(Click pics to enlarge throughout)
Holiday! Celebrate! I went to St. Petersburg in Russia recently, and had a decidedly mixed experience. Here are 16 things I did there.
1. Developed an immediate dislike of Air France and the staff at Pulkovo airport.
We changed flights in Paris. Our luggage didn’t.
While one might expect to receive some sympathy or apology for this, the staff at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport approached the issue differently. Their approach involved making us fill out lots of forms – including an inventory of everything in said luggage, repeated several times – and generally making us feel as if we’d done something wrong.
And woe betide any fool who has to get these forms approved by the monumental, power-drunk pricks who work in the customs division. I’m using bad language here to illustrate my frustration at the time, when a fair amount of naughties also escaped my lips.
This was after getting on for two hours’ queueing for passport control. We’d been up since 3am. It was a bad start, but we figured things could only get better.
2. Travelled on a motorway that looked like a giant ribcage:
3. Received birthday wishes from the lovely staff at the Alexander House hotel:
For reasons that will become apparent, the hotel was one of the highlights of the trip. Helpful staff, great buffet breakfasts and underfloor heating in the bathroom, plus numerous other touches, justify its Trip Advisor ranking. It’s a bit of a walk from the main attractions, but for most people this will only really be an issue in the kind of weather that freezes canals.
4. Saw some frozen canals.
5. Went to the Hermitage museum and got lost.
Sadly my companion and I contrived to lose each other in one of the largest museums in the world. Which was a shame, because we kind of only went because we felt we really should. Idiot’s tip: when abroad, make sure you have a mobile phone signal, kids. And if you don’t, don’t let your partner out of your sight.
The ensuing four hours gave me lots of time to think about life in general, but I mainly spent it worrying and running around asking indifferent museum staff whether they had “SEEN THIS WOMAN?!?!” while pointing at a photo on my camera. In the edit suite of my mind, it’s become a terribly exciting film packed full of intrigue and suspense – think Roman Polanski’s ‘Frantic’, perhaps – but I’m fairly sure the reality was dull, cold and frustrating. Ho hum!
On the plus side, I saw this outside:
… and stuff like this inside:
Oh, and on my snow-sodden trudge back to the hotel I did come across the iconic Bronze Horseman statue – a tribute to Peter The Great, whose wizard idea it was to build the city:
6. Sang karaoke in a hipster bar called Poison.
This was splendid fun, if only because it was the most animated the natives became (aside from when they shouted at us in museums – of which more later). We did ‘Sex On Fire’ by Kings of Leon, and it was great.
Interesting to see Sunfly’s karaoke monopoly extends to Russia, too:
Sometimes one doesn’t even require a microphone…
7. Saw buildings that look like cakes and sweets.
The cathedral of St. Nicholas:
The deliciously-named Church On Spilled Blood:
The Church On Spilled Blood is one of the most famous landmarks in Russia, and yes, it was actually built on a spot where some blood was spilled – Tsar Alexander II’s, to be precise. It has more names than any building I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it called, variously:
- The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
- The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ
- The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
- The Church of the Saviour on Blood
- The Cathedral of the Ascension
- The Church of the Redeemer
- The Church on Spilt Blood
- The Church on the Blood
- Bloody bloody church Church
- Churchy blood cathedral blood church church ChUrcH
The word ‘church’ begins to melt your brain if you read it too many times, doesn’t it?
To add to the confusion, apparently St Petersburgians refer to it as ‘The Mosaic Church’. This only really makes sense when you go inside.
8. Saw the most elaborate mosaics ever, which is what I was enigmatically hinting at at the end of point 7.
The church reopened in 1997, after a restoration that took over 25 years. The decor of the interior is almost entirely created in mosaics.
This is all mosaics:
This is all mosaics:
The word ‘mosaic’ is spinning me out now.
9. Saw the grimmest street market in all of Europe.
What we had hoped would be a charming little flea market was a pretty depressing affair. The snow and dampness didn’t help, but even in blazing sunshine this collection of elderly ladies hawking bric-a-brac would have been somewhat saddening:
10. Got shouted out of The State Museum of the Political History of Russia.
Took a few photos before ‘the incident’. Here’s a desk:
A beret given to Yuri Gargarin by Fidel Castro:
Rasputin’s headboard, its posts curiously devoid of notches:
Now, this was one of the most upsetting – and I use that word advisedly – events of our trip. And bear in mind that we’d already lost our luggage (it turned up on day 2, thankfully) and lost half a day due to a communication mishap.
The trip to St Petersburg was a birthday present to me, in part because of my slightly odd, growing fascination for the Cold War, propaganda, military history and various other things that Mark from Peep Show likes. So one of the first things I identified that I wanted to do was visit the Museum of Political History.
We had a little trouble finding the place, so stopped off for some lunch. Our waitress had obviously undergone the expression-freezing injection all Russian serving staff must endure – think of it as botox, but for the whole face. By this point we were fairly used to this tragic phenomenon, which means the sufferer must communicate purely through the medium of shrugs. For example, as we left the restaurant this exchange took place:
Us: (pointing at map and Cyrillic name of museum in question) “Um, hi, do you know where this is please?”
The museum turned out to be three minutes’ walk away, just around the corner from the restaurant. I think she might have heard of it.
So OK, it was another indifferent Russian to add to the list. Never mind. We’d found the museum, and were ready to get our teeth into some properly miserable history.
Little did we know, reader, that the misery would be ours.
We arrived an hour before closing time. We were already a bit disappointed when it became clear that there wasn’t much catering to English-speakers when it came to the exhibits. Again, this was something we’d become somewhat used to – despite St. Petersburg’s supposed tourist-friendliness – and we’d paid our 500 roubles each (about £11), so we just got on with it. Twenty minutes in and the staff were clearly itching to get out the door, since they were all putting their coats on. Hmm. Well, again, we’d paid our not inconsiderable entrance fees, so we continued to wander around.
Then we encountered The Worst Woman in The Largest Country in The World.
A height-challenged, callus-handed battleaxe, she started by jabbering away at me and pointing at her watch. I couldn’t understand her, so used the Russian medium of shrugs to communicate this. But what are the chances, I’d located the one Russian who didn’t speak shrug.
My companion then had the misfortune to wander into her eyeline, at which point another blast of hot Russian old lady rage was forthcoming. Now, as we didn’t understand what she was actually saying there’s a chance she was praising our hair, or engaging in lighthearted chat about kittens; but there was just something in her aggressive gesticulations and unnecessary volume (we were in a museum, remember) that suggested otherwise.
It was genuinely unpleasant, and meant that we decided to get the eff out of there before one of us was sent down on a charge of Actual Eurasian Bodily Murder. Unfortunately theirs was the only decent gift shop we ran into, so we gave them more money before leaving. But not before writing in any guestbook we could get our hands on on our way out.
Should someone affiliated with St Petersburg’s State Museum of Political History read this, I hereby lay claim to this actually quite understated missive:
Your staff are rude. You shouldn’t shout at people in a language they don’t understand. Stuart from London.
11. Got ripped off pretty regularly.
Anyone travelling to Russia, with a bit of research, will be prepared to pay what are generally referred to as “tourist prices”. To an extent this is expected anywhere. I mean look, if a non-English speaking tourist goes to a stall in Camden Market I’m sure there’s a chance they’re going to pay over the odds for a t-shirt.
What they won’t do, though, is pay more than you or I would if they go into a museum or art gallery. And it’s here that St. Petersburg differs. In the queue for the Hermitage museum there was a sign that stated, quite baldly, that entry was 400 roubles – unless you were a Russian citizen, in which case it was 100 roubles. Likewise, at the Church on Spilled Blood, we paid 400% more than the Russian lady in the queue ahead of us.
I don’t think we were prepared for this – on the one hand, you kind of have to admire their transparency on the matter. But on the other, you kind of have to wonder – what the fuck?
(I might as well mention here – as I’m not sure where else to bring it up, and potential visitors should know about it – that your Russian visa, and “visa support service”, which is just a letter you get from the hotel you’ve booked before you travel, come to almost £100.)
I suppose as long as people keep turning up and paying tourist prices, Russia will keep charging them. But they might want to introduce customer service standards that at least partly justify the charges. Because…
12. Developed a bit of a dislike for Russian people, really.
We were aware that the language barrier was going to make things challenging. I got a phrasebook for my birthday. We weren’t turning up in Russia expecting it to be like a beach in Torremelinos, where everyone speaks the language and gives you a free shot before breakfast.
But, my God. Russians. Be a bit nicer, please.
I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of years of cultural history at play here. Russian people don’t apologise when you step on their foot, because why should they? That’s a silly, if endearing, trait us Brits have picked up somewhere along the way in our cultural evolution. You’re going to run into culture clashes any time you go abroad, and unless it’s your first trip, you expect it.
But with the exception of our lovely hotel – run by a journalist who has, perhaps, travelled and introduced Western-style service standards to accommodate tourists – the way we were treated in St. Petersburg, in general, was at best indifferent and at worst hostile.
(I’d just like to say here that carping on about manners and the like makes me worry that someone reading this may picture me to be a pampered, entitled milquetoast who should stay at home. In fact I’ve been to a fair few places in the world and got along fine, so for making me feel that way, I dislike Russians that little bit more.)
So, if you go to St. Petersburg, overall I’d advise you to expect:
- no smiles
- no hearty welcomes
- no thanks for spending money in an establishment
- to be stared at in an outright threatening manner on occasion.
It may be that you’re going to hike or mountain bike through the forest or something, and that this doesn’t matter to you. But if you’re hoping for a nice relaxing break these points are worth bearing in mind when you’re weighing St Petersburg up against other destinations in Europe and beyond.
13. Went to an unexpectedly ‘exotic’ restaurant.
The night before we left we tried to find a restaurant called ‘Lenin’s Hat’, which was recommended in a couple of guidebooks. After an hour of wandering we learned it was closed. So we went instead to a rather over-slick Chinese restaurant called Shatush (we hadn’t seen the website). We had a delicious meal – I had crispy duck – and a couple of glasses of wine, and basically decompressed after a couple of days containing more stress than a relaxing break should.
Then, out of nowhere, an exotic dancer clambered on to the bar and started shaking her arse.
It was really bizarre, and very amusing. The restaurant was quiet, if seductively lit, and bore no suggestion that one’s meal would be accompanied by a thong-clad, gyrating hottie.
That’s what I call dessert, right fellas? WEUUURGH.
14. Travelled on the metro.
St. Petersburg’s metro is way, way, waaay further underground than London’s. I think every escalator we went on was longer than the one at Angel, which is London’s longest.
In amongst the ads on the escalators, it seems that the transport authority place random pictures of fruit and animals to cheer people up, which – while it obviously failed miserably – I liked.
15. Failed to get into the Nabokov museum.
After checking out we had a couple of hours to kill. We decided to go to the Nabokov museum.
After an hour or more in the snow, we arrived at the museum to find it closed to visitors on that one, particular day. This may/may not have been ‘the last straw’.
16. Got snowed on.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned the snow at all, but spring in Russia doesn’t really arrive until May. Something to bear in mind.
And one thing I did on the way home…
… was think about whether I’d recommend St. Petersburg as a destination for a break.
As I’ve said, this was a birthday present to me. And every time something went wrong, or someone was a pain in the arse, I kind of wanted to shout the fact at the people responsible. Not for my sake – but for the sake of the person who bought me this pretty amazing gift. Because it’s awful to have someone do something nice for you and have it not work out, isn’t it? Honestly, we were genuinely excited at the prospect of this trip, which is where the disappointment lies.
I also thought about the fact that Russia is hosting the World Cup in 2018. Admittedly, this is six years away. But I couldn’t help imagining the brouhahas that could transpire when over-excitable football fans from all over the world arrive expecting a festival of fun. Six years isn’t enough time for embedded cultural characteristics to magically disappear, and I honestly worry at how Russians will react to them.
But hey, maybe they cheer up in the summer (and maybe no British teams will qualify). I won’t be visiting the Russian World Cup, or indeed Russia ever again unless I can help it. In all honesty I couldn’t recommend others do either.