The cornerstone of the trip: Russia. Thrice my father trekked to a Russian visa processing center in New York to get our visas taken care of, and we spent a couple hundred dollars each on getting them expedited, as it took awhile to get my passport renewed six weeks before this trip even began. Long before that, though, I had begun learning Russian for this exact moment. Well, not just for this exact moment. I look forward to visiting some of the former Soviet countries where Russian is the lingua franca, and plan on touring the 5 ‘Stans (Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh) in the summer. But more on that then.
At Vyborg, the first station in Russia, approximately a dozen Russian border guards flooded our car, checking passports and asking about bags. No one looked twice at our three-day Russia visas and the guards automatically spoke in English upon seeing our blue passports. I was eager to speak Russian, but glad to speak my native language in such an important exchange. We arrived at Finlandskiy Station across from Lenin Square and trekked across the city to our hotel.
We passed a handful of drunk Russians on our way to the Ibis St. Petersburg Center, where we had secured our Letters of Invitation for free after booking a double room. The receptionist spoke English well, and as we were checking in I noticed a camera over her shoulder that said “be advised that the hotel is being monitored by security cameras.” I pondered whether this meant there were cameras in our rooms or not. They didn’t specify the parts of the hotel that were under surveillance, so I took that as a sign that the shy may want to avoid Russian hotels.
That evening we went to the surprisingly not-so-tacky Soviet-themed bar and restaurant “Kvartirka” where the portions were probably slightly better than in the Soviet Union, and old Tv screens played Soviet films. Here, also, the waiter spoke English and I was beginning to think I would never get to practice more than a couple of words of Russian. We turned in after the meal, as we only had two more days left on our visa, and we had to make the most of it.
The following day, we awoke around eight and started our trek across the city to the Peter and Paul fortress. We caught the subway which only required one transfer from our station at Ligovsky Prospekt. The trains seemed to run every 3 or 4 minutes, and only cost 45 rubles (about $.70) which quickly got us to the other side of the city in under a half hour. However, it felt like half of our travel time was spent on the escalators down into and up from the subway. When we exited the metro near the fortress, we were greeted by a great mosque, covered in blue designs and arabesques.
We spent the next hour among the graves of Catherine the Great and the rest of the dead Romanovs, and took in some of the opulence of royal life before the Soviet era. On our way to the Hermitage, we stopped in an Irish Pub which was advertising their specials on Russian cuisine, as it was St. Patrick’s day (if you can figure that one out). Here, I met the first Russian who couldn’t speak English (perhaps she spoke Irish?) and was able to use my Russian to order Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff, and a couple of Irish beers.
Across the street we entered the Hermitage, a collection of miles and miles of European art. I like art as much as the next guy (who gets bored easily), so I obliged for a few hours, playing the scavenger hunt provided by the museum’s map (though found no pieces I recognized). After, we went to the Faberge museum which had a collection of the famous Faberge eggs and other accessories.
In the evening we went to the local mall, which had a central Asian restaurant called “Baklazshan” where we ordered a handful of small plates while a woman who only spoke Russian went from table to table selling makeup, or something. After an evening in the hotel watching Russian travel channel, we realized the air conditioner was broken and the room continued to grow hotter until I had to open a window to let some cold Russian wind bring the room’s temperature down. In the morning, we walked down to the bus station and took the first bus to Tallinn.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.