Sometimes travel surprises you. In Estonia I wasn’t expecting much more than a lay over between calm Helsinki and crazy St. Petersburg. In Russia I was expecting a break from the Baltic’s high prices, and the chaos and confusion of illiteracy when faced with a foreign alphabet. In both cases, I was dead wrong.
Tallinn was the most delightful city I’ve visited in a long time. I want to repeat everything wonderful I had to say about the adorable sea fortress island in Helsinki. Historic Old Town Tallinn has the well preserved, clean, cared-for quaintness that any tourist hot spot should have, while still maintaining it’s life and authenticity. Sure, the main tourist squares have young kids in costumes hawking sweet nuts and post cards in front of a Medieval Times-esque restaurant, playing the kitschy “Preserved Medieval Village” card. But just off the main square, less than a block away in some cases, are delightful and unique cafes, restaurants, and modern art galleries that care for the historic exteriors of the buildings while not being bound by the time period.
I wandered through galleries filled with surrealist paintings and fantasy landscapes. I dined at incredibly Eco-conscious and delicious neo-Indian restaurants. And I made the most fantastic discovery in the form of a little court yard off of a side street. The courtyard itself looked like the scene out of a Wonderland Tea party, with little tables, and chairs, vintage couches, and beautiful pillows. Vines grew along the buildings and across power lines. Surrounding the court yard was a cafe, a chocolatarie, a hotel, and a few shops selling hand crafted goods like wooden jewelery, sheepskin shoes, and metalsmith fixtures. I took a break on a pink couch with blue pillows and enjoyed an incredible hot chocolate while taking in the energy.
Though I only had one day in Tallinn, perhaps it was for the best, because the wide variety of high quality hand made goods available really tapped into my wallet. I would wager a bet that Tallinn as a whole will end up being that “thing that sucked me in” on this trip. I left with a much heavier bag, laden with wooden and amber jewelery, wool cloaks, furry accessories, and more.
When I left I took the bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, a journey that takes between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the back up at the border crossing. There, all passengers must give up their passports for inspection, collect their things, walk through passport control and meet the bus on the other side. I made it through without a hitch, and arrived in St. Petersburg a few hours ahead of my friend Sandra, who was meeting me there later that day.
Once Sandra arrived we went out for a dusky walk around town, to catch some of the sights and find some dinner. Be prepared to spend a lot on food in Russia’s big cities. Meals were averaging at least $10 (300 RUB) each in low quality Russian chain restaurants, and even there could easily climb to $20 if drinks or desserts are included.
I felt overwhelmed by the foreign alphabet at first, seeing words that just looked like gibberish with no discernible clues for translation. But by the end of the second day I had a decent grasp of the alphabet and could slowly and laboriously sound out words, many of which were very similar to English. Suddenly the Cyrillic alphabet was little more than a puzzle to work out. I think my favorite are the ones that actually ARE English words, just respelled using the alternate alphabet.
The next day was full of sight-seeing. We started at the Hermitage, then visited some churches and cathedrals, and ended up at a train station to buy our tickets to Moscow. In Russian tourist sites, be prepared to buy two tickets: one to get in, and one to take pictures. Though if you if you don’t plan on taking a lot of blatant pictures, it seems you can slip in a few subterfuge shots easily enough.
It seems you can hit most of the main sights in St. Petersburg in a day, so on Wednesday we headed out into the suburbs to visit Catherine’s Park and Palace. More castles, more opulence, more well tended gardens, and amazing wooden floors. If you have the time and the leisure, the park is a nice place to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy around the lake or on a bench after taking in the palace and the Amber Room. The Amber Room is, as it sounds, a room whose walls are made all of amber. It is certainly incredible. What is even more incredible is that this is the second amber room. The first one was disassembled and hidden, and then lost, during the German invasions in WWII. This one was restored between 1987 and 2003 by Germany to improve German-Russian relations.
That night we took a canal cruise, to see St. Petersburg by water and appreciate the well-lit grandiose buildings. It was a very pleasant little hour long tour. Now I am sitting on a fast train, hurtling it’s way towards Moscow. We have only two days and lots to see there before we again find ourselves on the train, treking eastwards on a daunting three days journey to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, our last stop in Russia.