Tuesday, May 7, 2013

tSH goes to Russia: St. Petersburg edition

Finally we had arrived in beautiful St. Petersburg!

Exhausted and slightly weary from our odd sea journey, we were excited nonetheless. Adventure was to be had and within an 8 hour time span! We were being given 72 hours of no-visa-necessary permission to be in Russia, and we were going to make use of it like there was no tomorrow (because for us and Russia, there wasn't going to be).

And what did we see upon first arriving? Snow! Frozen waters! And...

This absolutely hilarious thing. This little boat (it actually wasn't that little, probably about 50 feet long) with tires chained around it, driven by one man, that was doing wheelies around our ship.

We're pretty sure he was there to break up the ice so we could continue to move forward (since he was there in the evening as well, doing the same thing), but we liked to pretend that:

  • He was not actually hired to do anything but was actually just out there on that Saturday morning and evening doing what he loves to do: drive his boat really fast and do wheelies just because it's fun as hell.
  • Though we couldn't tell, he was actually blasting Kei$ha or Lady Gaga at full volume in his cockpit because no one could hear it except him.
  • He was screaming something like "I love vodka!" at the top of his lungs the whole time as he did these wheelies and 360/720 spins.
In either case it was absolute hilarity to watch this guy, doing his turns and spins in the icy water, breaking up the ice. Sometimes his spins seemed irrelevant to our range of motion, hence our thoughts that he was not actually there to help us, but just out there doing his thing and having fun.

I stand by our version of the story.

I will say though, the sound of so much ice and snow being moved by our massive ship is something like I've never heard before. It sounds like tons of sand being crunched together. It's a wonderful sound. Should you ever hear anything like it, be sure to be silent and listen. It's fantastic.

Once we hit the port it was time to wait in immigration for half an hour (though it seemed like forever), and meet our first Russian governmental officials. The verdict?

Just as blunt and cold as stereotype would have you believe, which was kinda surprising.

Upon checking into our journey on the Finnish side we were given a host of things:

  • Arrival card
  • Departure card
  • Boarding card (also to be used as our magnetic room keys)
  • Landing papers (to be filled in twice for arrival and departure)
When we arrived in Russia we were to give these immigration officers the arrival card and half of the landing papers (the one for arrival).

J went before me in the line and gave the woman the appropriate documents. The woman took them, stamped her passport and handed it back. J asked if she needed the arrival card back and the woman's response was: "If I take, you no need." Boom. How you like them apples! (Or rather, how you like that borscht!).

Anyway, after that it was just a hop, skip, and a jump into a free shuttle to the center of the city, and we were there.

Took some photos along the way (photodocumentation skills back up to 99% (i.e. this is as good as it's gonna get)):

Our driver dropped us off at St. Isaac's Cathedral and said we would be picked up at the same location at the appointed times (once an hour starting from 2:45pm until 4:45pm...our ship left port at 7pm).

Thus, we started our rabid 6.5 hour tour of St. Petersburg:

St. Isaac's Cathedral Colonnade

Luckily I'd remembered to photocopy the few pages of the Scandinavian Europe (yes, oddly un-PC...on several accounts) guidebook I'd been given as a gift by my sister on St. Petersburg before leaving London so we had some pages of narration for us at each of the sites we went to. (Huh hah! Preparation for a change!).

St. Isaac's was our first test of that. It said that though the cathedral was great and all, the thing you really wanted to see was the colonnade and its gorgeous panoramic views. So, having limited time in the city, we took its advice and only bought the ticket for the way up (and not inside).

245 steps up. Surprisingly not as bad as I would have thought, though my friends definitely disagreed. There was some huffing and puffing near the ends, but the views were breathtaking:

And it was definitely ice cold up there. Freezing winds, not much wind buffer, and some serious lack of sleep plus a lack of breakfast...you do the maths. We only stayed up there long enough to take a walk around (it goes in a complete circle around the dome, which we did do our due diligence on) and then get the f*$# out of there.

Russia may not be as cold as Helsinki or London, but 245 steps up it was definitely not that pleasant. Even at noon. Harumph. I need me some warmer climes.

We decided to route ourselves to the best points after this, both to make best use of our time and to conserve energy (I think you can tell what kinds of travelers this group was), and J had thoughtfully put all of the interesting locales on her phones on Nokia Maps ahead of time. This, in combination with my photocopied pages, worked magic.

We decided to head to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood next (the most famous church in the city) and to take a route that would land us near Stolle, a famous chain known for its pies (both savory and sweet). Food was promised so we made haste.


As we were walking our way to the Church (as I'll call it in short, since it's so long), I happened to spot the restaurant by accident as my eyes wandered around the shop windows.

One thing I will note about St. Petersburg - serious lack of grocery stores or fooderies in general. Dunno if this is intentional or not (you've heard of historical food shortages and the like), but this seems kinda ridiculous. Perhaps it was just the streets we were on (i.e. the Nevsky Prospect, or the most famous shopping street in St. Petersburg), but still...no grocery stores? Seems a little strange to say the least. There were barely any coffee shops. This could also be exacerbated by the fact that none of us know Cyrillic. But it wasn't to this point.

Anyway, back to the pies. We walked in and were greeted with the wonderful smell of warm and baking. And the sight of gorgeous golden pies. Beautiful pies. Wonderful pies. Tasty pies.

Pies of all colors and shapes and flavors. Oh the choices! Dreadful things in life, good choices to be made.

Eventually, after much debate (and a sour-looking helper handing us an English menu so we could actually know what we were ordering), German K and I ordered cabbage pies and J got a chicken pie.

This piece (a small) cost me 40rubles. So less than a euro. The verdict?

...omg I've never had a tastier pie in my life. Seriously. The crust was like sweetened butter. Which is sort of weird when you picture it with a savory filling but somehow it worked. I'm pretty sure they used the same crust for all of their pies and yet somehow...it wasn't weird. It was instead, amazing.

And the innards? Pure glory. Soft dry cabbage with garlic. Simple, elegant, flavorful, and not a big like anything I'd ever had. I'm not sure at all how they make cabbage this way. Where does all of the liquid go? How do you not make it tough or stringy? How do you pulp garlic in this way? No idea, but it's genius.

I was so convinced by this first pie experience that I went back. And so did J.

This time I went for the sweet experience since I wasn't sure I could handle more savory...and because, well, I was too curious to see what their sweet pies were like. How could you go into a famous pie chain and not try a sweet pie? It just doesn't compute. J just avoided the situation entirely and ordered a second slice of the first chicken pie she'd had.

I decided on a berry pie...though I will have to admit that it grated on my soul because all of the other pies looked just as good (especially apple, which is always awesome).

This pie? Actually kind of odd...but still delicious. It tasted like cranberry, raspberry, and lingonberry all mushed into one. With a heavy emphasis on lingonberry, meaning the taste had sort of a weird soapy afterflavor to it. Not that I'm complaining, it was still delicious. And tart. Whatever, it was pie and I ate it all.

Feeling warm and satiated, we departed from Stolle, glad to have had the opportunity to try it, especially after having it recommended by both our guidebook (or my photocopied pages, at least) and at least one other online source. Well there you have it, definitely a good recommendation. I would definitely tell people to go there (well, I'm telling you to go there now!).

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

After the pies we strolled our way to the Church and finally made it there. What does it look like, given its gruesome (but slightly awesome) name?


Yeah, it looks like Candyland. And I mean this affectionately. I've never seen such a decked out church in my life. I knew the Russians liked decorated and glitterated things, but man, this took it to a whole new level I'd never seen before. And it was glory. Up close and far away:

And apparently inside and out as well. Even the floor was mosaiced to the point of where they covered the part you were walking on so you wouldn't disturb it with your treading. Man alive someone had put some work into this thing. And it was glorious.

I actually really enjoyed this church with all its detail. Gorgeous place to take pictures, you just couldn't go wrong!

I bought my required religious artifact (as is my wont), and we left a bit after exploring around. Great place; definitely worth a look.

The search for the illusive post office and beyond
It was soon after this that we started our search for a post office that we never found. J had bought a post card and wanted to send it off (which is reasonable, I wanted to do the same though had yet to buy any postcard). We asked several locals and shopowners, vendors and other people, and yet no matter what happened...never found the damned thing. They would suggest streets, even reassure us that it should be open (since Russians celebrate their religious holidays on different dates than the rest of the world) and yet...we never found anything even remotely resembling a post office.

We eventually just mailed our postcards from Finland because well...apparently Russian people don't use the post. It just doesn't exist. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Russians don't have post.

The Winter Palace and Hermitage
Our final stop for the day was at the Hermitage. The Hermitage was described as housing "national treasures," and nothing more. In my silly mind this meant jewels and gold, but in actuality this meant old statues and paintings. I guess that shouldn't have made me disappointed, but for some reason it did.

Anyway, the outside of it was extraordinary: The Winter Palace.

Even under renovation its glorious seaglass green was fabulous. I can only imagine it at the height of its beauty.

A few words of warning about the Hermitage: it's huge, confusing to navigate (even with the decently descriptive map, since you don't enter where you think you do), there is a rather unfriendly coat check process where you are forced to check coats or anything larger than a standard-sized purse (whatever that means) and you need to buy an extra (already pricey) ticket for your camera should you want to take pictures.

Some fiascoes happened for us along the way, but that's all I'll say on the matter. Needless to say, we only spent about 20 minutes there before making our way out to catch the last shuttle back to the port. It was alright but not as spectacular as the Church.

And that was our dandy day in St. Petersburg. Spectacular city, would definitely come again, though to be honest...not sure what else I would want to do. I'm sure there were great things I missed (like what the heck they have in their grocery stores), but at this point...I think I'm ready for Moscow. :)

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