Helsinki is surprisingly close to St Petersburg. At least I found it surprising. You can get there in just 4 hours on the train if you have a visa. Or you can take a very convenient ship that takes you there overnight to spend some time in the city without the need to get a visa in advance (for EU residents). This year it was possible to stay in Russia for two nights under this agreement, but rumour has it that the schedule will change next year and only one night is spent in the city when coming by ship. We decided to take the trip just outside of the busiest season at the end of September/beginning of October, to avoid the highest prices as well as big queues in St Petersburg. And we couldn’t have picked a better time to travel: The tickets for the ship were cheap, we found a fantastic and cheap Airbnb right in the city centre, the weather was gorgeous and ideal for long explorations, and not just the houses, but also the trees shone golden.
We went on St Peter Lines’ Princess Maria and shared a 4-bed inside cabin. The cabin was small but quiet. There are several restaurants on board, as well as a pub and a bar with stage and entertainment program. We had been promised a high-class ballet performance by another traveller, and despite not being fans of dance performances, we decided to stay and check it out. I must say, it was a bit too exotic for my taste: It started with loud dance music and masked dancers handing out vodka to the audience, followed by some very cheesy singing and squeaky flute karaoke, at which point we retreated. Food and drink on the ship were not pricy at all when compared to Helsinki and quite delicious – after we managed to decipher the badly translated menus and recovered from laughing fits.
We arrived in St Petersburg the next morning and got off the ship immediately, ready to explore. But Russian bureaucracy had different plans for us. Although the ship was almost empty, we had to queue for over an hour at passport controls, where 2 very dutiful officials per booth took between 2-10 minutes per person to check passport details and wave them through. Finally on the other side, a free transfer bus service from St Peter Lines took us right into the centre, to St Isaac’s Square.
We only had small backpacks and decided to not wait until check-in time at our Airbnb, but instead to start exploring the city right away. We withdrew some money from the nearest ATM, which only issued us with 5000 rubels notes, and decided to scale the tower of St Isaac’s Cathedral. The lady at the ticket desk at first didn’t want to accept the large notes, but couldn’t tell us where we could change them for smaller ones, so in the end grudgingly took them. We climbed the stairs to about halfway up the tower, which is as far as you can go. From here, we got a lovely first overview of the city.
We then walked past the admirality building with its colourful autumnal park and crossed the Neva River. While we enjoyed lunch at a fancy riverside restaurant, clouds gathered and released a thick shower of rain. By the time we were finished they had retreated to build a dramatic backdrop to the skyline on the other side of the river. We walked to the Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signal Corps. I parted from my companions there, because there isn’t much that would interest me less. Instead I took a wander around this northern side of the Neva, where I found an impressive mosque, covered in blue tiles with intricate patterns. I walked north until I reached the Botanic Garden, passing through residential areas and shopping streets. As it was getting late, I did not enter but instead made my way back on a different but similar route. At the park next to Gorkovskaya Metro station, I found a lovely collection of sculptures depicting St Petersburg’s most famous buildings in miniture, placed on a simplified map of the city.
I picked up my fellow travellers at the museum and we decided to finally get rid of our luggage at the flat. It was located in a quiet side street only few hundred metres from St Isaac’s Square. Furnishings were simple, but modern and clean, and the house seemed very secure. We rested for a bit before heading out again to explore Newsky Prospekt at night and find some food. We found it in the shape of a self-service buffet, which sadly turned out to be very meaty (little warning to the Vegetarians out there: “Napolitana” in Russia apparently means with chicken and not much else. You can imagine my disappointment when I was handed the plate). In the end I found some mash and delicious chocolate cake for dinner. The cakes, and especially chocolate cakes, you get in St Petersburg are absolutely heavenly – and I daresay I’m pretty much an expert on both chocolate and cake.
Before our trip, I had already booked tickets to Catherine Palace online. So on Saturday we took a metro to Moskovskaya station, and from there one of the frequent (and unbelievably cheap!) buses to Pushkin. We tried to get off at one stop, but the lady selling the tickets – despite not speaking any English – wouldn’t let us get off, insisting that the next stop was the right one. She was probably right, but my companions had spotted a “Socialist Cafe” which they wanted to visit. But we didn’t want to cross the friendly lady, got off at the suggested stop and walked back. The cafe was dark, clean and looked a bit like an American Diner from an 80s film. We were hungry, but they weren’t serving any food. So the others settled for a coffee, but after some discussion it turned out that there was no coffee either, and we left.
We quickly reached Catherine Palace, which, on first glance, seemed completely deserted – none of the dreaded queues we had heard so much about. We entered the courtyard, and there was a smallish queue waiting in front of one of the doors. There were no signs anywhere, so we had no clue what they were queuing for, but decided to join anyway, in the hope that it was the main entrance. After about 15 Minutes we already got in, walked past a number of souvenir stalls and joined another queue leading to the palace tour. When it was our turn, we were immediately sent back, because we had not handed in our coats at the cloakroom. Turns out, only tour guides (like the stout lady in front of us) are allowed to keep coats and bags in pretty much any attraction in St Petersburg.
Finally inside, we found massive amounts of gold. Wikipedia says that 100kg of gold were used in there, but it certainly looked a lot more to me. Several rooms were clad in this same style, quite differently to the British castles I’m used to, in which each room has a different colour and feel. Finally we reached the famous Amber Room, in which photography was strictly forbidden. At first glance, the room looked like it might just as well be covered in plastic. But looking closer, there were amazing details in the different colours of amber, as well as intricate carvings. Once through this room, we finally encountered some more rooms in other styles: One decorated with tightly packed pictures, frame on frame, another with beautiful hand-painted wallpaper.
After passing through this side of the palace, we had a quick look through the temporary exhibition, which was about fans. I like fans, they are useful and elegant, and here they had some absolutely gorgeous examples on display. Then we went to explore the vast parklands. According to our site map, there was a Chinese village which we tried to reach. At first, we marched off into the wrong direction altogether, then we somehow ended up separated from it by a fence. Since it looked like an ugly blob of concrete from the outside, we decided to leave it be and instead head for long overdue lunch.
We found it at an Italian Restaurant opposite Pushkin train station. It was a funny experience: All four of us ordered at the same time. One dish came out fairly quickly. When that person was almost finished we got two more, and a further 5 minutes later the last dish finally arrived. I also couldn’t get over the fact that my drink came in a disposable cup. I try to avoid unnecessary waste and felt really guilty for having ordered it. You may think I’m exaggerating, but this certainly placed this restaurant in the bottom rank of my experiences in Russia. After lunch, we decided to take a train back to St Petersburg, to see something else than on the way out. While most of the station looked like a pretty fancy but otherwise normal station, all trains to St Petersburg departed from the platform opposite, which could only be reached by a detour through a row of cake-selling old ladies and crossing a street. A particularly daring woman decided to cross the road right in front of the train.
Back in St Petersburg we took another walk on Newsky Prospekt, this time in daylight. I must admit, I found it a lot more intriguing in the dark with lit houses. But we also discovered some lovely things here, like a whole orchestra of small musicians on a street lamp. We arrived back to the flat in the evening and our feet were killing us, so we decided to look for some dinner in the neighbourhood. I should mention that any restaurant and cafe we came across in St Petersburg had something special about them, like unique decoration that gave each place a charming personality. None of the cold, impersonal chain interiors that are now found across most of Europe. So this evening we found a small restaurant located in a basement, looking a bit dodgy from the outside. But we were hungry, and it seemed the only option still open, so we went in. Inside we found an Azerbaijani restaurant, warm and hospitable and filled with curious artefacts and wooden art. The restaurant owner didn’t speak a word of English, but apparently still very much felt the need to entertain his foreign guests: And he took his time. He took the first person’s order, smiled happily, said some words in Russian, took the menu and brought it to the reception desk. Then he came back to take the second order, and the same game repeated itself, until all orders had been taken. I had gone for an “Aubergine Shashlik” (luckily the menu had English names…) What I received was an entire, burnt aubergine, sliced open in the middle with a piece of pork fat jammed in. There was no sauce, no side, no frills – but I still preferred this restaurant to our lunch.
When I got up in the morning, I could hardly walk. I may not look like a couch potato, but I’m really not used to much exercise and we had been walking huge distances in the past two days. If you go to St Petersburg, be prepared to walk a lot, because everything is huge, any museum or palace visited will be several miles on your step counter. So this morning, we took the first break already in the posh department store Au Pont Rouge. Any pricetag in there was far out our reach, but it was interesting to browse the building, particularly the cosmetics department, which was mainly empty and white.
We then visited the Church of the Saviour of Blood. Behind the lengthy and not very appealing name is that church that looks like a gingerbread house getting high on multicoloured icing. I almost had to be dragged away from it when photographing the outside – so much to discover, so many details, so many colours! And the inside was no less interesting, with every inch covered in mosaics and paintings of saints and bible scenes. And of course gold. There’s always gold in St Petersburg.
We then continued to the Winter Palace at the Hermitage. In front of it, we had already discovered in the days before, the probably cutest carriage in the world was offering to take tourists for a ride. It looked like it couldn’t quite decide if it was still meant to be a coach or already a pumpkin again, and the fairytale princess inside me immediately wanted to take it home. We then started to tour the museum. Again a shocking revelation: Neither Mr Always Right nor I are particularly interested in art and old stuff in museums. So we decided to make this a game: The first floor of the museum inside the winter palace doesn’t just contain art, but also the stunning palace rooms, which are a lot more interesting at least to me. And we wanted to visit each one of them. You may think this isn’t a problem, but then again, you have no idea how huge this thing is. To give you a clue: we didn’t stop long in most of the rooms and it still took us around 2 hours to finish the floor. We also crossed off all visited rooms on our map, to avoid missing any out, since there is no one straight route going through all of them.
And some of the rooms were really stunning and filled with wonderful details: a library clad in dark wood, a light flooded room with white and gold pillars leading out to a terrace, a room entirely kept in red with frilly gold ornaments and bird claws clutching a giant gem as door handles, a room hung entirely with huge paintings of dead or dying animals, a room that had so much gold I thought I was going colourblind, and in pleasant contrast a blue and white room with hardly any gold but instead beautiful stucco… Something that really stood out to me were also the beautiful examples of wood inlaying. Not only on furniture, like an unbelievably delicate bird on the side of – well, probably a chest of drawers or something -, but also in the parquet flooring. And lastly, we also had brief looks at some of the art, like a rather disturbing painted plate: Creepy old man sniffing young girl’s armpit while another creepy old man is holding her down.
Later in the afternoon it was time for us to go back to the ship. Again there was a useful shuttle bus leaving from St Isaac’s Square, and this time no queues at the passport control. And in the last sunlight, even the concrete harbour building began to shine in gold, like the rest of the city.