Usually, one needs a visa to go to Russia. Why would citizens of rich western countries require a visa to go anywhere as a tourist? I don’t know, but within Europe, most need one for only 2 of the dozens of European countries: Belarus and Russia. I would guess it is mostly a case of: “this is how it was done before and this is how it will remain”. Like in Transnistria, where taking a picture of the Parliament Building is forbidden, because it is a “strategic asset”. The fact that you can get ten thousand pictures by googling it is irrelevant.
So getting a Russian visa for Canadians is an absolute pain in the ass, and for some (like me), it is impossible (but that’s a long story – and no, I don’t have a criminal record). So Russia was off the travel map for me, until by chance I found a loophole. If you want to attract cruise ship tourism, you can’t be asking for visas. In the Caribbean, you can’t even make passengers go through immigration or the ships won’t come! So for St-Petersburg, Russia does have a visa exception rule. You can visit without a visa if:
1 – You arrive by ship;
2 – You depart by ship;
3 – You do not stay more than 72 hours;
4 – You do not leave the municipal limits of St-Petersburg; and
5 – You do not explore the city on your own, but visit as part of an organized tour, run by an agency approved by the Russian Government.
It makes perfect sense, because if we stayed 7 days, and spent twice as much money in hotels and restaurants, that would obviously pose a terrible threat to Russia. But anyway, we were quite happy with these restrictions, apart from number 5. This was a total deal breaker. But, where blind bureaucracy rules, common sense does not exist and loopholes appear. The ferry line, St-Peter’s, offers a 3 day tour of St-Petersburg, for 25 Euros. This is the fine print:
Included: Bus transport from the ship to downtown and return.
Excluded: Everything else.
So of course, it is not a tour by any definition, but St-Peter’s Line was approved as a “Tour Agency” by someone with a big stamp, so the border guard can look at your “Tour voucher” and put his little stamp on your passport. Done.
Despite all this nonsense, St-Petersburg is absolutely full of tourists. Why? Because it is an absolutely amazing city, and having only 3 days to visit was really disappointing.
In case you don’t believe me; here is a sample of tour busses parked in front of St-Isaac’s Cathedral. Groups come from many different places. Of course Russia, China and France, but also from countries with more troubled economies, like Italy and Spain. Just for that one cathedral, that’s 18 tour buses in this one picture alone! I could come up with many good reasons to not go on a guided bus tour.
But this tour bus driver is justification enough.
This gate on Palace Square is a well known monument, mainly because it is in front of the Winter Palace.
But I don’t even know what this is, on St-Petersburg’s main shopping street, Nevsky Prospect. In most city, this would be the main attraction, but in St-Petersburg, you see this kind of grandiose architecture on every other street corner. Drive a car with a blindfold, and you’ll probably end up crashing into an important monument.
One of the most popular is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It was built on the exact location where Tsar Alexander II, the man who 20 years earlier had liberated 23 millions Russian serfs from slavery, was assassinated in 1881 by an obscure anarchist group. It contains some of the most impressive mosaics of this type I have seen anywhere.
The iconostasis, separating the altar from the centre of the church. Because of the colour, it may at first seem like an impressive wood carving, but it is actually made entirely of marble.
The marble and stone in the church is a display of remarkable craftsmanship.
Outside, vendors sell fake Russian sailor hats, matryoshka dolls and coffee cups with the face of Vladimir Putin.
Across the river from the Winter Palace, one finds another popular attraction, the Peter and Paul Fortress. On the island fortress, a panoply of small museums, shops and restaurants, and this other church, the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
For a fee, you can climb up the tower, but from most angles, fencing prevents you from taking pictures. And in my opinion, St-Petersburg is a city to be admired from ground level, not so much from above.
While I did visit Russia, I really feel I only visited 19th century St-Petersburg. I know nothing of Russia, and the little I know I don’t understand.
The Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad. We were not planning to go, but we happened to walk by.
It illustrates the terrible sufferings of the ordinary residents during World War II (called “The Great Patriotic War” in the Soviet Union and now in many successor states).
But it also shows the deranged Stalinist historical revisionism that still seems to prevail in Russia today. According to this map, World War II in Europe begins in 1941, with Germany’s attack on its former ally, the Soviet Union (“former ally” part not mentioned here). But what is coloured pink and red on this map is not only the Soviet Union, but also Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, eastern Poland and parts of Finland, all invaded by the USSR in 1939-1941. Apparently, these events never happened, and WWII started when mean, baby eating Hitler attacked the gentle, peace loving, kitten cuddling Stalin. The two men had absolutely nothing in common. And now comrades, you know everything you learned in Western schools is wrong.
Why the need to hang on to such ridiculous ideas, 23 years after the collapse of the USSR? I have no idea. And this is why I don’t understand Russia. Were the $50 billion games in Sochi well done? Of course, they were a great success! But the tap water in St-Petersburg is not potable, unlike in Romania… or Namibia…
Another example: the centre of the city is full of beautiful parks, but few people are in them because you can’t go on the grass. And it’s not because Russian people don’t like to lie in the grass, they do. In fact, in the few places where it is allowed in the centre, as well as in several suburban parks, we saw many people lying in the sun. At first, I was a little surprised when I saw that two women wearing very tiny thongs were topless, even though they were lying on their stomachs. Then I realized those were men in the tiny thongs! So Russians do dig the sun culture.
We tried to get in the local spirit by eating like the locals. I often joke that if you travel to North America and want to eat “authentic local food that local people go for”, you’ll be spending a lot of time at McDonalds!
In St-Petersburg, it seems Subway is the big hit. They are everywhere and often much larger than their Canadian or US counterpart. (We actually did go once, as there was one right in front of our hotel).
In search of better gastronomy, we headed for Cococo, a restaurant that appeared in the Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown episode on St-Petersburg. On Michelle’s plate: Halibut with cauliflower crème brûlée, linseed mayonnaise and “coal oil”. Absolutely delicious. They don’t serve traditional Russian recipes, but they use only locally produced food. Ironically, we visited the day the Russian Prime Minister announced food import sanctions against Canada! PS: nobody else in restaurant because we had lunch “Balkan time”, at 3 pm! The waiter asked how we had heard of the restaurant.
“Guess”, I said.
“Anthony Bourdain”, he replied.
“What percentage of your foreign clientele say that?”
Straight shots of room-temperature vodka for lunch is not something Michelle is used to!
Speaking of Michelle, compared to me, she doesn’t exactly travel super light. After seeing these people, I promised not to criticize her for a while!
As you leave St-Petersburg by ship, you go through a long narrow sea way lined with small islands, before hitting the open sea. On these many islands, first reachable by bridges, and later only by boat, we saw hundreds of locals enjoying their time off. Men fishing, families camping and these young people relaxing, or – if you ask their parents – probably up to no good!
And the last islands, before hitting the open sea, on a night ferry to Estonia.
A final word on this little trip to Russia without a visa. 72 hours is ridiculously short to visit a city like St-Petersburg, especially when you factor in the ferry schedule, which means you really only get one full day and 2 half days. You can see a lot of the great sights of the former capital of Imperial Russia, but that leaves you with very little time to experience what St-Petersburg is today.
There are so many places in Russia I want to visit, but that will have to wait. The good news is that time is on my side. I am much younger than President Putin and Russian men die much earlier than Russian women (the biggest gender difference in the world, 12 years). That means that when Putin dies in office around 2037 and visa rules change, I should still be young and healthy enough to travel across this gigantic and fascinating country.