привет! That’s hello in Russian – and honestly, I had to Google it. I don’t speak a word of Russian and with no particular desire to start, I relied on a great big smile and hand gestures to get me through a week in Russia. The hand gestures worked – the smile, not so much.
How Russia landed on my travel map
Admittedly, I never had a pressing desire to visit Russia. For me, Russia was an even colder part of the world (remember, I’m Canadian) that came alive, now and then, via movies like Enemy at the Gates, an amazing film featuring Jude Law as the fictitious hero of the Battle of Stalingrad. Then, as I worked my way through university, taking courses like Eastern European Politics, and History (before and after 1945), I found that my interest in visiting Russia had finally been piqued.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to places with a troublesome pasts (and sometimes presents) but the rise and decline of the great Russian empire is so complex and so full of drama (father murdering sons, wives murdering husbands etc.), romance (Catherine the Great had a long list of lovers after her husband died), mystery (including subversion, spy games and espionage), and social and political turmoil (from the October Revolution through to the Cold War and the rise of the oligarchs) that I couldn’t help but want to see it with my very own eyes.
Thus, St.Petersburg was added to my travel bucket list and earlier this year, I was able to cross it off for good!
Preparing for the trip: Air travel Toronto-St.Petersburg
Early on in spring 2013, I RSVP’d enthusiastically to a friend’s wedding in Kuopio, a delightful town approximately 4 hours north of Helsinki. I decided to take full advantage of my return to Scandinavia and booked a flight with Iceland Air to Stockholm, where I’d visit another friend of mine before weaving my way over to Helsinki, and up to Kuopio and then board a train destined for mother Russia.
The flight from Toronto to Reykjavík was uneventful as was the trek onwards from Reykjavík to Stockholm. There’s a good entertainment selection on board and the staff are really friendly. My only piece of advice? Stock up on food before you board. Having done my research ahead of time, I knew what to expect (and what not to expect) and was loaded with snacks for my flight (see Quick Tip #9: 7 must-have items in your carry on for an overseas flight). That being said, I had also planned on buying food on board, which I was able to. As it turns out however, thanks to a credit card catastrophe that nearly left me penniless overseas… I never actually paid. Whoops.
The train from Kouvola (we drove a few hours from Kuopio to cut down on train travel) to St.Petersburg was hassle free.
My Finnish friend bought the tickets beforehand for approximately 59 EUR – you can do so easily online at vr.fi (schedules and fares available online). Seats were assigned and the border control wasn’t nearly as rigorous as we expected it to be. If you’re traveling to St.Petersburg by train, you have nothing to fear.
In no time, we pulled into Finland Station, where Lenin arrived in 1917 after 17 years in exile overseas! We then descended into the underground and made way towards our hotel, located about ten minutes from St.Isaacs Cathedral. Tickets are not expensive (about $1 CAD or USD) and the well-planned system is easy for every tourist to understand.
Best of all, by taking the underground, you’ll be able to enjoy some stunning architecture throughout the world’s deepest subway system. In fact, the average subway station in St.Petersburg is located 60 metres underground with many doubling as bomb shelters … they were the nicest bomb shelters I’ve ever seen!
The hotel: History Hotel on the English Embankment
With transportation fully booked, next up was finding an affordable hotel for myself and 3 of my friends! Yes, this step preceded the acquisition of a visa. Why you ask? Because obtaining a Russian visa demands a letter of invitation from the hotel in order for you to be allowed entrance into the country. So, I started scouring the internet for hotels who would guarantee documents in support of a tourist visa, and to be honest, despite the doubts of many who thought it would be easier to go through a travel agent, it wasn’t that hard. The visa process, albeit, is a bit overwhelming, but once you book your hotel, it’s downhill from there.
The hotel we ended up booking 3-star, and was called History Hotel on the English Embankment. It sounds elegant right? Yeaaaah… we thought so too. Bearing in mind that I’m a backpacking who has had no problem sleeping directly on the floor of a prison cell when the price is right, I can honestly say that given the expectations put in place, this was the worst hotel I have ever stayed at. To make a long story short, here is a list of reasons why not to book this hotel:
- No English speaking receptionists (or French speaking, or German speaking, or Finnish, or Swedish, or Polish, or Flemish.. we had an array of languages to choose from and still struggled to get our point across)
- We had booked for 4 people and were given a room with two beds and two love seats that didn’t pull out
- The mattresses on the beds were approximately 4 inches thick (awesome for a woman 5.5 months pregnant at the time) and had no sheets on them. Nothing but bare mattress. Yup, that’s hygienic!
- We had to ask for additional towels and bed sheets for the love seats on which two of us had to sleep. Then we had to make the beds ourselves.
- There was a bit of soap in one of the bathrooms. There were no other amenities (tolerable at a 3-star hotel).
- The windows wouldn’t close which led to sleepless nights caused by hoards of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears and then proceeding to bleed us dry.
Need I go on? I will say that the only redeeming factor was the breakfast that included porridge, boiled eggs, yogurt, cereal, cheese, Russian cakes, toast, apples, bananas, juice, tea and coffee. It was enough to help us forget how tired we were and gather some of the energy needed for a day of exploration on-foot.
How to get a Russian tourist Visa
After we’d booked our hotel, we could proceed with our applications for tourist visas. Based in Toronto, I applied directly through the consulate. Unfortunately, the consulate had made it quite clear that visas were no longer being processed by mail, which meant that everything had to be done in person between the working hours of 9:30am-12:30pm. Nice time bracket eh? How people who don’t work from home managed to complete the process boggles me. Thankfully, I was able to show up right at 9:30am in order to stand in line for an hour for both drop-off and pick-up. In the end I figured they were readying me for what lay in store upon arrival in Russia – and I wasn’t entirely wrong.
Obtaining the visa itself is a bit of a process. After booking the hotel, I had to request documents stating the duration and location of my stay. The hotel then sent me documents, mostly in Russian, that were to accompany my visa application. The application, which is filled out online and then printed, consists of more questions that my university economics exam. Questions range from former employers to requesting the name of every country you’ve visited within the last 10 years – and when. I left out a few countries because I was running out of patience – they didn’t seem to notice. The visa costs $75 which isn’t actually as bad as I thought it would be. While my wait extended past my paid parking time on both visits, the process was a success and I had no problems getting my hand on a tourist visa that was valid for – 5 days exactly. Since most countries issue tourist visas for a month at a time, or longer, I couldn’t help but laugh and image the problems that arise in the case of delayed flights or extended stays. Nonetheless, there were no big hiccups and the Russians decided to let me know.
Canadians looking for further information on how to obtain a tourist visa can find it on the Embassy website.
First impressions, and lasting ones
The first impression we had of St.Petersburg as we excited the subway station and made a beeline to our hotel was shock and awe. North Americans are often nervous when it comes to travel in Russia, given the reputation for petty crime and, well… general sketchiness. So, when my party of 4 walked out onto Nevsky Prospekt and beheld palace-like buildings lining either side of the street, we were absolutely shell-shocked. Well-dressed men and women were walking along Nevsky, which we soon discovered was the main road in the centre of the city and a hub for upscale shopping or dining.
Jaws wide open, we realized that all of our worrying had been for nothing, although we soon found out that when it comes to Russia, how things appear on the outside is often very different from how they are on the inside. Buildings that looked like palaces were often gutted and breaking down. Shops that boasted hand dryers or escalators had the infrastructure set in place, but nothing worked. As the week went on, we realized one thing: Russia, at least St.Petersburg, is a land of extremities. If you do St.Petersburg well, you can do it very well, and rarely be exposed to the fact that much of the city is actually falling apart. If, however, you try to conquer the city on a budget, you will soon find out that in this formerly rich city, image is everything, and life isn’t really quite as glamorous as it seems on first glance.
That being said, St.Petersburg really is a place of beauty and I definitely recommend a visit (I also recommend you save up in preparation so you can stay at a five-star hotel for optimal comfort). The food was delicious and not at all as expensive as the accommodation. Travel is safe and while the average Joe (what’s the Russian equivalent?) isn’t super friendly right off the bat, service normally comes with a smile and people are willing to help you find your way.
Stay tuned for a detailed itinerary of my 3-day discovery of St.Petersburg!