The Road to Saint Petersburg
The Russian Federation always seemed like a daunting place for me to travel. With everything that happened in Crimea including the economic sanctions, dire economic conditions, and a crumbling ruble, I was a little apprehensive to go by myself. But, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to go after hearing how easy it was to get to Saint Petersburg, Russia.
I first got the idea of going from some Brazilians with whom I ripped around the island of Crete for a couple days whilst crammed into a tiny rental car. They told me Saint Petersburg, Russia was a fascinating place, and that it was very easy to get to from Finland. Fortunately for the Brazilians, they did not need special visas to enter the country. I remained skeptical of going until I met some American veterans while in Latvia. They had recently been to Russia and loved it, but they described to me the arduous and expensive process to obtain a Russian travel visa. I found out this applied to Canadians as well.
It wasn’t until I reached the vivacious city of Tallin in Estonia, which boasts one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe, that I seriously considered going. My intention was to take the ferry from Tallin to Helsinki. I thought it would be fun to observe all the Finnish people completing day trips to Estonia to buy heaps of cheap alcohol. That was until I encountered some Americans in my hostel who casually mentioned they had recently been to Saint Petersburg. They told me I could visit Russia for 72 hours visa-free. It could only be done if I took a ferry called Saint Peter Line from either Tallin or Helsinki to Saint Petersburg. I was sold. I skipped to the docks in Tallin and booked a ferry that day.
The only ferry leaving for Saint Petersburg happened to be from Helsinki the day I booked. I got my chance to catch the ferry to Finland with the liquor hoarders. I saw some people with dollies filled from top to bottom with a few hundred cans of beer, coolers, energy and mixed drinks.
A few hours later I found myself in my sleeper cabin aboard Saint Peter Line with my new roommate. My roommate happened to be an intriguing Russian dude in his 50s who was making his way back from Stockholm to Russia via ferries. He told me he had been commissioned to personally bring over some large paintings from Russia to a buyer in Stockholm. Also, he proudly boasted of his son who was a pro kite-surfer in Russia that had kite-surfed across the Atlantic ocean. I was rather dubious of the Atlantic Ocean claim. We were to be confined to our room for the next 9 hours creeping along the dark Baltic Sea to the Motherland, so I managed to feign a little awe and astonishment.
Welcome to Saint Petersburg, Russia
Early the next morning, I arrived at Saint Petersburg, Russia. Saint Peter Line had organized shuttles in from the port into the center of Saint Petersburg. An hour later I found myself next to the immense gold-domed Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
From there I started my walk to the hostel I had booked, Baby Lemonade, based on a recommendation from the Brazilians that I found written in my brutally worn Moleskine. To my surprise, Baby Lemonade turned out to be a great hostel in an old historic building. It had a huge common area connected to a large kitchen with old rock vinyls decorating all the walls. The theme of the hostel was Woodstock-Pink-Floyd-1960/70s rock-n-roll. My dorm room was the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ room next to the ‘John Lennon’ room. I found out the name ‘Baby Lemonade’ was taken from a 1970s psychedelic rock song by Syd Barrett.
My first stop in the historic city was the grandiose ‘The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.’ The church was built next to a canal over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was blown up in 1881, hence the spilled blood title. It sported the typical colorful rooftop spires seen on some Russian Orthodox churches. On the inside, the walls of were entirely covered in intricately detailed frescoes. I had never seen anything like it before out of any of the hundred or so churches I had visited in Europe.
Captivated by the church, I left to wander the streets of Saint Petersburg and soak in a little Russian culture.
I was again surprised by how vibrant the city was. There was an attractive canal system not unlike other major European cities I’d traveled to. The streets were filled with kinds of people playing music. I vividly remember seeing an effervescent band playing their instruments, singing, dancing and beckoning people to come to join them. At the same time while looking the other way I could see an old man playing a peculiar sounding instrument I’d never seen before.
There were also many interesting cafes nestled in the historic buildings. Some elaborate restaurants stuck out around every corner. This was the city center so I’m guessing the outskirts of the city were a bit more stricken, but as a tourist with a 72-hour visa-free time frame, you don’t typically leave the main areas. Overall, I was impressed. My preconceived notions of Russia were rapidly sublimating at that point.
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The next day my first and only stop was the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest, oldest and most important museums in the world. Situated in the Palace Square at the center of Saint Petersburg along the Neva River in a gigantic six-building complex including the Winter Palace (the former residence of multiple Tsars), the entire place was dripping in history.
I was equally mesmerized by the beautiful interiors and the incredible artwork inside. The artwork comes from all over the world and is so vast that if one takes a minute to look at every piece of artwork it would take 11 years to see everything.
I spent about seven hours wandering around till it hurt to walk. Eleven years would have been a little much.
For my penultimate day in Saint Petersburg, Russia I decided to venture to Peterhof Palace, often referred to the Versailles of the North, and it did not disappoint. My options to get there were by a few long bus connections or a somewhat expensive 45-minute hydrofoil on the Neva River departing near the Hermitage. Since I’d pretty much given up on budgeting and I’d never been on a hydrofoil before, hydrofoil it was.
Plus, I thought it was pretty cool to be able to take a boat to a palace.
I arrived at the dock, which was at the edge of the immense palace gardens, and began the long walk towards the front plaza.
There were fountains dotted everywhere throughout the gardens and they were all flowing with water.
Some fountains had some sort of sculpture plated in gold where the water would spout. Others were built to whatever it appeared the designer could imagine.
The culmination of the fountains was a huge multi-fountain stream-waterfall complex in front of the palace itself. The centerpiece of the complex was a sculpture of what looked like Poseidon ripping open the mouth of some deadly sea creature that was spurting a great stream of water into the sky.
I spent the entire day walking around the garden. I admired the aesthetically pleasing fountains and perfectly trimmed hedges surrounded by trees.
I’m pretty sure I was the only ‘westerner’ there. The grounds were filled with Russian tourists and interestingly enough, swaths of Chinese tourists. I later learned that Russia and China had relaxed their visa restrictions just before the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Back to Finland
I took it easy on my last day. At 3 pm, I had to go back to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral to catch my shuttle back to the ferry, so I lackadaisically walked from my hostel towards the cathedral. I guess I missed all the rich Russians as I randomly walked next to a Rolls Royce dealership sandwiched between some nondescript storefronts.
There was some time to spare when I arrived at the cathedral so I decided to purchase a ticket and see what Saint Isaac was about. It was another massive historic church with some impressive frescoes and worth checking out.
Later, as I caught my shuttle back, at the first glimpse of the ferry it started to rain for the first time in my 72 hour stay in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Thanks for a pleasant stay, Putin.