September 01, 2011
Imagine two sisters, one is rather ugly with a large nose, hard face and a cold personality. The other has a pretty face, large breasts and a kind personality. The second sister would be St.Petersburg the first sister is Moscow. That's where family and I have just been to and we loved it. We bravely put our toes into the muddy and temperamental waters of Russian tourism again and fell in love with St.Petersburg.
Like the queen of England, I tend to avoid travelling with the unwashed masses but in my opinion trains are romantic, so I make an exception to my rule. We went by train via the Nevsky express going there and came back by the faster Sapsan train service. The first train took four hours forty five minutes and the one coming back took four hours fifteen minutes. When you take the Nevsky express, you get a compartment and share it with other passengers, some of which can be smelly. People board the train with electrical goods and large bags. The train is a little dated and scruffy but is one thousand rubles cheaper than the Sapsan service. The Sapsan train is more modern and you get a seat in a carriage rather than a forced sharing situation of a cabin. Both trains, sell by the seat rather than by the ticket. If you have one small child, he or she can sit on your lap and you will save the price of a seat. The train takes longer than a plane to St.Petersberg but at least you have no check-in and less of a risk from terrorist bombing. On both fast trains, you must show your passport and it's the same with most tourist attractions here. Sometimes, I think it would be faster and easier to enter a third world country than visit anywhere internally in Russia with all the passport checks and copies of copies for tickets that have to be shown on trains, in hotels and at tourist ticket places.
We sat on the train going to St.Petersburg, looking out of the window while green countryside flew past us, the train reaches speeds of up to 200 km. The scenery is mostly trees with a few large lakes. Along the way, I noticed many wooden houses that looked as if they were about to fall over, but these houses had vegetable gardens and looked inhabited. It's amazing that people actually live like that but they have to, at least they have fresh air and nature, if nothing else. The train carriage smelt of old farts and coffee but it was refreshing to see greenery and to be rocked gently back and forth by the moving train, washing away all stresses of Moscow living.
We stayed at a small hotel the 3 Mosta in a quite street near a water canal. The beds were very comfortable but we were bitten to death by mosquitoes. We would just fall asleep and then we would be woken up but the annoying buzzing of a mosquito or feel its long needle sink into our tired flesh. We had two mosquito plugs, one plug provided free by the hotel and the other we took with us. We shut the windows but the bastards still got in. Luckily, the hotel has air-conditioning so you we feel cool in your room when you shut the windows to keep the mosquitoes out. The breakfast was awful and the staff, who were mostly young girls, were a bit abrupt and 'please' and 'thank you' were not included in the service. Russian's don't generally say thank you, its a cultural difference. We would not stay there again but in a place like Russia, it's hard to find mid priced hotels that are good. Hotels are either cheap and awful or luxury and very expensive. The hotel had a 15% reduction, perhaps due to the mosquitoes? One nights stay at the hotel, cost 4,250 rubles (approx, 105 euro) for a double bedroom with two adults sharing. A wooden baby cot was provided free but had low sides and would not be safe for children under two as they could fall out.
St.Petersburg is an interesting city to visit and I went there with low expectations after living in Moscow for two years. I expected to see another drab, communistic concrete city but I was very pleasantly surprised by how nice the city is. The city has a lot of interesting and old architecture. As you walk along one of the many canals, your nose is filled with a sweet air that blows from the Neva river. The city feels European and is very charming. The people seem more relaxed and are more friendly than Muscovite's. St Petersburg still has the same customer service problems as Moscow does, where waiting staff don't usually smile and where hotel staff can be abrupt and rude. I think this personality trait will continue for some years to come until things improve. My advice is be polite to them but don't be spoken to rudely. If you experience a cold reaction or are sensitive or upset by it, walk away or brush it off and forget about it. This is their way and they don't know how else to behave. If you get upset each time this happens to you in Russia you would not last very long here. You will need a thick skin to live here or to visit the country as a tourist.
Near the Mosta 3 hotel, there is a beautiful church called The church of the Savior On Blood. It is a fantastic example of a Russian church, it is beautiful inside and out and is defiantly worth a visit. I also recommend seeing the Hermitage with a few strong warnings. As a foreigner, you will be charged more than Russians and the whole tourist experience can be stressful and time consuming to get inside and to buy tickets. When we were in St.Petersburg in August, I had the feeling that half of China was with us. Coach loads of buses were parked on every pavement and Chinese tourists pushed past us in tightly packed groups, all wearing commentary ear pieces and all led my a man or woman holding up a plastic flag with a number on it. One group would enter a room at the Hermitage, only to followed by another and another, in an endless stream of body traffic. The groups were constant and there was no break from them. The place was stuffy and airless and you could not really enjoy the experience.
Perhaps the business priority for the Russian tourist sites is to sell as many tickets as possible and not to care about the visitor experience? We paid eighteen dollars online for the Hermitage in order to save time queuing for tickets at the attraction but when we got there and went to the entrance of the Hermitage to go inside, we were sent from one ticket window to another before we could finally enter the place. There is one price for Russians and one price for foreigners and this discrimination is totally legal and unchallenged. Russian's pay just one hundred rubles to see the Hermitage. The place was total chaos and packed with people. Maybe the summer is a bad time to visit St.Petersburg, go there off season and when it is not the school holidays. I would not visit the Hermitage again under such circumstances.
When you visit Russian tourist sites, you cannot usually buy one ticket for all things within the site, you have to buy different tickets for each thing you want to see inside which is extremely annoying. You will see what I mean when you go. We were in St.Petersburg for only four days and this was not long enough. I recommend spending a week in St.Petersburg, there is a lot see in terms of sites and you can take a boat trip. I strongly recommend seeing the Peterhof park and gardens. You can get there by high speed boat. It's a beautiful palace with a large park and many fountains you will need to spend a day there to see it all. I don't recommend seeing the Peter and Paul fortress. It's very boring and there is nothing to see apart from a prison that has been badly reconstructed and looks like something from a very cheap unrealistic movie. There is a large church within the walls of the Peter and Paul fortress of but again you will have to battle with the Chinese to see anything. Save your money don't go there!
Going to St.Petersburg is not at all cheap, for the same price we paid for food, tourism, two return train tickets and paying for a mid priced hotel, you could pay the same amount for a weeks stay, at a cheap hotel plus return flights from within the EU to go to Greece or Spain. However, no resume of world travel would be complete without seeing St.Petersburg. I recommend seeing this beautiful Russian sister St.Petersburg. She really is worth seeing. If you visit Russia, call in for tea with the ugly Moscow sister but don't stay too long, make your excuses and leave. St Petersburg is really worth seeing and I would happily go back again and again.
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