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Wednesday 23 April 2014

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From Imperial St Petersburg to Soviet Moscow

A frozen River Neva in St Petersburg

St Petersburg and Moscow – opulence and imperialism in Russia

My decision to visit Russia was made in the Gellert baths in Budapest during the summer of 2006. The whole trip to Hungary that year had been borne out of my desire to see more of Eastern Europe, a quest which had begun with a short stay in Cracow, Poland, to celebrate my birthday the previous March. And there, in the 39 degree sunshine, waiting for the wave machine to kick in like a couple of ten year olds, my partner Jamie and I decided that, the following year, we would take the plunge and do ‘the big one’ – Russia itself.

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. But hey, you have to start somewhere, and the next decision was where to base ourselves. I suppose as a kid, I always thought of Russia as, essentially, Moscow but, having discussed it between pool, sauna and cold-plunge, we fixed upon St Petersburg as our city of choice. We were pretty determined to visit Moscow too, having read about the possibility of an overnight train, all of which sounded like a great adventure in the warm waters of the June afternoon. A great adventure it certainly turned out to be, but with more than a fleeting reminder that great adventures aren’t always so easy to have. Well worth it in retrospect, but more than a little crazy – sometimes even frightening – at the time.

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. A little digging around revealed that the hotel could easily do this, and a brief telephone conversation with the staff at the Petro Palace Hotel proved this to be merely a formality and something which they had attended to by email within a couple of hours. Applying for the visa was easy enough, but it can take up to three months and, Russia being Russia, there is absolutely no flexibility on this (unless, unbelievably, you’re a football fan and there’s a match you just can’t miss in Moscow). Mind you, it does look pretty cool in your passport when you do eventually get it.

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. Once through the slightly daunting passport control at the other end (Russian airport officials just do not smile, and you’re always wondering what’s going to go wrong, even when you know you’ve done everything to the letter) we took a cab to the Petro Palace and met those lovely English-speaking reception staff who had been so helpful all along.

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 weather was a little grey and a trifle cold, but the atmosphere around the city was exciting and vibrant. A little cautious in our first hours, we ventured into an ‘English bar’ a few streets from the hotel. It was the most Russian English bar I had ever seen, but did afford us our first taste of Baltika, a most refreshing, extremely palatable local beer.

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. Expensive it was, but then what’s Amex for?

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. We retired at about 1am, exhausted but content; sleep beckoned, but we had accomplished the first part of our journey with aplomb. Let’s see what tomorrow would bring.

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. Phew, that was close; this was going to be nerve-racking.

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. “They’re going to confiscate the camera… we’re going to have to go to the police station and explain ourselves; they might lock us up! Then what will we do?”

Jamie just froze on the spot, and we looked anywhere but at the men, trying to brazen it out. But, just as before, when they got within a few yards of us they simply carried on talking to one another and went about their business; we might as well not have been there.

We discovered, later that day, that these menacing men in uniform were, in fact, just lads from the nautical college. They obviously couldn’t give a bugger who we were, what we were photographing or where we went. It was almost an anticlimax! Mind you, it did bring a welcome air of calm to the rest of our stay in St Petersburg.

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. Satra Motors, the importer of Ladas to the United Kingdom, abandoned the marque in the early nineties, Moskvich ceased trading in 2002 (although the huge factory still remains, albeit dormant, in the possession of the company. A small part is now being used in a joint venture between Moscow and French car giant Renault) but was last imported to British roads in the mid seventies. The Trabant, that iconic little car which to this day still symbolises the freeing of East Germany with the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, never actually saw the light of day on our islands. In all probability, this was due more to its particularly utilitarian approach to motoring in the slow lane than the meagre emissions from its enfeebled little two-stroke power pack. Fantastic as it was for mobilising the dictatorship masses, it was deemed that even the most cost-conscious western Europeans would draw the line at this cute little sewing machine with a chassis.

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.

Over the coming days, we made sure we visited as many of the city’s highlights as we could, including the fabulously beautiful Winter Palace, stunning St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, The Hermitage, the incredible Kunstkammer – Peter the Great’s collection of grotesqueries, and the sumptuous apartments of the Yusupov Palace. We were thwarted at the latter, as we missed entry to the waxworks tableau of Rasputin’s murder in the cellar where it actually happened. You were only allowed in daily at 1pm, and it was already ten past. So that was that.

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. Wonder how we managed not to spot that during our pre-trip research! In reality, things were quite different. The rivers and canals were still fairly solid blocks of ice, and the early spring sunshine afforded us some warm days and breath taking sunsets across the Neva. Closer inspection of the river revealed vast quantities of litter frozen menacingly into its icy bulk, a contributory factor in the water being almost unfit for human consumption. St Petersburg tap water comes directly from the polluted Neva, and its antiquated filtration plants are unable to deliver it free of the parasitic bacteria Giardia lamblia. The locals seem largely immune to this, but if ingested it can cause acute diarrhoea. If you’re using tap water, it must be boiled for at least fifteen minutes, but we found it much safer and more convenient to stick to bottled water which is readily available throughout the city. It’s not even worth risking the tap water for cleaning your teeth.

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.

Applying for a Russian visa is now much more straight forward, although the cost is higher. UK visa applications are no longer handled by the Russian Embassy, but are now outsourced to a third party. There is a processing fee, but the service can now provide a next day or seven day return, depending on your requirements.

For more information, or to apply for a Russian visa, visit:

http://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk/

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2 Responses to “From Imperial St Petersburg to Soviet Moscow”

  1. Gustavo Miotti says:

    Hi,

    If you would have to pick one to visit would be St.Petesburg or Moscow?

  2. Nige Burton says:

    Hi Gustavo – thanks for your comment. It’s a difficult one, as they are both amazing cities, but I think for me it would have to be St Petersburg. It’s exciting and vibrant, but also so very beautiful and romantic, and a little easier on its visitors than Moscow. I have visited them both a couple of times, but each time my memories of St Petersburg just make me smile that little bit more.

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