This post has been written two years after visiting Saint Petersburg in an attempt to put the pages of travel diary I wrote into digital form.
19th of April, 2018
We arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the 19th of April 2018. As soon as I checked in at Düsseldorf airport the nervousness I felt began to subside and was replaced by confidence. Flying alone for the first time since Canada, probably more than ten years ago, wasn’t a problem either. The flight was short (2h 40m). Due to a cold I spent it in uncomfortable pain whenever the pressure in the cabin changed. Falling ill just before a journey is a classic.
When I arrived in St. Petersburg my friend Alex, flying in from Berlin earlier, was already waiting for me. She already had gotten money and a Russian SIM card. Since she’d been several times before I followed her onto the bus she knew would take us to a subway station that would lead us right into the city. We had to put credit on a subway ticket and go through the access control ticket barrier before we could pursue our way. You pay per ride, which was about 50 Cents each.
Turned out there was enough credit on the card for Alex to get through the barrier, but not for me. Which left me on my own on the other side of the barrier. So I went back to the machine and tried adding some more credit. The terminal broke off the transaction and I only got the receipt about that – the money was gone. Alex, still waiting and wondering about my whereabouts, handed some more money over the barrier and sent me to the counter instead.
Unlike in Germany the ticket counters in Russia were very well liked and instead of using the machines to put on credit or get a ticket people went straight to the counter, using them in a high frequency. There was no dilly-dallying around. The woman took the receipt, not letting on if she understood my nervous english, and just said “Passport!” over and over again. I was puzzled, why would she need my passport for this? There was not much of a choice, tho, so I gave it to her. She told me: “Ten minutes!” and off she went. So I stood there… obviously unsettled by the unfamiliar handling of the situation. A tiny part of me was laughing at the situation: getting stuck at a ticket counter in a country where english is not well received nor being able to speak the local language, the way it was being handled – this was exactly the kind of stereotype behaviour you’d expect to encounter!
Eventually, a woman came with a bunch of paperwork with spots to sign. Alex, probably sensing my desperation even from where she was standing, decided to come back to me. She jumped in with her language skills and made sure everything was fine. The paperwork was just a form to pay back the five Rubel we fed the machine. But I would not have known what the hell I’d sign if it wasn’t for her. After that bump in the road Alex added credit to the card and we went on.
We found our Airbnb no problem, it was on the main street, the Nevsky Prospect, and Alex knew that one pretty well. We paid 86 Euro for 5 nights as 2 people. That makes it cheaper than most campgrounds in Germany. That being said, it was a big flat with multiple bedrooms and a kitchen and two bathrooms that we had to share with others. There was cleaning staff in the flat most of the time keeping appearances up while the building obviously lacked some maintenance work. But that was just how it is. We had everything we needed from an accommodation. As it turned out, most places there are exactly like that, worn down and rather badly maintained by German standard (which is probably not a fair comparison).
The unexpected sunshine
I was drenched in sweat upon arrival at the accommodation because I prepared with pullover and jacket, but it was sunny, 13°C. I was pretty heated up.
That first night we went out to meet friends of Alex. They led me through some streets into a back alley. Where you’d expect nothing a little pizza place with a small selection of well made, good tasting pizza and a rather cool area to sit outside, popped up. A pizza was around 250 or 500 Rubel, which is 3 to 6 Euro.
Afterwards we walked to a pub quiz in a place called Mad Max. Every cafe and restaurant, every bar, seemed decorated pretty nicely. They met a simple modern taste which I did not expect to find there. Mad Max was a huge place (with the most comfortable couch cushions) and the pub quiz which we took part in had 30 teams! I had beer called “milk stout”, that is supposed to taste like like chocolate and coffee – which it did a teensy bit. It cost 180 Rubel for 0,4 liter. That’s 2,40 Euro. The event was well organised and fun despite my lack of common knowledge. We were quite bad and only 21st in the end.
When the pub quiz was over we went to The Poison, a karaoke bar, basically. The city has quite a lot of them. The Poison did not play Russian songs for karaoke. Anyways. Karaoke is not really for me. I simply can’t sing and would be rather embarrassed. A friend of Alex kept inviting me onto the dance floor. Another thing I can’t do. I thought I ought to take some lessons so I don’t look like an idiot. But when Alex and some people sang 99 Luftballons, I mustered up the courage to dance quite excessively. Other than that I was happy just to lean back and observe other people being loose, singing and dancing. After a while it was getting late, I grew tired and bored, so we went back to our place.
I would have been lost without Alex. Some places understand english, after all it’s probably the most international city you can find in Russia, but a lot of places just don’t. People seem harsh and cold. Though my words might sounds critical and mean, I mean it in a nice way. The way of Russian people makes me smile inside, because I know it might appear harsh and cold, but often times it is just not meant like that.
The Nevsky Prospect is pretty with all the pompous buildings. When we walked through the city earlier that day I noticed there were no cyclists whatsoever and there was a layer of dust or dirt on everything. I did not know where it’s coming from.
20th of April, 2018
After getting up we went to a little place simply called Cake & Breakfast. I had a bowl of warm porridge (oatmeal with milk), some slices of apple, dried fruits, butter and a cup of coffee. Breakfast for the both of us was 590 Rubel (7,80 Euro). It was the first porridge I ever had and so far absolutely the best. What I did not know at that time is that it was a defining moment, that I would be making porridge often over the next years, chasing that exact taste in future breakfasts!
When we were done we set off to see the Eremitage, the most famous museum. I got to see a lot of impressive buildings on the way there. Unfortunately none of them I could remember by name. In the Eremitage you actually have to give up your jacket and backpack, tho you are allowed to take pictures. I did that a little to gather snapshots for impressions. Entrance fee was 700 Rubel. Some rooms were full of tourist groups. And that must have been the minimal invasion, since it has not been the travelling season yet. We circled through the museum until our feet hurt. Alex had little sleep and I felt so much worse with my cold that we were thinking about taking a nap. Also feeling hungry we set priorities: food first, nap later.
The small portions
I’ve encountered a lot of things in Russia that I did not experience in Germany before. For example getting free water at every cafe or restaurant there is. It seems like a no-brainer, a small but great thing, but for some reason not pursued in Germany. They even put lemon or cucumber into the water sometimes.
The place we went to was, compared to the breakfast place, rather expensive. It was fine food but the portions tiny. That was when I learned from Alex and her friend that it is in fact rather usual that the portions are not big! Yes, my prejudice led me to believe that I’d find big, hearty portions in Russia. It does not seem to apply for eating out.
After a nap in the afternoon I felt worse than ever. Waking up with a headache. Then and there Alex made me try string cheese, which I never ate before. She sold it well, but it was unbelievably salty and awful. It was very hard to get that taste out of my mouth all evening. Looking to balance out that experience she looked up a Cinnabon place nearby (that chain that makes cinnamon buns). So we went to that, which was also the first time in my life going to a Cinnabon (it was nice). The Nevsky Prospect was full of people, while the side streets were nicer to walk in.
I was very impressed with Alex and her friends. They all seemed very well travelled and took a leap into a foreign live, speaking a minimum of three languages. It made me think I should really learn another language too. It’s funny, even when people realise you can’t understand a word, they keep talking at you in Russian! And there’s mostly just no way of guessing what they want. I learned to say one word, pronounced “Spasiba”, meaning “Thank you”.
21st of April, 2018
The arcade museum
After a love-filled scrambled egg breakfast made by Alex we headed out to Музей советских игровых автоматов, the museum of soviet arcade machines. It was hidden in a back yard. Basically a big open room with a cafe at the entrance and machines upstairs and in the back of the room. You pay a fee and get old coins to play them! There’s really amusing games, it was fun to try. It was pouring outside while we were in there. When we ran out of coins we left.
The tiny shops
The plan was to go to a space that is, I guess, meant for younger people, with shops in tiny glass boxes. Like containers, but a little smaller. But they were renovating so a lot of those were closed down, as was the place we were going to get food from. We went to another place instead which, again, tasted really great but served a very small portion, like the day before. So weird.
Around the corner cheap and delicious dessert was waiting for us. Deep fried rings of dough topped with icing sugar (shaped like bagels, but smaller and thinner). Pyshki. What a delight! And they were 8 Rubel a piece, that’s 10 Cents.
The birthday party
After lots of pyshki and a nice cup of tea at the Airbnb we were off to a birthday party of one of Alexes friends. The apartment of the friend was only two houses away. I was confused about the fact that houses have guest toilets without a sink.
The post office
One of the most striking experiences I had in Saint Petersburg was visiting the post office that day. See, I wanted to get stamps to send some post cards to my family and friends. The post office was tiny and the person at the counter was comically slow! There was an old lady picking out a card for a family occasion. She took her sweet time letting the employee show her every single one of them close up. While that was going on, no other person could be served.
This is where the people waiting in the post office acted very different from german people in a busy or slow post office. Everybody was very calm. No annoyed looks, no huffing and puffing over the fact that it takes forever. It seemed to be the same with traffic! People seemed to be driving without compromises, but everyone does, so everyone has that base aggression driving. If something doesn’t work out they just look stone cold, they do not loose their temper and flip out!
Eventually, half an hour later, we got out of the tiny post office with the stamps. Funny enough I needed about five stamps per post card which limited the space to write drastically.
22nd of April, 2018
We started the day by riding the subway. Just that. I could not compare the subway stations in Saint Petersburg to any other I’ve ever seen. There are some rather impressive stations, like so many buildings there, they are pompous. They put just as much effort into their subway stations as they probably would into official government buildings. They had to build the subway system very deep, there are some unbelievably long escalators all the way down.
So we rode the subway and got out at some stations and walked past some sights. St Isaac’s Cathedral was one of them. Then we went to a place called Solaris lab, a cafe up on a roof. I would have never found that place if it wasn’t for Alex, it was tugged away so well. It was quite nice but the service, as I’ve found was the case all around Saint Petersburg, was so darn bad.
The soccer game
Probably a very unique experience: that afternoon Alex was taking part in a soccer game with a local team way outside the city. We got picked up at a subway station outside the city center to drive even further out. It looked very poor out there. The pompous building fronts got replaced by multi-story building blocks that were ugly and badly maintained. Very weird, to find yourself in the midst of these houses watching a game of soccer in what felt windy, biting cold 3°C while the sun was shining.
As we drove back into the city the houses got prettier along the way. Some looked quite amazing. It’s all the same style, yes, but I like well maintained old looking buildings. They are all so massive there! We warmed up at our Airbnb before going to another friends house to cook Wareniki.
23rd of April, 2018
We walked from our Airbnb to Pete’s Fortress. The weather was quite great with sunshine all the way. People were actually at the river in their swimming clothes just to catch the sun rays! Oh, and we had breakfast porridge again at Cake & Breakfast, because I wanted to. We walked a lot that day and just took in the scenery from the river Neva and the city.
We wanted to go to some nice cafe in a backyard, but the whole place was under construction. So we went to a place called Zoom instead, where they give you paper and coloured pencils to draw. Their menu is decorated with cute and interesting drawings from customers.
The last evening
Now for my last activity we decided to go out to eat and have a beer afterwards. Nothing much happened that day but we walked a whole lot and I felt like I’ve seen quite a bit of the city.
We had Khachapuri, a Georgian dish, for dinner and went to Redrum afterwards. Redrum is a craft beer place. You’ll find they have several different tabs and rotate through interesting craft beers. I actually had a pink beer there. While at the time, Germany was just beginning to get into craft beers and is yet not really up to speed in that department, craft beer was a big thing in Saint Petersburg.
24th of April, 2018
For a well rounded ending to my trip Alex got me a taxi that brought me to the airport early that morning. There was no traffic whatsoever and no people around that early. It was the cheapest half an hour taxi ride. Well calculated I handed the taxi driver the last Rubels I had, mumbled an insecure “Spasiba”, and headed for my flight back.