The next part of our journey was to be spent with my aunt Nancy. She’s the kids’ great aunt, or as K calls her, the greatest aunt (and I concur). We were a bit concerned that our style of travel would be hard on her since we walk a lot, and parts of it probably were, but she turned out to be the more hard core tourist.
The first part of our journey together was by far the most brutal – more than 24 hours of solid travel with several different legs. First the afternoon ferry from Umeå to Vaasa in Finland, then waiting around until the midnight bus, and then a six hour bus ride to Helsinki, arriving at 6 am. After a few short hours, we’d get the ferry to Tallinn.
Amazingly, it went as planned. We got off the ferry in Vaasa in the pouring rain, got a bus to the centre (whereupon the rain stopped), found the train station where the bus would also leave from, and sat down to wait – helping out some French guys (one of whom lived in Utrecht) by letting them know about our €10 bus tickets. Well, Nancy and I did take a walk through the centre, mostly abandoned in the early evening, and had a delicious coffee, only to be called back by Ivo and the kids, who’d been kicked out of the train station waiting area when it closed precisely at 6:15 pm and needed to pee. After a pizza dinner at the train station, we had movie night around the flickering laptop.
The night bus was about as you’d think, the seats more cramped than we’d have liked, and we arrived in Helsinki only to find nothing at all open on a Sunday morning, not even a Starbucks or McDonalds. All there was was trash – the streets were littered with the detritus of what was apparently an amazing night out downtown. After finding a McDs that opened at 8, we had breakfast and then took the tram out to the ferry, forgoing any sightseeing because the bags were too much of a hassle. The ferry was painless, and we got an overpriced taxi to the apartment, found a supermarket, had a microwaved dinner and collapsed into bed.
The next day, Ivo and I went with the kids to buy shoes for Ivo and L, since it was our last EU country and we weren’t sure about finding Keens in Russia – we’d tried to get them before we left but L’s feet were bigger than I’d thought and Ivo didn’t like the first style he tried. It took us two malls and a lot of busses to get the right sizes and styles, but we accomplished our mission. Nancy spent the day exploring the old town and having cultural experiences, but Ivo and I had both been to Tallinn long before, and as the guy in the camping store put it, “Old Town is still old”.
The next day, the 3rd, my Mum was in town, released with the rest of the hordes from her floating palace of a cruise ship (with a choice of designer toiletries). Nancy and I met her in Old Town and had a delicious pastry and coffee before Ivo and the kids met us as well – they’d been off taking care of the other errand – buying a Klean Kanteen for L, as this was the only package of the many that we’d ordered that hadn’t arrived before we left. Although to be honest, if we’d left on time from Utrecht we would have missed some of the others too. Advice: when leaving for a trip, make sure to order stuff well ahead of time. Anyway, we found a woman who’d decided she liked the Klean Kanteens so much that she had a side business importing them to Estonia and who was kind enough to bring ours downtown for us.
For the rest of the day we wandered about Old Town with Mum and Nancy. During the wander, my camera suddenly stopped recognizing my zoom lens, which was kind of disturbing since I need a good lens for this trip. The girls also went off to what we thought was a choral concert in a church, but turned out to be organ music (our mistranslation of chorale, which was in this case “a musical composition (or part of one) consisting of or resembling a harmonized version of a simple, stately hymn tune” rather than choral music) – K and I had a nap though, so that was nice. We then met up with Mum’s friend and had some ice cream for dinner before saying good-bye for a year to my Mum. We headed home and to bed.
The following day we were off to Russia! The train was in the afternoon so we schlepped our luggage off to a nearby playground so the kids could expend some energy – they ended up meeting some other bilingual kids to play with for a bit. We then walked to the train station. Nancy had over packed (she admits this herself), so took a taxi into the train station, left her luggage and saw more of Tallinn. We both got there in time to get dinner at the supermarket before getting on the train and finding our seats. I did almost have to kill Ivo because he hadn’t gotten me the yummy rhubarb pastry from the Uzbek pastry seller on the platform that I’d asked for – we’d found the booth on our shopping day and I had been looking forward to one!
The train was easy and on time. We stopped twice at the border for unsmiling guards – first to get out of Estonia and then into Russia.
We got to the St Petersburg just after midnight. Since it was so late, we’d arranged for drivers from our apartment to pick us up from the station, so I expected them to be there waiting with signs, but it took a phone call to find them. I’m not sure how we could have been expected to find them otherwise – they were hidden away outside the station, which was quite a hike. Anyway, they turned out to be very nice, and got us to our apartment. Our driver had been in banking until Russia’s recent crisis and now was getting by by renting out apartments and driving and the like. He said things were pretty hard for lots of people, and that it was made more difficult by the price of fuel going up – he didn’t understand why, because oil prices were falling. I got curious too – turns out Putin has made up for the shortfall by increasing taxes on fuel.
When we got to the apartment we were a bit leery – it was after midnight and we saw a lot of drunk sketchy people hanging about outside and the door was metal and covered in graffiti. The stairs were dark and dingy, and there were two different doors and keys to get through. The apartment itself was nice enough – very spacious with super high ceilings – but we were wondering where we’d ended up. It wasn’t until we explored the neighbourhood that we realized that the street was actually filled with expensive designer shops and fairly chic restaurants. It was very central as well, between the Church on the Spilled Blood and the Hermitage.
We had five full days in St Petersburg, but we didn’t really do that much since we’d been there before, and to be honest, we were a bit tired. We’d had a couple straight weeks of travel and socializing after months of stress getting ready to go. And I had to figure out what to do about my camera lens and the cat was having issues back home. Nancy, on the other hand, did make the most of it, and headed out sightseeing or on a tour every day.
But we did make it out a couple of days. My birthday fell while we there, and we went out for dinner at a surprisingly good Korean restaurant – though Ivo forgot to do anything else at all to celebrate it. I wasn’t particularly pleased by this.
We also went on a long walk to find the hostel where we met. It’s no longer in business (though still listed here and here – does make me question those sites a bit!), so it took some time to be sure that we had the right building. But we found it and saw that it is now completely abandoned. We took some photos and remembered it when it was crisp and clean and then found a playground for the kids before walking home again.
The last day of course, we tried to fit it all in before we left. I had figured out that there are many places in Russia that advertise camera repair for not too much money, and I found one that looked promising and headed off to find it. I’d figured out what lens I’d get to replace the malfunctioning one (after a day of research), but thought I should at least try to get it fixed first. I got to where it was, looked and looked everywhere, and just couldn’t find it. I didn’t have the phone number and didn’t want to sit in a café for internet – though none of the places I went by worked outside – I couldn’t even get the KFC internet to work.
So, frustrated, I decided to take care of it in Moscow and I headed off to find the rest of the gang, who were meeting at the Idiot – a café supposed to be filled with Dostoevsky memorabilia. After twisting my ankle and then walking slightly too far looking for it, I finally found it. I was pretty late, but everyone else had been late too. So the vodka they welcome you with was pretty welcome, especially since I got to drink half of Ivo’s and all of Nancy’s too. But, for the rest, it was overpriced and slow, though pretty tasty. And the Dostoevsky stuff seems to be limited to a bust and typewriter.
Next we headed off to a lesser known tourist site that was pretty cool – the Grand Maket. This model train display gone crazy is worth an afternoon – it covers all of Russia from west to east and is full of wonderful little scenes and lots of trains and other vehicles. I took way too many pictures.
And a video overview of the place:
After that, we found some piroshkies for dinner and then did a small tour of the Metro – heading off to the most beautiful one to take photos and sticking our heads out at several others along the way.
As we were walking home from the Metro I got some lovely night shots, and then continued on my own for a bit to get some more.
And night is good time for reflections: twelve years ago, as I was heading back into Finland from St Petersburg, I thought that while Finland was a well-care for and sleek house cat that never had to worry about meals or a place to live, St Petersburg was a street savvy tomcat that had to fight for everything but seemed to be doing well. Now I think there are two cats – there’s a well-heeled and sleek demanding Siamese with a diamond collar, and then there’s a sad stray, that is just trying to scrape together enough to eat before it gets noticed. In other words, it seemed both richer and poorer. This could be partly because we stayed in a much nicer area than last time, with designer stores lining the street so our view was skewed, but there were definitely more foreign and fancy stores than in 2004. And the area where our hostel had been definitely seemed more run-down and sketchy than we remember and in that area, there was less of a sense of optimism and scrappiness than I remember.
The other major difference from 12 years ago is that there are many more tourists. This is mostly because of the cruise ships, who are allowed in without visas as long as they’re on a tour. With three to six big ships in the harbour every day, all the major attractions are much more crowded. Nancy couldn’t believe my pictures of the Hermitage from 2004 and the complete lack of people in them. This is actually another reason we didn’t end up “doing” many of the major sights – crowds and lines with kids are even less fun than normal and we weren’t sure the kids would actually enjoy them after all that.
In the morning of the 9th, we headed for the train to Moscow. We took the bus, which was a bit of a hassle because the bus we thought went to the station only went close to it, while we’d seen several others that actually went there (thanks Rick Steves guide!). But we got there on time, got some food, and got our train. The Sapsan is definitely a different class of train – it was a very comfortable ride.
In Moscow, we schlepped our stuff through the Metro, which wasn’t easy, but we knew that taxis would be stuck in traffic as it was rush hour. We found our hostel – three bunk beds – a bit cramped but only three nights. We headed out for dinner and found a lovely little restaurant close to the hostel with nice pelmini and other food, with a friendly waitress who worked with us to communicate, which can be a rarity in Russia, especially in the big cities.
The next day was the Kremlin. We got there pretty early to line up for tickets for the Armoury, and also bought tickets for the Kremlin. That went well enough and shortly after 12, we got tickets for the 12 to 13:30 slot. That’s where we did everything wrong, though we thought we were doing it right – I thought we’d get kicked out at 13:30, so we hurried. Ivo thought he couldn’t take his pack, so checked it (and all our water) before we went it. Then we cleared security for the Kremlin and hightailed it all the way around to the Armoury. We saw the Armoury – and it was amazing– so many precious treasures. And all of us spent time, along with all the other tourists, taking pictures before being told not to by the semi-attentive guards. L got pretty good at it actually – though, we’re not sure if this is a behaviour we want to encourage or not.
But, as we came out, we realized that (a) the slot is actually the times you can enter between, so we could have waited a bit, (b) that by coming through the Kremlin, we’d wasted our Kremlin tickets. If we went out outside the gate again, we wouldn’t be able to get back in and see anything else, and most horribly (c) that we didn’t have any food or water with us, it was the afternoon, it was hot, and we hadn’t had lunch, and they don’t sell any food or drink within the Kremlin. What we should have originally done was go around the outside of the Kremlin to the lower gate, go in, see the Armoury, go out again and have lunch, and then go back to the Kremlin, and not bother checking Ivo’s tiny pack.
As it was, we soldiered on, saw one of the many churches inside (at least it was cool). Nancy and I saw a couple other cool things as well while the kids melted into puddles and refused to move further. At the Patriarch’s palace we learned about chrism (or rather, I saw the apparatus for making it and googled it later), and we saw a neat display of gem/stone carving – really amazing stuff and a typical story of Soviet times.
After we finally made it out, we had almost enough energy to get back to our little restaurant for another good meal and a very well deserved cold beer.
Then Nancy and I walked down to see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – completely rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union and very shiny and pretty – and then I walked forever trying to find a grocery store and eventually succeeded.
The next day, Nancy’s last, we headed off to see Lenin, because, well, morbid as it is it seems like something those of us who remember the Soviet Union should do. The kids and Ivo weren’t interested, so, following the advice we’d read about needing to check cameras, we left ours with Ivo and headed in. Except that for whatever reason, maybe the gates being set up in the middle of a construction zone, no one had to check bags or cameras and everyone was snapping pics outside the mausoleum. Even now no one dared do it inside in face of the very attentive guards, who shushed every word spoken. Of course, just after we’d been told to shush the first time, I forgot other advice I’d read, about eyes having trouble adjusting to the darkness inside and making out the boundaries of the black stairs. In other words, I did a spectacular pratfall on the stairs (which resulted in a lovely bruise) and swore loudly. This actually didn’t get shushed. We were then hurried through the viewing and back outside past all the other graves of notables that line the area between the Mausoleum and the Kremlin, of course without our cameras.
I then got to walk all the way back across Red Square (which isn’t actually red) to get Ivo and the kids and go to the St Basils. Ivo and L didn’t want to go in, but Nancy, K and I waited forever in line to get tickets, talking to some Dutch folks behind us as we waited – Dutch people are everywhere.
The next order of business was to wander through the super luxurious GUM department store on our way to a camera and phone repair place I’d found online – L had also dropped Ivo’s phone and shattered the already cracked screen so we needed that repaired first. We found this store easily, got the easier repair arranged, and then I took out my camera lens to explain and show how it didn’t work. Except now it did. I had spent a long time trying different things, cleaning it, everything, only to have it stay broken, and now, for now apparent reason, it worked! It was nice to have a wider angle lens back – I have two other lenses, but one is a fixed pancake lens, 20mm, or equivalent to a 40mm SLR lens, which is a bit hard to take scenery shots with (though it’s great for people and low light), and the other is a bit of a joke lens, a super duper wide angle. My camera is a Panasonic Lumix G6, a micro four-thirds camera that I like quite a bit. It’s smaller than an SLR and approaches one in quality.
We found a nice sandwich bar place to have lunch and rest, and then Ivo and L headed back to the hostel and Nancy, K and I decided to check out the mall, seeing if it had the few other things I was looking for, and also because it’s always fun to check out shopping in other countries. The mall had more international stores than we even see in the Netherlands, including GAP and Uniqlo, but also some of the British standards, and was quite fancy.
After a rest, we decided to head to Arbat Street for dinner, with a complicated phone retrieval in the middle. We took the Metro up to the transfer station, Nancy, the kids and I went underground to the other line while Ivo went above ground to retrieve his fixed phone and would meet us back at the other line. Meanwhile, we could check out one of the famous Moscow stations, with statues representing the heroes of the Soviet Union at every arch. It also has the famous dogs whose heads people rub for luck – I saw many people reach out as they passed for a quick rub, and others seeming to stop for a prayer. I also saw one girl quietly and neatly throwing up into a plastic bag as I waited, which made me wonder about the pressure to be thin and beautiful for young women in Russia, as so many of them are. Of course, she could have been pregnant or sick as well, but it seemed such a practiced event.
Ivo finally re-joined us, and we headed off for dinner. We found a Teremok – our favourite cheap eatery – and had a blini dinner – I had the mysterious E-mail mushroom blini, which was quite good. We also had some mors (berry juice) and birch juice, though not any kvas (light bread beer) this time. And then we walked slowly back to the hostel along a beautiful street with many strange and interesting sights to keep us entertained, at least until the last stretch back until we reached the beautifully lit up Kremlin.
In the morning, Nancy got off super early and made her flight back, and we were off as just our family, now going beyond where any of us had been before. But the first day wouldn’t be easy.
- In Finland, Omnibus is a super cheap way of getting around between cities.
- Between Helsinki and Tallinn, Viking Line was the cheapest for us because kids were free.
- In Tallinn, buses are super cheap if you buy passes for three or five days. You first buy a €2 transit card at some supermarkets and all post offices and kiosks, and then load it there with a three (€5) or five (€6) day pass. One day passes are only worth it if you’re using the bus more than three times – they’re €3 plus the €2 card. Fares without the card are €2 per trip – with the card they’re €1.10. Kids under 7 don’t have to pay. And there’s a handy planner with live bus information.
- In St Petersburg, kids under 7 are also free on transit.
- Booking the train from Tallinn to St Petersburg (and naturally all the Russian trains) is done through the Russian Railway site, which is pretty easy to use and took our Dutch credit card. International trains (and some others, such as Sapsan from St Petersburg to Moscow) can be booked up to 60 days in advance and domestic trains up to 45.
- In Moscow all kids seem to be free on the Metro – both kids were waved through without checking ages.
- Teremok is a good, cheap Russian fast food chain with many outlets in both St Petersburg and Moscow. They have many vegetarian options – including vegetarian borscht – and interesting drinks – and blini are pretty kid friendly.
- Learn from our mistakes when visiting the Kremlin (or better yet, book ahead) and check out the current situation with the Mausoleum and bag checking.
- Don’t take pictures at any border (not mentioning any names!)