Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.*
*that poem sounds so much better in Russian (or Polish!)
We all have our favourite countries. Countries we are dying to go, countries we’ve been to but keep coming back for more. Places from our (not-that-secret) bucket list. For me the unbeatable leader of the coolest places to go is Russia. I love everything about that country from the very first step I made struggling to learn the cyrilic alphabet or getting my tongue round trying to correctly pronounce the simplest words. If it is a crime to love a country which gave my home country such a hard time in the past, I’m totally guilty of being 100% Russophile! And if we have a crime, one doesn’t have to be Dostoyevsky to figure out there’s gonna be a respective punishment. I was banished to live in Russia for 2 months. I was studying the language in St Petersburg, I broke the law in Moscow and I fulfilled my big travel dream of the world’s greatest railway journey. I took the Transsiberian train from Moscow to Lake Baikal. I wanted to experience Russia and prove to myself what I’ve already known. Russia is like a drug. A highly addictive one.
Bureaucracy a la Russe.
First test to check whether you are ready for your trip to Russia is getting your visa. It’s a real pain in the ass, especially if you want to stay in the country for longer than 30 days. I was applying for a business visa, valid for 3 months. Don’t ask me what type of business I was going to conduct in Russia, nor who is the inviting party (one of the many things you need to apply is an invite letter from a company based in Russia) – I would like to know it myself! One thing was clear to me, Russians really have to polish their customer service. I wanted to study the language in a private school, got in touch with one of them pretty early (Dec 2015 – bear in mind I was planning to go to Russia in July so PLENTY of time for all the paperwork). Firstly they said it was too early to apply – this is true, you can only do it 3 months before you go. I waited until May to contact them again and they said they would issue my invite letter within a month. In brief – after a month it turned out that they lost my application. I was then waiting for 2 weeks for a new e-invite. After 14 days I was told they were still waiting for it. Yesterday there was a bank holiday so who would expect Russians to work? More and more excuses. I got slightly pissed-off and decided to play va-banque. I wrote an angry email to the school, expressing my disappointment and suggesting I should go with a different provider that could get me the invite within 5 working days. The reply I got from them was LEGENDARY.
DON’T PAY. TWO. MORE. HOURS.
Who doesn’t risk, don’t drink champagne – Russians say. As you can imagine the invite was on my mailbox within 2 hours. Blackmailing, sadly, seems to be if not the best, then for sure the most efficient way to actually make things happen in Russia.
Even though the whole visa process would most likely put many people off going to Russia at all, I’m pretty proud of myself and how relaxed I was about the whole thing. Even considering the fact that I was royally screwed because of the Brexit. I ended up paying more for my course. Knowing how unorganized the inviting party was in regards to my visa I had a bad feeling about my airport transfer. A day before my flight I was freaking out that no one gonna wait for me at the airport… Now if you think I was overreacting hear is what happened to my colleague Mikel. He landed at 5am expecting the driver to pick him up but there was no driver. Oops! Mikel decided to take a cab, but it turned out that it was one of those famous fake cabs. It stopped in the middle of the road and the driver asked him to pay 40 euro – otherwise he is not going to get his luggage back. Mikel pays and at 5am he is hitchhiking to the city center. All that with a basic knowledge of Russian. Now we speak WILDEST TALES!
Man of two worlds.
During my language course I stayed with a local family. This is the only way to fully immerse yourself in the language and learn about the Russian culture… This is also the best way to get to know Russian mentality (not necessarily understand it)! I swear you are going to be shocked, but think positively – this is, by all means, an amazing experience. I didn’t know my host family before I arrived. It turns out that it is a single woman called Walentina and I will be living with two other students in a small but cozy flat just 10 minutes walking distance from the school. Walentina, is the real Tsarina of that place. And as all the Tsars, she is sort of a tyrant, terrorizing us each day (or is she just being Russian?). The terror starts early in the morning. Wala loves sumptuous breakfasts – porridge, sandwiches, pancakes with meat, tea, coffee… all that at once! But try to suggest you are not hungry! For all our shy “I don’t want…” there was one, rather brutal (but indeed hilarious) answer – “Zahotesh” which means “YOU WILL WANT”. Seriously? Not after finding hair in my food each time I try to enjoy it!!
In the afternoon the breakfast terror is being replaced by the hat terror, coz Wala has a not-so-official warehouse producing and selling typical Russian hats – ushanka. I would get myself one, as the hats are really nice, but 25 EUR? Really?! I bailed out saying that there was no winter in the UK, but guess what – Wala knows better and shes tells me off for saying silly things. From that moment I am in her bad books…
She wasn’t telling me how good my Russian was, in fact, she said she thought my Russian was better but she was wrong. I did’t get a thing… but she desperately needed someone to talk to, someone who will understand the Russian soul! She needed to speak out! It turns out that complaining is not only polish thing but a bottle of a fiery vodka continuous to open every Slavic heart.
Walentina is the man of two worlds – USSR and New Russia. Before perestroika she had a good job and easy life, today she is retired in New Russia and it’s often struggle to make ends meet. Money is her priority. She is unable to enjoy her life because everything she has, she gives to her unemployed daughter. Long story short, even if she behaves likes a Tsarina, life certainly doesn’t treat her like she was one. Even though the reality is hard like steal, Walentina, like many Russians, loves her country and worships her president. One day I could join the celebrations of Navy Day led by Wladimir Putin. I hate crowds so I was staying as far from the promenade as I could. In the evening I was asked by Walentina if I went to see the President. I say to her that I wasn’t really interested and I didn’t go there coz it was raining cats and dogs.
Walentina gave me the evil eye saying “Polack… stop blaspheming!” And then she added with reproach – Putin was standing in rain for 2 hours without an umbrella. If Putin can, YOU CAN! In vain was my attempts to explain to her that rain doesn’t dare to get Putin wet! 🙂
Walentina’s flat was located in Apraksin Pereulok. The local market is probably the biggest concentration of all the western European immigrants living in Petersburg. It used to be a very dodgy area and nowadays it’s not the most pleasant place to go at night, but the location is unbeatable – so close to Sadovaya and Newski Prospect (the main street of the city) is just 10 min walking distance. Living here has one disadvantage – the noise at night. I was suffering from insomnia and it took me good couple of weeks to get used to the new environment. On the positive side – at least I learnt how to say “earplugs” in Russian. What doesn’t kill you makes you… Russian? 🙂
I was really concerned about my language course, considering the fact that the school hasn’t been much help during the whole visa process. I was a bit stressed. Needlessly! The school turned out to be FANTASTIC! I was so blessed to be in the advanced group (even though I don’t think my Russian is that good… I would rather agree with Walentina – I still have to work hard!) and my teacher was the best teacher I have ever had. I am a huge fan of languages courses abroad. If you follow my blog you know that I’ve been on a similar course in Spain – in both cases I learnt a lot! You are able to make a huge progress even if it’s just a week or two. I was studying for a month. 4 hours each morning. It sounds like some sort of hardcore brainwashing and studying in such a beautiful city is makes it even harder. You risk not learning at all coz after classes you just want to go out and fall in love with the city again and again, not going back home to revise and learn new words. I think I played it pretty well as I was going out a lot with the locals trying to speak Russian with them. I’m not gonna lie – it was challenging. I can’t mention all amazing people I met in St Petersburg – but if you read it – you know I’m talking about you 🙂 So late nights times my insomnia equals a really extreme month. But I’m telling you that each second of it was worth it. Coming to St Petersburg, the most beautiful city in Europe, living and breathing it for 4 weeks, was the best decision of my life.
St Petersburg – the Tsar of all the cities.
I know it’s a very subjective opinion but I have to tell you that I have never been in a more beautiful city than St Petersburg. Even though, it’s often being compared to Amsterdam or Venice (Peter the Great was indeed inspired by those 2 cities) being to all three of them St Petersburg remains my faveourite. I mean it. I fell in love with its beauty and I’m pretty sure so does everyone who goes there. I close my eyes and I can see the majestic fairy-tale Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Yeliseev’s food hall, Singer house, St Isaac’s cathedral with a golden dome and the most beautiful panoramic view of the city or Nevsky Prospekt with its 18-th and 19-th century old tenement houses. The city is simply fantastic.
St. Petersburg is a mecca of cultural, historical, and architectural landmarks. The Baroque and neoclassical architecture hides many beautiful gems. It will make your head spinning. Everything is BIG. Huge mansions, vast parks, wide streets and hundreds of bridges. Tenderly called “Peter” by the locals, it is a very European city, so different to other Russian cities, especially those I’ve visited in Siberia. It’s unique and I am deeply convinced that the uniqueness comes from its great history. Having been survived 11 Emperors, dozens of floods, the revolution, three years of terrible blockade and economic reform, St Petersburg is definitely the city of the cities even though among the largest cities in Europe is one of the youngest.
St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as Russia’s “window on Europe.” Peter invited architects and engineers from all over Europe to build a new Western capital. From the Tsars to the cradle of the Russian revolution! Several uprisings, assassinations of Tsars, and power takeovers happening here had shaped the course of history of Russia and influenced the whole world. All power to the Soviets! In just couple of years Saint Petersburg has been renamed twice – to Petrograd and then to Leningrad – after Lenin’s death. The city was devastated by Lenin’s Red Terror then by Stalin’s Great Purge in addition to crime and vandalism in the series of revolutions and the most horrific event for its residents – The Leningrad Blockade. It was gradually stripped of its identity and it lost its status after the Bolsheviks moved the capital to Moscow, but short after the collapse of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg imbibed a new energy as crumbling facades, potholed roads, and cultural landmarks were renovated. The city repossessed its original name and much of its external splendor.
You can spend a month in St Petersburg and each day discover a different part of the city. Visiting only the Ermitage, if you wanted to see all the pieces on exhibition and admire the beautiful interiors, will take you a good couple of years! I’m not a huge fan of museums (maybe when it rains) but Peter has some really interesting ones like: Kunstkamara (Peter the Great was indeed a freak), The Russian Museum of Ethnography – where you can see all the national costumes and customs (Russia is so big so it is really incredible to see them all and how diverse they are) and of course all the museums of the Peter-Paul Fortress. Dostoyevsky’s house, Achmatova’s house, Pushkin’s faveourite café – you can never get bored with St Petersburg! I prefer to walk around without a map, without a direction. Stroll down all the streets, go on a boat excursion or visit Peterhof or Tsarskoye Selo to feel like a Tsar for a day (it’s enough, they ended up executed after all!).
And when you feel like you already know all its nook and crannies – sky’s your limit! Go for a mythical and not 100% legal rooftop tour – since couple of years this seems to be a very popular thing among tourists. For beautiful views visit modern Etagi loft project – from its rooftop bar you can see an interesting contrast between the Old Town and New Peter. Do like the Russians do – make sure to grab a meal at Stolovaya and try the best sweet pyshki at Konushennaya – this place has always been a worship place for all St Petersburg kids and doughnut lovers since 1956! You will need that energy at night, waiting for a grand spectacle – draw bridges on Neva at night! Watch it from the riverside embankments or take to the water on a boat excursion and slip right through the heart of the midnight city. Make sure you are on the right side of the city before 12:30am though as this is when the metro stops and you can get trapped somewhere far from your hotel (it wouldn’t be that bad – would it?).
Fancy a whirlwind tour of some of the best architecture in St Petersburg? Take a look at my pictures below and I’m sure that the city will become your next travel obsession:
When is the best time to visit St Petersburg? Although many of you dream of White Nights (The Scarlet Sails event in late June is the biggest annual public gathering in Russia – over a million people attend!!) and it’s spectacular with all the festivals and concerts going on, if you want to avoid crowds go late summer. You can still enjoy that firework extravaganza (maybe not as spectacular, but still quite impressive) on a different occasion such as Navy Day – Russians simply love fireworks 🙂 Don’t forget to take an umbrella though, as it rains quite often. But who cares if love is in the air, right?
Petrograd. Saint Petersburg of the Tsars, Leningrad of proletariat. Thuggish Peter. The city of dead poets, the elite of intellectuals and modern artists. Cream of the crop. The magic midsummer white nights. Sumptuously beautiful architecture that amazes. History that enchants and shocks. Incredibly welcoming people. Saint Petersburg it’s the Tsar of all the cities. Where a true Russophile feels like a kid in a candy shop, trying to imbibe it, inhale it. Petesburg can consume you, it takes your soul. In Peter drink! Sings the leader of the famous rock group Leningrad. Let Saint Petersburg intoxicate you with its charm. Oh Lord, i’m so crazy about that city!