I was left standing in the dirt after an argument-ridden taxi ride from Pulkova airport. The driver (part of the airport’s official rank) had been trying to scam me. I’d refused to accommodate his **** and had stuck to my guns, and to the quoted price. That may have been a risky decision, but there it is. Sadly, situations such as this are common; Danny Dover on Lifelisted reports his own variation on a recurring theme:
“I arrived at the hotel and argued with the taxi driver who was asking for twice as much as was written on the paper. “You Pay Money Now!…Big Tip!”. Perturbed, I argued the price down but wasn’t able to get to the agreed upon amount”.
I don’t usually do product placement but I’ll be sticking with Uber or Yandex Taxis from now on – that’s if the Metro is out of the question, naturally.
You’ve probably heard of Uber, but not Yandex. It’s Russia-based taxi service operates similarly to Uber (Yandex offers a whole raft of other web-based services too) but allows a pay-by-cash option without card registration. It would ultimately come to my rescue when Uber failed me, but more of that later.
After some phoning, searching and waiting around: the modest flat was mine for the week. Located on the top floor of an apartment block, it required access via a dingy, cramped lift or a lengthy, spiralling staircase opening onto all 9 floors. Just what was the smell that clung to the stairwell, anyway? Even now I can only speculate. Decidedly, a component was the contents of impromptu tin-can ashtrays that lay abandoned at every floor junction, evidence of the locals popping out onto the gloomy levels for a crafty smoke.
“Don’t let anybody in” was the parting shot from the apartment’s owner. “We get religious people here, and so on…”. “Religious” I could probably handle, but the “so on”, I’m not so sure. On the basis that the prison-like outer door wasn’t designed to protect the locals from me; it remained locked throughout my stay. I could come and go in relative confidence knowing that there was no way a casual pamphlet pusher (or even a vocational headcase) would be making so much as a dent in that steel beast.
From the apartment, the overlook of the still-working port was remarkable – if you like that kind of thing (I do). Throughout a 24 hour span, it never totally slept. Lighted trucks glided up and down the wharf during the small hours and figures seen dark and tiny from a distance patrolled the concrete on missions to-and-fro. Giant yellow cranes rose supreme above all, as elegant and patient as storks, occasionally bearing down to gracefully pluck freight containers from the bellys of moored vessels, day and night. And the sound; a constant industrial ambience of machine arias emanating from no distinct origin to lap at my window and seep, dulled, into the front room where nightly they lulled me to sleep.
St. Petersburg’s 24 hour schedule permitted a new and welcome routine of daily exploration until the sun fell into the far end of Nevsky Prospect, saturating the sky blue to orange and ushering the night. Now the other city could emerge, electrified and gleaming against the darkness, somehow more majestic than its daytime companion, with light and shadow vying for every crack and crevice, every stony outcrop and sculpted feature of the city’s ornate stonework.
Finally, when even this transformed spectacle was enough, it would be time to take the Metro back to the port and wander late into a never-closing Stolovaya for coffee and a bowl of soup.
Stolovaya is a welcome discovery; a chain of self-service canteens dotted across Russia and never far from reach in a city the size of St. Petersburg or Moscow. Behind the simplicity of the red and yellow livery lies the sound, utilitarian concept of good food: cheap and in copious portions. It’s straight-forward enough; you simply push your tray along rails and select whatever appeals as you slide by the heated (or cooled) glass cabinets. It’s almost a throw-back to school dinners, with white-uniformed staff doling out portions onto plates at your request. Here, it pays to know a little Russian language if, like me, you are cursed with being a “fussy” eater and a general pain-in-the-rear at restaurants. Chances are you won’t recognise all that’s on offer – unless you are already familiar with Russian cuisine, so you may wish to have some idea of what you are eating.
They do cater for vegetarians/pescaterians, incidentally, and the food is delicious. It’s even too much at times, no matter how hard you try (and I did). To give you some idea of the value on offer, I bought the following: a plate of sweet coleslaw, a bowl of soup, a (dinner) plate of bulgar wheat, a (dinner) plate of fried mushrooms and soft chips, 2 cups of coffee and a glass of fruit juice; all for around 290 Roubles. That’s around 3.50 GBP or 4.50 USD. I just needed a few more drinks and a snack later, then I was done for the day. Long live Stolovaya, they’ve even made incursions into the USA!
A couple of other edible recommendations: Kvass – a refreshing slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread. It’s tastier better than it sounds and goes down (subjectively) better than our common brown-dyed sugar water. It’s great, chilled.
Finally, wonder of wonders: crab crisps. Wow. I’m a definite convert and will seek to source some of these in the UK, forthwith.
More idle wanderings soon.
[St. Petersburg Nevsky/Port photos by Bernard H.Wood]