I’m not sure I have been quite as excited as I was about arriving anywhere as Russia for the first time in 1999. The idea of going behind the old iron curtain to a country that was hard to imagine that much about was more exciting than even Egypt or India for my first big trip.
St Petersburg was my first (of only two) port of calls in Russia in 1999, and today remains one of my favourite cities in the world. So yes, I liked it. What was my first taste like?
Well, I got off at the airport and tried to find a money changer. I found one, and as I approached it I had a man come up to me and offer to change my money for me. I said I would stick with the exchange booth. The man announced to half the airport that I was crazy!
The ride into town was by bus. I must have had instructions from the lonely planet. The place was brown. Very brown. And grey. There were no leaves on the trees – it was early April – and there was even just the smallest amount of snow around in little clumps on the ground that hadn’t yet melted. I transferred to the Metro – deep underground with these chandeliers in the stations. The metro trains rattled along seemingly very fast, and definitely frequent.
My hostel was close to the Moscow train station. It was clean and sanitised. The toilet bowls seemed to the be around the wrong way, with a little ‘seat’ for your doodoos. I was fascinated. I met a bunch of Americans with Canadian flags on their bags. First time I’d encountered this.
The city itself was, you know, cold. But there was something about it. They had trolleys selling everything on the side of the road including beer. Lots of beer. It was less than a dollar. It was 17% alcoholic. Beeeeeer. It was actually quite nice as well.
The streets were HUGE. Trolley buses, another first for me, plied many streets. Nevsky Prospect is the main drag in St Petersburg, and it’s pretty impressive. All the buildings were around 7-8 storeys high. There was a majestic uniformity to everything. I had quickly made friends with a few people from different countries at the hostel, and we were all awestruck by the place. It was hard to believe we were there!
I saw a concert – classical music. Brilliant, cost a buck or two. Visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, I was taken but the fact that the churches had no seats! And then with a group from the hostel, I went clubbing! I was downing vodka like no-one’s business. I have never encountered such smooth vodka. Shots were two bucks from memory. At a popular dance club. I was a bit loud outside – we all were – as we lined up. One guy turned to me and yelled ‘YANKEE GO HOME’. And yes, I did spend the next five minutes trying to explain that I wasn’t American.
It was a whirlwind five days. I didn’t really interact with many people who actually lived there, but as pretty much a virgin backpacker at the time, I guess I was clinging on to the other visitors. But the place blew me away. I would return in 2007.
I didn’t even visit the Hermitage – big mistake. Despite it’s hefty foreigner price, it’s a mind-blowing museum/gallery. I loved it in 2007.
St Petersburg today is probably easier to navigate (although it wasn’t that hard, metro much easier than Moscow for example) but still one of the world’s most magical cities. Have you been? You really should! May the Journey Never End!