“Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.“
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
Our first view of Saint Petersburg (pronounced Sankt Pyterborrg or just Pyterborrg by Russians) was from the window of the Meteor (hydrofoil vessel) from Peterhof. A cheerful, high pitched woman’s voice shrieked and crackled over the loudspeaker in Russian – no doubt telling us the mysteries and wonders of Saint Petersburg. However, the Meteor was packed full of Chinese tourists and we three auspicious caucasians squished like sardines in among them.
Nobody had any idea what she was saying.
Even Hubby, who speaks fluent Russian, didn’t bother with a translation over the drone of the Meteor engines. But the air blowing through the window cooled us, and as the vessel planed into the city’s on the Neva River, with views of golden orthodox cupolas, painted palaces and towering monuments, we were wowed enough.
I don’t think it’s possible to grow tired of Saint Petersburg – Venice of the North.
Our little band of travellers were wowed by the Russian Museum (great wall to wall canvases by Shishkin, Repin and Kandinsky); shocked and repulsed by the Kunstkamera Museum of Monsters and Ethnography (I added the monster part); enjoyed a boat trip of the waterways and climbed to the top of St Isaac’s Church Tower to view the city.
We clapped along to the Feel Yourself Russian folk show with champagne and canapés; saw a fraction of the Hermitage and Winter Palace; were dazzled by the Fabergè Museum; snapped pictures of the Peter and Paul Fortress (avec the famous Walruses*) and succumbed to a selfie at Church of the Saviour on the Blood.
Transport and Tickets
Saint Petersburg Metro is super efficient and costs just 45 Roubles a ride. It’s one of the deepest underground systems in Europe (maybe the world). Taxi’s are cheap, but bypass the guys waiting outside theatres when shows come out – they will charge you the earth and then tell you it’s ‘beesness klass‘. Unless you are unlucky enough to approach the desk during the ever-so-Sovietly-kept half hour breaks, your hotel concierge will be helpful with bookings and transport arrangements – he/she will speak English.
For museums like the Russian Museum and the Hermitage, it’s best to buy tickets ahead of your holiday online – there are separate entrances and shorter queues for digital ticket holders. Otherwise you will have to contend with the tour bus queues. Tickets to the Fabergè Museum are limited in number and you must choose an hourly slot – you will be on a small guided tour. The eggs are exquisite and I rate them highly on the Toilet Index (in Russia part 4). Unfortunately tickets to Kunstkamera can only be bought at the museum entrance so get into the queue 30 minutes prior to opening (11am), otherwise, again – THE QUEUE!
A note on museum entry: a throwback from Soviet days, Russians take their breaks and days off seriously. Check opening times and days online. Many will say ‘closed every Monday and every last Tuesday of the month’ par example. And no matter how much you check, you may still turn up, the doors are locked and the notice simply says ‘closed today’. Good luck.
Preparation for your trip
It’s really worth doing your homework before visiting Russia. It needn’t be daunting. Consider reading a few short stories by Nicholai Gogol (I love him and quote him all the time). Gogol is like Dickens on steroids – surreal and painstakingly real at the same time. Gogol will capture your imagination and help you to understand the range of interesting Russian characters which colour her history and culture. Every Russian child grows up reading Gogol – it’s their Jane Austen, their C.S. Lewis. Or if you’re feeling brave read Pushkin, or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
Don’t panic … I suggest you also learn the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s completely phonetic, not like English which terrifies students with words like ‘knight’, ‘Marylebone’ and ‘Leicestershire’. What you see is what you get and you already know half the letters.
When you’ve learnt the alphabet, lots of words are easy. Try the following:
ресторан (without Cyrillic you’ll starve in Russia)
аптека (trust your Afrikaans for this one)
туалет (this is certainly useful to know)
Feeling confident, you’ll stroll down Nevsky Prospect reading every sign you come across. It’s a fun game. Beware, some are not very Russian!
If you don’t intend to learn Cyrillic before your travels to Mother Russia, I suggest you look for a Russian-speaking Englishman like my Hubby – good luck, I’m not lending you mine!
A note on being understood: your waiter, hotel receptionist, concierge and occasionally your taxi driver are your friends – most of these speak some or very good English. Your train conductor, Metro or train ticket cashier, bank teller, bus driver and museum babushka will not only not understand you, but will also get visibly angry and sour faced as you fumble through your halting Russian.
Food and Restaurants
Russian food differs depending on the season. You’ll see ‘seasonal’ next to many things on the menu. Hot rich soups and potato salads are popular in the winter. In summer some of those soups will be served cold. Russian food is a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you just don’t get the point of it. I loved the kasha (barley or rice porridge with cream or plain yogurt) which is a bit like a non-sweet sago pudding. The breakfast pancakes are also delicious – Hubby preferred his with red caviar.
Generally, Russian’s prefer non-spicy, rather bland food. You can almost hear the Chef say, “Let the potato or fish or lamb speak for itself”. A Russian restaurant I can recommend is Sadko. Sadko is right next to the Marinskiy Theatre. It’s decorated in the Russian style and the menu has pictures, which is great for someone like me who regularly suffers from food envy and food disappointment.
In my opinion, the best ‘Russian’ food comes from Georgia. Geographically, Georgia is on the historical spice route, so their cuisine is varied and interesting. Georgians like spicy, flavoursome food, meaty stews and cheese-filled breads (called Khachapuri).
The red wine and summer berry juice is divine. A Georgian restaurant (ресторан) I recommend is Khochu Kharcho (‘Kh’ sound pronounced like ‘ch’ in Loch – Хочу Харчо).
Nowadays I never go to a Foreign Exchange before I go abroad. In the UK, all of Western Europe, the Americas and South Africa, I’ve happily drawn cash from an ATM or simply paid with card, but a funny thing happened in Russia. We were unable to get cash from ATMs – tried 3 different bank cards. Taxi’s, busses and many ticket offices still prefer cash in Russia. We found ourselves in a really difficult situation, resolved only by going into a large high street bank and using our passports to get the maximum withdrawal per person from the teller. This required Hubby’s Russian skills. Hubby often travels to Russia on business and this was a first – even our banks have not been able to explain it. Next time I’ll arrive with Roubles in hand!
So, brave travellers of foreign climes, pack those bags, pocket that Green Mamba, smile in the face of the angry babushki, learn your Cyrillic and smash that language barrier, Санкт-Петербург awaits!
Or, like Mamma and me, you could learn a easy little Russian phrase to get you out of trouble and produce a laugh from the sourest Russian face. Say after me: Ya voobshe ni boom boom. You’ve just said: “I don’t know what I’m talking about” (Я вообще ни бум бум…)
P.s. Another useful phrase is: Ни бэ, ни мэ, ни кукаре́ку (Transliteration: Ni bey, ni mey, ni kukareku) meaning literally, ‘Neither ‘baaah’, nor ‘maaah’, nor [even] ‘cock-a-doodle-do”. Click here for some other clever Russian sayings.
P.p.s. Be patient, the Toilet Index is on its way.
P.p.p.s. A note on the Walruses*: these are people who sun themselves along the Peter and Paul Fortress walls, winter and summer with some or all of their clothes off, catching the rays then jumping into the ice/icy water. Some have walrus moustaches. I saw them in Winter 2015 and again in Summer 2017.