- Not being able to check into our hotel because we didn’t have the right paperwork. This was very disturbing but the nice hotel people sorted it out. Apparently you need a stamped and signed itinerary from your tour operator with the name of your hotel on it. I know you are technically suppose to be ‘supervised’ by a tour operator at all times but NO ONE on any of the reviews or sites I visited mentioned needing this documentation.They just talk about how this rule is not really enforced in St Petersburg.
- Underestimating how big the city is, it seriously took ages to get any where.
- Seeing fast food chains with their name in Cyrillic. The most popular was Subway. For some reason I did not expect to see so many American chains in Russia.
- The beautiful and grand interiors in most of the buildings. We went into a chocolate shop where every pillar was decorated and there was a grand piano. We had morning tea at a cafe in a bookshop which had beautiful floor to ceiling arch windows overlooking the square.
- Seeing a dead body in the metro, there were a couple of policemen standing near the ticket machines and on the ground next to them was a plastic sheet with some feet and a hand sticking out. We exited that station quickly.
- How green the gardens were, I never thought I would describe Russia as green but there were a lot of gardens and parks throughout the city and they were all a vibrant bright green. Very different from the darker green you see throughout the UK and Ireland. It was lovely.
- How much people loved their country, there were celebrations for St Petersburg Day on the last day we were there. Even though it was drizzling lots of people were out, there was a huge grand stand setup in front of St Issac’s Square as part of the official celebrations. A choir performing and most people were singing along. It is so different to how Australians celebrate Australia day (though this was just the first day of a 3 day celebration…)
- We didn’t realise St Petersburg was a canal city until we got there. Except since everything is giant in St Petersburg all the canals were kind of river sized.
- Having to plan where to cross the road. The roads in St Petersburg are mostly 4 to 6 lanes across so you need to keep an eye out for crossings. Otherwise you end up walking an extra couple of blocks just to cross the road.
Finally we noticed a lot of yellow buildings, we decided that yellow is the colour of palaces and therefore there are palaces everywhere. This may not be based on facts.
At the end of our day in Helsinki we got on a 14-hour ferry for St Petersburg. This was the surprise part of our trip! Originally we were only going to see Tallinn and Helsinki but then I discovered you can get into St Petersburg without a visa if you arrive by ferry/cruise and you stay for less than 72 hours. You don’t need a visa as your return boarding pass acts as your visa. Sounds really dodgy I know, but I did loads of research and we did it with (mostly) no problems!
I was scared of getting sea-sick after the my last ferry experience crossing the English Channel but the whole trip was very calm and you barely feel the boat move at all! (I still took anti-nausea medication just in case!) Fourteen hours may sound like a long time but it was nice to relax after walking around all day and the best part is you still feel you are ‘traveling’ while reading in your cabin!
The next day we arrived in St Petersburg at 9am in the morning, we took the bus to St Issac’s Square and started walking to our hotel. The hotel didn’t look far on the map, I would have guessed 5 maybe 10 minutes walk? Noooooo the map is on a whole different scale from Helsinki! In Helsinki everything was small and close together but in St Petersburg everything is GIANT, so it may look like it’s only 4 or 5 blocks away but these are Las Vagas sized blocks. It took ages to get to our hotel!Once we ditched our bags we went out exploring, the first stop was The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Normally I am not a huge fan of churches, after traveling through Europe churches start getting a bit samey. But the Spilled Blood church is different it is colourful and exciting and reminds me of Tetris. It was excellent, the only thing that would have made it better is if they were playing Tetris music in the background.
The rest of the afternoon we explored the city looking at the giant colourful buildings which were ornate inside and outside. The best way to describe the city is impressive – all the buildings were massive and grandiose, it felt like the whole city is shouting ‘LOOK AT HOW GRAND AND IMPRESSIVE I AM!!!’ and you are thinking “Wow everything is so grand here!”. I have never been to a city quite like it! I mentioned how overwhelming and large the city was to the receptionist at the hotel and she just looked at me and said “You have never been to Moscow have you?”. And now Moscow is on my list of places I really want to visit…More photos here
For a long time, last weekend was known as the ‘cursed’ weekend, the weekend away that just wouldn’t happen. It was the last long weekend before we leave London for good so we both felt we had to make the most of it and go somewhere. The problem was we left organizing everything til too late so tickets to almost anywhere were ridiculously expensive. I eventually found some overnight train tickets to Glasgow, there was 2 seats left and I was trying to book when one of the seats were sold! OMG I was so upset.
But in the end it turned out to be one of the most unexpected (and exhausting) weekends away! We decided to take an extra day off and ended up seeing three countries in four days!
Our first day was in Helsinki. We just had the day to explore and I am pretty sure we saw most of the city centre in that time, And we did it all on foot! The city itself wasn’t what I was expecting at all, since Helsinki was the World Design Capital for 2012 I thought there would be lots of fancy modern buildings. However the city has a mix of old buildings, fancy modern buildings and old looking highrises covered with ads that reminded me of Asia.The most random thing we saw was a group of three girls in cowboy hats doing a Gangnam style type dance routine in front of the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral (above) while their friends filmed it. Everyone stopped and watched it was hilarious.
We arrived at Pisa late at night, had a pizza midnight dinner and crashed for the night. The next day we caught the first train to Cinque Terre. Most of the train trip to Cinque was in tunnels but as we got close there were some exciting views of the sea teasing us as the train zipped in and out of tunnels.Cinque Terre really is as amazing as people say, the towns are each tiny and very colorful. On our first day the weather was amazing, we rushed out onto a boat and traveled from Riomaggiore, the southmost town all the way to Monterosso on the other end. We had lunch in Monterosso which included pasta baked into a pastry which is then set on fire at the table.
After lunch we started the walk between Monterosso and Vernazza. This is the longest and most difficult of the walks along Cinque, you climb up and down along the coastline, it’s hard work but there are some great views of the coast and the towns along the way.There were tonnes of people along the track. Some people were super prepared, they were in hiking clothes and had walking poles, while some people clearly stumbled onto the tracks unintentionally. I saw multiple girls wearing ballet flats which looked very uncomfortable, there was also a man wearing a suit. I felt sorry for him. It was really hot that day.It took us an hour and a half to get to Vernazza where we rewarded ourselves with really good gelato. It’s good to be in a place where the weather is appropriate for ice cream!
Sadly all the other tracks were closed so we only did that one walk, I think we were all disappointed but secretly a tiny bit relieved as our legs were sore! There was a lot of clambering up and down!
We did see all five towns by train though. Each town is different but all of them are very small, and when I say small I mean we saw the same lady walking her dogs in three separate towns all in one day. My favourite is Manarola, it felt a bit bigger than the others and there was a lot to explore and see. We also had the most amazing dinner in Manarola at Trattoria Dal Billy, it’s owned by a fisherman so everything is freshly caught and all the pasta is freshly made. The only sad thing is we had to skip dessert in order to make the train back to Riomaggiore where we were staying. It was either that or try and make dessert last for 80 minutes….