So, we’ve moved on in our travels from the liberal city of Amsterdam to a country which is perhaps the polar opposite in its tolerance of certain hedonistic pleasures. Russia, the proud empire that stands at the Far East of Europe and spreads itself across the Asian continent, has lived up to certain expectations in some aspects, but in many other ways has been more wondrous than I ever imagined it might be. Starting with the pretty pastel buildings in the bustling St Petersburg at Russia’s border, to the candy coloured swirls at St Basil’s Cathedral n the heart of the country, read on to find out more about how this country surprised me with all it had to offer.
We arrived in St Petersburg on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, after an extremely short flight from Tallin – in the 40 minutes that the wheels were off the ground I would have been surprised if we even reached 30,000 feet. With our taxi that we had organised having departed without us due to a long wait (I’m looking at you passport control) we were left on our own to haggle with the taxi operators at the airport who were converging on the confused looking tourists getting off the plane like seagulls on a packet of leftover chips at the beach. After some haggling and dramatic walking away though, we managed to get them down from $80 to $20 and got to our hostel without much trouble, and from there the adventure started!
First up, a quick run down of the the things we learnt:
-Russian girls always have perfectly manicured eyebrows and are always wearing stilettos and a full face of make up.
-They also LOVE a good “glamour selfie”, or posing while their boyfriend takes picture after picture until they’re happy
-Russia is expensive! But much prettier than I imagined.
-While almost everything is written exclusively in Cyrillic, if you ask nicely (or just look confused), someone will roll their eyes at you and fetch an English menu. I can handle a little eye rolling though if it means I don’t end up eating liver dumplings.
-Soul kitchen hostel in St Petersburg is about as cool as a hostel gets – we were greeted by the staff like old friends who tried to make us feel as at home in their city as possible, with a map detailing the best places to visit, to drink at, to shop at and, most importantly, to eat at. Vagabond hostel in Moscow was almost the complete opposite, where it was difficult to get any accurate information.
-Even if you’re tone deaf, you can still impress at karaoke bars thanks to the quality of your English
-$1 vodkas are a trap!
-They have a traditional drink called mopc (mors) – it is essentially jam juice and is delicious.
-If you thought KFC in Australia was bad, think again – KFC in Russia is truely awful
-Dont eat mystery meat Pelemni unless you want to see it twice in one night (this one is closely linked to the availability of an English menu).
Things we did:
-A free walking tour with Petersburg free tours and with Moscow free tours which was a great way to get our bearings in each city and the guides spoke excellent English. My favourite was in St Petersburg though, it was a really interesting and funny tour, the city is beyond gorgeous and we heard stories about the Hermitage Building (where cats live in the basements and it’s good luck to rub a giants left toe), the Bronze Horseman, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Kazan Cathedral, and how Catherine the Great steered Russia through an enlightenment period to turn its cities into more modern, European places.
-A metro tour in each city with the same guides, riding the oldest lines in each city where the stations were built like palaces in communist times, apparently to allow the average person to enjoy sumptuous surroundings and be proud to call that city home (never mind the people in the outskirts in their grey Soviet style flats though!). Lenin was omnipresent there, with his face appearing in many a sculpture.
-A canal cruise in St Petersburg to check out some of the scenes at dusk (which is at 9pm) – on this tour a lady stood up the front and spoke into the microphone in Russian for a solid 90 minutes. I have no idea what she was explaining but it was certainly pretty.
-Took the hydrofoil from St Petersburg to Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great and commonly referred to as the Versailles of Russia. There isn’t really words to describe this place – it is incredibly lavish, fountain after fountain in the upper and lower gardens built in the early-mid 1700’s and a number of grand buildings that you can visit and even have lunch in, which we did in one looking out at a fountain of Triton wrestling some sort of sea monster. We had some surprisingly good dumplings there (perhaps we were just ravenous though?) and an amazing apple strudel – who would’ve thought!
-Walked around the Hermitage Building for about 6 hours until we decided that if we saw one more gilded room we would cry. Seriously, that is one amazing building but it is way too much for one day especially with the huge tourist bus groups being shepherded through. The much quieter General Staff building where there is an impressive collection of modernist work was my favourite part.
-Visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which in all its candy coloured glory was built where Emporer Alex II died (#lifegoals). The mosaics inside were out of this world, covering every surface above head height, and Ollie and I amused ourselves for a while by thinking up funny captions for them.
-Hung out at the Soviet Arcade Machines Museum, possibly one of the most unexpected things we came across in St Petersburg. It was full of (semi-working) arcade games including foosball, a foosball version of ice hockey, claw machines, shooting games and what not. Everything was in Russian and we had no idea what we were doing but it almost made it even more fun. The best part was watching Ollie try to beat the score of the burly Russian guy who went before him on the strength test! They also had a soda machine with a traditional Russian drink kvass (which tasted like a non alcoholic beer) and a very very cosy black and white photobooth – it was a really cool way to spend an hour or two.
-Climbed the 250 steps up to the top of St Isaac’s to take in the views of the St Petersburg and its churches and palaces.
-Woke up at dawn (about 4.30am) and went for a walk to spend some time in the main square without 50,000 other people around.
-Caught the fast train between St Petersburg and Moscow Train – flying past many drab, grey apartment buildings on the outskirts of St Petersburg, which gave way to what looked almost like shanty towns, in of which I spotted a legitimate horse and cart. This was interspersed with beautiful vistas of rivers and so much greenery. In a stark difference to the language spoken elsewhere in Russia, A British voice (somewhat akin to David Attenborough) over the loudspeaker jovially informed us of all the things we needed to know whilst on the train and almost made us feel like we were the subject of a documentary.
-Visited VDNKh park in Moscow, which used to be a centre for soviet exhibitions but is now a strange mix of park, fountains, abandoned buildings, cafes, roller coaster rides and kitschy attractions. Seriously fun though.
-Visited The Kremlin where Putin hangs out all day. No sightings though, and actually kind of boring. I think the best part was the human ladder on some scaffolding there passing wooden boards up to the top of the building – no cranes allowed in The Kremlin obviously!
-Regressed about 15 years at the Moscow cosmonaut museum, and decided that being an astronaut would be a pretty cool day job
We ate (in St Petersburg):
-Many dumplings, including some from a place who’s name vaguely translated to ‘Russian Fun’ and another one translated to ‘Soviet Cafe’ which was SUPER kitschy with vinyl tree trunk wallpaper and flowery cloth napkins. Ollie tried some red caviar here which came with wheat pancakes and sour cream which he enjoyed but I found way too fishy.
-Borscht that we made with the hostel staff and washed down with a rather large shot of vodka
-Strudels, pastries, and more strudels. Including a rather unusual poppy seed strudel, and breakfast at a bakery called ‘Bushe’ where I had the most amazing pastry of my life (I feel as though I might utter that phrase a few times on this trip). But this was legitimately amazing, I have no idea what it was called but I think it was cheese and chives in a croissant style wrapping. I also had a cheese croissant (I had to fuel up for a big day of walking, so it’s ok right?) while Ollie had what we though would be an apple strudel but turned out to be more cheese (but who’s complaining?).
-On the recommendation of our walking tour guide we had a super quick lunch at ‘Market Place’ which, while I didn’t get any photos, I would thoroughly recommend should you ever find yourself in St Petersburg.
-Breakfast at a cafe called Bonch, which I enjoyed a lot (I even managed to get a soft poached egg!) but that Ollie didn’t so much – I think it was his own fault for ordering something with the word cheesecake in it for breakfast though!
-Courtesy of the best friends a girl can have, Ollie and I had a surprise dinner that had been organised as a birthday present a few months ago. We went to Palkin, one of the oldest restaurants in St Petersburg with a reputation for excellent service and quality food. It ticked all the right boxes – old worldly interior, attentive staff and most importantly – expensive black caviar on the menu. We tried some of this, again in the traditional way with wheat pancakes and sour cream. It taste was a lot more subtle than the red caviar – or that may have possibly been the 75ml shot of vodka we were served with it burning off half my tastebuds. We also has some borscht that was a lot fancier than what we made in the hostel, and Ollie had sturgeon (the fish that produces caviar) as a main, which had a lovely smokey flavour and was filleted at the table. The highlight of the night was during the sorbet palate cleanser, when they placed a bucket of dry ice at the table and poured water in to ‘refresh us from the inside and out’. Very impressive.
-Traditional Russian pies at ‘Stolle’ which I would describe as meat, but with a thicker, breadier casing. Ollie had a salmon one and I had a mushroom one, and we bought a meat one to share but couldn’t actually fit any in after the huge, heavy slices of our individual orders.
-Dinner at a fantastic Georgian place with a few people from the hostel, called ‘Hochu Harcho’. Being a few beers down by this point I didn’t take my camera along, but I will vouch for the quality of the food and the good humour of our waitress in the face of repeated requests for a phone number from one of our new found Argentinian friends.
-13 Ruble (30 cent) Soviet style donuts from a tiny, overheated shop with a perpetual line and a grouchy lady on the front counter who spoke zero English but gave me six donuts when I held up six fingers.
-Modern Russian at ‘Taste to Eat’, a funky bar a couple of km’s out of the city centre that is known for serving up dishes with fresh, local ingredients at a very reasonable price. This place was fantastic, and should definitely be out on the list for any visit to St Petersburg. Really innovative dishes like creme brûlée from sulguni (Russian smoked cheese) with Crimean onion jam, farm beef tartare with smoked Sulguni and dark ale gel, and Kvass lamb with pumpkin make the menu a winner, and I could not have faulted any of the dishes that came out in front of us. The local beer earnt it another big tick.
In Moscow, good food was actually a lot harder to find – partly because the language barrier was a lot more pervasive, partly because the city is a lot more spread out and partly because the people running the hostel weren’t too concerned with pointing travellers in the right direction. There was some nice food along Arbat St though, and just south of the Moscow River in the ‘Merchant District’. We did have breakfast twice at a place called Scramble, where you could get delicious eggs on waffles for under $10.
And that was Russia! The verdict? Overall, St Petersburg is highly recommended and I could have easily spent another week or two there, Moscow I would have had enough after 2 full days there. The vibe there is a lot more serious, it’s more expensive and the hostels aren’t as nice – I think they are more geared to Russian students than foreign travellers. Happy to report that the experience was worth the prolonged visa process though.
Next up, Kraków via a bumpy Aeroflot flight.