Saint Petersburg, Russia – Thursday 22nd to Monday 26th June
Saint Petersburg is a city of many facets; and one very obviously changing and developing. It typifies a Russia trying to maintain a connection to its past, while also very clearly forging into the future.
We were met at the train station by our Airbnb host, Yuri, who gave us a ride to the apartment in his new BMW 5 Series. His apartment, one of several, was in a new high-rise gated development. On the surface, it was one of the nicest Airbnbs we’d stayed in so far, though we were paying for it, at £68.25 a night!
We soon realised that this was a bit of a veneer, but the obvious display of ‘quality’ was apparent. It had its own water filtration system (there are parasites and heavy metals in the water, apparently), and definitely was putting out an ‘aspirational professional’ feel.
The Soviet Era was far from evident here.
We had arrived the day before Scarlet Sails – a graduation event, of sorts, where a tall ship sails down the Neva at midnight, followed by an enormous firework display.
The elaborate stage for the Scarlet Sails concert on Palace Square
Our plan was to have a long lie-in, then hit the Hermitage Museum before staying up to watch the festivities. We took the Metro into town and made our way to the Hermitage; passing by the elaborate stage set up for the student-only concert in the evening. However, unbeknown to us, the museum was set to close early that day because of the festivities!
After a quick rethink, we set about a walking tour of the city instead, realising we had a long wait ahead of us until the fireworks. We decided to loop around the Church of The Saviour on Blood; then take in the Summer Garden and Field of Mars before finding somewhere to settle for a while.
Church of the Saviour On Blood… snappy name for a cathedral
The city is a heady mix of magnificent, beautiful, buildings, and brutal concrete Soviet architecture. What was astonishing was just how stark the difference. Tsarist magnificence and excess set against Soviet practicality, and the rejection of the bourgeois aesthetic.
We happened across a friendly Karaoke Rock Bar, and then waited it out ‘til dinner time. Google Maps and Trip Advisor both let us down on our search for food; but eventually we found something to eat before finally getting to our spot in a park on the bank of the Neva.
We were in for a treat. We actually couldn’t see the tall ship from where we were, but the firework show was spectacular. One of the biggest that either of us had ever seen!
At night, the bridges across the river all raise to allow ships through, so if you get caught on the wrong island you’re stuck until they come down again, around 5am! Thankfully we’d thought ahead, so for us it was just a long trek home and to bed.
Rooftop coffee stop at Loft Project ETAGI:
The next day we had a tip from one of Hannah’s friends to check out Loft Project ETAGI. This was a reclaimed bread factory-turned independent shop space. Like a post-industrial souk; colourful warren-like corridors full of tiny units selling independent-label clothes, artwork, and Hello Kitty-esque kitsch. Outside, stacked shipping containers had been glazed and repurposed as salons and skate-shops.
This was another side of Saint Petersburg we hadn’t expected to see. Young, dynamic, developing, and seemingly fiercely independent.
We stopped on a roof-top café for lunch, and Hannah followed this up with a black softie-style ice cream. So black, in fact, that she was left with a black tongue and black lips for most of the afternoon!
Hannah’s black ice cream:
On Sunday we finally made it to the Hermitage. The former seat of the Tsarist regime, this incredible palace is now filled with millions of artworks from the Romanov period from around the world, as well as a few contemporary exhibits.
We had prepared ourselves for hours lost in its magnificence; but we both ended up getting a bit bored after not long at all. It was literally heaving with tourists, and there were simply too many works for either of us to sustain our interest. We both found the opulence of the place a little distasteful, too.
Having said that, if you’re a fan of romantic architecture, historical furniture, and classical portraiture, I can safely say the Hermitage is an absolute must see.
Moscow, Russia – Monday 26th June to Saturday 1st July
Come Monday we were boarding the train again; taking the high-speed Sapsan to Moscow for £59 each. By some strange quirk of fate, we’d managed to book seats in the restaurant car. Taking our places we discovered that this meant we were entitled to 2000 rubles-worth (£26.50) of food each… Almost half the ticket price! Bonus! Especially since these were the cheapest tickets we could get for that train.
Arriving at our £56 a night Airbnb, we were delighted to discover a giant tiger on the sofa, and colour changing lighting. Umm, classy?
Phil lounges with tiger:
A weird legacy of Soviet times is the visa registration process. Normally you have to register with the Interior Ministry within 7 days of your arrival in Russia, but because of the Confederation Cup football tournament, this had been cut down to 24 hours. Fine if you’re staying in a hotel – they’ll do it automatically – but Airbnb hosts often won’t do it, leaving you in the country illegally. It’s also not possible to do it yourself.
This is the situation we found ourselves in. After a lot of frustrating emails and £45 in fees, we finally managed to get registered in Moscow with Real Russia, who had handled our visa applications and train tickets back in the UK. Now legal, we were set to continue our travels through Russia.
Our advice would be to make sure you sort this out before you go. Having to deal with it on the ground, as it were, is way too stressful.
Phil had worked in Moscow a few years ago, so we were able to revisit a couple of places he already knew, as well as seeing new things for us both.
After a day of working we headed over to the Strelka Institute for a rooftop sunset dinner. Expecting to cross the pedestrian bridge by the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, we were met with huge crowds, and were turned away by the police; meaning we had to walk a couple of miles further for our dinner!
The trendy Strelka Institute:
Finally settled with cocktails and menu choices made, Google discovered for us that the Cathedral was hosting a visiting relic – a particle of a rib of Saint Nicholas. People were literally queuing for miles to see it. Like, a couple of miles. We thought this must be just a week-long visit, but it had arrived on the 22nd May, and people were still flocking to see it.
The queue to see the relic of Saint Nick, a mile away from the cathedral!
On Thursday we made our way to Gorky Park, and discovered the queue still going strong! Mind boggling. After strolling round the park, sadly missing the musical fountain display, we stopped to admire the Soviet-era sculptures at Muzeon Park of Arts. Taken from across the city, these are now kept here for posterity, as a reminder of times gone by – vast sculptures of prominent Soviet figures, mixed in with propaganda and protest pieces.
Then it was on to Red Square, and an obligatory McDonalds!
The scale of the Kremlin, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and the GUM shopping centre is staggering! It’s difficult to describe in words, and pictures just don’t do it justice. It was built to impress, and that it does with aplomb.
On Friday – our last full day in the capital – we ventured up to ВДНК (VDNKh) to check out the Cosmonautics Museum. There’s very little English description, but the displays are amazing, and there’s plenty there to keep any space buffs (like Phil) interested for a couple of hours.
It also meant we got a chance to see the enormous Monument to the Conquerors of Space. An incredible piece of ’60s Soviet optimism; 107 metres tall, and clad with titanium, celebrating the first Soviet successes in space with style.
We’d watched an episode of Secret Eats months before leaving for our trip which featured a restaurant Hannah had become obsessed with visiting. We called it ‘the cheese restaurant’.
Since the EU sanctions began over the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia has stopped importing a lot of European goods, including cheese! As a consequence of this Russian entrepreneurs have starting making the previously imported produce themselves.
The chef at Syrovarnia (which translates as ‘cheesemaker’) set his sights on producing Itialian cheese, and combining it with traditional Russian dishes. The results, to our pallets, were spectacular! We started with a mind-bendingly-good burrata on focaccia, followed by beef stroganoff topped with cheese! What’s not to love?
Bad photo. Incredible burrata.
With that, our Moscow tourist boxes had all been ticked, and on Saturday it was time to leave. We were early at the train station to set out on the iconic Trans-Mongolian Railroad.
Next stop: Yekateringburg; then on to Siberia!
Hannah and Phil x