Moscow to St Petersburg
20 June 2019
Tuesday 18 June
Up early and all packed, breakfast down the hatch and ready to be picked up at 11.30 for our trip to the railway station. We are always insanely early for everything, so we went down to the foyer and picked out some comfortable chairs for our wait. On the way down we had spotted our fellow TSR companion, Stephen Graham, from New South Wales, waiting for his airport pickup. I noticed a taxi driver near the door waiting for his customer, with a printed sign with GRAHAM on it. I pointed this out to Stephen,, who then left with the taxi man.
A few moments later Ju said that something was rather strange. Another man had appeared, slightly dishevelled, with the words STEPHEN GRAHAM scrawled in red ink on an A4 sheet. We watched, as this man stood there for over 25 minutes, eventually looking at his watch and phoning someone. At that moment our taxi man arrived, so we never found out what happened next. Was this the real driver for Stephen, had he been mistaken for someone else called Graham? The chances of there being two people in a hotel in Moscow needing a taxi at the same time were very low. But how did the second guy know Stephen's first name? It is only ever the family name that appears on greeting signs at airports and in hotels. Was the second guy a chancer who had got the name from somewhere, for whtever reason? Or had our tour company inadvertently booked two taxis for the same job? The possibilities are endless. If you think of any I've missed, be sure to comment with your theory!
Meantime we arrived at Leningrad Station. Yes I was surprised too, but the station name has not been changed. The driver took us quite a long way up the side of the station, let us out with our luggage and gestured up and to the left. We thanked him, and headed up the ramp. We were in a hall where to the left was the inevitable metal detector security room, and to the right was what looked like the main concourse of the station. There was no electronic departure board in sight, and we were ridiculously early for our 1.30 train. We dug out our tickets and tried showing them to the guy on the right hand door, who shooed us towards the left. So we went through the security area, to find ourselves in a small area of the station holding only about five tracks. A train had just arrived from St Petersburg, and what seemed like thousands of people got off. It took about twenty minutes for the flow of humanity to walk past us. Therre were still no departure board information signs, and we assumed at first that this might be our train. There were no seats anywhere, no loos available, only one small kiosk for bottled water. We sat on our cases, and watched first the engine decouple itself from the carriages, then the carriages were pulled away, and finally the engine followed them on its own. Not our train then.
Spotting a train employee standing chatting on the next platform, I went up to him and showed him my ticket. He waved towards another platform, so we moved over there. Time passed.
Finally I spotted information on the hitherto blank information board at platform 7, which matched our ticket - train number 766- so we shot over there, only to get almost killed in the rush of sundry groups of foreign tourists, mostly but not all Asian, who materialised out of nowhere, so we progressed along the incredibly long platform, until the Sapsan express pulled in beside us. Mercifully the train was empty, as the platform was already full of people. We asked various carriage attendants where to go, and ended up in the very last carriage before the one the engine was attached to.
A meal arrived as we roared along at speeds of over 100mph. Much faster than the TSR's steady 40! Just as well that they're feeding us, as breakfast was a dim memory. In four hours we were in St Petersburg. We piled off the train and spotted the man with our names on his A4 card. Usually this means he is the taxi driver. Not on this occasion. He led us on an incredibly long walk right out of the station, with not a vehicle in sight, then on to a busy street, where people kept tripping over our cases as we pulled them along behind us.
Finally he stopped at a car, we put our bags in the boot, and the driver, a different guy, drove us to our hotel. I have never seen so many people. We drove down Nevsky Prospect, not the wide leafy boulevard of my imagination, but a busy city street with cars shops and people.
Into the hotel and chilling out with the air con turned to cool. Ah, that's better.
A walk round the immediate vicinity turned into a walk right round the Hermitage museum building, now closed for the night. In the square in front of it a big sound stage was being set up, and groups of people were standing or sitting around, enjoying the warm evening sunshine.
We went up to the top floor of the hotel to sample the food in the roof bistro for dinner. The view from there is really good, and it showed us how much the St Petersburgers enjoy walking about on their roofs. There were brave walkers everywhere up there!
Dinner took forever to appear, was OK when it did appear, but was hugely overpriced. Not coming back here then.
Wednesday 19 June
Our guide for today, Tatiana, turned up on the dot of 10 o'clock, and took us for a walk along the banks of the river Neva, apologising that today's driver, Valeriy, was stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge, closed partially for the setting up of a major fireworks display timed for the 23rd, when we will be home in Ardfern. The display was linked to the rock concert to be held on the sound stage we saw last night. This city actually does all this in honour of its seventeen-year-old school leavers! Yes, that's what I said, school leavers! Apparently they each get two tickets to the rock concert, one for them, and one for - wait for it - a parent! I'm speechless.
Anyway, our rendezvous with the car went smoothly, and we drove round many of the city's remarkable buildings. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, this is Russia's most European city we have visited, with architecture influenced more by France snd Italy than anything else, and with fewer Stalin or Krushchev type buildings, as though the older buildings have preservation orders on them.
We went over to the tiny island on which the city was founded, with its spectacular Peter and Paul church where all the rulers from Peter himself to Nicholas 2, shot at Ekaterinburg, are all buried and commemorated.
After saying goodbye until tomorrow to Tatiana, we found a small restaurant on Nevsky Prospect for lunch, and then did a boat tour round the canals. A busy day. In the evening a pizza place provide dinner, and we had an early night.
Tomorrow, the Hermitage!