Skip to comments.American Family Fall Vacation to St. Petersburg Russia 2005
Posted on 09/16/2005 4:17:48 AM PDT by schwing_wifey
For privacy purposes and since its Russia, I'll be Natasha and we'll have Boris and Boris Junior OK?
We went to Russia. I can't believe we went to Russia. Did I say we went to Russia? Never in a million years would I have believed I'd be able to say, "I went to Russia". Now that I've gotten that off my chest...
Getting a visa to go to Russia was very interesting. Someone told me it was their revenge for the American visa process. Needless to say, it cost about $130 each and wanted to know everything from education, military, and employment history to mental and physical health issues as well as any memberships in clubs or organizations. I cheated on the employment by just saying I was a housewife. After all, they wanted your last 10 years employment history and there was no way I wanted to put down every place and besides, they didn't have enough space on the form. When I handed in Boris's, the lady wanted me to fill out his other employers because he only had his current employer down. She was looking a little unbelieving as I explained that has been his only employer for about 23 years now.
Anyway, seven days later I retrieved our passports with the visas as well as these specially typed up arrival and departure forms with our information in English and Russian. The cashier at the Russian embassy here in Sweden made a big deal of the importance of having these forms, yet every time we offered them entering and leaving the country, they were ignored. We actually had to hand write out the arrival forms instead. I'm keeping these typed forms in my journal as a souvenir simply because of the Russian translations of our names.
So, we land in St. Petersburg and go through Passport Control. Though we only saw the agents entering and leaving the country, you get the impression that smiling is against the rules or they don't like their jobs. Before I forget to tell you, we had a party of seven. Two other couples (old hats at traveling around Europe) and us with Boris Junior. One of the couples planned the trip so we had a private driver and guide for the whole time. That's really the best way to go.
To get by in Russia, you only need to know three things. The first thing is "spa ciba". Say it just like its spelled (actually I don't know how its really spelled). That means "Thank You" in Russian. The group came up with the saying - "Take your contact lens to the spa" to remember it. The second thing is to recognize the blue sign "6ahkomat" - AKA Bankomat. The third and final thing is "6ap" - AKA Bar. Those are the basics of survival in Russia (Bwaahaahaa.) And so you know what to order at the "6ap", the Russian vodkas are Russian Standard and Diplomat. We also stumbled across a pepper flavored vodka called Nemiroff which was such a nice sipping vodka that we brought some back with us as a souvenir.
Our driver, Vladimir (no lie), picked us up at the airport, which is on the southwest side of the city and drove us to our hotel located on the southeast side of the city at the bottom of Nevskiy Prospeckt (one of the main streets). It took almost an hour to navigate the city and I must tell you the first impressions are deceiving. I've always heard that St. Petersburg was a beautiful city but I just didn't see it as we drove through rundown industrial areas to the hotel. It looked like some parts of Newark, New Jersey and I don't mean the nice parts.
There are places in the world that people warn of crazy drivers and St. Petersburg has to be on that list. It seems like anything goes, so I'm totally amazed that for all the walking we did on Nevskiy Prospeckt, we never saw any pedestrians squashed and we witnessed only one collision that took out both vehicles' radiators. Russia is not like Sweden, if you step in the street against the light there, you are fair game for motorists. We didn't DARE step off the curb until the light was in our favor. I was told that the police can fine you if you jaywalk there. I can't believe anyone would even think of doing it. And for parking, I don't have any idea what the rules are. People squeeze cars into spots and leave the back end poked out in the street. Some park on the street and some park on the sidewalks - there's no rhyme or reason.
Funny thing happened to Boris when we were returning to the hotel by taxi after dinner one night. He was in the front seat of the car and buckled the seat belt. The taxi driver unbuckled him and was getting upset when he tried to re-buckle it. It seems that due to all the bridges in St. Petersburg, its believed to be safer not to wear seat belts in case you go into the drink. Boris wanted to tell him to just stay out of the water so he could be buckled.
St. Petersburg has a couple of hundred bridges. What is really interesting about this is that the main bridges on the Neva go up from about 1:30am until 4am so all the ship traffic can go in and out of the city. This means, if you get caught on the wrong side of the river when you're out at night, its so long to try go around that you just sit and wait till the bridges come back down. Our guide told how she would get off work at a hotel at 2am and sit in her car, starring across the water at her apartment, while waiting for the bridge to come back down.
As for touring around, St. Petersburg has palaces that put the ones we've seen around Sweden to shame. The restoration work is so brilliant, you'd think the items are new. Our guide said a lot of things were taken and hidden when the Germans invaded so they've been carefully protected. Places like the Hermitage are breathtaking and require time to absorb the museum items as well as the ceiling and floors.
Check out http://www.travelforkids.com/Funtodo/Russia/hermitagemuseum.htm
They use a lot of goldleaf and gold plating. But enough of that, there's a soft cover book entitled "Saint Petersburg and its Environs" that is a great souvenir of the city. One thing that worked in my favor for going into the fabulous churches was the scarf I was wearing around my neck. The signs requested that women entering the churches have their heads covered. Because I could whip my scarf off and tie it around my head, I felt and looked like I blended in with the locals. It was very handy.
OK, attention Da Vinci Code fans, you are going to LOVE this. We went into St. Isaac's Cathedral for a tour. Besides being beautiful beyond belief, they had two mosaics done by different artists around 1901 of the Last Supper. One was very clear while the other was less well defined. I had Boris take a picture of the clear one because its obviously a beautiful, auburn-haired woman sitting on Jesus's right-hand side. I KNOW the Da Vinci Code is a great work of FICTION but Dan Brown sure managed to stir things up by throwing some curve balls into it and having actual works of art that supplement his story. And, the Romanov family is now all buried there. Remember, Anastasia? They all were massacred during the Russian Revolution and buried in the forest somewhere. In the last few years the burial site was discovered and they DNA-tested the bodies? It was all over the History Channel I think.
While in St. Petersburg we did a driving city tour, went to the Ploshchad Aleksandra Nevskogo, Hermitage and saw the famous Peacock Clock (needed more time there), Peterhof (Summer Palace outside town), St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of the Spilled Blood, a few other churches and walked through many of the parks. Basically we hit all the main sights.
Now lets talk about the city and the people. St. Petersburg has a population of about 4-5 million people. The majority of the women and girls we saw on the streets were dressed classy. You rarely saw the "muffin-top" look - pierced bellies hanging out over too tight, low jeans. There were destitute people hanging out by the churches and monasteries and most were older men missing lower limbs. No one was pushy but they had a tone in their voice when they begged that made you want to give them the shirt off your back.
There was also street performers throughout the city. Break dancers, singers, and musicians. We did go one evening to see a Russian Folk Dance performance in one of the palaces. It had a small intimate stage and Boris Junior sat in front of us in the first row and had a great time. Russians get really creative to make it through those long dark cold winters. One of the performers played a saw. A husband and wife team played a log xylophone with wooden mallets. There were dancers and singers and musicians galore. The highlight for Boris Junior was two short Eskimos dancing-wrestling around on the stage. You KNEW it had to be just one guy in the costume but he made such aerobatic contortions to play two people that half the time I was wondering how he did what he did.
The first evening we were coming back into the hotel, I saw some ladies seated in couches by the elevator doors that made me think "working girls". They weren't obvious but there was something about them that made me label them as such. The next evening the guys in our group were laughing about it and I realized I was right. Its not a big deal there and I guess you could say they acted and dressed a lot more discreetly than some of the teenage girls I've seen in malls in the states. Along those same lines, one afternoon we were having drinks at an outdoor cafe attached to the Grand Hotel Europe downtown and several times watched beautiful women come out of the hotel and get in expensive cars with butt-ugly guys. I hope they were getting paid well....
Alcohol seems to be a bit of a problem in St. Petersburg. We were there over the weekend and there were a lot of people on the streets carrying open containers fairly early in the morning. For the first time on Sunday morning, the sounds of ambulances were heard on a regular basis. Maybe the excesses of the weekend were catching up with the masses? And talking about excesses, they smoke over there like chimneys. Cigarette and cigar smoke was all over, including restaurants. This was the first time I ever saw cigarettes and cigars on a menu. (I'm told seeing cigars listed is common all over.)
We didn't have a bad meal while we were in St. Petersburg. Everything we had was tasty and well prepared. This is the home of beef stroganoff (named after the Stroganoff family of course). I had hot bourst for the first time ever and I tried some of Boris's "bear paw" before I really thought about it.
One of the restaurants we ate at was called "Rasputin's" right on Nevskiy Prospeckt, about a five minute walk from the hotel. I mention it because they had a fabulous piano player and artwork on the wall not quite suitable for Boris Junior's viewing. The half of a naked female torso with a leopard's head and claws coming out of the wall is not what I'm talking about, however the classic Greek pictures of different partners and positions wasn't something I wanted to explain in any detail to him. One thing I so love about being married 20+ years is that ESP you now have fully developed with your spouse. You know what I mean. All you have to do is get their attention, stare into their eyes, flick your eyes towards the object or person, and then look away knowing they know EXACTLY how to nonchalantly take a glimpse. However, I think the kid is finally picking up on that body language too.
Another restaurant we went to had live gypsy performers. This was nice because they didn't come around and beg for tips, they just performed in one room and then moved to another and so on, repeating through the rooms all evening. Towards the end of the evening, as we were closing the place up, a guy was allowed in to try sell us flowers and another old guy was dressed up as Lenin for pictures if you felt so inclined. Now the only BAD thing about this evening was the taxi service. When we left the hotel to come to this restaurant, we were going to use the Metro but the line was so long, we decided to see if the hotel had anyone with a van that could run the seven of us to the restaurant. A guy was available and we paid him 500 rubles to take us. He wanted to know if we needed a ride back and at what time. We thought this was a great idea. Once we got to the restaurant, as we tried to arrange it with the hostess there, she somehow dismissed him and said she'd arrange our transportation back. Big mistake and we should have slowed down and thought carefully when we walked out of the restaurant and were faced with two taxis and we weren't getting a price for the trip back to the hotel. (It was late and we were all tired.) Needless to say, they wanted 700 rubles (each taxi) once we got back to the hotel. This was a valuable lesson and on a subsequent evening out, we just hired Vladimir to drive us around and wait for us. He was such a great driver we had no problems paying him AND tipping him well for his services.
While mentioning this to an acquaintance back here in Stockholm, she told me her boss got into a taxi after a dinner in Moscow and was robbed and beaten when he refused to pay when initially threatened. A fellow businessman managed to climb out the taxi window and get away but this other guy was too large. My acquaintance said her boss did not look pretty once they were done with him. She said she thought that it had taken place late at night and they had been drinking. So don't drink and take a cab late in Moscow.
Our tour guide for most of the visit was a young lady in her mid 20s. (She actually spent her senior year of high school in Idaho.) Besides giving us a great overall view of the city (and that's when St. Petersburg begins to really charm you) and being a terrific fountain of knowledge, she was willing to tell us what life in Russia is like. According to her, everybody gets a black salary and a white salary. The white salary is reported to the government and taxed. The black salary is paid under the table. Even the current President Putin has done this in St. Petersburg to get some of its restoration work done faster. The problem with this salary business is when people go to the bank to get a loan to buy a house or apartment. The official white salary doesn't qualify people for a loan of tens of thousands of dollars.
The restoration work in St. Petersburg is extensive and ongoing. I'd love to be a scaffolding contractor there, I'd be making money hand over fist. Our guide said that St. Petersburg is seen as the country's cultural center while Moscow is seen as the industrial center. (We ran into other tourists that said they found Moscow dirty.) As for health care, if you want "better" treatment, you pay your doctor privately when you go. Doctors now don't get paid as well as building contractors or engineers do. She said, that with the privatization that took place in the early 90s, lots of government industries went into the hands of uneducated Russians that have now risen as a "Nouveux Riche" class. She had a specific (somewhat derogatory) name for them that I can't remember.
One thing that became clear to us having a small group and a Russian guide, money (bribes) exchanged hands all over the place to get us into places ahead of other tour groups. And with Vladimir as our driver, we were dropped off and picked up in primo spots to take pictures and buy souvenirs. One small criticism with our guide is that she kept trying to get us to buy stuff at the tourist traps she took us to. We figured she'd get a cut of the sales but the prices in some places were outrageous. For example, first afternoon in St. Petersburg on our own, we all walked to the monastery across from the Hotel Moscow. (They have a famous graveyard that looks like the cover of the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil".) The exterior of the monastery was undergoing renovations (surprise) but the inside was very beautiful. They also had a tiny gift shop. I saw a beautiful cut glass egg with gold etchings that I bought for about 12 dollars. Every place else we went to after that, wanted upwards of 30 dollars for the same egg. Another place we stopped and then ended up going back to was the Rostral Columns across the bridge from the Hermitage. A guy was selling original watercolors of famous views of St. Petersburg for roughly $30 each. We bought two beautiful pictures that will probably cost us a fortune to frame but are the memory of a lifetime. On a sad note, one of the guys hanging out there had a baby bear on a chain for pictures. Boris junior checked him out while we were looking at the paintings. He said that he looked healthy and well fed at least. Still, we both thought the same thing, babies belong with their mom. It was only later I thought about it growing bigger and the "bear paw" Boris ordered at the one restaurant.
While out on our own wandering down Nevskiy Prospeckt, we saw a few places that made you feel right at home, like McDonald's, Subway, Pizza Hut, and 7-11. There were also a few places that "looked" familiar but weren't. One was "Women's Secret" which initially I thought was "Victoria's Secret". Another was "Republic of Coffee" which I was positive was a Starbucks until I looked carefully at the emblem. Very interesting. As for prices of stuff, just like anyplace else, boutiques were expensive, regular places had regular prices - jeans $30, shirts $25, etc. I bought a box of strawberry tea bags as a souvenir for about 40 cents. I was going to buy some amber but others in our party said that Tallinn was the place to get it. Unlike back in the states, amber is prevalent all over here in massive quantities.
Other bizarre little observations about St. Petersburg - they had more stray dogs about than I've seen in any other European city so far. And not skinny strays - fat strays. By the same token, you didn't see a lot of Russians with pet dogs. In Sweden, its seems like half the population has a dog.
- While out walking around town, we never felt like we stood out as tourists, or ever felt unsafe. There were some crazy drunks on the street but no more than you'd see in any other European city. As Boris said after we'd been there a few days, its not so different from other European cities.
- You could buy special badges in the museums and churches in order to take pictures with your digital camera. In most cases you weren't allowed to use the flash but at least you could take them. One tour lady jumped on Boris and before he could react, I told her he had bought a badge and was allowed to take pictures. It seems she didn't know or didn't tell her group because they were all over me asking questions about it. I explained to them, then she said that it didn't allow flash pictures. Well - DUH, he wasn't flashing!!!
- I did want to give the street cleaners real brooms to use - they had poles with what looked like small twigs and branches wrapped around the bottom. (Old fashion witches brooms.) However, the city was making a special effort to keep its streets clean.
- Weddings were taking place all over the city all weekend. One was a Harley Davidson wedding that celebrated by cruising down Nevskiy Prospeckt making one helluva racket. It was cool. Otherwise it was Navigator and Hummer stretch limos.
- We did venture into the Metro system and that alone was an experience. You see, You can't just get a subway map and find your way around. There's something about Russian letters that play tricks on your mind. Because some are so different from the letters we know, yet look alike to us if we see them together in a name, mix up two or three of their unfamiliar letters and you're off to stations on the Metro that you didn't intend to go to. My best advice is to map out in advance the stations you want to go to with the end points in both Russian and their English translation and then confirm your plan with your helpful concierge. Russians we asked for help were extremely nice and understanding too.
Along those same lines (extremely nice and understanding), half way through the trip I wanted a Khalua and Cream as a cocktail for dinner instead of the vodka we'd been regularly drinking. The hostess was incredibly polite and patient and after three trips to question me about content and quantity, brought me a delicious Khalua and Cream from the bar. I was very grateful.
Other things to know about a trip to St. Petersburg - take your own toilet paper. Their paper makes those brown paper towels in gas stations look like Charmin. Don't drink the water - drink bottled only and its cheap. (The water in the hotel was slightly yellow - iron from the pipes?) The kiosk outside the hotel was selling 2 liter bottles for about 70 cents. And carry change, the nicer bathrooms charge you to use them and they're worth it. But you can say that in most European cities. Bathrooms in malls over here charge you to use them.
Before I finish, I feel I need to explain why you won't hear about the Paris trip this past summer. The first day we were in Paris, the London subway got bombed. The entire time we were there, I felt security conscious, and the police cars running through the streets all day (and evening) with their sirens on didn't help. The Eiffel Tower had military persons with automatic weapons on duty and the Muslim population was out in full force. (Maybe they thought it was better to be seen than not?) Anyway, looking back over my notes, I just can't compose something fun and interesting to read. (I've got a long way to go to be a writer I guess.) But, Russia was a different story....
Thanks for the feedback about Moscow. (And the movie tip.)Its great to have other people add their opinions and experiences so it can be balanced, because the ones I talked to did not like it.
I guess it just depends on the person. Paris and its people are another example of extremes. I've had one person tell me that they had a wonderful time there in May and another person tell me that they're getting unexpected house guests this weekend because friends are cancelling the rest of their Paris trip because they hate it so much. Go figure.
Of course you're not. Your travelogues are very entertaining and informative. I didn't mean to be pushy about the pictures.
I know you're not.... I just feel bad that my posting talents are so far behind other FReepers. I've got a fabulous potential Viking Kitty ZOT photo I want to be able to use on the next troll so I BETTER get going and learn how to post pictures.
I'm a GREAT procrastinator sometimes.....
Living in Sweden never stopped good Americans from having a pleasant, and reflective, holiday. Happy Thanksgiving.
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