Thursday, July 11, 2013

Russia - By Invitation Only


Russia is indeed "By Invitation Only". The Visa we required for entry had to have a written invitiation from our hotels with dates specified. Our entry was permitted from July 1, 2013 - July 7, 2013. Before we even arrived the Good Ole America loving country of Russia we knew something was amiss. For the first time in our entire trip we were forced to check our backpacks rather than carry them on...that was the first sign of trouble. The gate agent for Aeroflot Airlines in Split, the Russian national airline, had to make no less than 3 phone calls, put us to the side for 10 minutes, and have a colleague come over to evaluate the situation...which was apparently an issue of state security. In the end we decided to relent and hand over our backpacks. Luckily they were waiting for us in Moscow when we arrived.

In a nutshell we felt that Moscow wasn't anything that we should have taken the extra trip for. We were thankful that we were really only there for two full days. Of course, we're sure that if we had more time and more of a idea for the local scene we could have done better. It was very hot (90 degrees with humidity) as well which made it very difficult to navigate the city. For our first day we wandered around Red Square, The Kremlin, and tried to find some of the areas that we were told had good shopping, restaurants, cafes, etc. Every area we wandered into one it seemed to just be a hodgepodge of bad restaurants, bad cafes, and bad shopping. We found things very far apart although the metro was pretty easy to take. All that said, Red Square was pretty amazing but we didn't really have the patience for more than a stroll around it.

One of the most difficult things that we encountered in Moscow was the difficulty of navigating the Russian language. We don't expect English to be used in a foreign land...ever, BUT, it was very difficult to not be able to decipher the most simple of street signs and only be able to order a meal when we were lucky enough to find an English speaker or find an English menu. One of the best cases of this was when our hotel had to write down a few statements on a piece of paper to help us get a train ticket from Moscow to St. Petersburg. After arriving at the train station we found out that we were at the wrong train station to buy our tickets, we then found the appropriate ticket window and handed the agent our note from the hotel. There was no communication that we were able to do without that piece of paper, no one in the station spoke a word of English. In the end we got our train ticket....getting to the actual train and to St. Petersburg was another challenge, but more about that later.
We did, however, find El Bano, but it wasn't what we were looking for.

We were actually looking for the historic bano.

After searching and walking for hours (the day's total was close to 12 miles, thank you MapMyWalk) we finally found a well reviewed Georgian restaurant. Georgian food is one of the most common in the restaurants we found in travel guides. It turns out Georgian food requires 5 key ingredients....butter, bread, butter, cheese, and butter. This was probably the most disgustingly deliciously, glutonous food we will ever allow ourselves to eat, its no wonder Georgians are extinct.

The soup had two added ingredients, which were meat and dill. So, in summary, the soup's recipe was butter, bread, butter, dill, butter, and meat.

Rather than trouble with finding a restaurant and trying to figure out what hot buttery dish to order we decided to do something we hadn't done in our almost month on the road....sit in our hotel room, order room service, and try to get around the restrictions on out of country video watching online....and we succeeded on all fronts. I enjoyed a few Game of Thrones episodes and Hannah caught up on The Bachelorette. Embarrasingly, this was one of our favorite nights yet on our trip.
The next day we found Gorky Park which was one of the few decipherable things on the subway map.
We took an exacerbatingly hot walk around the park. While staring blankly at a menu at a cafe on the not so nice duck pond we found a couple that spoke English and Russian who helped us figure out what to order. We were none to pleased to learn that we spent about $30 on a chicken kebab, vegetable kebab and a beer. It turns out Russia is not inexpensive
We did find one gem in Moscow called Conversation, a nice little cafe with fabulous home made salads, sandwiches, deserts, etc. They had free wifi and were super nice to us (even walked us around the kitchen to show us all their deserts in the refrigerators). We had a delicious final meal that put a nice taste in our mouths (no pun intended) before heading to the Moscow Train station to catch our overnight train to St. Petersburg.

The activity of catching our train ended up souring the good taste left by Conversation. We knew there were multiple train stations in same general area of Moscow. Conventional wisdom would tell you that the train station where we purchased our ticket earlier in the day would be the station where we would get our train, right? Wrong. The Leningradsky Station was actually about a mile from where we bought our tickets. We found ourselves trying to get any sort of indication from police officers, train station attendants, taxi drivers, or whoever else would make eye contact with us where we were supposed to get this train. Our only method of communication was showing them our train ticket and pointing at it, and trying to understand their directional hand gestures. Finally we girl who told us in decent English that we were in fact walking the wrong direction and we needed to run about a mile (with our backpacks on, in 90 degree heat) to our train. We made it with 3 minutes to spare before the train left the station. If we hadn't been Goldbergs we would have gotten to the train station with more than 10 minutes to spare and avoided the near miss...but alas.

We shared our tiny sleeper train car with Vitale, a Russian man, grandfather, and overall nice fellow. He tried over and over to communicate with us, it became somewhat exhausting to humor his attempts which typically ended in him just rattling on in Russian as he gazed out the window. He helped us get our couchette beds set up, Hannah's was on top, mine was the bottom bunk. We were honored that Vitale felt relaxed enough with us to take his shirt and shorts off when he climbed into his couchette to sleep for the night. We arrived St. Petersburg at 5am, the whole day ahead of us.
Strange bedfellows

St. Petersburg

Much unlike Moscow, we were thoroughly impressed and taken with St. Petersburg. We loved it....we hated our hotel. The Courtyard Marriott in the "City Center" was anything but the City Center. It was a 20 minute walk and 20 minute subway journey to the City Center. We actually gave the hotel manager enough of a lashing about their inaccurate marketing that he agreed with us and informed us that their marketing materials would be changed asap. That is the last bad thing you'll ever hear us say about St. Petersburg...if the Courtyard Marriott is the height of our displeasure all is not lost.

Our first day in St. Petersburg was spent trying to stay awake and overcome the lack of sleep from the previous night on the train. I hadn't slept well out of fear that Vitale would take off more of his clothes in the middle of the night. It turned out to be a non issue, but I was on guard all night nonetheless.

We wandered around for an hour and started to get a feel for the St. Petersburg city layout. It turned out to be an amazing city, even at 7am.

We killed a few hours in a great little cafe we found online called Zoom Cafe with a few coffees and breakfast. The cafe had the decor of Romperroom with stuffed animals, reading books and a great collection of games...even complete with a game menu and crayons. Hannah took advantage of the opportunity to write a personalized message to Charley and draw a few of her favorite animals.

We met a local and he invited us to his table to read.
We met a nice pair from New York at Zoom, named Elaine and Olga. Olga is an AmeroRussian and spoke fluent Russian, this skill would prove extremely valuable over the next 48 hours, and their company was quite pleasant as well.
Later that morning we caught up with Pete's St. Petersburg walking tours. Our tour got off to a somewhat awkward start. In true Goldberg fashion, once again, we decided to order an omelette from Zoom cafe 5 minutes before we were supposed to leave to meet the tour. This stressed us (read me) out for several reasons, one being that we had to figure out how to tell the cafe to package an omelette to go which seemed like a strange request, second because Olga and Elaine had agreed to join our walking tour so we now had another reason to get there on time, and third because we had to call Pete and ask him to hold the tour for us. All of these stressful points were limited to my perception as no one else really seemed to care one way or the other, be it Hannah, Olga, Elaine, or Zoom Cafe. It turned out it was only the 4 of us and our tour guide on the 5 hour jaunt around St. Petersburg so my stress was once again undue.

As we started our tour started I had immediate angst. It was very hard to hear our tour guide, Eugene, as we were basically walking down the busiest street in St. Petersburg and he started off a bit soft spoken. Eugene also had a swastika tatooed on his wrist which really detracted from my enjoyment of his history lesson. I kept motioning to Hannah to look at his wrist but she was too busy learning about how the Jews detroyed Russia from Eugene. It turns out that Eugene wasn't talking about the Russian extermination of the Jews, and he was a really great guy with tons of great, accurate, historical knowledge and he spoke amazing English. The swastika was actually a Hindu or Indian symbol that means something else, probably the complete opposite of what I took it to mean. Luckily I held my tongue long enough for Olga to point out the historic significance of this symbol before the Nazi's rebranded it. The 5 hour tour turned out to be a great time. We saw fresh produce markets, historical sites, and ate some local favorite donuts.

Local women selling local cottage cheese.

After the tour we were completely exhausted. We retired to the Courtyard, ordered room service, and snoozed until 11pm. We woke up at 11pm to the white nights of the summer in St. Petersburg. We trekked into the city center and took a midnight (actually 1am) boat ride through the St. Petersburg waterways. One of the main spectacles of St. Petersburg is the timed raising and lowering of all the bridges across all the rivers. Locals and tourists alike line up either on the sides of the rivers or on tour barges and watch this occurrence on a nightly basis in the summer. The ride ended around 2am and the sun had just fully set. The metro in St. Petersburg, as nice as they are, stops operating at 12am and left us stranded until 5am. We decided to make the most of this limitation.

We were starving having not really had dinner so we explored a bit hoping to find anything still serving food. It turned out St. Petersburg is an incredibly exciting after hours city. First we stumbled on an Italian restaurant with outdoor seating and a lively crowd. The kitchen was serving the full menu so we hung out, used the free wifi and ate and drank for a couple of hours. As the sun came up, 2 hours after setting, we took a quick stroll down the main street, Nevy Prospect, which was much quieter than when Eugene walked us down it 12 hours earlier. We didn't make it very far, as even though it was 4am, we couldn't ignore the sushi restaurant serving a full menu of soups, sushi, and deserts. Again, we took a seat, used the free wifi and had our second meal in 2 hours.
This place even has his and her the same room.

We finally made it back to the Courtyard at 7am, way past our bedtime in any time zone.

The next morning (read afternoon), we caught a 4pm breakfast at The Idiot, a well reviewed restaurant serving local Russian food with a complementary shot of vodka.

That evening we caught up with Elaine and Olga again and tried to have dinner at a Jewish restaurant in a synagogue. None of us realized that it was actually Friday night and just as we had done with the Warsaw Jewish cemetary, we missed the cutoff. We actually "Could Eat" but the ovens all had to be turned off at 6pm, which means we actually "Can't Eat".
We did, however, go to a Uzbeki restaurant recommended by our tour guide, Eugene, which turned out to be just perfect. Olga with her Russian, and Elaine with her Uzbeki background helped us order a delicious meal.

When we got back to our hotel, after the trek across St. Petersburg, we were greeted with a fireworks display...just for us.
We got a good night sleep as the next morning was the beginning of our next adventure, Iceland!

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