russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
— winston churchill —
i have always dreamed of going to russia. i was obsessed with ice hockey when i was growing up, which at the time was dominated by good-looking russian players (ahem, sergei federov, swoon..) and even took a few years of russian language independent study in high school just incase a new cold war began and the government needed a blonde spy from iowa. i remember watching movies growing up and russia was always america’s arch enemy, which made it all the more intriguing. stories about black market goods, siberian exile, the kgb, harsh winters filled with vodka shots and caviar, toilet paper that supposedly felt like sandpaper, and only one kind of anything at their grocery stores. who wouldn’t be intrigued? i was beyond intrigued, i was mesmerized.
when i set my goal to conquer europe i had a few countries i really wanted to visit and russia was definitely one of them. funny thing though, while i had this excited feeling inside of me when i finally started planning my trip, i got some weird, concerned looks from my friends and family when i told them where my next adventure would take me. while the cold war may be dead, russia still dominates the daily news in america, and usually it’s not in a good way. i’m not one to shy away from a little controversy and rather than believing what i read or hear, i’d prefer to see it myself. how do you know you like or dislike something if you’ve never even tried it or seen it for yourself? keeping an open mind means you may end up discovering something that you were conditioned to dislike just so happens to be one of your new favorite things. stranger things have happened afterall.
so how exactly does one visit russia, you may be wondering? well, the visa process can be somewhat of a mess and is known to cause massive headaches for all those who dare to do it, so i spoke to a few travel friends of mine from europe who went about this in a very different (and legal!) way. if you take a ferry (st. peterline ferry) from either stockholm, helsinki or tallinn, you are allowed to go to st. petersburg visa-free for up to 72 hours. you cannot leave by any other means other than the ferry back, but it meant that i was able to finally go to russia without dealing with the stress-inducing russian bureaucracy. i should also mention this “ferry” is more like a cruise ship with onboard bars, restaurants, nightly shows and even a casino. fancy smancy.
i was able to book my ferry and hotel online without any problems and a few weeks later i was on my way to helsinki to board a slow boat to russia for the weekend. now, most people would probably want to enjoy a few days in helsinki before they sailed off into the russian sunset, but i had no time to spare so i landed in helsinki in the morning, went to the ferry terminal, locked up my duffle bag in a locker and spent six hours re-exploring helsinki before we left that same night. (side note, helsinki blog coming soon, i am returning for a third time in a few days to do local things with a local). one thing i would highly recommend if you go down the ferry route is to stop by a supermarket in your departure city to pick up some snacks and drinks for the ride. it’s cheap, easy and fun to try some new local snacks on your journey. and if you want to live dangerously i would recommend the salmiakki, which is salty black licorice, but anyone that knows me knows i would rather chop my arm off than eat that sort of “candy” but you may enjoy it.
as we set sail, i saw the sunset and wandered around the boat a bit but ended up going to bed early so i was well-prepared for my first day on russian soil. by well-prepared i obviously meant for the 90 minute wait it took to get off the boat, followed by another 90 minute wait to get through passport control. three hours of pure torture followed by waiting for the bus that was suppose to take me to my hotel not being there anymore. luckily there were a few taxis available and i was able to find a guy who had some knowledge of english (remember how i said i took russian in high school? i only remember about ten phrases and none of them are very useful when booking a taxi). as we drove to my hotel he asked me a million questions about america which included: where am i from?, what do i think about trump? (followed by, “he is a crazy crazy guy”), and if we hate russians as much as everyone says we do. we also chatted about prices in boston and he and i both agreed i pay way too much for my rent and should probably move somewhere else. russian life lessons right there.
too amped up for a nap or late lunch, i immediately set out to explore after i checked into my hotel. my first impressions of st. petersburg were: wow! oh my god! this place is awesome! and, how quickly can i come back? i strolled along beautiful bridges over canals throughout the city. i saw clean streets adorned with gorgeous churches and colorful apartment buildings. st. petersburg was looking more like paris or venice than what most people would think of when they picture russia. the weather was beautiful, the colors of fall were starting to pop and most of the tourists were long gone, it was as perfect as i imagined it being.
despite the beauty, after several hours of walking, jet lag started to kick in and i began the slow journey back to my hotel. i had just been to a grocery store to pick up my travel essentials (spices, coke zero, candy, paprika chips, and local beer) when i spotted the st. nicholas naval cathedral on the side of one of the beautiful canals i mentioned above. there was literally no one around and i went up to the gate of the church and watched two elderly ladies picking sunflowers on the church grounds. i was probably standing there ten minutes before they noticed me (and i of course snuck a few pictures in when they weren’t looking ). one of the ladies came over to talk to me but lacking russian confidence i smiled and asked if it was okay to take a picture, motioning with my hands and camera. she did not speak a word of english but smiled back and shook her head yes. she also pointed out the several cats that were now congregating around us, smiled again and said cat, and walked back to her friend. it was something so simple, but it really made my day feel special. here i was in a country that most americans wouldn’t dare to visit, having a sweet moment with someone i will never see again. it’s the reason we travel, the reason we get out of our comfort zone and the reason why we should always experience things for ourselves instead of taking someone’s word for it (mine included).
after a great first day, it was another early bedtime for me, which as lame as that may seem, means an early morning stroll the next day, something i always do at least once when i travel to a new place. the city is quiet, tourist-free, and you really get a feel for the beauty of a place under those conditions. you never know what you’ll see and more often than not, it’ll include a magnificent sunrise.
if you have read any of my other posts, you know i mostly walk everywhere, and st. petersburg was no exception. i always plug a must-see sight into google maps on my phone and start walking that direction. usually i wander far off that path, but i always have an idea where i want to end up. today i was going to head towards the church of the savior on spilled blood, the must-see church of st. petersburg. along the way i found myself in the almost people-free palace square which i found absolutely breathtaking. from the bloodshead of the revolution of 1917 to the cold war, i could almost see the protests, parades, people and national pride right in front of me. its vastness was jaw dropping.
diversions aside, i did eventually make it to the church, which minus the construction and condom-looking plastic protective enclosure, was magnificent. i mean, if you think about russia you think about churches that look exactly like this. because i was there so early, the crowds were few and far between, which is a great way to soak in the beauty of what your seeing, but it also meant the church was closed and i’d have to come back if i wanted to go inside. so onward i went, curious and excited to see more.
i literally walked around for ten hours that day before the rain started to fall, so i ventured back to my hotel for a warm shower and made mental plans for a nighttime stroll to see the city in a different light. this was my last night so i wanted to check out the saturday vibe of the city and see some of the amazing sites i saw during the day lit up at night. i love going back to places i saw during the day after the sun goes down to see how much they change. is it less touristy? more locally crowded? how does it look with the glow of streetlights?
i once again put the destination in my phone as the church of the savior on spilled blood and found myself taking a different path this time, hoping to see something new…and i was not disappointed. building after building was lit up with the soft glow of spotlights, the moon was out and so were the locals. as i wandered toward nevsky prospekt there were bands and singing groups on nearly every corner and alleyway playing music to both small and large crowds. i heard local music, maroon 5 covers, and even some mozart. it was amazing and something i have never seen before. i stood at a few corners for awhile taking it all in. i was in russia, alone, listening to a band playing music on one of the busiest streets in st. petersburg with hundreds of other people. it was pretty freaking awesome.
after the music and nightseeing (my version of night sightseeing), my stomach was growling and i was ready for a later dinner and some wine. i ended up walking past a restaurant called jérôme earlier in my walk and thought it may be a good place to stop for dinner on my way back to the hotel. i have always felt a little bit uncomfortable dining alone, especially for dinner, but a girl’s gotta eat, yo. i walked in and was greeted warmly by the bartender and hostess. i asked if they spoke english (yes, they did) and if i could have dinner without a reservation. she looked at me in a confused way and said, “sure, when do you want to come in and for how many?”. well, how about now and just for me? she laughed and said of course and put me at the only available table, smack dab in the middle of the restaurant.
because i was already feeling like a badass for just being in russia, the eyes i felt on me didn’t bother me at all and i proceeded to order a three course meal, two glasses of delicious red burgundy, a glass of champagne with my dessert and an espresso, because why the hell not? it was delicious, worth every penny, and reinforced my ‘you can do anything you want in this life as long as you don’t let your own fears get in the way’ attitude. a year ago, i would have never been here. i would have been all dreams and no action. i can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s much, much better actually living rather than sitting at home too scared to take that chance. life may pass some people by, but i’m not going to be one of them.
i went to bed that night with a huge smile on my face. there are a few places that have really exceeded my expectations on my travels and st. petersburg was truly one of them. as morning came, i had another half day to spend in this wonderful city and i walked around until it was lunch time, which i spent on a park bench overlooking a small church that most tourists would have passed by for something more grand. it was a fitting end to an epic journey behind the iron curtain. peace, love and happiness can all be found in russia, all you have to do is stop and take a look.