Touring around St Petersburg
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I reached the airport at 6:30am, half an hour early! Being the first there I fell into the role of welcoming committee for the other soon-to-be travellers. By 7:15am everyone was accounted for and our travel papers distributed.
I vividly remember being greeted by passport control staff when arriving in St. Petersburg, mainly due to their difference in demeanour to other places I had visited. Smiling at the 'lovely' lady and offering a courteous 'hello', I received not a hint of warmth and nothing even resembling a smile (I found out later that smiling is not a part of Russian culture).
After passing security we were put on a coach and taken to the hotel, which later was remembered as a paradise compared to Moscow. On the coach our guides gave us a quick guide to Russian culture. We kindly informed of one of the problems of being in St Petersburg, namely its water had some sort of bacteria living in it called the 'St Petersburg Amoeba'. This aptly named thing would cause diarrhoea and vomiting to anyone who drank tap water in the city! Effectively warned we were spurned to purchase a supply of bottled water post haste.
At 7pm we met in the lobby for a welcome dinner at a Danish owned restaurant called Cafe Jam. In order to get to the restaurant we had to use the Metro system for the first time, which uses fairground-like coins. These coins gave you access to the Metro system and after you got into the system you did not pay anything extra unlike in Copenhagen where the system is divided into zones. The Metro coins cost 20 roubles each (less than 50 pence) much cheaper than the London Underground!
Beautifully decorated the underground stations looked more like lobbies of nice hotels that parts of an underground transport network. The massively long lengths of the down escalators can be explained due to the fact the city is built on a swamp and so constructing the Metro required the builders to go underneath said swamp. Despite the nice surroundings of the stations the trains were like tin cans. When we finally arrived at the restaurant we were told about the problems of corruption by the Danish owners.
With my 8am rise I showered fearful of being attacked by the dreaded St. Petersburg Amoeba. The split second a drop touched my lips caused me to think of what was living inside the water. As time went by and as I appeared not to have died I relaxed and enjoyed my shower. A nice feeling, 'death by showering' is not high on my ways to go!
Visiting St. Isaac's Cathedral I was confronted by the statue of Peter the Great, the Russian tsar that not only built the city but also had a thing for collecting deformed foetuses.
On to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Built to defend the city from attack the fortress was used to house political prisoners rather than defend the city, due to the fact that the Russian army was situated around the citadel when it was the capital of the country.
A journalist also took us on a tour around the parts of St. Petersburg that tourists do not normally see. As the tour began we first walked to the Finnish embassy where we saw a long queue of people waiting. She told us that they were waiting for such a long time in the cold for a visa to get into Finland (a member of the EU). The Finnish and Russian governments have an agreement that provides Russian citizens with the opportunity to easily get a Finnish visa which subsequently acts as a gateway to any of the EU countries due to free movement in the EU member states. For Russian citizens other EU countries, such as the UK, make it almost impossible for them to get a visa so Finland is used as a means to gain access to these countries.
Another part of the tour included a place that was established by Beatles fans (even though their music was illegal in the Soviet Union) which had the sign: "In The Name of JOHN LENNON The Temple of Love, Peace and Music". The wall just next to the door was full of Beatles memorabilia and messages from fans, which I found quite odd to find in Russia. As a Beatles fan myself I will never forget this unexpected sight.
For the last afternoon in St. Petersburg, I had one priority: to visit a museum that had exhibits that ranged from weird to even weirder. The museum that we were walking to was established by Peter the Great who wanted to bring the enlightenment seen around Europe in his time, to Russia. He decided to do this by setting up this museum. None of the locals wanted to visit so in order to make it more attractive he offered a free shot of Vodka for entering. Bringing the Enlightenment to Russia through VODKA! Sounds like a good idea to me.
The name of the museum is Kunstkamera which is located on the banks of the River Neva in the centre of St. Petersburg and has a number of strange exhibits. Peter the Great collected abnormal human foetuses and these are now found in the museum. It was quite bizarre walking into a room full of foetuses that had two heads, no arms or legs, or were cyclopsed. It was hard to understand at the time that these exhibits were real and not plastic or fake. One particular exhibit was a baby's head with its eyes open which to this day remains a haunting image with me. So the prize of 'best place to be traumatised in St. Petersburg' goes to this museum.
So my first week in Russia went without a hitch. I really enjoyed walking around the city and it gave me a completely different perspective on Russia (a perspective soon to be shattered by the trip to Moscow).