“There are two Russias” said the historian from Ekaterinburg; “and you need to experience them both to really understand”. He was referring to the polar opposites that are the summer and winter counterparts of his homeland – almost two opposing hemispheres on a planet of their own. The spring and the autumn squeezed by comparison into brief intervals to the main acts.
How many versions of St.Petersburg are there, though? I had to wonder as I saw its striking change from day into night, as if it were two different cities. Now as I glided across and around the Neva; it seemed to be another place again, fronting the waterways with it’s European facades as that oft-spoken tour guide’s phrase played in my head: “The Venice of The North”.
I’d had to pick a pretty lousy day for the expedition, and it had all started so well. By the time that I had arrived in the city centre (via Stolovaya for breakfast, naturally), played a little human ping-pong to find the correct ticket booth and converted my voucher to a boat ticket and headed back to the dock, the dark clouds had arrived. Specks of wet burst upon my skin at the Admiralty Embankment quayside as a foretaste of the inevitable showers that would accompany us for most, if not all the way.
But, then we were off, and it was still great; skimming through the gentle grey swell as Peter and Paul Fortress (where the city began) loomed it’s spires over us. Then around the back street waterways lined with their encroaching faux-Venetian style. The boat canopy was slid into position and we viewed the city anew through the splashed perspex of our own private goldfish bowl. Yes it’s a lot of the same, but the ‘same’ is still fantastic, nonetheless.
North of Peter and Paul is a rather interesting section of the city with the Russian Artillery Museum, Fairy Tale Theatre and Museum (by way of contrast), Music Hall, Wax Museum and Planetarium; all within easy reach of Gorkovskaya Metro, which as an added bonus resembles a flying saucer. Result! The main thing to say about the river tour is simply: do it! I don’t care how uncool and touristy you may think it is, it really shows another side to the city and frankly, that’s a revelation (one of several waiting for you). Down by the riverside you are unlikely to forget this option as various boat companies will be blatantly touting for business on street corners and other obvious locations. You just can’t miss them.
There are a few odds and ends left of my stay that are fond moments personally (though they’ll likely mean nothing to you). I’ll keep those. There are (and have been) recommendations and warnings, surprises and shifts in expectations; all in earlier articles. Forewarned is forearmed. Oh yes; there seems to be no “popping into the bank”, incidentally; irrespective of how many staff are serving. It’s more of an extended stay; a “mini-break” of its own. Bear that in mind. Be sure to grab a numbered ticket from the automated dispenser and wait for your number to come up onscreen. Bring a book! -in fact bring two.
Don’t bother taking dollars, unless you are American, in which case: do. They are easily changed into rubles pretty much anywhere. UK pounds on the other hand are a royal pain. There are a few places that will accommodate them (though I didn’t find anywhere that would). In my case, a debit card in an ATM worked fine when I bought some extra currency (I’d only use in-branch machines); though there were some small charges.
Depending upon your activities whilst in Russia; you may face ‘issues’ on the way out, so be aware of customs/visa stipulations beforehand. Remember: the visa is also your way out of Russia; you’re not off the hook simply because they’ve let you in!. However, Way to Russia states:-
“…Russian customs is generally quite relaxed, so it is very unlikely somebody will search through your bags or try to tax everything you have”
The exit from the apartment was a clumsy, rushed affair. I’d started assembling my gear and tidying up the night before but I was still collecting and pottering about with things (“pack this here; no pack it there!”) whilst checking over the place as time ran out. Suddenly there was a 7 minute count-down whilst the recently arrived partner of my host awaited the return of the key and the taxi simultaneously sped in to collect me. At 2am, I’d discovered that Uber had frozen my account (?!) -a mere 5 hours before I was due to head to the airport. Fortunately I’d remembered my host’s recommendation of Yandex-Taxi and had quickly downloaded the app to my mobile. Hopefully this would save the day; the booking process seemed to be working so far. Ok, gear: check, documents: check, passport: check, key (no going back): check. Then I was in the lift, descending and away.
It was the diametric opposite of my journey into St.P, and almost surreal in its contrast. The driver this time asked for less money than the app’s estimated fare! and I even gave him extra as a tip. Yandex provided a cheap, easy-going ride. Although I’d decided to save the expected money-argument for when I was standing at the airport (a definite position of advantage in such situations); it never happened. We just cruised into Pulkovo backed by a soundtrack of American Rap music, and I departed his company with an appropriately “bro” handshake. The check-in, security and passport control was mercifully uneventful and the prolonged process of ‘waiting around’ took over. One of the refreshment vendors was seemingly horrified by the amount of black coffee that I extracted from her machine (though to be fair it can be quite shocking) but that’s all the drama that occurred.
From my early vantage point I watched the other departees assemble. We grouped, waited, shifted position throughout the extraction procedure and waited once more. The tingle of apprehension left by the rush for the taxi -and the airport aggravations that never came- trailed away to nothing as time slowed again. I stared blankly through vast spotless windows into the burgeoning new day whilst the clock marched toward our lift off.
It was the 1960’s style prop-liner again; greeted like a warm acquaintance. Glancing to the descending city as we climbed into the cloudlayer: -I reviewed the last few days; ticking off experiences and knowing, hoping; that I’ll return to Russia someday.
[Neva Facade, Flight Out and Cloud Photos by Bernard H.Wood.]