Finally in Russia! Fede could not wait anymore to “meet” this huge continent (Cadu has already been to Moscow in 2008). To arrive in Russia was one of the goals of our trip and get out of the train and see Saint Petersburg Railway Station was a strong emotion! Latin alphabet let the place to the Cyrillic; we forgot Euros and began to think in Rubles, we forgot also simply communication with people because almost no one speaks English in Russia.
Mix Parisian architecture with Amsterdam canals and orthodoxies churches then add colors, take the result and zoom (because everything is huge here); you have an idea of Saint Petersburg! Peter the Great decided to build the city in 1709 to make of Russia a country open to Europe; the entire city was planned. Till 1905 buildings could not be taller than the Hermitage so the skyline is relative low.
We had a warm reception with Marina waiting for us at the metro station and her sister Anna who prepared a delicious omelet for brunch. We met Marina in Paris three years ago when she came for one month to learn French. She came back in 2011 with her sister but we could not spend a lot of time together because we were going to Italy. We promised to visit them one day in St Petersburg and we did it! They live with the family in the suburbs 20 minutes by metro from downtown. We saw a lot of block buildings during our trip, but these one were really big! We suppose that more than 600 families could live in each of them. To figure out the size, think that the supermarket next door is as big as Ikea.
We were lucky to have Marina as a guide; she showed us a part her beautiful city in the afternoon. She took us to Nevsky Prospekt (Prospekt is an Avenue) which is the most famous street of St Petersburg. We were like children at Christmas: every corner hided something new for us, every word needed to be deciphered and translated in French! After Helsinki, we found again the summer: we had some rest in Mikhailovsky Park, next to Savior on the Blood Church (built between 1883 and 1907 where Alexander the II was murdered) and in front of Isaak Church with its golden dome.
For our second day we have chosen to visit the Museum of Hermitage; one of the biggest museums in the world. Once you are there you forget that it is the second: more than 3 million works are exposed in a part of the Winter Palace. From ancient Siberian objects till impressionism, we lost our orientation a couple of times; we missed Canova’s master piece Le tre grazie. Cadu was particularly touched by Rembrandt collection, Fede by the golden Peakok Clock. We do not have any advices except that if you go you have to forget to visit the totality of the Museum; it’s impossible even for the hordes of Chinese tourists who run from a room to another.
A part of our integration in Russian society passed from the Post Office where Marina had to register us in the OVIR (Office of Visa and Registrations – Every visitor in Russia who stays more than 3 days must have the visa registered). We went twice with her but the first time the office closed in front of us (funny but true: their clock marked 15 minutes earlier). At the second time we had a problem with the documents. We have filled it all in Latin alphabet. In conclusion: Marina had to rewrite everything and went back to the post office the next day without us. Now we understand why people pay special agencies to do all the procedure: it’s impossible if you do not speak Russian, even less if you do not write in Cyrillic. Now we have a small piece of paper that should let us exit from Russian territory without problems! We will tell you the 5th of September.
The best panoramic view of St. Petersburg is from Strelka, a strip of land in Vassilievsky Island. It seems to be the perfect spot for wedding photos set and for tourists to make their best pictures to show to friends (be ready!). In front of the Island, on the delta of the Neva, Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg The 27th of May of 1703. He needed to protect the lands that he had conquered in war against the Swedish Realm so he ordered to build the Fortress of Peter and Paul. Nowadays people come here to lie on the sand beach, to have bath on the river (the brave ones), and to walk inside the fortress. We did not enter in the Church, to many people waiting and even more inside!
Romano from San Marcello gave us a special mission before leaving Italy: go and take a photo of the Aurora Cruise Ship. On 25 October 1917, at 9.45 pm a blank shot from its forecastle gun signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace. The cruise is still there, but it’s not easy to get on board and visit the Museum: only groups are allowed and we were only two. Outside a lot of street souvenir stands sell Chinese souvenirs to Chinese people who take photos excited like we never saw before. We wanted our photo too, so we crossed the bridge and … abracadabra … no one on the other side! We walked 2 Km more to reach the metro to come back home. Actually, the metro is not a metro but an “underground train” so … Be aware of distances when someone tells you – “it’s just one metro stop from here”!
We left all the best for the last day: Russian Museum, New Holland and a good restaurant with Marina and Anna. But, before having fun, we had to work a little bit: in the morning we went to the Kacca (Russian Railways ticket office) to book our ticket of the night train to Novgorod. Lines in the offices are not straight: people come from the right side and put their heads next yours, privacy is an unknown concept, everyone take part of the conversation and that was pretty useful for us. A girl who spoke French explained us how it works and, with a paper and a pen and some mimic, we could buy our first tickets. We were so proud!
Russian Museum is a pearl for those who want to learn about Russian art. The collection begins with the icons of the XIV century and goes until Contemporary Art period. A special session is dedicated to popular arts & crafts with embroidery, inlay, carved bones and pottery. Artists like Repin, Serov, Vereshchgin, Malevich, Rodtshenko, Perov and Yuon (not in this chronological order) retained our attention, but we need more time to integrate all these information!
After our dose of culture we went to the New Holland to have a rest in the sun. It’s an island in the Sadovaya neighborhood. This area has always been under Navy control and it takes its name from the number of canals and shipbuilding facilities and that rendered its appearance similar to Amsterdam. Now it’s opened to the public who goes there to have fun.
We would to stay more but Marina and Anna were waiting for us at Schaste Restaurant (scahste means happiness in Russian). Fede tried her first okroshka (окро́шка) with kefir (a kind of salted yogurt) and Cadu a fish dish with a strong taste, whose name still remains a secret for us. We could then have a walk along Nevsky Prospekt by night and, after having a real Italian ice cream, come back home. We did almost all the way back on foot crossing the Alexandra Nevskogo Bridge that is probably long more than 1 Km and has a great view of St. Petersburg! (This bridge elevates from 1 to 4 am to let the boats pass)
Once at home we finally met all the family: they came back from their dacha only to meet with us; they brought potatoes, tomatoes, pickles and apples: we had dinner again with a good bottle of white wine! It was hard to leave them the day after to start our lone part of the trip. In our route towards east it will be only in Shanghai where we will finally meet another good friend!!!
We felt safe in Russia. In trains, metro, suburbs, at day or night we were confident to walk freely without any problems. Another very good point to travel in Russia: people are helpful even if they do not understand what we are talking. Although when we ask some information to someone we face cold expressions, in general they really try to help foreigners. They are patient and listen carefully what people say in English. And we can even have a very warm smile afterwards. Communication is different but they know how to explain things. Russians are not intimidated by language barriers: they keep talking in Russian using more than usual hands and body to be understood.
Normally old women talk a lot and men are ready to carry your luggage if you are in trouble with stairs. Politeness still has a place here. Men let a woman enter before them in the metro and people leave always their sit in the metro to old people.
TO EAT WELL: Schaste Restaurant, 15-17 Rubinshteyna,
TO HAVE A REST: New Holland, Admiralteysky channel embankment, 2 http://www.newhollandsp.ru
SOME CULTURE: Russian Museum, 2 Sadovaya Street