Distance travelled: 1362 miles
Well, here we go then. The start of my year long adventure. And I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t start very excitingly, with a layover of a couple of hours in Riga, en route to St Petersburg. Seeing as I spent these in the airport, I can’t really report on what Latvia is like, except that the girls are beautiful, and it’s covered in forest.
Flying out I saw a little more of the city, but all I could really see were Soviet style tower blocks and what my sleep deprived brain took for a red and white minimalist Eiffel Tower. In retrospect this was probably a TV tower. Unfortunately I was sat next to a smelly Russian, with a screaming child behind. I did the only sensible thing and fell asleep.
You know how sometimes you do something and when thinking back, think “well that was incredibly stupid”? Well I started to realise it about halfway through. After leaving the airport I decided not to get a taxi, and instead get a bus into the centre. Now as you probably know, I can’t read Cyrillic, so I had to more or less guess where the buses were going. Aiming for mayakovskaya, I instead found myself in moskovskiy. These are nowhere near each other. Plugging various street names into google maps (via my kindle. This thing is seriously worth its weight in gold), I managed to work out just how far away I was from my hostel, and more importantly, where the nearest metro station was.
Aside from confusions trying to buy a tube pass, and find the hostel down a side street, the rest of the night was fairly straightforward.
It certainly helped that at close to midnight, it was still basically daylight. It only seemed to get close to dusk around two or three, and by four it was light again, never having got properly dark. This is because St Petersburg is so far north, and the period is known as the White Nights, accompanied by a festival of concerts, ballet and opera. All of which were rather out of my price range.
The next day I discovered something that should have been obvious, but somehow hadn’t
really registered. Russia in mid summer is hot. Averaging around 28C, it was very pleasant when sitting in the shade, or drinking a beer down on the waterfront, but not so great when walking around in the sun all day. This obviously necessitated stopping fairly often to have a beer in one of the many riverside booths.
It was at one of these, having my first beer of the day, that I was joined by a Latvian guy who’s name I’ve forgotten, and we got around the language barrier by virtue of beer, some horse jerky that he’d brought (delicious, but a little tough), and the girls walking past. It was funny, all the girls were dressed up in high heels and tiny dresses, but the guys they were with were just in jeans and a t-shirt. This led Amelia, a girl I was to meet in Moscow, to call the place “St Putasburg” (for those non linguists amongst you, puta means whore).
But my time in St Petersburg wasn’t spent solely wandering around and sitting in bars. I visited the Russian State Museum, (which was a lot like the British, but with less pillaged treasures, aside from those taken from the Tzars), the Peter and Paul fortress, and numerous churches. The most notable of these was the Peter and Paul cathedral, which was basically a mausoleum, with the stone coffins of virtually all of the Romanov Tzars. It was odd, like a light and airy crypt, worth tour groups wandering between the coffins, taking pictures. I didn’t follow suit, and left fairly quickly.
Food and drink
Russian is a strange language. When spoken, I can barely understand the simplest things, and yet restaurant, bar and cafe are transliterated straight from English to Cyrillic, ending up as Ресторан, Бар, and Кафе, respectively. With this knowledge, the use of a couple of other words (beer is piva, for example), and plenty of pointing and miming, I’ve so far been able to find food and drink fairly easily. One of the best places I’ve found was Tepló, which I found out later happened to be the number one rated restaurant on trip advisor. It was decorated as if it was a converted home with sofas and bookshelves, right down to the menus being printed inside photo albums. I had an excellent, if slightly pricey, stroganoff.
As for drinking, I had a great introduction to Russian vodka at a bar near the water front. Truth be told, I only went in for a pint before moving on, but I got chatting to a waitress who wanted to improve her English. So I stayed for a second pint, then got talking with the
guys at the bar; a couple of Russians, a couple of Latvians, and a Georgian. Once again, alcohol overcame our (mostly my) language barrier, this time various types of vodka. All frozen, of course. A shisa with a pineapple on it, smoke rings and beer arm wrestling made up the rest of the evening, the latter being where you try to down half a pint of beer and arm wrestle at the same time, the winner being the one who wins either first. I was up against a rather burly Latvian, so lost after only downing about half. He hadn’t touched his.
After the bar closed (and we had a parting shot of vodka), we drove round the corner to the closest bridge, to see the famous raising of the bridges. They are open from about two till five, to allow boats passage across. Fortunately we were on the same side as my hostel, so I declined to join the others at a club, and wandered back to bed.
All in all, I found St Petersburg to be a fun city, with a strong European influence. This would become less and less the further into Russia I go.
Next stop, Moscow!