Goodbye Russia. Hello Helsinki

St Petersburg’s setting on the wide Neva River along with the pretty Griboedov Canal easily lends itself to being compared with cities like Paris or Venice.  But that would be inaccurate because this city very much has her own identity and is unmistakably Russian.

The first time I visited in 2007 I had come from London where I’d been living for several years.  The city felt very foreign and exotic to me compared to the UK and various other cities on the continent I had visited.  This time I was arriving from Siberia and instead of feeling exotic it felt decidedly familiar.  The buildings and streets had a distinct European flavour compared to places in the Urals and Siberia.   The city was bustling and I could hear languages from every corner of the planet being spoken whether they be tourists or the many people visiting on business.

St Petersburg is a relatively new city in European terms having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great who intended it to be a key western seaport for Russia.  A Parisian architect was appointed to design part of what is now the main city centre thus lending it a somewhat French feel but on a Russian scale.  Because it lacked the older buildings found in other European cities at the time it was hailed by Russia as the perfect example of how a modern city should look.  An interesting fact for Americans is that Washington DC’s layout and architecture follows similar beginnings.  In 1791 a French architect was bought in to design the city on the banks of the Potomac and I didn’t know this on my first visit to Washington back in 2000 yet the first thing I thought was how much like Paris the buildings and avenues were.  In fact, I’ve noticed many other similarities between Russia and America with the major one being that both nations like to do everything really big, maybe due to their huge landscapes or maybe due to something else.

In America you find this in the cars they drive, the roads they build and even the portions they serve in restaurants.  In Russia it is more noticeable in the architecture.  Whilst parts of St Petersburg are reminiscent of Paris just like parts of Washington DC, the respective American and Russian influences in each city are unmistakable.  In St Petersburg it is noticeable due to the the sheer size of things whether they be avenues, squares, statues, monuments or bridges. Architecture here is simply more dominating and imposing than it is in Paris.  Then there are the artistic Russian touches such as the elaborately decorated Winter Palace and the dramatically named Church of the Saviour in Spilled Blood with its colourful onion domes.

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My hotel was just off Nevsky Prospekt, essentially the main thoroughfare that runs through St Petersburg.  I’m not sure what the area was called but it seemed like the hip place to live and socialise with cool little bars and cafes.  I even saw the first bearded and fedorered hipster I’d come across since America.  This was somewhat disappointing as I’d been enjoying once again being able to see men’s faces.

After once again scoring an early check-in I took off on a long walk around the city starting with Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt, a huge dark imposing building that I couldn’t figure out how to get into so I quickly moved on to the Griboedov Canal that is crossed by many cute little footbridges and leads down to the Church of the Saviour in Spilled Blood.   This place was jam packed with tourists and between that and the ever-present powerlines I was unable to get a really good photo of this stunning building.

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I managed to escape the crowds by ducking into the Michael Garden.  There are so many trees there that it is would almost be better describing it as a forest and it offered a peaceful and cool relief to the busy streets.  I eventually made my way to the Neva River and walked along the embankment until I got to the incredible complex of buildings housing the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, eventually finding myself in the mammoth Palace Square.   Once again the Russians went all out on size and it’s hard to describe just how massive this square is.  It has even been home to big open air concerts put on by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Madonna.   Yet the vastness makes it easy to stand there and imagine the Tsars army putting on displays and revolutionaries gathering for bloody protests.  I noticed a lot of people doing the same thing I was; sitting or standing quietly alone trying to bring history to life in our minds.

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After that I got lost.  For only the third time in my lifetime of travels did someone stop to offer me help once they noticed I was looking confused at a map.  The first time was in Perth, Scotland and the second in some tiny town in the Louisiana bayous that I forget the name of.  I think there is nothing more touching than having a complete stranger offer you help completely unbidden.  I used to try to do it with tourists in London if I had the time and I have promised myself I’ll do it more often when I’m next in place I’m familiar with.

Once I found my way back I stopped at a pub to celebrate the completion of my Russian trip with a pint of Czech beer followed by a dinner of Georgian cuisine at a great little restaurant over the road.  The next morning I was heading for Finland so I wanted to spend some time that night contemplating the trip over a few glasses of wine and some good food.  I went to Russia to try to get a true sense of how big the country is, to experience traveling overland across a huge continent and to see if I could get a better feel for the culture.  I guess I got to do all of those things but there were a few other bits and pieces I learned from this trip.

The first was how safe I felt whilst still feeling like I was visiting somewhere unusual and a little outside my comfort zone.  Despite the language barrier it was a place I felt comfortable walking around alone, eating out alone and I knew if I got lost or in trouble someone would be happy to help me out.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t take the same precautions I would in any country such as not going out alone at night and securing my belongings.  But overall I would definitely recommend the Trans-Siberian Railway and all the places I stopped at as a great experience for solo travellers, including solo females.  Likewise, I think it would be a cool experience for families, couples and groups of friends.  So basically for anybody but it is a trip requiring a bit of work in terms of figuring out trains, how to get around, how to communicate and so on.

The other thing I discovered is that Russia is a great destination in terms of scenery, food, culture and history.  So pretty much everything you need.  I eventually came to the conclusion that considering how well known Russia is on a global scale, it could possibly be one of the most under-visited and underrated destinations on the planet right now.  I know there are plenty of other gems out there, but you’d think with Russia’s high profile over the past few hundred years that more people would be inspired to visit to find out first-hand what it is really like yet I only encountered one other set of English-speaking tourists on my trip.  I don’t want to get too political on this blog however I do have to wonder if the reason so many of us from the so-called ‘west’ don’t visit is because we may have been a little bit brainwashed over the years into thinking that Russia is a cold, drab, grey and overly bureaucratic backwater.  A difficult place to visit with bad food, bad weather and not a whole heap to see.  I know that is what I was led to believe by the country’s portrayal on film and in literature.

In my experience the absolute opposite was true.  If you get a chance to visit then do because I think you’ll find fabulous art, music and museums.  You’ll experience great food, good shopping and friendly people.  You will discover intriguing landscapes, beautiful architecture and get close to some of the most fascinating history of the past few centuries, much of which we were isolated from for most of the 20th Century.  And sure the winter is brutal but why not just visit in summer?  Just go there already and see for yourself.

I was up early the next morning to catch the high-speed Allegro train from St Petersburg to Helsinki.  This train service has a handful of trains in each direction every day and its own dedicated station in St Petersburg, whilst arriving at the central station in Helsinki.  The journey is only about 3 1/2 hours so it isn’t a sleeper train.  The Allegro is a tilting Pendolino train, thus the fast travel time but the best part is that customs and immigration take place on board.  First Russian immigration go through the carriage taking care of exit formalities before they disembark at a station on the boarder, soon to be replaced by Finnish immigration officers who complete entry procedures.  The interesting part is that in both countries the officers are far more rigorous than any I’ve seen at an airport anywhere in the world.  Apparently this is a normal thing with cross-border train travel (travel within the EU obviously excepted) but I’m not quite sure why.  In any case I was impressed with the comfort and speed of the Allegro, including the slightly expensive but well stocked dining car where you can grab a drink or a full meal café-style whilst watching the Russian and Finnish scenery whizz by.

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I arrived in Helsinki in the first rains I’d been in for a long time.  In fact this was the first time I’d had to buy an umbrella.  My accommodation was over the road, a historic hotel being one of Helsinki’s oldest and my room was both quaint and comfortable.  That evening I went to a Czech pub over the road and enjoyed the European vibe that I’d missed so much over the past year.  People socialize after work, strangers meet strangers in pubs to become friends for a few hours over drinks and good food in vibrant restaurants is never far away.

The next morning dawned free of rain so I struck off on a long walk around the city.  I didn’t have much of a plan as I hadn’t researched Helsinki before I got there yet ended up having a beautiful stroll along the water, around a little island then through the historic part of the city before winding up in a cute café in the more modern part of town.  I finally wandered through a park with decorated trees in the design quarter before collapsing exhausted in my hotel for the rest of the afternoon.  That night I visited a different pub over the road and spent a few hours with a local couple who spoke excellent English just like everyone else in Helsinki.

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Whilst Helsinki is pretty and you’ll find plenty examples of impressive buildings, that isn’t what makes it a lovely place to visit.   It has a kind ‘x-factor’ about it and I think that is down to the residents.  I don’t ever remember being in such a happy and friendly place before yet at the same time it had a gritty side with plenty of drug addicts hanging around the train station.  On my unplanned walk there was one park I walked through that I felt I needed to be a bit more watchful in but other than that it felt like a safe place to walk around.  In my opinion that has to be one of the key criteria that makes somewhere a great city; it has to be walkable.

The sun barely sets in Helsinki in July so between that and my hotel room overlooking many central bars I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that Saturday night before I was up early to catch my flight to London where I’d spend the next week having a vacation from my vacation with friends.  We were in clouds almost as soon as we took off so I wasn’t able to wave goodbye to Helsinki but I did manage to say hello to the Atlantic Ocean that I’d last seen about a month earlier in Maine.  You can click here to read about the time I stood at West Quaddy Light saying goodbye to the Atlantic.  Since that day 7 weeks ago (as I write) I’ve driven across the North American continent, flown over the Pacific Ocean, travelled by train across Asia and part of Europe, then flown over the rest of northern Europe to the west coast of Greenland where I’m writing this.  If I could charter a jet from here to the northeast coast of Maine I’d be there in just a few hours and would have circumnavigated the globe.

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I used Google to calculate the miles I’ve travelled since I left the coast of Maine.  That isn’t completely accurate as it works things out ‘as the crow flies’ whereas I’ve meandered all over the place so have in fact covered a lot more miles, still it is the best means I have to work this out.  So according to Google I’ve covered a grand total of 28,163 kilometres (17,500 miles) leaving me just 2,640km (1,640mi) short of a complete circumnavigation.    Of those I did 16,093 km (10,000mi) overland and 12,070km (7,500mi) by air.  Yet somehow the world still feels like a very small place.

Best accommodation finds:  Zemchuzhina, Vladivostok  |  Angara Hotel, Irkutsk  |  Doubletree by Hilton, Yekaterinburg  |  Hotel Seurahuone, Helsinki

Slideshow St Petersburg

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Slideshow Helsinki

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