Well, we’re not in Scandinavia any more, and I’m not sure what is the most confronting – the masses of people everywhere, the huge volume of traffic, the scammers, the almost total absence spoken and written English language or the strange (Cyrillic) script. The most obvious is the Cyrillic script. In countries that use the Latin alphabet, I can usually have a go at working out what’s written, but not here. We’re staying just off Nevsky Prospekt, the main historical (and touristy) part of St Petersburg, and there are bits and pieces of written English around, and we haven’t got hopelessly lost or ordered the wrong thing off a menu …. yet!
We got into St Petersburg airport late on Tuesday evening and I made the stupid mistake of assuming the guy standing next to one of the official taxi booths was a taxi driver. Well, he had a Taxi ID card around his neck and a Taxi sign on his car …so he drove us to the address we had for the hotel we’d booked and then demanded 4 times the official fare. A bit of back and forth – he refused to let us get our bags, we refused close the car door and wouldn’t pay him any more money. He eventually gave up, let Greg grab the bags while I waited in the car, then he jumped out, grabbed his magnetic Taxi sign off the car roof, ripped the home-made Taxi card from around his neck and zoomed off. At least he did drive us to where we wanted to go. But then the real fun began. The hotel’s address was Apartment 65, 136 Nevsky Prospekt. We had the right number, but where the hell was Apartment 65? We wandered up and down the street for a while, hoping it would magically appear. A young man coming out of a nearby shop asked us if we needed help – why, yes we did! He was from Siberia, but was visiting a friend who lived locally and they took us down a long courtyard/lane to the street behind NevskyPr, into another courtyard and showed us where to ring the bell for the hotel. We would probably still be hunting around, 2 days later, if those young people hadn’t helped us.
So, we’re staying down one end of Nevsky Prospekt, and at the other end of the road is the Hermitage Museum, almost 4kms away. In between is one of the main railway stations, quite a few monuments and places of historical interest and many grand-looking buildings which have shops on the lower and ground floors, and then either more shops or apartments on the upper floors. A century ago, NevskyPr was a long, wide boulevarde, and those grand-looking buildings were huge private residences. I can imagine horse-drawn carriages and the well-heeled classes of Petrograd promenading along to the theatre or to an audience with the last Tsar in his Winter Palace, which is now part of the Hermitage.
We went to the railway station to organise our train tickets to Moscow (fast train on Saturday morning), then continued walking up NevskyPr, marvelling that even the McDonalds, Subway and Burger King signs are in Cyrillic. There is a lovely small park with a statue of Catherine the Great, and the flower beds are at their best at the moment – floral designs planted out with begonias, verbena and other bedding plants. The National Library is next door, but it didn’t seem to be open to the public.
We wandered off Nevsky in search of lunch and found a little cafe that had a selection of hot dishes keeping warm behind glass. We hung back to work out how to order, then as luck would have it the customer before us ordered what we wanted (shaslick and potatoes) so we just made gestures that we’d have what he was having. It came with cold cucumber soup, salad and a cup of hot water with 2 sugar cubes. It all tasted good and we were feeling pretty happy that we had successfully ordered our first meal in Russia when I got stung by a wasp that had somehow crawled down the back of my t-shirt. Ouch! I wasn’t really feeling up to much more sightseeing after that, so we hopped on a trolley-bus back to the hotel, calling into a nearby supermarket for a packet of frozen peas (to use as an ice pack on my wasp sting) and some medicinal beers.
Later on, we went and ordered pizzas from a little place near the hotel, and more beers. The local water has traces of giardia in it so we’re drinking and cleaning our teeth in bottled water. And drinking bottled beer!