just so many people on the train that the border control took more time than usual. Riding the train with kids is easy, as long as you have a DVD player with you. When things got too reckless, we fired up a Chip and Dale disc and both boys were instantly silent and staring at the screen. The train took through Carelian Isthmus, former Finnish territory. It was in a pretty bad shape, muddy roads, small huts, and msotly forest. It used to be one of the richest parts in Finland before the wars.

The train stopped at Vyborg, but we were not allowed to go out. I’ve been once there for half a day, and it is very beautiful city. Now we got to see glimpses of the city while the train stayed at the station.

When we rode a taxi to our hotel — price agreed beforehand — the vastness of St. Petersburg dawned to us. We rode more than 15 minutes, and didn’t cover even half of the inner metropolitan area on our map.

The hotel was splendid; the room was big, the bed was comfortable, and the spa was really gorgeous — eight different saunas and several types of pools. Boys loved the place and we visited there every morning — the morning swim was free of charge. Also the buffet breakfast was excellent, one of the best I’ve ever had in any hotels.

We spent the rest of the first day strolling around the local area, the hotel is about fifteen minutes from the epicenter of the city, and tried to find some groceries. St. Petersburg shops are quite non-descript, for example, there are no brand names for the stores, just “Products”. Also the difference between cafes and restaurants is very blurry. Fortunately we had some guidance from a local expert, a friend of mine that had lived in the city for years. Without his instructions, we would have been pretty much lost with some places.

Saturday was a shopping day. We tried out the local metro that runs very deep under the river delta — the escalators were an experience of their own. We surfaced on Nevski Prospekt, visited a number of stores, and found nothing to buy. Except for a few plastic cars for the boys. There were a number of luxury shops, some western brand stores, and a few local ones, but none of them offered anything that we wanted. Weird.

On Sunday we visited the Hermitage, a former palace and now a museum. There is a good collection of modern art, a roomful of Picassos, for example, and czar residences in their full golden glory. The amount of gold and glitter is staggering.

While walking from the hotel to the museum, we saw a small car being parked on a park alley next to the museum — and the driver promptly pulled a bear from the backseat! We quickened our steps but tell boys not to run while walking past the bear. Out of ordinary things seem to happen in Russia, I would not even think to drive with a bear in car, or at least put it in the trunk of a wagon car.

Monday was a travel day, so we had only a few hours to spend before the train departed. We walked to the Peter’s and Paul’s fortress located on small isle on river Neva. The fortress was in surprisingly good shape and made a lasting impression to the boys with its thick walls and cannons. There was a space museum in one of the bastions — a pleasant surprise. The museum was a real bargain, and very interesting in general. The only complaint was that there were not that much English texts in the exhibition.

The train trip was pretty uneventful, the train was full and we didn’t have adjacent seats. Fortunately, we could switch some places and could stay pretty close to each other. The train was late again, but not that much as on Friday.

The whole trip was really pleasant, and we would be eager to do it again. Several people have asked about our experiences, and are considering going there. I can heartily recommend the city and the train connection. Riding the train was way better than flying, as there were no security checks, no hassle at the airport, and no arbitrary rules of what to pack and what not to pack. It should get even better at the end of the year, when they roll out the new fast train service between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, cutting the travel time to three and half hours.