Thursday 9 January 2020
We left Helsinki on the 10:00 Allegro service to St Petersburg in bright sunshine. This would have been a much better day to visit the Suomenlinna Fortress: what a difference the weather can make.
Shortly after departure we were offered a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian meal, with fruit juice and either a brownie or a yoghurt [see Dish of the day]. Many people, including Robert, chose to eat this immediately but it seemed more like lunch than breakfast so Matilda saved hers for later and thought of the myriad school children on a trip who eat their packed lunch almost before the coach has passed out of the school gate.
We were in first class and so could help ourselves to unlimited water, tea or coffee from a refreshment station in the middle of the carriage.
The Allegro train is a purpose-built, high speed Alstrom Pendolino [tilting] train: top speed 140mph. These trains are purpose-built because they need to cope with two different voltages on the Finnish and Russian train systems, as well as the two different gauges of railway track.
The journey takes 3 hours and 27 minutes and both customs checks and passport control take place while the train is travelling. There are no long stops on either side of the border.
To access Russia as UK citizens, visas are a bit more complicated and more strict [blame Tony Blair apparently] than for other EU citizens. Visa requirements also depend on the method of entry into Russia [cruise, ferry, car, plane, train or foot]. Suffice to say we had to get the full blown, single-entry tourist visa. This was a bit annoying really because we are back in Russia in three months time and will have to get a new visa for that trip. To gain the tourist visa it involves visiting the Russia Visa Application Centre in London [near the Tower of London] where your fingerprints are taken. You have to have completed a form that includes details of your parents and children as well as every country you have been to in the last 10 years [including dates].
For us this was over a hundred separate entries.
You then need to leave your passport with them for 20 working days so, realistically, this is nearly a month. This was, in fact, impossible for us as we needed them for our recent trip to Morocco and there were Christmas closures in between. Luckily there is an accelerated service that takes only four days – but is, unsurprisingly, twice the price: £500 for the two of us. We used a Russian travel agency called RealRussia which has a London office and was recommended by The Man in Seat Sixty One. RealRussia took responsibility for our visas, booked our trains and as you will see, arranged our transfer and St Petersburg guide. They check all the visa paperwork, sort photographs, help with the invitation to visit, collect the passports with visas, which they then check. As it turned out our visas were collected from the Russia Visa Application Centre by RealRussia who on checking realised that Matilda’s visa had Robert’s photo, and visa versa. They worked directly with the Russians and new visas were issued without us being involved. We would highly recommend RealRussia.
At the border we had to complete a double entry form which, along with our visas, were both stamped, and we travelled smoothly into the Russian Federation.
On arrival at St Petersburg Finlyandsky Railway Station we were met by a gentleman holding up a sign with ‘Robert Herd’ written in large letters. Matilda has always wanted to be greeted with one of these signs and it made Robert think of the Andrew Lincoln poster board scene in Love Actually. We had booked a transfer car from the station to our hotel in advance through RealRussia. Our hotel is conveniently close to the railway station we will leave St Petersburg from but also immediately opposite the Galleria Shopping Centre and, having sought some advice from the very helpful and fluent hotel receptionist, we crossed the street to go in search of a Russian SIM so we could stay in touch with family and friends.
The Galleria is like any shopping centre at home, full of familiar brands. The receptionist had recommended Tele2 so we looked for this outlet. Although Matilda was pleased to have her pronunciation of Спасибо [thank you] complimented by the receptionist, in reality our Russian is pretty much completely non-existent. However, a combination of the member of staff and Robert’s IT skills resulted in the purchase of a 40GB data only eSIM. It involved the use of Google Translate [typing by the sales assistant, camera by Robert] to confirm exactly what we wanted. This process took a while but in theory Robert’s phone now has a virtual SIM providing 40GB of internet data, which Matilda can tether to, that will last for the next 12 months [only valid for one month if you have a physical SIM] that will therefore last through to our next trip to Russia. All for the sum of £5.68. In hindsight we should have bought an eSIM each because as you will see in future blogs, it is not easy to tether Robert.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th because it uses the old Julian calendar and the official Christmas and New Year holidays runs from 31 December to 10 January. When we arrived, therefore, on Friday 9 January with another day of holiday and the weekend still to go, there was still quite a festive feel to St Petersburg.
As we set off to walk around the streets and get our bearings it was already quite dark and so the lights were on as we strolled down Nevsky Prospekt.
One of the most distinctive buildings on Nevsky Prospekt is the Singer Building, described as an Art Nouveau masterpiece and built as the company headquarters in Russia. It now houses several businesses, the Singer Cafe and an extensive bookshop.
When we reached Palace Square even the horse carriages were illuminated.
It is difficult to convey how vast and grand Palace Square is: the Christmas tree would not look out of place in Trafalgar Square, but here it is simply dwarfed by its surroundings.
The famous Hermitage stands on one side of the square and faces . . .
. . . the General Staff Building.
These are both now art galleries and we planned to visit them later during our stay.
As we were walking back towards our hotel, we passed the Rock Pub and Freddie enticed us in.
Similar to pubs we visited in Helsinki, it appears that the beer from the UK which seems to travel best in this part of the world is Fullers. Robert enjoyed his pint of London Pride for the equivalent of £4, which is less than you would pay for it 1,300 miles away in its London place of origin.
We also passed the Kupetz Eliseevs grocery store which is high on Matilda’s list of places to visit.
A this time of year it is almost a cross between Hamleys and a diminutive Harrods’ Food Hall. The window display is fabulous and people stop to watch the mannequins and take photos of their children with the illuminated characters standing outside.
On the way back to the hotel we also had a beer at the The Russian Bar, which we would recommend and stopped at a restaurant right by our hotel to eat.
We are looking forward to seeing more of this city tomorrow.