Monday, March 13, 2017- Train to St. Petersburg, Soviet CafeWe woke up a little later this morning, packed for our train journey to St. Petersburg, and ate breakfast in the hotel. We got to say goodbye to breakfast hostess Mayya, who had been quite friendly to us during our stay. When we first met her, she had joked about our surnames' similarity to the title of a popular action movie.
Olga had suggested leaving 30 minutes early for the train, so that she could show us one additional sight before leaving Moscow. So she and the driver picked us up at noon instead of the previously scheduled 12:30.
We drove to Victory Park, where monuments pay tribute to the Great Patriotic War (WWII). An obelisk which is topped by Nike, the goddess of victory, is 141.8 meters tall, symbolizing the 1418 days that Russia was involved in the war. Within the park are a mosque, a synagogue, and a Russian Orthodox church, in honor of the people of many faiths who sacrificed themselves during the war. From here, we could also see the Triumphal Arch of Moscow.
We then drove to Leningradsky Station to catch our 1:40 p.m. high speed train to St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during Soviet times). Our driver carried our luggage onto the railway platform and even stowed it in the train for us. Olga made sure that we were settled and then we said goodbye. We hope to return to Moscow and visit her again some day. She is an amazing guide and a lovely person, and we are lucky to have her as a friend.
We were in business class on the high speed Sapsan train. It was quite comfortable. The sun was shining, and we got settled in. Soon we were served lunch (I had a delicious teriyaki turkey meal, and Craig had pork tenderloin with barbecue sauce). Craig had a Grolsch beer, and I had Fanta. Later we were served tea and dessert. Everything was included in our ticket fare. They even gave us slippers, earplugs, and headphones.
Craig was feeling quite warm on the train. The temperature itself was not too high, but we were on the sunny side of the train, and the warm rays of the sun were just enough to make him uncomfortable.
The ride was very smooth. As we passed out of Moscow, we started to see more snow on the ground in the rural countryside. There were picturesque towns. Some rivers were iced over, with people ice fishing. Other rivers were not frozen, and reflected the surrounding birch trees and evergreens.
There was a TV on the train playing a Soviet science fiction movie. We assumed it was from the 1960's, due to the primitive depiction of robots, the dated special effects, etc. We were quite amused by it, but we never used the headphones to actually listen to it. One of the creatures seemed to be made of bubbling shaving cream. I asked one of the train stewards what the program was, but he shrugged and said he had no idea.
We made two stops at stations along the way (a very efficient 1 minute stop at each of the stations). As we approached St. Petersburg, the landscape became more industrial. We started to see what looked like small storage units, but were actually individual garages which people rent on the outskirts of town when they have no place to park in the city. We passed a power plant.
We pulled in to Moskovsky railway station in St. Petersburg at 5:40 p.m. We had gone 403 miles in 4 hours (about the length of time it took us to fly from London to Moscow).
We were met by our Abercrombie & Kent guide Tamara. She walked us from the platform and through an outdoor shopping arcade to the street. Tamara pointed out that the design of this train station was the same as the one we had departed from in Moscow. It seemed chillier here than in Moscow, with a brisk breeze. This felt very refreshing for Craig, who was glad to be off of the warm train.
Tamara led us to a bus - way too large a vehicle to accommodate the two of us. But this was just for the short transfer to the hotel. We would have a car and a different driver for our sightseeing. We made a short drive down Nevsky Prospekt to our hotel, the Belmond Grand Europe. The driver took us around the block, which allowed us to get a quick lay of the land of the neighborhood. We were just a block from Arts Square, where there was an enormous art museum. We were also very close to the St. Basil's inspired Cathedral on Spilled Blood.
We then checked in to the hotel, and were met by our A&K "guardian angel" Sergei. He had his hands full since there were three other A&K groups who had arrived on the same train, so our greeting was short, and we made plans to meet briefly the following morning.
We got settled in our room (#317), which is very swanky. A bellman named Yevgeny brought our luggage to us, and joked with us about our names' similarity to the title of the same popular action movie that Mayya had mentioned. It was a great icebreaker. We would be in this hotel for the remainder of our trip, so we took some time to unpack.
We weren't sure what we should do for dinner. There are five restaurants within the hotel, but they are all quite fancy and expensive. My boss had warned me that it is easy to rack up a very large bill when dining is St. Petersburg, and there are other ways that we prefer to spend our money. I looked through my tour guide books to try to find something that was more our style, both in terms of food and cost, and had great success.
We headed out and walked down Nevsky Prospekt to the Kvartirka Soviet Cafe (as recommended by "DK Eyewitness Travel Moscow"). As we left the hotel, our bellman Yevgeny addressed us by name. We were impressed.
Across the street from the hotel is the "Rock Cafe", complete with a statue of Freddie Mercury lounging on the corner. I couldn't resist posing with him for a photo.
Our first impression of St. Petersburg was not great. The architecture was beautiful, but we felt that we could have been in any Western European City. It didn't feel like the Russia were were used to in Moscow. Most of the businesses had signs in both English and Russian. Some had only English signage. The sidewalks were crowded, and people were not friendly. Nobody would look us in the eye or smile, whereas most had in Moscow. Teenagers on rollerblades and skateboards wove in and out of pedestrians. One grazed me, and I worried that they might knock Craig down.
Luckily, things improved when we reached the Cafe. It was below street level, and was decorated to resemble a Soviet era apartment. There were vintage suitcases piled next to a coat rack, and a rotary dial black telephone sat on a shelf. There were Soviet radios, televisions, cameras, and a console record player. Russian LP's and model cars were displayed, and Soviet cartoons were playing on a television. The wallpaper, furniture, and tableware evoked this bygone era. The vintage touches were amazing.
The menu was extensive and historical, and prices were quite affordable. The top of the menu read, "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republicks Big Cookery Book: Recommended for citizen's mealing." We started off with shots of Tsarskaya Gold vodka. We had been in Russia for several days, and had yet to partake of the alcohol which is synonymous with the country.
Craig ordered a locally produced Zhiguli Barnoe lager, and I had cranberry mors. For appetizers, we had country style potatoes with adjika and cheese sauce (French fries to dip in processed cheese and Georgian spicy sauce) and pancakes with red caviar (salmon). The latter is something that my friend and colleague Maria said that we must try. We enjoyed both of them very much. Caviar is something that runs the gamut in terms of quality and price. This dish cost only $6, and it was absolutely delicious!
As our main course, we got "Russian Navy style macaroni and tinned beef for two." You can't get more Soviet than that! It was fantastic...basically tender stew beef with macaroni, tomato, some cabbage, and garlic. Total stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, and we loved it! When we told Tamara about it the next day, she giggled. "That is not normally restaurant food; it is what they used to serve us in school." She was impressed that we had tried such a restaurant. It doesn't even seem to be directed at tourists. Most of the patrons had been Russian, and Tamara said that nostalgia for the Soviet times is a recent phenomenon.
Olga had told us yesterday that people who lived through Soviet times were nostalgic for the types of close friendships which were only possible under those conditions. And millennials who did not live through the era are curious about what it was like. The same way I went into diners in the US, wondering what it would have been like to have lived in the 1950's.
For dessert, we got "strawberry soup" (macerated strawberries) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was delicious! The entire bill came to $34! St. Petersburg can be one of the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to dining, so we were happy to have a wonderful meal on our own terms. Highly recommended!
After having such a great experience, we had a new perspective on our walk back to the hotel (I'm sure the vodka didn't hurt, either!) It dawned on us that it had been rush hour before, so our judgment of the hustle and bustle taking place on the sidewalks was unfair. People now were less hurried and more friendly. We enjoyed looking at the ornate European-style architecture and window shopping in the high quality (but very expensive) boutiques.
Tomorrow we will start touring the city. We miss Olga and Moscow already, but we are ready for our new adventure!
Victory Park, Moscow
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg
Victory Park, Moscow
Preparing to board our Sapsan high speed train to St. Petersburg, Leningradsky Station
Sapsan high speed train to St. Petersburg, Leningradsky Station
Business class seats on the train
Dachas (country houses) that we passed on the train to St. Petersburg
Winter landscape from the train to St. Petersburg
Moskovsky Station, St. Petersburg
Hanging out with Freddie Mercury in front of the Rock Cafe, St. Petersburg
Kvartirka Soviet Cafe
country style potatoes with adjika and cheese sauce (French fries with processed cheese and Georgian spicy sauce) and pancakes with red caviar (salmon)
Russian Navy style macaroni and tinned beef for two