Last week we went on a bus trip to St. Petersburg in Russia. We have intended to go there for quite a while since it is quite close to Helsinki, only being about 400 km away. Actually, there weren’t so many trials or tribulations on the trip, but it was definitely interesting.
To visit Russia just about everyone needs to get a visitors permit first. Since we were going on a group tour this makes life much simpler. In the case of the Finns on the tour it was even easier, they didn’t have to do anything except supply personal details and the tour company just gets a group visa. But since I’m (and as it turns out a couple of others) would be traveling on a different passport I had to apply for a separate visa. Basically it just required form filling and sending my passport to the tour company. I think that going with a group is definitely the way to go though since the Russian bureaucracy is definitely something to behold. As we learned after the tour started the visas for everyone only arrived the day before the tour left. This it seems is common practice, no matter how early you apply for your visa it will not be issued until it is absolutely necessary. In some cases they have had to be couriered to the border crossing in time to meet the tour bus!
Left Varkaus in Finland mid-morning and traveled to the border near Lappenranta. The bus stopped in Lappenranta for lunch and then we continued to the border.
Getting through the border took about an hour and a half. Clearing the Finnish side was easy, although I had to get another stamp in my passport for leaving the country. The Russian side was a bit more interesting. The two sides are separated by a km or so of winding road. On arriving at the Russian checkpoint everyone had to queue in alphabetical order for the passport control. Everyone with a Finnish passport (and the tour visa) had to go first. I got the lucky last place. My passport must have been interesting because it warranted a phone call by the passport officer! Once through passport control many went to exchange money although several missed out when the exchange office closed promptly at 5pm even though there was a line waiting.
Once we left the border post we passed through a military zone. That required that at about three checkpoints Russian army personnel would stop the bus and check everyone had the appropriate stamps in their passport. Finally after the 1 1/2 hours we cleared the last of the checkpoints and traveled on to Viipuri.
Viipuri is a town which was originally inside Finland. But after WWII the Russians claimed that area as “war compensations” and kicked all the Finns out. So the building styles and other details have lots in common with other Finnish towns, the only difference being that they obviously stopped repairing anything about 1960. While here we made a quick trip around town and picked up our Russian tour guide.
The final part of the trip was Viipuri to Saint Petersburg. Mostly it was traveling through the countryside, which didn’t look a whole lot different than the other side of the border. We eventually arrived in Saint Petersburg later in the evening. We were split across two hotels on the first night, although it wasn’t until just before we arrived the tour found out which hotels in the city had been booked. We were told during the bus trip that this was normal and if we didn’t hear anything before we arrived then everything could be assumed to be okay!
Breakfast in the hotel was a full buffet. Needless to say it was a little difficult to walk afterwards.
First business for the day was Peterhof Park, one of the castles and grounds. On the way there we took in some of the sights, although after breakfast it was a bit hard to stay awake.
We were one of the first busloads to arrive there in the morning and I get the impression they had only opened within the last hour or so. The park, etc was pretty impressive and one of the major tourist attractions here. This year is the 300 anniversary of founding of the city and most of the public buildings, castles, etc have been restored to great expense. This hasn’t impressed many of the locals who live in run down apartment buildings and are missing things like hot water.
Anyway, the park was BIG and there are lots of fountains and gardens and many “mansions” scattered around the grounds. Its pretty hard to describe, so I’ll just drop in a few pictures. As you can see, we bumped into Peter while we were there.
After the park it was lunch time. For that we had traditional Russian Mexican food. Some Mexican guy was singing for us as well during the whole lunch. So that was different.
For the late afternoon we had a cruise on the river Neva, one of the main rivers through Saint Petersburg. The city itself is split by several rivers and many canals, sometimes being known as the Russian Venice. The cruise lasted an hour or so and traveled down the river, a short distance up one other river, then back, continuing further along the Neva and then returning to the start. There was a bottle of vodka and sparking wine per table with refills, some fruit and a starter of caviar on bread (which I didn’t touch! blurg!). There was also a folk show onboard which required some “audience participation”. Not having drunk enough wine or vodka I wasn’t particularly in the mood to provide any participation, although many of the others were. Not surprising really, considering there is a Finnish saying something to the effect that its not possible to have fun without vodka. But anyway, being obviously the least likely to participate you can see who they were going to pick on the most… sigh!
The trip itself was party organised by the local free newspaper in Varkaus, so there were two woman on the trip from the newspaper and they have also set up a web site with some pictures. Not yet having the film from the second part of the trip developed yet, I “borrowed” some of the pictures from their site. To save further embarrassment I have removed the most incriminating items :-). Lets just say that attempting Cossack dancing leads to sore legs!
To be continued…