For Finns and foreigners alike, given Finland’s unique location tucked away in northeast Europe, Helsinki is a ripe jump off port to explore Russia or some of the other Baltic countries, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.
When planning our Finland heritage tour, we had briefly entertained the idea of an excursion to St. Petersburg, Russia given its proximity to Helsinki, but after some research, gave up on the idea as a travel visa was required and would be expensive and time consuming to arrange for such a short trip for five people. We opted to do a much shorter, visa free commute to Tallinn instead, and as it turned out, a great choice for us as a group.
However, after a bit of further research on the weekend in Helsinki … I learn that there is indeed a three day, visa-free round trip available across the Bay of Finland to St. Petersburg!! Early evening boarding, arriving early morning the next day, with the whole day to explore this historic city and it’s treasures, and cruise back that night to Helsinki, sleeping two nights on board … a relaxed pace getting there and coming back, with a full day to explore …. and the cost, reasonable … I was sold!
Had no idea really what to expect and as usual, I ignore the fine print at my own peril!
It was certainly a very relaxing comfortable night cruise to Russia … I slept well in a very comfy cabin to wake up fourteen hours after boarding to the beautiful views of some of the forty islands that make up St. Petersburg in the Neva River Delta, with its numerous waterways, reminiscent of Venice.
The main difference however, was the sight of oil barges, oil storage tanks, dozens of various cranes, ships loaded with hundreds of boxes of goods, dozens and dozens of ships and docks etc. etc. ….. The city is a very busy port ….. after reaching the beginning of the little islands, it still took almost a full hour before we finally passed all the accoutrements of the oil industry that is currently responsible for the burgeoning wealth of Russia and docked! …. there were more luxury cars parked on the streets of St. Petersburg than in London! Historically, power and wealth circle the globe every century or so, looking for the next victim … Russia and China appear to be having a go at it these days …
Compulsory for everyone was a shuttle bus into town from the boat. No solo travel available …. this is Russia after all :)!
I had earlier signed up for what I thought was a six hour tour of the city …. thinking, well, not the ideal, but certainly time enough for walking and exploring …… well, that darn fine print reared it’s ugly head 🙂
We did indeed see many sights …. from a bus!! ….. Japanese tourist style, where you jump off briefly, have time for a few quick photos or views of a church, museum, or most bizarre, was a stop at an old submarine, important to Russians apparently but of zero interest to anyone else (or possibly something was lost in the translation) …. and yes …. back on the bus!! This went on for three hours in the most congested traffic ever …. where do all these tourists and tour buses come from ??? Far far too many for my liking ….. yikes … had zero idea that rampant tourism has hit Russia! This is not even remotely my style of exploring a place anymore if it ever was!!!!
I asked Olga our tour guide, if there was a quieter time to see her beautiful city? …. her reply? …. “Oh yes! November is good, no people, just cold weather, maybe snow, maybe much snow …. oh yes, and March good time … also still cold and much snow” …. mmmm, maybe I will give it a whirl Olga …
St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, rich in history … much of it built by European architects during the 17th and 18th centuries ….. gaging from the architecture, primarily Italian and French. It is apparently considered the least Russian of all the country’s cities. The population is somewhere around five million … hence the traffic! There are so many museums, theatres, churches, monuments, university buildings …. a very culturally rich city indeed. How wonderful it would have been to have seen a ballet or heard a concert in a church or theatre!
What was beyond rewarding, however, was touring the Hermitage Museum, located in the Winter Palace, once the home of the former Tsars of Russia …. The museum is reported to contain three millions works of art! Despite having three hours at the museum, it was virtually impossible to attempt more than a brief dent into viewing the many collections and palace rooms. Masterpieces include Rembrandt (only in Amsterdam are there more of his works than at the Hermitage!!), Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet etc. etc. …… totally floored … there was even a Michelangelo marble statue …. my jaw is still sore as I type ….
Back on the bus far too soon …. I found out too late that it would indeed have been possible to actually arrange an extra night or even two and stay in town, and still not require a visa to do so! ….. if, that is, I had arranged it in Helsinki beforehand!!
Of course this possibility was not even mentioned by the tour company I booked with! …. I have learned that Finns, like Russians, and indeed, many countries, do not necessarily volunteer information, or make suggestions, unlike travel agents in my own country …. it would have been fun to stay the extra days, walking and exploring the street life of St. Petersburg, my very very favourite thing to do in any new city! …. chatting with people, the pubs, the restaurants, the shops, the grocery stores, mingling with locals! ….. oh, so most don’t speak English? ….. no problem! ….. have always managed to work around that small issue 🙂
So yes, Seija, read the damn fine print next time!! …. do your own research before you jump on a cruise liner ….. so despite my disappointment with the experiential brevity, I still loved the intro to this country …. Russia has not seen the last of me!