17.04.2012 - 20.04.2012
The Venice of the North, the European Russia, St Petersburg seems to get many labels. To us it would be our favourite place on our Russian leg of the tour, and one of the beautiful cities we have seen in Europe to date. There is something about the architecture, the history, the lifestyle that seem to give it both a comfortable familiarity and decisive uniqueness. In many ways it was a city who's charm was ingrained within the continual contradiction of which it existed in. It proudly displayed an old and full history while leading a cultural surge into the future, its streets were filthy yet housed pieces of great beauty, being both ancient and modern, its people hurried along on their way, yet would stop to offer assistance and a smile, presenting themselves immaculately while also displaying signs of economical hardships, drivers flew around the streets like children on red cordial yet somehow respected each other and made it work, and the women were absolutely stunning while the men were... not so much. These little differences all seemed to coexist and form the melting pot that is the city. From unspoken subtlety to almost comical blatancy these contradictions created the magnificence of a rose blossoming after a cold communist winter, but one which would always keep a few thorns.
In many ways this post is going to maintain a similar theme. I have already said it was one of our favourite places, yet due to time restraints, I don’t feel like I will be able to write about it at the length it deserves, or with the descriptive approach I would love to take. Instead I'm going to have to just give you a few (hopefully brief) highlights.
-Getting there. This was a highlight for a few reasons. First of all, we were scared of Russian immigration, so arrived at Polands Warsaw Airport four hours before of flight. So relieved to pass customs, we sat and had a coffee, forgetting completely about the other passport control outside our gate, which saw us sprinting through the airport and getting shuttled out to the runway in order to get on the plane after final call. Arriving miraculously then at the baron wasteland that is St Petes airport, we were then delayed by passport control who weren't convinced that I was the man holding the passport. Admittedly my photo is a good 9-10 years old, from a time where I sported gelled up hair, crazy striped facial hair, braces, and a somewhat youthful exuberance, a far cry from the age beaten, beard-faced, balding and exhausted old man they saw in front of them. But nowhere else have I had a problem, but we made it.
The shuttle from the airport into town should’ve had the MTV's Jackass logo painted on the side with Johnny Knoxville greeting us with a “Hi, I'm Johnny Knoxville, and this is Russian Death Ride”. It was a banged up little van with a door which was barely hanging on, a windshield that was so cracked and smashed you couldn’t see through it and who's driver had no regard for for the safety of any living or inanimate object on the planet. I think I died a thousand deaths on that trip, surely to the hilarity of the native passengers who sat there docile and seemingly at peace with their future introduction to the grill of the the oncoming trucks. The only consolidating factor was seeing the dilapidated cold grey housing projects we passed on the way, seeing the level of poverty and oppression that still existed just outside the cities walls, and getting numerous offers of assistance from every English speaking passenger that came on. One lady even got off at our stop, and flagged down the next bus that went to our hotel, pushing us into the crowds in the most helpful of ways.
Thankful for our lives and somehow finding our hotel in the middle of a construction site, the reception didn’t have a record of us staying there, but seeing some sort of reservation, just sent us to their flagship hotel instead, which was a much better establishment, right in the centre, and a massive upgrade at no extra cost. It all felt a bit dodgy but we didn’t care.
-Crossing the street. We realised quickly that like getting into a shuttle van, to cross the road you just have to take your life in your hands, step out into the traffic and hope for the best. It was the Russian way.
-Walking around on the first day. As we normally do the first day, we took to the streets and just got a feel for the city. Every building was amazing, there was something incredible everywhere you looked, from chiselled artistry to a detailed statue to remaining bombs shell holes. It was a bit chilly, but the fact that every time we turned a corner there would be something that would rival most cities main attraction, was enough to help us soldier on.
-Speaking of soldiers, the cities Military Presence. This was a bit of a strange one. There were military uniformed people all the time in the streets, but they weren't patrolling anything, just computing like any other pedestrian, carrying their lunch box and bag on the way to work. At one point, we were sitting having a coffee, and suddenly tanks started rolling down the street, followed by a procession of army vehicles. No one seemed to care to even acknowledge bar the tourists. It wasn’t a parade, and it was neither celebrating or intimidating, they were just cruising.
On another day, we came outside a museum to a massive demonstration of troops. They were marching in formations, but again, it didn’t seem an intimidating thing, as most the guys were joking and laughing, and even playing on their iphones, so the whole vibe was a bit weird.
-Pete's Walking Tour. One day we decided to do a tour. It was supposed to be one of those group walking tours where you all meet at a point and go do the touristy stuff. We do it mainly for the info and the fact you don’t have to look at the map for a few hours. Anyway, we went to the meeting point, and it turned out that we were the only ones there. Plus, the original tour guide called in sick, so the owner, Pete, turned up. So, as it turned out, we got a personalised tour, for nearly five hours, by the first guy to start taking tours after the fall of the soviet. He took us to heaps of awesome spots and told us heaps of history. We even had talks about current art culture, music and politics, which was especially interesting given the recent elections, which as far as the people are concerned are a complete farce, and the idea of democracy is a squashed bug on the boot of the current dictatorship. Anyway, if you get a chance to book a tour with them its incredible and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
-The people. This was one of those weird ones too. As soon as we landed into the country we received numerous offers to help us out, and all apparently genuine. I can tell by now when someone is trying to scam me, which is contradictory to everything we heard of Russia. People weren't rude and pushy, with a few exceptions, and a lot of them would happily try their English if you greeted them in Russian first. I will say here though that we later found these to all be unique qualities of St Petersburg, everywhere else was the complete opposite. And what perplexed me was the appearance of people. I'm going to get a bit superficial here, but the men looked like stereotypical Russian men. They seemed harsh, and rough and serious. They didn’t wear nice clothes and I'm sorry to say, were butt ugly. I know it's bad to say, but purely based on physical appearances, they were gross. But, the women, were drop dead gorgeous. I'm taking stepping out onto the street felt like stepping into a Victoria Secret afterparty. And I can say this, because Mel commented on it quite regularly. They were absolutely stunning. I'm not saying that large block of vanity floated on anything that resembled a personality, but I never met them so I cant judge. What really tripped me out though, was that if we saw these sexy, confident women with a male companion, they were always some horrifically unattractive guy in dirty clothes, terrible haircut, and seemingly treated the girl like some sort of animal. I'd say dog, but they probably treat their dog better. Again, they may be very nice dudes who love them very much, but it was crazy to see just how much this occurred. Or maybe they all have massive packages with matching bank accounts, I don’t know. Anyway, if you're a young single guy struggling to find love/lust in my native country, I would go to St Petersburg. You couldn’t be worse than the local options the girls have.
-CouchSurfing meeting. Seeing as we couldn’t CouchSurf in Russia due to Visa restrictions, we went to a local weekly meeting, which is a common thing in most cities. Its an organised event in which local members get together to hang out, and travellers that happen to be passing by can stop in and meet some locals. Well, the St Petes one had about 50 people there, held at a funky upstairs bar just off the main street, close enough for us to walk. We ended up talking to several local Russians, a Dutch guy, a Turkish guy and an English girl, but after most left we stayed for a bit with a small group of about five of us and just chatted into the night. The local beer wasn’t bad either. We took some night shots on the way home.
-The River. This was a really cool place in the city. At one point its almost laid out as a main square of the city, with two elaborate bridges, the Fortress and the Hermitage Palace forming its sides. The first day or two we were there, there were massive chunks of ice sailing down it. During winter its completely frozen over. And during white nights and the opening of the bridges, its apparently a big party spot.
-The island in the middle of the river. At any time, this place had at least 3-5 weddings going down, and they were all hilarious. But the best part was when Mel and I walked down into the residential part of it. Walking from the built up face of a city into its seedy underbelly is always a highlight for me, as a few blocks can create such a transition in living styles. On this walk, we went from arguably the most beautiful view in the city, through some terribly run down neighbourhoods where dilapidated buildings were crumbling as they stand, to emerge in what seemed like a cool little student area, near a performing and fine arts University, split by a little bohemian street ripe with cafe culture.
-The Hermitage Museum. Yeah it was pretty cool. Not greatly laid out but it had some interesting things inside.
-The Church of The Spilled Blood. It's gorgeous. The outside rocks, and the inside is all crazy detailed mosaics. It's quintessential Russian.
-The monuments and landmarks. Everywhere you turn in St Petersburg there is some awesome building or monument. Most are churches of course, so many you couldn’t take pics inside, but all were different in some way and thrived in the beauty of artistic detail and historical significance. And plenty of statues of Peter the Great, founder of the city, and symbol of Russian greatness.
And thats pretty much the highlight package of St Petersburg. We didn’t really get too much into the cuisine, or get to spend as much time with the locals as we would have liked, but it was nice to just be a visitor observing the life of the city pass by. Overall we did have a really nice time, due in part I think to the fact that we were bombarded with tales of danger and deceit about the place, however we were lucky enough not to experience it. I guess the relief of the reality let us relax and just take in the place. I would have loved to have seen it in summer though, maybe next time.