So now it is Monday 4-4, and we had to figure out how to ride the subway in order to get to our hotel. This was much harder without Dmitri holding our hands, but we bowled about 20 people over and made it on our train. The subway was unbelievably crowded-- easily twice as crowded as Moscow-- but we were also trying to ride at 8 AM, which is probably the center of rush hour.
Finding the hotel was much harder than finding the right train to be on. We got off at the right subway stop, but went in an assortment of wrong directions before finding the hotel. We walked in circles following an incorrect map for over an hour, and we were carrying our backpacks, day packs, an overnight bag with things we needed from the train, 3 water bottles, and some leftover food from Moscow. Not making that mistake again-- always figure out how to read the map before putting on your backpack, and never leave a bunch of shit out of the backpack that you have to carry in front of you.
Thankfully we stayed in St. Petersburg for 4 days, so our backs had time to recover.
But we finally found the hotel, and it was lovely. Not quite as nice as the last place, but much more practical. We were able to sneak a continental breakfast even though we weren't supposed to check in until 3, which was really great because we hadn't really had time to breathe since arriving in Russia! Then we went walking around St. Petersburg. Turns out that our hotel was about a 5 minute walk from everything we wanted to see in St. Petersburg! We cruised up Nevsky Prospect (main street) to Palace Square to check out the Winter Palace and Staff Building.
Here's a little Russian history for you all since none of you probably got much Russian history in school; St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great to commemorate, well, himself! He built himself a number of palaces and museums and things of that nature, and his work was enhanced by Catherine the Great when she took over the rule. Needless to say, Peter and Catherine certainly didn't skimp on luxuries.
The Winter Palace was absolutely breathtaking, and so were the multiple other palaces scattered throughout the city. Apparently, St. Petersburg was never really destroyed by the many wars that happened around it, so most of it's original buildings are still in tact. Beautiful!
After walking along the water, we went to the Church of the Savior in Spilled Blood-- or something like that. Unbelievably, we were allowed to take pictures inside, so I was able to get some shots of the religions icons I talked about in the last entry.
Pretty intense. My iSIC card has turned out to be really helpful. I've gotten discounted/free admission everywhere, and all of my bus tickets are discounted. I've definitely made up for the 27 dollars already!
We were pretty tired after the train ride, so we went back to the hotel to lay around and do some research about where to go after Russia. Because Russia was our biggest and hardest obstacle, we didn't really develop a plan for how to move onward.
But our visa expires on 4-9, so we definitely have to be out by then, haha. We were shooting for Estonia, but there are no trains from St. Petersburg to Tallinn! So we looked at trains through Finland, but they cost nearly $150 for a 3 hour ride! This is much more than we wanted to pay, so we decided to try and figure out the bus to Tallinn. Turns out the bus to Tallinn only costs about $30 US. We went to the station that the guidebook said to go to, but no one spoke English and it was pretty clear that we were in the wrong place, so we gave up and went to dinner instead.
Russian food is pretty easy to describe; potatoes, beets, sour cream, onions, meat. As delicious as all of these foods are, we wanted a break from the heavy food, so we went to a little cafe called Zoom. The food was excellent, but definitely still heavy. I had an appetizer and a main, and each was dripping with Bechamel cream sauce-- yum! But then I felt a little sick from all the cream (hard to believe, I know). We came to another conclusion about Russian culture at dinner-- they don't seem to need to drink water. Even though St. Petersburg apparently has parasites in it's tap water, you never get a glass of water with dinner. You have to buy either a tiny bottle of Evian for 4 dollars or a nice sized beer for 3 dollars. Very annoying, but thankfully our hotel had free purified water in giant jugs, so we didn't go thirsty.
St. Petersburg was much different from Moscow. First, there were way more tourists and way more English speakers. Second, the city was much smaller/slower/more European than Moscow. Third, it was WAY more dirty. There was trash and beer bottles EVERYWHERE, and we literally saw people defecating in the street. In central Moscow, all of the streets seemed pretty equivalent, but in St. Petersburg, you can't turn down the wrong street or you will be plunged into darkness and surrounded by bums. But everyone is extremely helpful and nice. We've even had a few people come up to us and ask if we are American, then tell us about how happy they are to see that Americans want to travel to Russia. Very nice of them.
On Tuesday, we spent the entire day at the Hermitage. Definitely the biggest museum I've ever seen. We only got to 2 out of 3 floors, and that had to be over 100 exhibit rooms. The Hermitage is in the Peter's Winter Palace, so every room is absolutely beautiful.
By some miracle, admission was free with my ISIC card, and I was allowed to take pictures inside! So I'm posting a bunch of pics at the bottom of the post that will probably be of no interest to most of you, but they are for the few art aficionados that I know are reading this blog. You can definitely tell that the Hermitage was built as a home rather than a museum, because the light is absolutely awful. Windows cause glares on nearly everything. But it makes for beautiful pictures of the rooms themselves. They also had some pretty hilarious rules-- no high heels, and no smoking-- both of which were broken by probably half of the people. I suppose the heels are understandable, but can you believe that people were smoking in the basement of the Hermitage?!?!
By the way, I got screamed at while taking this photo of the rules by some museum lady because I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures in this hall. I guess she couldn't tell that my entire camera lens was in the paper. Oh well! More about the Hermitage at the end of this post.
On Wednesday 4-6, we hopped on a minibus and headed to the suburbs to visit one of Peter the Great's summer homes, called Peterhof (how appropriate).
The weather was cold and wet, but we were pretty much the only tourists there so it was okay. We visited a church (by visited I mean we took pictures of the outside), and walked around the upper and lower gardens of the grand palace. In the lower garden, we walked down towards the coast, where ferries come from St. Petersburg in the summer. There were definitely no ferries that day-- the water was frozen at least a foot thick! As all of you chemistry people know, freezing saltwater is no easy task, so that shows how cold it must get in the winter.
After taking the minibus back to St. Petersburg, we decided to check out a local market.
The guidebook said it was a "bit pricey," but holy cow! It cost $45 for a watermelon, and over $1 per strawberry! As most of you know, watermelons in the US cost less than $5. It was the most insane food shopping experience I've ever had, but at least I got some neat pictures of fruit and what not.
So instead of buying dinner there, we went to a little cafe and had traditional Russian meat pies, which were excellent and much cheaper.
On Thursday, we decided to go back to the Hermitage and check out the third floor that we had missed on Tuesday. Turns out that it was free day at the museum! We marched right in, but we were definitely not alone this time. TONS of people clearly utilize the one day per month that admission is waived, but that added to the experience.
The third floor was way smaller than the first two, but it was by far the best. It was made up mainly of masterpieces by French painters. We saw Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, etc... all of the great painters. What I found particularly amazing was how unprotected the paintings were.
You could march right up to a priceless painting and stick your face in it-- they didn't even have glass or other coverings over them! I posted pics of my favorites at the bottom. Almost the entire collection was donated/purchased from some guy named Schukin, who must have had a really amazing house with all of that art hanging in it.
After the Hermitage, we went to Saint Isaac's Cathedral, which had a very interesting history. Apparently, it started as a church then was looted by communists in order to help pay for some social problem (plague maybe).
Then, during Soviet times it was turned into an anti-religion museum, because the Soviets frown upon religion.Then it was blown to smithereens in World War 1 (I think), so they have been rebuilding it carefully ever since.
Russia has gone through so much turmoil. It's really amazing that we are even able to visit, because I'm sure that there have been many times in history that people would not have believed we ever could.
After eating some dinner, it was time to pack up and head to the bus station to catch the 10:30 PM bus to Tallinn. We strapped on our packs and cruised through the metro again, ending up at the metro station next to the bus stop.
Here, things got a little tricky. We somehow made a wrong turn, then scampered around for about 30 minutes trying to figure out where we were. We finally found the bus stop just in time for the bus to leave, but we were drenched in sweat and pretty stressed. But we made it, and thankfully the bus was pretty much a land-plane-- tiny bathroom, lights, table, reclining seats. We slept for a few hours, then had to get off of the bus to go through Russian immigration at the border. We didn't have any problems, but my immigration lady couldn't get my passport to slide, so it took us a little while. Then we got back on the bus, drove through limbo for a few minutes, and stopped again to go through the Estonian border. This time, the Estonian immigration lady came on the bus and interrogated everyone, but we got the stamp and are now in Estonia.
So I am sitting on the bus and everyone else is trying to sleep, so it's probably time to turn off the light and call it a night. We gained an hour by leaving Russia, so we are now 9 hours ahead. Hope everyone at home is enjoying the weather-- it is pouring freezing rain here. I'll post again soon from Estonia. :-)
Naturally, just like I knew I would, I forgot to take a picture of the train. It was pretty hectic trying to get all of our stuff together and get off, but I'm sure there will be plenty of other trains to photograph later in the trip. But we made it to St. Petersburg!!