Archives for the month of: July, 2014

We had a couple of quiet days to catch up on sleep at our friend’s house in Vantaa after the long train trip from Russia.   We drove into Helsinki city on the 10th July and visited the indoor and outdoor markets as well as an Asian shop to get supplies for the van.   We had a lovely Italian meal and then made our way to the Tallink Silja cruise ship which had many more facilities than any other ferry we had used.   The only cabins left were those below the car deck but otherwise it was a very comfortable crossing, stopping firstly at Mariehamn at 4.15am. There was a lot of engine noise as we docked so I decided to go on deck for a while with the other half dozen die hards and photograph the sunrise and have a look at the many islands. The trip took 17hours and we put our watches back an hour on arrival in
Stockholm.   It was a lovely warm,sunny day (we were getting used to these!) as we drove to the campsite 20minutes from town in the suburb of Bromma.   We got the last spaceat the campsite and there were over a hundred vans there and many  nationalities.

Stockholm is a collection of many islands with beautiful views across the water from the hills around Sodermalm island and from some of the 16 other main islands.
There are very good train, bus and ferry services around the islands and the 24 or 72hour pass allows you transport on all of them.
We left the van and caught the train into the city island of sodermalm and then a ferry to Djurgarden to the Vasa museum which took about ten minutes.  It houses the most amazing example of a 17th century ship which was the focus of the museum. In 1628 it had only sailed 1.3 kilometres before sinking in Stockholm harbour on it’s maiden voyage (it was badly designed and top heavy!) with 64 cannons on board.   It lay on the sea bed in Stockholm until 1961 when the mammoth task of salvaging it started. Seventy percent of the ship was intact and the rest lay nearby with very little extra timber needed to repair it.   It was in such good condition and had not rotted because the sea there  had no wood worms to eat the wood.  It was enormous and the most amazing sight.   The museum building
was built around it and it reached up to seven floors in height.
It was a beautiful day and many locals as well as tourists were making the most of the weather and picnicking in the parks and on the various islands. We caught the ferry back to Sodermalm and walked over to Gamla Stan (old town) island where we wandered around the very impressive buildings.
We made our way over to the changing of the guard at 12.15pm which has been a daily event since the fifteen hundreds.  It lasted about half an hour with a great military band playing and a lot of pomp and ceremony. The guards on duty do not have to stand ram rod straight and can look around unlike those of many other countries.  This seemed to make more sense
really if they wanted to notice everything around them.
Stockholm listed three free tours and we decided on two of them. The Soder tour at 2pm with grisly stories of the burning of witches in the 17th century and other interesting ones of life in Stockholm which was quite different from a usual city tour.   We had a break and then caught the metro (tunnelbana)to the old town and joined the 6pm old town tour.
Both were excellent and we met Jess from Perth on the Soder tour. It was nice to meet someone from home.

There was an huge number of tourists in town but with so many different islands to explore it only felt crowded in the old town “Gamla Stan” where the Royal palace was located and where the various tour buses and groups were gathered.
The views from Soder (after climbing many steps) over the Baltic were spectacular especially given the bright sunny day.
Someone said that it was advantageous to go on the free tours as the guides do want a good tip at the end of the tour and they are therefore more enthusiastic and seem to ibe more spontaneous than on a regular guided tour paid for in advance.
Apparently Swedes are the second largest consumer of coffee in the world and judging by the abundance of  cafes this appeared to be correct.   We found Stockholm to be more expensive than Helsinki or Moscow especially the entrance fees to the various museums which were up to 255 Swedish Krone or over $40 per person. We were lucky and  could cook our own meals and take lunch with us so we  just splurged on a couple of coffees a day.
Maurice’s arthritis was playing up the next day so he stayed in the van while I went back into town and out to Djurgarden island to go to the ABBA museum. I was a big fan of their music back in the seventies so I loved it. Their music appealed to many obviously as they were coming up to 400 million record sales!
The map I had bought of Stieg Larsson’s millennium “The girl with the Dragon Tattoo” showing the locations used in the books was not very accurate so I had a long walk after taking the metro two stops too far from where I wanted to be. Just what I needed – more walking!
I bought a coffee from the Mellqvist kaffebar where the author Stieg Larsson visited regularly when his office of the magazine “Expo” where he was editor-in-chief was in the same building. He was a journalist and a leading expert on anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi movements. He died at only 50 years of age and his 65 million selling books in 45 languages were only published after his death in 2004.
I made my way to a closer metro station and went back to Van Mauriceson, picked up Maurice and caught the train to Hasselby Strand where we were met by our friend Christian and his children.
It is fun to see the development of the children that we visit on our travels. We were kindly invited to dinner at his parent’s house near one of the many lakes in that area. It was a hot humid day and we had a delicious Swedish meal (seafood on a potato cake, BBQ’d beef and pork with new potatoes and rubbarb and strawberry pie) sitting next to the pool.
On the 14th July we set off for Alingsas just north of Gothenburg to catch up with friends for a couple of days that we last saw two years previously in our first year of travel.   Cajsa let me use her kitchen so I cooked an Italian meal for them one night.   It was a change from cooking in the van. When we do eventually get back to our house in Perth the ktchen will seem huge.

On the 17th July we headed through north throug Sweden to Norway.

It is hard to believe that we have already been traelling for two and a half years nearly after departing Perth on the 1st Apri 2012!

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Ksenia picked us up at 5.30am the next morning to avoid the morning traffic of Muscovites on a Saturday out of the city.
One of the main streets had 11 lanes one way and there were many accidents with people changing lanes.  We saw two such accidents in our short time in Moscow and a mangled car on the way down to Vladimir.   There were some interesting passengers in the cars on the way down there – an exotic bird, a black cat and a van inside a van going to Poland.

Moscow was built on a ring road system whereas St Petersburg on a grid system.  Ksenia told us that there was no fine for travelling up to 20 kilometres over the speed limit, $15 for 30 kilometres over the limit, $100 for 40 kilometres over and at 60 kilometres over the limit your licence was lost!   They didn’t have a licence points system at all.

The trip to Vladimir (on the so called Golden Ring) our first stop should have taken us 3-4hours but took more than 5hours with many stops in a traffic jam.  There were not many people driving in Moscow that early but once we got out of town there were many people were on the road to
their Dachas (country houses) for the weekend.
We stopped in Vladimir for about an hour to have some blinis for lunch at a very square old soviet cafeteria building  and a look at the old churches and view of the valley below. We continued a further hour on to Suzdal, a very old town on the Golden Ring stopping at the fruit sellers along the road.

Ksenia took us to a lovely garden restaurant serving freshly made Russian food. We were glad we had her with us as there were no English menus and no one spoke English or German unlike our host at our B and B who had lived briefly in Germany and spoke German. Many of the older generation had learnt German in school and the younger generation learnt English.
There were numerous small hotels, guesthouses and B and B’s and the one we stayed in the “Vintazh Otel Surikov” was a lovely B and B right on the river.
The other guests were all Russian but one spoke good English and was very friendly. Vladimir put on 60’s rock and roll music during the day as he renovated an old Mercedes and another old Russian car.  We were given a hearty Russian breakfast of porridge, bread with butter, cheese and ham,pancakes with fruit and a large cup of Turkish type coffee.   Sunday was the first really hot day we had had with 34degrees and sunny which we really enjoyed. It got humid later in the afternoon and rained on an off from
about 5pm.
Nothing was too much trouble for Vladimir and he found us a retired teacher Yuriy as an guide who took us on 2hour walking tour around the town. He spoke good English and gave us the history of the town.

The very old town was set up during Soviet times (1967) as the first tourist town and a large hotel was built in honour of this.  The town was also used as the setting for many Russian and foreign films, one of which was “Peter the Great” and stars such as Omar Sharif and Vanessa Redgrave were in Suzdal for the film.   Apparently there was a large film set built close to the river near where we stayed depicting  Moscow in the 1700’s and after filming closed the Americans wanted to donate the entire set to the town however two generals at the time had other ideas and took it all to their dachas (country houses).
Yuriy walked us through the town and into various convents and churches and pointed out interesting houses along the way.
The entire village was made of wood many centuries ago however much of it has been rebuilt with bricks and mortar after much of it burnt down.
Suzdal is known as being the place that Moscovites and others from reachable cities came to for the weekend. It was surrounded by vast fields and the small town of 11,000 had 30 working churches and a few more that were derelict or under restoration.
We walked later through the town to meet Ksenia for dinner at a Russian restaurant called “Traktir”. We had a typical Russian meal with a delicious beetroot, garlic and walnut salad, a white radish and parsley salad followed by an eggplant and tomato dish and potatoes with horseradish sauce. Maurice had “blinis” pancakes with fruit to cap off the meal. Ksenia had to read us the menu again as it was all in Russian and no English subtitles or separate English menus.   There had been two busloads of Italian tourists in the town but they were given a set menu so no language was needed.
Ksenia drove us to a orphanage/church complex on the other side of town which was beautifully laid out and later to a very old abandoned large church in the fields which looked fascinating in it’s derelict state  even though there were plants growing from it and it was falling apart.

Maurice and I wanted to go to the monastery for a look the next day (Monday) but it was closed  Monday so we went for a nice walk instead and could see why people from the city love the fresh air of the countryside and the lack of people.
Ksenia picked us up and we went to a ceramic factory where we bought a couple of little hand made china pieces and then drove into a very ordinary small Russian village with quaintly painted houses to buy a large quantity of berries for her mother to make jam and also buy some goat’s milk from other villagers.  The roads were pretty rough with many potholes but a lot of work was being done to the old houses.   Most were very colourfully painted and decorated.  We drove the hour back to Vladimir where we farewelled Ksenia who had shown us so much Russian hospitality. We caught the train back to Moscow (which took four and a half hours) deposited our bags, had a meal outside the station and then departed at 11pm on a very new and superb Siemen’s train to Helsinki. The very friendly conductress brought us coffee in fine china when we boarded the train and again and gave us bottles of water and a breakfast bag with muffin,juice, yoghurt and chocolate. We had comfy pillows and duvets and electronic passes to enter our cabin.  It was a fantastic train service . The thirteen hour trip from Moscow landed us back near  Helsinki at 12noon  to another sunny warm day.  We turned our watches back an hour.

In many of the countries we visited,  the cities are thriving but there is still a lot of poverty in the country areas with little infrastructure.
It was interesting to hear from Ksenia that pensions in the country areas were far less than in the city where the cost of living was greater. A couple of people admitted to us that Russians in general were better off under the Soviet system with educational opportunities and medical services for all whereas now if one cannot pay for a service they don’t receive it.

Russia more than exceeded our expectations and especially the attitude of most people that we encountered who were not the western portrayed dour and uncompromising people they were made out to be.  Some officials were like that but no more so than in any other country.  We both hope to return one day.

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Some of the wonderful metro station on the circle line in Moscow.

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We got tickets the next day for the Kremlin and made our way around the vast complex inside the red walls comprising of Mr Putins
offices, administrative buildings, enormous Parliament, several chapels, the cathedral and the lovely gardens and a heliport.
We could only enter one chapel and the cathedral and wander around the gardens.  We decided not to see the armoury and treasury.  Unlike many other countries it is unknown as to where Mr Putin lives and the flag is always flying so it is also not known when he is in the Kremlin.

Since reading the novel “Gorky Park” and having it mentioned in other books I wanted to visit the actual park.  It covers an enormous  area on the bank of the Moscow river and it has many recreational Summer facilities with table tennis tables, outdoor volleyball area and other sport’s buildings, bike hire, boat hire on the various lakes and numerous outdoor cafes and
restaurants and plenty of benches to sit and enjoy the park. Several people were sunbaking on the concrete bank next to the river and a giant space station model was being dismantled and taken away with several large trucks.

A large area was being prepared for an outdoor concert and another area for a garden show.
We had a coffee on the river at the base of the Glass bridge and then crossed the bridge and walked to catch the metro to take some photos from a viewing point overlooking the city and to see the University building (one of the seven sisters).

We happened to ask three Chinese students coming out of the university how to get to the viewing point (two were from Harbin and were amazed to hear that we had been there and one was from Xi’an). The one from Xi’an who owned a car and immediately said that it would be too far to walk said that he would take us in his car.   He kindly took us  there and showed us where from where to catch the metro and wished us well.  He was in his third year of study at Moscow university and had studied Russian and Russian literature and was completing his master’s degree. He already had a job lined up in Moscow as a Russian and Mandarin tourist guide for the following year.  Such a nice chap.   Thank goodness that he did take us in his car or we would have been more footsore than normal that day. We paid a nominal amount and took a chair lift from the viewing point
down to the river and had a nice stroll from there to the metro station where we met a Russian commercial lawyer on his second day of holidays. We had a good chat to him on the train (he had studied in San Diego) and he said “I’m so excited to meet you!  We were the first Australians he had met. He also welcomed us to Russia and hoped that we would return.
We went back to “Receptor” a basement restaurant that Ksenia had recommended, had a nice meal and returned to the hotel.
We had only been in Moscow for four days however we managed with Ksenia’s tips to see a lot more of the city than we would have on our own.

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The temperature rose rapidly to 29degrees by the time we arrived in Moscow on the 1st July which pleased us after all the cold weather over the last couple of months.
The forest stretched along the route and we passed many small townships with very poor looking wooden houses and dirt roads. The train made a couple of stops at larger cities with many old and new looking appartment blocks. We arrived at the Leninskaya Station in Moscow at 7pm to bright sunshine. The Moscow metro is more extensive (the population is more than four times that of St Petersburg) and no signs in English so it was a little more challenging to use until we got used to their system and
could decipher the Cryllic station names. We still had to ask people which exit to use as there were several in many of the stations.
One nice young man helped us with our bags as there were many steps as well as escalators and then another young man helped us with directions. When we finally arrived at street level we met the same young man again who asked three ladies if they knew the street we wanted.  He left us with”Welcome to Moscow” and the ladies  were delightful with one speaking English.  They walked us to our hotel and wished us a pleasant stay. A great introduction to Moscow. One chap on the way to the station said “Americans” to us and we said “no Australians” and he gave us the  thumbs up and a nod. Most people assumed we were American despite more tourists from England and Australia visiting Russia.
Contrary to many perceptions of Russians as dour and rude, we found the opposite with many people of all ages helpful and friendly if they could assist us and there was a lot of laughter and conviviality between groups of Russians in parks and in the cafes and restaurants.

We were a exhausted from having little sleep the night before with our midnight boat cruise in St Petersburg so we found a lovely garden restaurant down the road where sat outside in the garden in short sleeved shirts.  It was a wonderful feeling to be warm again. We had a glass of  Aussie Hardy’s merlot and a nice meal before Maurice went back to the hotel and I walked the ten minutes to see Red Square at night where the
Kremlin,Lenin’s tomb,GUM shopping centre and St Basil’s church were illuminated and looked beautiful. The square was named “Red” because Red in Russian meant pretty.

The next morning was again warm and sunny when we caught the metro and found our free tour guide. She gave us a very comprehensive two and a half hour tour around the central city area, Red square and the GUM shopping centre which has a history all of it’s own especially in the Soviet era.  It was set up as a showcase for foreigners and very few locals who could afford to buy goods there.  It is still has very exclusive shops that most locals and tourists can’t afford.   Our guide was a very friendly and well informed young person and very knowledgeable about her city and it’s history. The “Free” guides make their living from tips and a lot depends on the number of people on the tour. Our group consisted of twelve people – 2 Canadians, 2 Americans, 3 Israelis, several English tourists and us.

We spent a couple of hours in the metro riding the circle line to see the most beautiful of Moscow’s metro stations (see separate post).  The metro in Moscow cost 40 roubles for one ride or just over a dollar and unlike St Petersburg they gave out business like cards with a barcode which you placed on the ticket machine for entry.
We got off at one station and boarded the next train about 2minutes later and moved onto the next one and we repeated this for about eight stations. Moscovites all say that their metro stations are better than the ones in St Petersburg but we liked them all with each one having it’s own distinctive architecture and murals or sculptures and lighting. It was refreshing
several times to see younger people standing for older locals.

Ksenia who we had befriended at the Ayurvedic centre in Kerala picked us up about 7pm in her new two door Mercedes so we travelled in style to an Indian restaurant on the top floor of an oblong Soviet style building which overlooked the whole city.   The view was wonderful and so was the meal. There were many Indian people eating there as well so we knew it would
be good. Ksenia then took us on a tour of Moscow and although it was cold (again!) and raining it was lovely to see the city by night. It was Midnight in Moscow by the time we got back to the hotel.  Everywhere we went in the city was very clean and tidy.
Apart from 24hour supermarkets,cafes and restaurants(of which there were many)other shops didn’t seem to open until 10 or 11am and stay open until about 9-10pm. We saw workmen also working late into the evening to make the most of the daylight hours.

We set off for the GUM the following day having been told there was a flower festival and well known Russians (not that we could spot them) were giving out free icecream and balloons. You could have as many icecreams as you wanted and Maurice went back for seconds.  We walked quite a distance to see the impressionist gallery next to the Pushkin Museum then to see the Roerich museum who wanted $23 entry so as we had seen one of his exhibitions in St Petersburg we omitted  that gallery.  We  instead walked across the road to the Church of Christ the Saviour one of 600 orthodox churches in Moscow and which was very ornate.
A large bridge took us across the river to an island and to a small cafe (one of many) in old warehouse complexes which had been converted into hundreds of cafes, offices and restaurants. We then crossed over another bridge and on to the metro to Arbat – a very touristy pedestrian street. We saw one of the seven skyscrapers that Stalin had built named the “seven sisters” and modelled on the Empire state building. They are all used for different purposes – the  Hotel Ukraina, Kotelnicheskaya embankment appartments, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Hotel Leningradskay, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of the Moscow State University, and the Red Gates Administrative Building.

We walked back towards our hotel after a mammoth walking expedition and found “Trattoria Montivoli” a very authentic Italian restaurant with excellent food at the top of our street before staggering back to the “Element”  hotel.

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The next day was a bit warmer but cloudy again when we caught the metro to the other end of the city and then walked to St Isaac’s church to climb the 250 steps to the cuppola to view St Petersburg from above. It is a sprawling city with most buildings only five or six storeys  high with many parks and gardens.
It was a short walk from there down to the aquataxi and we travelled along the river and stopped at the garden of the Summer Palace with it’s beautiful fountains and sculptures.  All of the sculptures were copies of the original ones which had either been stolen or had been deteriorating. In the main there were Russians strolling in the gardens and we stopped in the herb
and spice garden to have lunch.
We strolled through the large gardens with the river on one side and a canal on the other and from there we wandered the suburbs on the other side of the canal.  The architecture was not as ornate as in the city centre but was still interesting.

There were so many  coffee shops and restaurants all over the city and although coffee is quite expensive $5 for any kind of coffee. Most coffee we ordered was lukewarm accompanied by cold milk unless you specified otherwise.
We saw a number of vehicles with exclamation marks on their back window. Probationary drivers had to keep this sign on their
car for two years and they also had a curfew – what a good idea.

Despite the rain we decided to go on the midnight to 3am boat trip down the canal and onto the river to see the raising of the bridges to allow for the passage of merchant ships. They stay open from 1.30am to 5.30am so drivers have to make sure that they are over the side of the island on which they want to be before 1.15am.  It is quite a spectacle with all the bridges
lit with coloured lights and hundreds of tourists line the riverbank and many others are on the many boats.  We arrived back at the slipway
nearest the winter palace at 3am and we had a brisk walk of 45minutes back to our hotel. It was interesting to see the Nevsky Prospekt (eight traffic lanes and seven metre wide footpath on one side and about 5 metres on the other) without thousands of people and very little traffic. Many of the coffee shops and restaurants along the street were open 24hours.

We departed the following day on the “Sapsan” train from one of the three main stations – the Moskovskiy which was luckily only a short distance from our hotel. The trip from St Petersburg to Moscow took four and a half hours. The train service was very good and all the fast trains in Russia are produced by Siemens Germany so the standard was of course excellent.

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We had been recommended to see the Yusupov Palace which was located on one of the innercity canals. They were an extremely wealthy family and close friends of the Tsar.  Their palace was very opulent and and included a very ornate private theatre which could hold 200 people.
There were few tourists the day we went which was very pleasant. The Yusupovs bequeathed all of their art and other collections well before the revolution to the state and they had moved to France before the uprising. The Yusupov palace was also well known as being the place that Rasputin was murdered by Prince Yusupov and friends before his body was thrown into the canal.
From there we went on to see the Roerich art exhibition at the Russian museum (another impressive building). He painted in the late 1800’s to the 1940’s and had spent a number of years in India. His paintings of the Himalayas were unique and beautiful.
As in many countries,foreign tourists pay a higher price for entry into most museums which is fine in third world countries but I’m not sure that it applied to a city like St Petersburg.
We had an early dinner and went back to the hotel where I changed and headed off in a taxi to the beautiful Marinsky theatre to see the ballet “Sylvia”. It was a wonderful production with two intervals. I was going to treat myself to a little bottle of champagne but at $25 I thought it was a bit excessive so I bought a bottle of water and looked around the theatre instead.

We made an early start to the Peterhof Palace located on the Gulf of Finland.about an hour (by metro and minibus) from St Petersburg.
Mini buses at several metro station to take people to outlying suburbs.
The day was beautiful and sunny (the best we had had for about two weeks). The palace made the Hermitage and Winter Palace look plain by comparison with extremely ornate glass and gilt decorations in many of the enormous rooms and ballroom.
The scale of the palace, bath house complex and grounds was staggering! There were separate payments for the different buildings – the palace,  chapel,bath house and lower garden and it was about $80 for the day for the two of us but we didn’t visit all of the buildings. The separate sprawling bath house with enormous sauna rooms and bathing areas was amazing and included resting rooms and dining room. The gardens and forrested areas stretched for kilometres and the fountains were beautiful.
Tsar Peter could watch the ships coming and going along the coast from his palace,bath house and the gardens.
We walked a a great distance down to a folly and a restaurant where we had a cup of tea and rested our feet.
There was a photographic exhibition in the garden detailing the work by hundreds of labourers and artisans in the restoration of the palace after WWII. It was quite amazing to see how it had been totally reconstructed over the years.
We did have to wear disposable slippers inside which kept the exquisite flooring in it’s pristine condition.

The tour groups arrived by bus – scores of buses – but there were few individual tourists so we were not herded through each room. It was the largest number of tourists we had seen anywhere with hundreds of groups (many Russian) moving through the palace and gardens.
The little red squirrels were very inquisitive and not shy at all. They darted through the gardens and trees at lightning speed.
We enjoyed a picnic in the gardens like some of the Russian tourists who had brought their own food and drink.

We caught the shuttle bus and metro back to the hotel and collapsed after all the walking we had done.

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We had bought a two day pass to see the Hermitage museum and the Winter palace on the embankment of the Neva river. The majestic buildings were painted a pleasant green colour with white and gold coloured trim although the colour had been changed many times over the years. The Hermitage and palace was composed of five different adjoining buildings and the main building was three storeys high. There were many tourist buses and people waiting in line to buy tickets however we had bought ours online and just had to exchange them for “real” tickets and didn’t have such a wait. Most rooms of the museum and palace were not overcrowded and some of the corridors and not so popular exhibits were void of many or any tourists. Each room had a “Ludmila” (as Maurice named them) watching to see that nothing was taken or damaged and to tell people off who were using flash photography.
We saw a few who had nodded off on the job as we walked through the exhibition rooms and hallways.
We found it amazing that we could take photos in most rooms except for the temporary exhibits and one room housing a few of Monet’s paintings. We were stunned that there were no ropes or barriers to stop you from even touching some of the paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Gaughin and other famous artists.
You could have your nose within centimetres of the paintings which was in contrast to the Frida Kahlo exhibition in Rome where the floor had sensors if you stepped within a metre of the paintings. If anything was touched alarm bells rang and it seemed that the Chinese groups were the main culprits.

We were told that if one spent a minute examinging each artifact and painting in the museum, it would take eleven years to see everything.
I can’t say that we examined each artifact and we managed to in seven hours (with a coffee and lunch break) the three floors of the main building of the museum and of the palace quarters. We had bought a two consecutive day pass so decided to leave the other three minor buildings to the next day.
The only disappointing aspect of the entire place was the lack of dining facilities. Unlike the palaces of Schoenbrunn and Versailles there was only one very small cafe with three tables with coffee and very basic snack food and an internet cafe where it was difficult to get around the tables with computers and there was only some stale fridge sandwiches and a sad looking greek salad on offer. The lack of any other kind of restaurant for a site with so many visitors was astounding. When we commented to the staff
about the lack of dining facilities they just shrugged.

The remaining four buildings we tackled on the second day. We were there before the doors opened and made our way around many exhibition rooms before encountering some of the groups trailing through the vast rooms. We covered two floors of three of the buildings by lunchtime which included more of the most amazing collections of Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Pisaro and Degas. To access Peter the First’s original small palace we had to walk around the entire hermitage and palace to the other side. There was a walkway over the river but not accessible. In great contrast to the rest of overwhelming magnitude of the place, what remained inside of Peter’s palace were a couple of extremely modest sized rooms.

Our tickets was also the Menchikov palace on the other side of the river.  The staff member omitted to tell us that it was about two kilometres away. She made it seem as though it was just over the bridge near us. It was refreshingly empty of tourists and beautiful but on a much smaller scale than the winter palace. Menchikov was Peter the First’s right hand man and a bit of a rogue who after Peter died was exiled with his family to Siberia.
The metro system is very good but to get to many of the most important monuments and sites means walking great distances and although we enjoyed walking for the for the first couple of days we were exhausted and the many cobblestoned streets were hard on the feet. Even so some young girls teetered on them in their very high shoes.

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Some of the cleanest metro stations we have seen – one more interesting than the next.

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We were checked by Finnish customs and immigration when we boarded the train to St Petersburg and we luckily at the last minute also took our EU passports as they wanted to see our arrival stamp into Europe. We had sent our Australian passports off for the Russian visas which we had to show them and to avoid Schengen agreement problems we had used our EU ones into Europe. Phew!
We changed some Euros into Roubles on the train which was handy and then after crossing the border into Russia and turning our watches forward by an hour, we were again checked by the Russian customs and  immigration officials. No one checked our tickets.

We were both excited to get to St Petersburg after reading so much about the city and it’s history. It was as impressive as we imagined from the metro station which was adorned with sculptures and paintings to the decorated buildings and wide boulevards.
Nevsky Prospekt, the main street was eight lanes wide, four each way and the pavement on one side was seven metres wide and five on the other side. The metro,the third deepest in the world meant to travel on one escalator took about five minutes.
The metro stations names were also in English as well as in Russian so that was a big help. We never waited more than a couple of minutes at any of the stations which were all very clean and tidy. There was always a ticket window open to buy the 30 rouble tokens that we needed to enter the metro. We arrived rugged up for the cold weather and had to peel off layers as it was warm in the sunshine which greeted us. That soon disappeared for the next week.
Our hotel “the Anabel” was set back about a block accessed through an archway on the very long Nevsky Prospekt. The street boasts up to 2million people a day using it in Summer and although it was fairly crowded, tourist numbers were apparently down because of the troubles in the Ukraine. We were not sorry about that.
The hotel was a wonderful surprise as we thought $160 a night for a hotel in the main drag in a city like St Petersburg would buy us a very ordinary and maybe rundown room. It was just the opposite with quality furnishings, a lovely bathroom, complimentary espresso coffee,tea and filtered water in a small lounge area and Olga serving us a full breakfast of cereals,juices,toast and Russian black bread. The month we were in st Petersburg was known as the “white Nights” because of the special light during the night where it never got really dark. It only got a little darker between 1 and 3am but still bright enough to read outside.

We had booked a Free walking tour of the city for the following day although we later discovered that you don’t really have to book them, you can just turn up. We had taken such a tour in Ljubljana and were most impressed by the guide’s local knowledge.
We met Svetlana at the Alexander column the next day and despite the cold and the rain (of course the weather had changed) she led a wonderful walking tour for more than two hours showing us many of the main sights in the city and the riverbank and we had a nice stop at an excellent  cafe/bakery to warm ourselves. We were shown buildings where Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky lived and were given us tips on where to eat. We went along to one “Go Goa” and had a nice late Indian lunch.

The day did not improve so we decided to do the tour of the Vodka museum. (Most of the other museums were closed on Mondays).
The guide gave us (we were on our own) the history of Vodka in Russia and there was an interesting display of the hundreds of various vodkas available and we then had a tasting of three with some typical salty Russian snacks eaten after downing the vodka shots. Some of the exhibits (like the khalashnikov in glass filled with vodka and the vodka paste in a tube for astronauts) were a novelty and some displays of corks tops in brass, ivory and silver were interesting. We were then warmed up enough to continue our walk to the “Church of the Spilled Blood”, so named after Alexander the Ist who was shot and killed inside the church.
The church looked like something out of Red Square in Moscow and was beautiful inside with the entire walls and roof covered in minute mosaic tiles and the outside very ornate with golden and brightly coloured onion domes,multi coloured tiles and detailed relief work.
Inside was a photographic display of the restoration and it was hard to imagine how much intricate work by so many artisans was required to return it to it’s original state. In one of the domes they found an unexploded bomb from the second world war.

We worked out our 10days schedule for St Petersburg taking into account when the various museums were closed. The Hermitage and winter palace
were closed on Mondays but open until 9pm on Wednesdays. The Russian museum was closed on Tuesdays and open until 9pm on Thursdays.
None of them open before 10-10.30 and the shops didn’t seem to open before 10 or 11am and closed between 9 and 10pm.

Many of the buildings in the city are connected by large archways which lead to other buildings at the rear. This was the case with our hotel and the reason it was so quiet.
We tried to go to the Stroganov (yes from the beef) palace however that was closed as it forms part of the Russian museum so we ventured into the Singer (sewing machine) building which is an enormous book shop with books in all languages over two floors and with a lovely cafe overlooking Kazan cathedral. There were a lot of devotees in the cathedral lined up waiting to pray in front of an icon. The women must cover their heads before they enter the church and men must take off any hats or caps (you would think that normal but most young men don’t).

We took the metro to Alexandrovskiy Park across the Neva river and walked back to the Peter and Paul Fortress. There was a lunatic having a dip in the river which would have been very cold. The cathedral located in the fortress grounds housed all the deceased Romanov Tsars and families including Peter the Great and Tsar Nicholas II and his family other than his son Alexei who’s body was never found. They were buried there with a state funeral in 1998.
The commandant’s house also within the grounds showed the history of St Petersburg from the 1700’s until the beginning of WWI and was a fascinating insight into the the city and it’s workings.
It was a cold day 14degrees but with only a little rain so we caught the metro back to Nevsky Prospekt and walked down to the luxury Astoria hotel which had been built in 1910. According to records, Hitler before the siege of Lenningrad (St Petersburg) had instructed his army to destroy St Petersburg but to leave the Astoria hotel. He even had invitations printed for his victory dinner after he had conquered the city. This of course didn’t happen.
We enjoyed a Georgian meal for dinner in one of the restaurants in a backstreet where only locals were dining.
We were very glad after walking the kilometres down Nevsky Prospekt again to get back to the hotel and put our feet up.
It is hard to adjust to the “white nights”and subsequently we seemed to stay up much later than usual and consequently walk many more kilometres than we would normally.

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