St P to Moscow 20.9.16

I awoke very early on my 44th birthday to realise my wife had given me a present beyond imagination. A present I will never forget. A gift that you cannot put a price on. Something you never imagine you will have.

 Bedbugs.

We caught the 7.05 Sapsan high speed train between St P and Moscow. The premier Russian line. It can hold a thousand passengers and travels up to 200kph. There are conductors per carriage that check your ticket, movies and free food like a flight and pointless merchandising souvenirs also like a flight. It was very efficient and unlike British trains, on time.

I know normally our readers are only interested in our food pictures but today you are in for a treat. Hold onto your napkins as I indulge in pictures of my birthday food.

Free chicken butty on train:-

Crimean Fizz and birthday cake Alison pulled out of her hat:-

We caught the tube to near the hostel and as we didn’t have a map turned on the smartphone GPS and walked to the hostel. You know the drill – check in but you’re too early so leave bags and head out but this time we chatted to a young enthusiastic German lad who spoke fluent Russian and English and was on his way home to start his PHD. By the time conversation was petering out the hostel man said our room was ready so we actually did check in.

We walked to Red Square and on the way stopped for a canteen lunch. I apologize for the autocorrect American spelling of apologise but workman tools etc.

Sorry I digress. I apologise for the blurry picture but in my hungry haste it wasn’t taken correctly and I only post it here for historical prosperity.

Anyway Red square was historic and beautiful. Surrounded by destinctive, individual, recognisable buildings but it was an oblong in Al’s opinion.

Wonderful Moscow tube again to an area supposedly good for food. Exit tube and we spied a building which we both wanted to cross a six lane road full of speeding drivers to get a better look at.

Food area is bad but we pass the Finnish equivalent of McDonald’s and our curiosity gets the best of us. It tastes of cardboard.

Full of gas, we walk off the indigestion for the culinary  highlight (so far) of the day of afternoon cake. I didn’t realise my wife was a British imperialist or a Victorian lady but when we travel, 4-5 o’clock for her means cake and tea. I’m not a man to start a row, so acquiesce and order my birthday cake. Triple chocolate with jasmine tea. Lady Victoria has lemon meringue and spiced currant tea.

Bloody special.

Back to the hostel where I was stripped down and hosed to try and remove parasites.

We read, we chilled, we realised our body clocks no longer ring to the 9.30 – 6.30 sleep bell that they chimed to for the last seven years and at 9.30 we went out for food.

The rules of our backpackers prohibited alcohol. Wow. They didn’t mention that in their sales pitch. 

Anyway, now I’m 44 and with age comes wisdom. They may ban alcohol in our backpackers but that’s for the noisy 20 year olds disrupting everyone else’s sleep not for the wiley 44 year olds. For my birthday tea we headed for the supermarket and bought salad, cheese, essential pickles, crab crisps and the prohibited vodka. Can you spot it in the photo?

For this years birthday treat I didn’t clean my teeth, simply gargled with vodka. (Sorry mother and father-in-law, its once a year)

Thanks for all your kind birthday wishes today, I really appreciate them all. We both love and miss you all when we do these trips but I’d especially like to thank Meg, Isobel and Billy my nieces and nephew who sent a wonderful video message. Great singing, keep it up. Your parents want to hear you practice more.

Gillian, this is for you

Last day in St P 19.9.16

Pastries for breakfast.

A lovely sunny day for our last one here but the temperature has noticeably dropped and a jumper and light coat are required.

After a sizeable breakfast we view the Leningrad (as St Petersburg was known in the Soviet era) blockade museum. Photographs, memorabilia and paintings about the 900 days siege during the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Very sobering. There were English information cards which were helpful but had been filtered through a propaganda sieve which wasn’t really necessary considering the subject.

After lunch in a more upmarket restaurant than we’re used to, we headed down the ever busy Nevskiy Prospekt for one last time following our guide books descriptions of the buildings. 

The Stroganoff’s palace, Cathedrals, Churches, FabergĂ©’s showroom, Singer sewing Co HQ were all gawped at in bright late summer sunshine.

We have both loved St Petersburg. It is a very big city with wonderful architecture and despite what people assume, friendly people. Its also a good introduction to Russia as street signs and metro signs are in English as well as Cyrillic.

Catherine the Greats’ Winter Palace

Singer Sewing HQ

Kazan Cathedral

Church of Spilled Blood

All Metro stations we’ve used have been round

Our hostel

Hostel stairwell

Fact of the day – Russian hipsters wear New Balance trainers

St Petersburg 18.09.16

Over a breakfast cup of tea I chatted to an American guy who recommended a bakery for breakfast so we descended onto Russian Greggs and bought a load of pastry products for brekkie. 

Today our hostel owner, Tigram had promised a Dostoyevsky walking tour around the area of Saint Petersburg that features so atmosperically in Crime and Punishment (one of my favourite books) so we waited in the hostel for him with eager anticipation, especially Al.

He arrived and we headed off to the haymarket area, which in the 1860’s when the novel was written was full of jobless, kopekless peasants doing whatever they could to survive. Drinking dens and gambling houses and all the other stuff that goes with it that can’t be mentioned on a under 15 rated blog. The area is still run down and after wandering around the beautiful bits of St P over the last few days was quite a contrast. Market sellers demonstrated carpet cleaners or vegetable peelers and cheap bars blared out high tempo pop music. We walked the streets and saw the apartment Dostoyevsky wrote the majority of the novel in.

 We passed the apartments that inspired those of Raskolnikov, The prawnboker and Sonya. We passed the crossing where Raskolnikov is accused and the real police station (still in use) where he is called to. Although a work of fiction, Dostoyevsky was a very precise, methodical author and to see the locations so clearly described in the book was an afternoon I won’t forget, especially as our host had done it for free on a Sunday, his day off and with such passionate enthusiasm.

Time to play on the tube again which is beautiful.

We headed out to the huge Soviet housing area to the south of the city. We saw statues of Lenin and huge apartment blocks and a six lane road where Russians zoomed by. I’m not sure what the speed limit is and neither do the locals. We watched the Russians at play wandering round a huge park. Sunday afternoon couples hand in hand or families taking a stroll, one bloke on an air blade loving his new toy.

Tube back to the central area and another long stroll ended in a Russian theme restaurant where we enjoyed pickled cucumber, saurkraut and smoked fish to start. Our main of 5 different caviars and pancakes came with 250 ml of chilled vodka and two shot glasses. When in Rome. We also squeezed in fish and crab sausages and rice. Delicious.

Full, we headed home and broke the journey with a dark ale. Craft ales are popular in St P too. Approaching the bar and seeing no staff, we were shocked when a lady suddenly stood up and asked what we wanted. We have already experienced the “Pop-up” attendant in the museums we’ve visited where you are asked to dispense with you coats and bags at the cloak room and usually there is no one in attendance but suddenly a 90 year old grandma appears from nowhere to take your stuff. Ninja grannies sitting under the bar.

We ended the night in the Liverpool bar a few hundred yards from the hostel. Live music and more dark beers. The place is a shrine to the Beatles with records, photos and memorabilia everywhere. The barman managed to look away from the ice hockey (Russia vs Sweden) long enough to serve us and we were treated to a very good acoustic guitarist and his bassist mate play covers with the inevitable Beatles number thrown in. Best though was a cover of ordinary world by Duran Duran. Very poignant.

17.9.2016 Saint P

So, yesterday I was rocking the shabby chic wear your husband’s trousers look, as all my clothes were being washed to get rid of the bed bug that kept biting me. So putting on clean, fresh clothes that fitted was a joy. It is the little things in life which make you happy. 

We decided to walk to Dostoyevsky’s house today, it wasn’t far (by St P standards) and it was ace. Although not the actual house as it was rebuilt and refurbished according to photos gathered it was pretty atmospheric and you got to see his hat! Guy was in his element.

On the same street was a food market so of course we had to have a look around. The fish counter was huge along with pickled herring and loads of smoked fish which looked delicious but impractical to carry around with us all day. St P also had loads of coffee vans selling all types of coffee out the back of a van, as you see in the UK but what they also have here are smoked fish vans, oh yeah, smoked fish out the back of a van, why not?

After that we went to the church round the corner. Rules on entry are that lasses have to cover their heads and wear no lipstick, guys have to take off their bowler hats. It was full of gold, lots of gold, and icons, lots of icons, as you would expect from a Russian church. 

By now it was lunch time and we hit the Soviet canteen, school style with food being kept warm (tepid) over water baths. I had potatoes, veg (well boiled) and fish,  Guy did better with his rice (saffron, Uncle Ben style) veg (well boiled) and chicken with cheese and tomato topping, with cup of green and earl grey tea for 530 roubles (about a fiver) and no stomach issues have been encountered – result!

Then off to State Museum of Russia, full of Russian art, folk art, and modern art. It was so much better than the Hermitage…..which you are not supposed to say but it had more interesting exhibits and showed Russian art through the ages. The modern Soviet realism was at the end so we were weary by then but still found it facinating. (BTW I now know it was Soviet realism on talking to a fellow hosteller who knows about these things).

Time for cake and tea, so we went to Ivans cafe and had cake and tea. Although we felt a little hard done by as the two couples either side of us were having a meal with what seemed like about 100ml of vodka to have shots of through the meal.

On the way home we passed a fancy looking wine bar and couldn’t resist a cheeky glass of Georgian wine. It was the only local wine in the menu, the rest were all well known brands back home that you would find in the mid range section of a supermarket, only much more expensive!

Having a taste for Georgian wine we went to our nearest bottle shop and after quite a lot of deliberation chose a Georgian red to drink at the hostel, whilst catching up with the blog and the latest Dostoyevsky book. 

As it was Saturday night we thought it would be rude not to go out and experience St P nightlife, so we wandered up the street looking for a bar that was supposed to do live music,  o.k. it was also an English bar, however we couldn’t find it so ended up in a Russian cocktail bar, playing English indie music, drinking red wine which came with its own canapes, Spanish wine had chicken liver pate tart case and South African pinotage accompanied by prunes! Dinner sorted we paid up, got a chocolate with the bill, and got back into our bed, 7ft in the sky, with no casualties! 

St Petersburg 16.9.16

Soviet era donuts for brekkie then the world famous Hermitage museum, of which the director once said “I can’t say that the hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not the second.” He clearly hasn’t been to the black country museum in Dudley.

Anyway, we bought tickets at the electronic machine so we dodged the 30 min queue (Sometimes I don’t understand my fellow human), but had to navigate around the many, many tour groups at the entrance to the museum. Non art lovers please look away now and jump to the next paragraph where normal service of pictures of food will resume. The guides say there is so much stuff here you’re better to just focus on something and not wander so we headed to the Da Vinci room to see the two versions of Madonna with child and on the way we saw a huge golden peacock clock and lots of tour groups. The Flemish art was good but for me the best thing was the Siberian exhibits in the basement. 6000 year old carpets and mummies from the steppes. INCREDIBLE!

Russian food for lunch, borscht,  solyanka  (meat soup) and salmon roe pancakes. 

After this, some medical affairs to attend to. Alison was savagely attacked by bed bugs in Copenhagen and has been suffering desperately since. The worst part is that they are on her face and neck, so besides the flaming itch she is very self concious of the huge red lumps she has to bare, so we headed to the American Medical Centre to get her some medication. They were very helpful despite our terrible Russian and we managed to get tablets and cream which were used immediately. 
The afternoon entertainment was the Museum of Political History which we mistakenly walked to. An hour later, after crossing the Neva river we entered the former home of the Prima Ballerina and Nicholas the Seconds mistress (job perks). This museum was fascinating offering an unbiased view of the events leading up to the revolution, the revolution, Stalins gulags, the Thaw (softening to to the west) and then Yeltsin handing over to Putin. Very interesting , but sometimes the English translations of the Russian text was a bit difficult to fathom out. We saw Lenin’s desk though!

We tried the tube for the first time and entered a futurist circular building and spent 3.5p each to cover the hour walk to get home.

Georgian food for tea as it’s been on my mind. Spinach and walnut pkhali

beef khinkali

light bread with raw egg

tomato and beef stew and sausages. Very nice. 

Tired. Home. Sleep 7′ in air.

Arrival in St Petersburg 15.9.16

Woke up feeling slightly worse for wear. Left the cabin and headed to the top deck for some fresh air where we were treated to views across a grey, industrial St Petersburg landscape. It’s how I thought Russia should look based on my childhood in the 70s, where the cold war and space race were in the news and Russia was portrayed as a cold, drab industrial society.

On leaving the ship, the scary looking pass inspector stared at us and after a few seconds broke into a smile and told us to smile. I guess our faces mirrored the colour of the sky.

Passport control took 45 mins to get through which is frustrating if you’re on a day trip which many of our shipmates were, but we hauled our heavy rucksacks through with pride knowing we had 5 days to explore the self titled Venice of the north.

We dodged the taxi touts determined to walk to the local tube to get to our hostel but after 15 mins and the realisation we needed the 18th left and we had passed four, we weren’t so proud of our heavy rucksacks and spotted a kosher looking cab who agreed to take us to the hostel for 500 Roubles. A decision we were pleased we took when the size of this city dawned on us. The cab took 20 mins to cover a small portion of the map we had.

The hostel were extremely friendly and gave us a shot each of rowan berry liquor which went down a treat at 10 am on top of a hangover. (Yikes) The owner also enthusiastically waved around pistols that he bought from a Berlin flea market so things were a bit surreal but that’s a state we think we can cope with.

As all tourists do we headed down Nevskiy Prospect towards the hermitage museum located within Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. The streets were wide and very busy and bordered by faded neo-classical mansions which nowadays house shops, restaurants and bars at basement and ground floor level. 

Capitalism is embedded and we saw H&M, Zara, M&S, Lush alongside a very cosmopolitan array of restaurants, but inevitably we ended up in a Soviet Cafe for lunch. Al had pelmeni,  a dumpling and I ordered fish soup which came with a pasty and a shot of vodka.

Pottered home to do the washing and check the room which had an amazing ceramic heater and a bed 7 foot in the air, ideal for vertigo sufferers.

Had a Korean for tea and were kept up by very loud chinese folk in the hostel.