When I posted on Facebook that we were going to St. Petersburg for 72 hours, there was some feedback that it wasn’t enough time. A little explanation of why such a tight amount of time. Normally, a visa would be required to visit Russia at all. However, from Helsinki you can go on a 72 hour visa free trip if it is an organized trip. To be visa free, you need to book the transport, accommodation and a tour with a company. You cannot do it all on your own… without a visa that is. So, when I told Nic that I wanted to go to St. Petersburg she was not really keen on it. Frankly, she told me that I could go myself and she would wait for me. “Boo,” I replied. However, she agreed to it for my birthday 😉 This was the only way we were going to get to Russia… the visa free route.
I found a company called Moby SPL (St. Peters Line) online while we were still in Canada. They offer ferries between Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Stockholm. Even though it is a ferry (cars are on board as well), it is more like a cruise. People get off and on at each of the cities for the day and stay in cabins on board. People do four day cruises between the four cities. More comments about that later. For us, the plan was Helsinki to St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg to Tallinn, Estonia. And even though you can do a 72 hour visit visa free, none of the boats actually spend 72 hours in St. Petersburg. In actuality, we spent more like 57 hours in St. Petersburg (or at least the boat was docked there that long). You will see below why it wasn’t actually that long.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in Helsinki at about 5pm for a 7pm departure. I stood in line to get our boarding cards while Nic sat on the benches with our bags. A fair trade in my opinion because it meant I didn’t have to carry my backpack. It was only about fifteen minutes to get through the line. We received our boarding cards, arrival cards (for passport control in Helsinki) and departure cards (also for passport control on our departure day). Then we stood in another line to board the boat (not sure whether to call it a boat, a ship or a ferry). I think it was about 6pm when we got to our room. Our room had bunk beds, a very small bathroom (tiny sink, toilet and shower), and not much room for our backpacks. And it smelled like smoke… maybe coming through the air handling.
We sat in a lounge at the back of the boat for our departure and drank a beer while using the last few moments of our unlimited data in Finland. Before we knew it, musicians started playing and a show began. It was actually quite good. There was traditional Russian dancing, music and entertainment. Before I knew it, it was about 11pm and the show was over. We went to bed to rest up for our 9am arrival in St. Petersburg.
So, here is where it gets weird… or maybe just frustrating. Although we arrived in SPB at 9am, we were told not to try to get off until 9:30am. We left our cabin at 9:30 only to get caught in a line going down the stairs on the boat. The line continued all the way up to passport control. To call it a line is a simplification of a crowd of people trying to push their way forward through 7 customs windows. It took us about 3 hours… it was horrible. We got through customs with no questions… stamp, stamp, done. If you were only coming for about 8 hours you just lost 3 of them. We chatted with an American school superintendent for hours who was doing just that. In the end, he figured he would get a couple of hours at most in the city before he headed back to the boat for an unknown boarding procedure. If he is reading this now, send us a message and let us know how it went.
It was 1:15pm by the time we got to our hotel, the Hotel Rimsky-Korsokov. I had to close my eyes for a few minutes as getting off the ship was exhausting. After a little rest, we headed out to explore. We did not get far (actually next door) before we decided to stop and eat. Nic had done some research online and identified some positively reviewed restaurants nearby. We both ordered beef stroganoff (actually we tried to order chicken kiev but they did not have any). It was very good although not the cheapest meal we have had. Call it a late lunch or early supper, it was our first meal of the day. Topped off with a couple of Russian beers it was just what I needed.
Note: Beef Stroganof is not the same as I have had it in Canada. I have seen it with noodles. This is beef and mushrooms and mashed potatoes. It was excellent.
After we ate, we walked through the central area and saw many of the biggest sites to see. That said, we were making our way towards the Mikhailovsky Theatre at which we had tickets to see the ballet Don Quixote at 7:30pm. It was raining off and on so we arrived at the theatre about an hour early. The next day we would do more extensive exploring of the city, so for this first day we were okay not worrying too much about seeing everything in the rain.
Don Quixote was weird. I am not a big ballet fan. Tickets in row 6 from the stage cost about $60 CAD. I was there for Nic because she loves it. It is not that I do not appreciate the dancing. It is that I have no clue what the story is about. Throw in some words, dialogue, even song and it will make more sense maybe. I think I nodded off and on during the first act. I was fighting hard to stay awake honestly. I don’t think that Nic even really understood what happened in the first act. I was more awake through the second and third acts. Yes, that is right… three acts with half hour breaks in between each. I think I understood the story a little more as the ballet progressed. There was very good ballet dancing in this show… and you will get why I am saying that when I tell you about the ballet the next day.
Note: the Don Quixote ballet is not the traditional Don Quixote story… as I recall it. There was perhaps one scene of fighting a windmill, but much of the story seems different.
Day 2 in St. Petersburg started out with the included breakfast at the hotel. It had the traditional Russian pancakes that have some kind of sweet cream cheese rolled in the middle. It was a decent breakfast and we always appreciate places that include breakfast. Then we walked to the Palace Square for the start of our tour. Some of the sites we saw included the Winter Palace, Hermitage, Nevsky Prospekt, The Admiralty, St. Isaac Cathedral, the monument to Peter the Great, Stroganov Palace, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, etc. The guide was a PhD student and she had a good sense of humour. She explained why Russians seem to be unhappy people in general. They have a saying which I am sure sounds more poetic in Russian, “he who smiles is an idiot.” Explains a lot. She also explained that the process for putting gold on the roofs of the churches involved mixing it with mercury. On one church, 60 people died from mercury poisoning… “but, don’t they look great? So it was all worth it. We don’t need to talk about the depressing stuff.”
After the tour, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then went to the Hermitage. Just to explain, we are not really museum lovers. That said, I wanted to at least visit it… I googled “best museums in the world” and on most lists it is in the top 10 if not in the top 5. I have been to the Louvre, Egyptian Museum and others. Paintings to see included Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son and DaVinci’s The Madonna Litta. We spent two hours wandering around. I know you could do much more, they say that if you spent 1 minute in front of each piece it would take you 20 years straight to see them all. Two hours was my limit.
From the Hermitage we headed back towards our hotel room We stopped at the same restaurant, Romeo, that we ate at the first day. They had the Chicken Kiev and we figured that was another great Russian meal. The Chicken Kiev was excellent. It was fancy. I am not sure how they make it but it took quite a while to prepare. Definitely worth trying.
After dinner we had just enough time to run to our room to change for ballet #2. It was called Yaroslavna, The Eclipse. It was more of a modern production so we were not sure what to expect. We sat in row 3 and it was $60 CAD. I can honestly say it was one of the weirdest shows I have ever seen. There was no recognizable ballet dancing. Luckily it was only two acts. Some people left after the first act so I don’t think we were the only ones who did not know what was happening. Afterwards I googled the story to figure out what I had just watched. Turns out it was a Russian folk tale but it was rather dark and depressing. Again, explains a lot. I am sure Nic did not dislike it as much as I did but I do know she was disappointed that there was not more regular ballet dancing.
On our final day in St. Petersburg, we had to get back to the boat by 4pm for a 6pm departure. We stored our bags in the hotel as we decided to do our own tour of subway stations. St. Petersburg has the 3rd deepest subway in the world at 282 feet (#1 is Pyongyang – 360 ft and #2 is Kiev – 348 ft). St. Petersburg red line stations are some of the most beautiful in the world. The Atvovo Station is probably the most spectacular (#2 on this list). It cost us 45 roubles (less than $1 CAD) to get on the line, ride it to one end, and then back. We spent about 1.5 hours stopping at each station and exploring the stations. The T-Centralen station in Stockholm seems to be listed ahead of Atvovo on most lists, I will need to look at our photos again.
From here, we returned to our hotel to get our bags. We stopped for lunch along the way and had Beef Stroganof again. It was a good choice but am not sure it was better than our first one. We had to wait a few minutes for the shuttle bus. Oh, I forgot to mention that the shuttle bus WAS our city tour. This was pretty funny. Remember I said that to get the visa free visit you needed to have a tour, Moby SPL had to include a city tour. There was no tour, just a ride to the ferry terminal. Too funny.
Okay, now begins the rest of the rest of the frustrating experience. We got in the first line outside the ferry terminal which was just to scan your bags… about 45 minutes of waiting. Once inside, I waited in another line to get our boarding cards… about 10 minutes. Then we had to choose one of two lines to get into the passport control room… we chose wrong and switched part way through… about a half hour. We had to choose next one of seven lines to a passport control window. Definitely we chose wrong. That was about another hour or so. FINALLY, through passport control we could board the boat and luckily everyone else was ahead of us and probably eating dinner already. It was a good two hours of lines and waiting… to say we were exhausted and frustrated again likely just understates how we were feeling.
In our room we had a bit of a nap. Dinner on board followed by the show again. This time the show was more cultural dancing and singing. We sat right up front and really enjoyed it. It was about 11:30pm by the time we got back to our room. The trip was overnight to Helsinki and then about 4 hours to Tallinn. We arrived in Tallinn, Estonia at about 12:00pm on July 8th. It was about an hour and a half to get through the customs line in Tallinn. I was so done with lines… ugh.
My next post will be about our few days in Tallinn. My birthday, July 8th, was spent partly on the ship and partly in Tallinn.