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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Venice of the North

Is what St. Petersburg has been dubbed and it truly is…when you walk down the streets, you’ll be amazed to see how many canals there are and how the architecture is something out of Western European. We also heard that many of the early urban planners modeled the city after Amsterdam. Whatever city St. Petersburg tried to imitate, it’s definitely not what you’d expect from Russia, or at least in my head.

The city changed its name three times (St. Petersburg - Petrograd - Leningrad) and finally reverted and settled on its original name, St. Petersburg, named after St. Peter who founded the city; contrary to many who assume that it was named after Peter the Great. Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, we sensed a different vibe from the one we left back in Moscow. Maybe it was our imagination but the people here seemed much friendlier and a few people even stopped to ask if we were okay and needed any help. We also recalled that the girl who helped us with our train back in Moscow was actually a native of St. Petersburg! There exists a longstanding rivalry between the cities and each will have their own opinions but for me at least, St. Petersburg was much more welcoming and here made me feel like I was traveling in a not-so-foreign place.

After we got off the train, we quickly found the metro and found our way to our hotel. The hotel, which we found through was located right in the center of the city and for $120 a night, we each had our own bed, breakfast and free wi-fi! Not to mention, the company also provides the necessary sponsorship documentation(for free) which is required for all foreigners applying for a Russian Visa. I later learned from others that hotels charged about $30 for this service.

Thanks to Judy who knew where we needed to go (thanks to her mom again), our first destination was to take local transport and head out towards Pushkin to check out Catherine’s Palace. In Russia, in order to maximize your time, you really need to verify the schedules. Each museum seems to close at least one day a week but usually on different days from other museums. Catherine’s Palace was open on Monday but would be closed on Tuesday…the Hermitage was closed on Mondays but opened on Tuesday…if you pay attention to the schedule, it is quite possible to maximize all your days and luckily Judy was there to organize our schedule for us.

The most retarded thing about entering the Palace is that you need to purchase a ticket to enter Catherine’s Park in which the estate lies. At first, we thought that we were being smart by sending Judy, with her student card, to purchase the Park ticket and then to go in and purchase our palace tickets as Simone and I waited outside the gates of the park. It was a fabulous idea but unfortunately the palace was located in the Garden in the park so there was no other way to see the Palace unless you bought a Park ticket.  The Park ticket wasn’t cheap either and I think we paid about RR200 ($6.70) to enter and then another RR550 ($18.35) to get into the Palace.

Catherine’s Palace is most famous for its Amber Room. The room is said to be constructed out of an estimated 6 tons of Amber and said to be one of the most magnificent rooms of its time. Later upon reading more about the Amber Room, there seems to be some mystery involved…The Amber Room is said to have been looted by Germany Nazis and that the whereabouts of its contents in 2010 still remain unknown. Today, the current Amber Room at the Palace is a reconstruction of the original; it’s still pretty impressive (and old looking) to me!

The palace, in its Rococo style, was well maintained and undeniably magnificent but I still think it was a bit pricey; at $25 though, we made sure we got the most out of it. The only downside was that apparently we were required to have a tour guide take us in but we didn’t get the memo. I am not sure if this was included in the ticket price (I doubt it but I could be wrong) or not. Instead, we tried to eavesdrop on other groups going through. You’d think for all the money that they charge, that the museum would be neatly organized with explanations in several languages but no. Nothing! I can’t even remember if there was any explanation in Russian. I have a feeling there wasn’t.
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                                                                                                                  The Amber Room
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After spending a couple of hours in the museum, we decided to take a tour around the Park. Judy wanted to go to the Alexander Palace nearby but because we only had about an hour and a half or so before closing time, I didn’t think it would be worth it. So instead, we walked around the park and came across some interesting characters along the way.
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All of the other outdoor exhibits: the boat ride, the Turkish Baths, and whatever else that was there required separate admission fees and it was already quickly approaching closing time so we just continued to walk around. We were a little hungry and needed to use the toilet (oh my God, all the toilets, even port=a=potties require you to pay! Like RR20, $0.65!) so we ended up stumbling into a building and stopped to see if they had a toilet.  It turned out to be a restaurant so I decided to check out the menu; it sounded enticing with attractive prices, with the Borscht being our standard measure - more than RR190 ($6.35) being too expensive, we decided to stop here for an early dinner.
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The following day, we woke up early and headed to the State Hermitage Museum which was within walking distance from our hotel.  The Hermitage, we were told was home to over 3 million items and should you want to see everything it has to offer, it will take you 11 years.  How they came up with that number? I don’t know but it sounds like a lot of stuff!  The museum is comprised of the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and the New Hermitage, a Theater and the Reserve House. We visited the museum on the first Tuesday of the month and later learned that the first Thursday of the month, 4 days earlier, grants free admission to the public.  I also realized here that it is advantageous to have a student card!  Owning one would allow you to get into the museum for free where all other foreign visitors must pay RR400, $13, although this isn’t too bad.  Of course I also opted to do the one hour English Tour which was another RR200, $6.50, and the audio tour for the same price. Judy ended up doing both the Gold and Diamond Special Exhibitions which were RR300 each, $9.80. She seemed to have been impressed with both exhibitions though I think I would have complained about paying $20 so glad I stuck with my English tour and audio guide!  For more detailed information on the State Hermitage Museum, including prices and hours, visit their website:

Of course, since it had 3 million pieces, we were here until closing time at 6:00PM and even then we barely scratched the surface, there was just too much to see! We saw some paintings by Van Gogh and Rembrandt as well as pieces by Michelangelo and an Egyptian exhibit though I made sure I skipped the latter because I’d be going to the REAL THING and didn’t want to waste my time when I could be seeing other Russian exhibits. 
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We all left the museum with a sense of accomplishment but at the same not satisfied; I think we all had the feeling that it was just too overwhelming. Later we decided to walk around and find a place to eat.  As we made our way out by the river, we remembered that El had suggested doing a boat ride.  We also read that you could see all of the draw bridges open up after 1AM.  As we were trying to see if it was something that we could do, we came across a man who told us that he had a boat that would go out from 1AM-2:30AM. The price was supposed to be about RR400 per person, so we read but I, the master bargainer, managed to get us 3 for RR!000!  

Since it was still only 6:30PM, we figured we had more than enough time to eat dinner and rest before our cruise.  We managed to pick up a guy named Alex on the road, who we’re convinced was high on something.  We told him we wanted to eat something cheap and Russian so he brought us to a family restaurant chain (like a Russian version of Denny’s).  It seemed okay but turned out to be our most unpleasant experience in Russia!  When Simone had asked the girl if she could speak English, our waitress huffed and walked away from us  We waited for another 10 minutes and no one came back to our table.  Annoyed, I finally had to call someone over; she was sweet but somehow that other waitress still came back to serve us. Never smiled, never checked on us, never did anything except carry the food over. In the end, she even smirked at us and badmouthed us to her co-workers. I didn’t tolerate her attitude, stared her down which she returned with a fake smile, then after making payment, walked across the restaurant and handed her a survey that we took the liberty of completing in our own words. It was probably equally rude on our end to react the way we did but my God, customer service is such a big deal to me…
                                          Posing with Alex and the mascot from the restaurant we dined at….
After dinner, Simone still hungry because almost everything she wanted to order the waitress said they didn’t have.  So we walked to another Russian cafeteria style fast food restaurant and Simone go to resume or rather have her dinner. After we were all in better spirits, we noticed the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Cathedral and it was like we just ran into a pot of gold! We were so excited to see something very “Russian”.  We quickly made our way there and learned that the museum was open at night and would actually be closed the following night, our last night, so we decided to go in. For RR350, $11.50 the cathedral was actually rather empty so we were able to avoid the crowds.

The cathedral, originally built over the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, was constructed under the direction of Tsar Alexander III to honor his father; it is also the only cathedral that was erected and not dedicated to any patron saint.  The other interesting fact about this cathedral was that it was heavily damaged during WWII and was later used as a storage facility for vegetables.  This church was closed for 27 years and only recently reopened in 1997.  The cathedral in its history has never held a service (it’s really small), it’s main function was to honor the fallen ruler and was occasionally used to hold memorial services. I also learned here that the onion shaped domes were consciously constructed in this cold country so that snow wouldn’t be able to collect and cave in to destroy the building. Pretty smart if you ask me, cute too. We were the last ones to leave because I wanted to listen to my audio tour in its entirety and by the time it finally ended, the church had been closed for 10 minutes!  At least the church is well known for its mosaic pieces decorated from wall to wall, so the girls had something to admire while I did my audio tour.  
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After we got out of the church, we were going to head back but we saw horses and Judy wanted to ride one.  Without bargaining, she agreed to go on a ride for about half a mile with the horse and the lady got her good, charging her RR500, $16.35.  At least Judy enjoyed it and had fun.
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Following her ride, it was already 11PM so we had about an hour and a half to rest before our boat tour. I don’t know if we were being really stupid but we left our hotel and walked back to the river to start our tour at 1AM. Thankfully, we got there safely and the boat was there as promised.  It was pretty cold out and luckily they provided blankets for us.  We enjoyed the ride, along with almost all couples, as we got to watch the bridges opening up after 1:30AM, one by one. The tour ended at 2:30AM and again, we walked back about a mile and a half back to our hotel.
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                                                                                            You can see the bridge opening in the background
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The following day we were so tired so we slept in and decided that we would all spend the day independently.  I heard about a walking tour and tried to go out and catch it.  Unfortunately,I decided to take the metro (I probably could have walked), got a little lost and ended up missing the tour.  In the end, I spent the day trying to find another walking tour but to no avail and ended up getting lost a bit in the city (which is always nice) and having lunch at a local restaurant.

The next day was the last day for the girls; they were flying out of St. Petersburg and I was taking the night train back to Moscow on my own.  Just shy of 10 days, our time spent together had quickly come to an end.  I bid my farewells and then turned around to walk around St. Petersburg following my own walking tour with a book I got from the tourist office the day before.   I ended up walking 7 hours that day and boy was I pooped! I managed to make it back to the train station in time and catch my night train back. Since I had done the ride going, I was a little more prepared and knew what to expect and how to make my own bed!  The ride down was quick and I managed to get back safely to El’s house. El was out of town for the weekend so I had the whole flat to myself.

I mainly spent my time writing and catching up since I had been so behind.  El also had another guest, the daughter of her aunt’s friend, coming over so I opened the door for her Sunday morning and we ended up spending the following day touring the city together which worked out.  El finally came home on Monday, just enough time to catch up and have a drink and the following afternoon I was on my way back to the airport. It was actually the scariest thing because I ended up leaving later than planned and I was convinced that I missed the airport express (comes every half an hour) and would need to wait for the next one and only have a little over an hour before my departing time. What made the experience tricky was that everything was in Russian!  I hauled ass and ran with my bag(s) and was able to make my train with 4 minutes to spare or something ridiculous like that…

Russia was expensive, even staying with my friend Eleanor for half the time (a quart of Baskin and Robbin’s ice cream cost us $10!), I spent almost $40 a day mainly for all the museum fees. I was definitely surprised with how much art and culture the country had as I assumed with their Communist past, not much of that existed or was embraced. And I must say that the one thing that stands out in my mind here in Russia are the metro stations. Each station was like you were walking into a museum and for less than $0.80 a ride; it was a good deal to stop and admire the elegant architecture of old Soviet Russia. On one of our final days in Moscow, we actually purposely took the long way home just to admire its beauty…

I was  now heading to the Middle East! Talk about going from one extreme to another!  Steph bought me a guidebook on Jordan, how sweet of her – THANK YOU STEPH! and according to the book, it said that Jordan was an extremely safe country (people walk around with wads of cash in their pockets) with very hospitable people, everyone wants to invite you over for tea. I was excited to see how true the book was and if these people were more hospitable than the people I met in South Africa…is that even possible?  We shall see…

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