|Eating pancakes with our Couchsurfing hosts Ania and Sergey|
I think it's fair to say that our Russian experience does not start well. We caught the overnight bus from Riga to St Petersburg, crossing the border at around 3am. About an hour before the border, after being very restless and uncomfortable, Liam throws up on the bus. Luckily for us, at the border our bags are offloaded so we cross the border with them. Cue quick change of clothes in the toilets. The border guards waved us through no problem, despite Liam's still slightly green complexion. Some (chilly) fresh air later we are back on the bus with Liam feeling a little better.
We were due to Couchsurf that night (www.couchsurfing.org) but decided that meeting our hosts with a faint sickly odour and Liam still feeling ropey may not be the best first impressions, so we trudged round looking for a hostel / cheap hotel. After finding one we spent the day there with Liam recovering. As dusk fell we headed out to try and get a feel for the city. First impression was... wow. The sun was setting and giving the buildings beautiful pink and orange hues. It's a city full of amazing buildings, from the Winter Palace, to the Church of the Resurrection, to the Kazan Cathedral, to St Peter & Paul's Cathedral. It also didn't seem as run down as what we had read about St Petersburg had suggested, although it's fair to say it isn't as well kept as some European cities.
Our first proper morning in the city was spent trudging round looking for a laundry. The two addresses we had found onine turned out to be closed for winter. Do Petersburgites without washing machines just not bother in the winter?! Our aim to simply wander the city was quickly reassessed as we realised how cold it was. It was around -22, and just wandering the streets you could feel your eyelashes freezing and sticking together. So, in the afternoon we headed to the Hermitage Museum, housed within the Winter Palace. One of the exhibits was examples of Russian interior design in the 19th and 20th century. Completely over the top and not to our taste at all! The Hermitage is huge, with over three million pieces of art, so we didn't exactly see much of it. The main draw is the building itself, the interiors were very grand and ornate.
That evening we set off to our Couchsurfing hosts', Ania and Sergey. Ania very kindly met us at the metro station and walked us back to their flat in a high rise at the edge of the city. She sympathised about the cold and said we had arrived in St Petersburg for the coldest day of the winter so far. D'oh! After enjoying tea and snacks, Charlotte started to feel a little ill... oh no! After a repetition of the bus incident Charlotte went to bed shivering whilst Liam kept our hosts company, eating dinner with them before watching a Russian version of 'Winnie the Pooh' (dubbed into English). It was very quirky and cute, with A.A. Milne's original story, but with completely original animation. This was followed by Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds', which it's fair to say was a little less cute and a lot more violent.
The following day, with Charlotte feeling a little better, we visited St Peter and Paul's Fortress. On the way we booked our onward rail tickets to Moscow. Sergey had written down for us in Russian our request to show the ticket office, but with much very good humoured gesticulations and lots of repeating Russian to us we realised that those seats were no longer available, so we got the cheaper plastkartny tickets. After walking around the fortress (including walking over the frozen river at one section) we visited St Peter and Paul Cathedral, where most of the Russian various rulers are buried including the Romanov royal family. The cathedral is much more impressive from the outside than on the inside, although we supposed that if you had a burning interest in Russian rulers (and could read Russian) the interior would have had more interest.
Later on we met up with Ania and Sergey to go ice skating. They were certainly much more proficient than us, and despite their best attempts to get us to improve our technique our best effort was shakily lurching around the rink! However, seeing as it was Liam's first proper go at ice skating he did pretty well. Back at their flat we enjoyed some beers and playing Uno - which we'd forgotton how great a card game it is. It was really interesting getting to know them, hearing about their plans for the future and how they would love to visit Europe and the UK but can't get visas. It seems harsh that the Western world would be so suspicious of a well educated young couple with steady jobs etc in Russia.
Ania and Sergey left us in the flat on the Sunday morning as they went out to church. Just as we were about to leave to head into the city, we received a text from Sergey saying they were stuck in the lift! Tried to help to no avail, and so they had to sit and wait for an engineer (although we could shout to them through the lift doors). They said they'd catch us up so we headed into town. First stop - food! We fell instantly in love with Teremok, a fast food blini (pancake) place and will certainly keep an eye out for it in the future. We then climbed the tower of St Isaac's Cathedral for an utterly magnificent view over the city. It truly is amazingly beautiful and we would love to return in a warmer climate to properly explore. We then wandered up to the Church of the Ressurection Built on Spilt Blood (so called as it was erected on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881). It's onion domes were very reminiscent of the pictures we had seen of St Basils Cathedral in Moscow. We then hopped on the metro to meet Ania and Sergey (now freed from the pesky lift) at the Etagi loft project, an old bread making factory which had been turned into a hip art gallery and cafe space. There was a garage sale on there which meant that the building was very busy, but it was still nice to pootle round looking at the odd exhibit and have a beer and some tasty food in the cafe. It's a great light and airy studenty hang out and the cafe has seating on the roof top to be utilised in the summer.
We headed back to Ania and Sergey's place to pick up our bags and eat some delicious pancakes that Ania had made with yoghurt instead of milk. We stuffed them with curds and jam which is a brilliant combo. Ania told us about living in a rural village in her teens where she milked the cows and made her own curds. Jealous! Can you get curds in the UK? We were sad to leave Ania and Sergey - they were fantastic hosts and really made our first Couchsurfing experience a success :) However - Moscow calls!
|St Petersburg, Russia|