Beautiful St Petersburg greeted us with a blizzard. The ferry arrived about 9am and we went on deck to test out our cold weather clothing. This was not fun as the ferry was excruciatingly warm if you had more than one layer on. That is something we’ve had to get used to in Russia, as it’s cold outside going indoors is always t-shirt weather warm – and shorts too. People wear these huge thick coats, because underneath they’re not wearing many layers to cope with the intense heat inside. The snow and wind on deck just persuaded us that the more layers the better!
There was a queue to get of the boat. Half the people onboard couldn’t get off until 2pm anyway. There is a deal with the ferry line that if you arrive with them to St Petersburg, you can get visa free entry for 72 hours, given that you have a return ticket for the ferry within that time. Many people took advantage of this, including some young British students. However, with half the boat trying to get off at the same time we got lost queueing down the endless corridors without windows. Half an hour later we were free… to join another queue. The border control officials were taking at least one minute, usually more, per person. It took us an hour and a half to get through.
We tried to take the shuttle bus to the centre. Turns out we didn’t have the right ticket, we were supposed to buy something on the boat. Or at least that was our guess, it wasn’t clear. The information people spoke English and advised us to take the trolleybus in for 40 roubles each (about 55p). The conductor on board didn’t speak English but she was smiling and we managed to successfully buy a ticket each for the main train station, where we were going to store our bags for the day. We were very pleased, it’s easy to get around in Russia we thought! Getting off the bus at the right stop was a problem. Google told us the station was near. We get up and put on our bags. The conductor comes towards us and stops between us and the door, which we took to mean sit down and wait. She then preceded to repeat the word “сейчас” (saychas) which I did not know. She had stopped smiling. I said “не здесь?” (Nye zdes?/not here?) But she did not reply with a да or a нет. We made the decision to stay put, obviously she would point to the door if we were supposed to get off, right? We missed the stop and got of at the next one with the conductor shaking her head. I mouthed “спасибо” (spasiba/thank you) even though I decided she wasn’t very helpful. Turns out сейчас means now, and that gestures in Russia are not really a thing. Over the next few days we realised it was rare enough for someone to smile at us at all. People seemed fairly closed and straight faced, and even if you do get a conversation there is no smile, no matter how much you beam at them yourself. Most do not hold open doors for others (the metro station doors explicitly ask people to but this is ignored) and they do not say thank you if you do hold them open. However, the guidebook (I now can’t find the exact quote) says the Russians can be cold in the winter and warm up in the spring with the better weather… Possibly arriving in a blizzard didn’t help us.
Underneath the confusingly named Moscow station (the station in St Petersburg where trains leave for Moscow), we found a cellar like room tiled in white and blue. We queued at a window which abruptly closed and people shuffled to the next window. We left our bags with an attendant for the day and got our second smile. The guidebook guarantees you a happy transaction if you pay in exact change. It was either for that or for my bad pronunciation which definitely was the cause for smiles and giggles later on in Russia. We were now free, bag-less and up for walking everywhere. The snow was a bonus and a long time dream for me, we got to see St Petersburg in all its glory at only -2°C. Here we come Невский проспект/Nevsky Prospect!
It took us two wrong queues, 30 mins and 900 roubles each to get in (about £12.45). We spent 6 hours there and still didn’t see everything. There is a lot of stuff, for lack of a better word – art, coins, sculptures, clothing, you name it. The collection began with paintings given to Catherine the Great and grew to include items from all over the world. However, in the end the most impressive things are the rooms themselves, especially the ceilings. Each intricately created and unique throughout the winter palace. To get a feel of the place I recommend watching ‘Russian Ark’. It is a feature length film captured in one continuous take which guides you through the Hermitage and through Russian history.
Russian State Museum
The museum was open until 9pm on Thursdays, perfect for us getting there at 6pm. This museum was much better in terms of seeing purely Russian art than the Hermitage. It had art throughout the ages, in particular the modern style of the Soviet era was impressive – simple but effective designs. It was here we had another brush with a grumpy (though it’s probably how she always looks) babushka. I used an empty chair that was used by museum attendants to pack my coat into my bag. The attendant in this large room promptly got up from her chair way on the other side, walked over and started speaking to me. I said in Russian that I don’t understand, sorry, and that I don’t speak much Russian but she continued on nevertheless. She did an extremely small and easily missable gesture towards the chair. I don’t think I was supposed to put my bag on it. As soon as I lifted it off she sat down still speaking Russian at me. Again I apologised and simply had to walk away, she would have happily (but without smiling of course) lectured at me for hours.
This was a very solemn place, lots of dark and old pictures of Christ on dark walls. There were also many gold icons and items placed around the large room and many people were going up to each one and praying for at least 30 seconds and crossing their bodies. There was a long queue to see the presumably main icon surrounded in gold and jewels on the iconostasis (a wall separating the church decorated with paintings and jewels). We walked around but didn’t spend too much time in there. It didn’t feel like a happy place.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
This church on the other hand was beautiful. The high walls leading to domes were covered in bright, colourful mosaic pictures. We initially thought there was a translation mistake in the name until we discovered it had been built around the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It cost 250 roubles to visit and it was full of tourists and tour groups, but it was worth it.
It was here in St Petersburg we stayed with our first couch surfing host. We had been hosts ourselves in Sheffield as we wanted to do it abroad to meet locals and save money. Vasily welcomed us warmly late in a MacDonalds and took us back to his flat near Udelnaya metro station. This is the station that Lenin arrived to St Petersburg after being exiled in 1917. Being a lecturer and researcher in the university, we shared experiences of working late and writing papers. He had the added complication of translating his papers into English of course. Happy to discuss politics, identity and food, he showed us around Moscow district and introduced us to Uzbek manti (we had pumpkin dumplings) and Georgian khachapuri (cheese and egg bread).