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  1. Today has been a day of travelling! It was around 3am this morning before Tim and I got to bed and as a result I was rather tired this morning. I accidentally managed to dismiss rather than snooze my 08.30 alarm, with the result that we were slightly late for our prearranged 9am breakfast time. After enjoying the hotel's breakfast buffet for a final time, we went back to our rooms to pack and - in Tim's case - write up last night's blog. We checked out of the hotel around 11.30 and set off on the metro towards St Petersburg's Moskovsky railway station. After our issues with getting to the hydrofoil on Monday, we weren't taking any chances and left with plenty of time to spare. It wasn't actually that far away, and so we arrived with plenty of time to get through security and board our train. We were travelling on a train called the Nevsky Express, which covers the approximately 445 miles between St Petersburg and Moscow in around 4 hours. We had booked five seats out of six in a compartment and were pleasantly surprised when we found that a sixth person didn't turn up to claim the spare seat The train set off punctually and soon we were on our way, speeding through the suburbs of St Petersburg before emerging into the forested countryside. My impression from the views today is that there isn't a lot between St Petersburg and Moscow except trees Some aspects of the train journey were rather confusing. An official-looking lady came into our carriage and I assumed she wanted to check our tickets. But it turned out that she just wanted to tell us that a sandwich was included in our ticket and that we could buy tea and coffee from her. A bit later another lady turned up with the sandwiches. We all chose chicken, but I couldn't eat mine because of a combination of carrots, gherkins and mayonnaise! Luckily Mom had been out shopping in the morning and picked up some bread so I didn't starve We also got some free chocolate, which was a nice surprise, and it was great to be able to have a coffee, although it felt like we got served our hot drinks at one of the bumpiest parts of the journey. Tim and Helen ordered tea, which was served in these amazing Russian railway mugs. Tim was so impressed by his that he bought one The train was beautifully air-conditioned, so it felt like the journey passed quite quickly. Every so often there were gaps in the trees and we got glimpses of lakes and rivers. The train was mostly going too fast for us to see the names of the places we passed through but most of them looked quite small, with the exception of Tver. We arrived in Moscow right on schedule and then had to negotiate our way to the hotel. I had been dreading this slightly as I thought the metro would be dreadful in rush hour, but either we were going on a really unpopular route or rush hour starts later than I expected, because the journey turned out to be absolutely fine and we got seats with no problems. The Moscow metro is different to the ones in St Petersburg and Kiev in that it doesn't use a system of tokens. Instead, we bought cardboard tickets for a certain number of journeys out of a machine. It was 55 rubles (66p) per trip, which is more expensive than St Petersburg but still nothing compared to the minimum charge on the London Underground (which I think is about £2.40). We checked into the hotel and I was impressed by the size of my room As well as the bed, we've got a desk and sofa. By this point we were all tired and hungry so we set out to find food, eventually tracking down an Italian restaurant where we could get pizza. So far we haven't seen anything of Moscow, but we're looking forward to exploring after a good night's sleep tomorrow
  2. After our full day's adventure at Tsarskoe Selo and knowing that we're heading to Moscow tomorrow, you might have thought that our plans for the early hours of the morning were limited to being in bed, as they would be for sensible people. That wasn't the case for us; there was still more adventuring to get in and so at 23:20, Clare, Helen and I headed out of the hotel in the direction of the Fortanka to get on a boat. Not just any boat. This one was advertised as being romantic and featuring a saxophone player. In spite of that, we still chose to go because this was going to be a night-time cruise featuring the raising of the drawbridges! Because of Moscow's international status, it's easy not to be aware of quite how important St Petersburg is. It was the Empire's capital city until 1918, an important port on the Baltic Sea and Russia's Window to the West. Large ships need to travel through it, even though the bridges spanning the Neva and main canals aren't large enough to let them through. The solution involves a nightly process of raising 22 bridges across the city according to a timetable, allowing the larger ships a temporal and physical slot to pass through. It was the ceremonial raising of the drawbridges which we came to see. Leaving the hotel, we noticed that streetlights were on, although they didn't really need to be. St Petersburg is sufficiently northerly that there was still a fair bit of natural light even though the midnight hour was approaching. The red church we regularly pass was perfectly bright in spite of the time: The Fortanka presented a perfectly lovely sight too: We arrived at our ship with plenty of time to spare and were rewarded with even more spare time by the lady in the ticket office informing us that our boat, set to depart at 00:10, was no longer running. But that was alright because we had been moved to the 00:30 departure, so we sat at a little table for the next forty minutes or so as more people arrived. After boarding, we proved to be one of only three little groups to take a seat inside; everybody else was sitting on chairs on the deck, leaving us with the impression of having the room to ourselves: We were sitting at our corner table as the boat pulled off: We had 360-degree vision because of all the surrounding windows: But the best views were provided by popping up to the deck. I was quickly rewarded by the sight of the circus: What a beautiful building! Soon we had passed through a bridge and had left for Fortanka for the Neva: We were surrounded on both sides by illuminated grand buildings: We passed several familiar buildings, including the Winter Palace: And the Kunstkamera, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: We travelled as far as the Admiralty, and then turned back. Within a couple of minutes we were part of a fleet converged on a bridge, gently bobbing on the water whilst people lined the banks: And then music struck up and we were treated to the following spectacle: That was amazing! All too soon, we had passed under the bridge and were leaving it behind: The Winter Palace looked wonderful as we drifted past: Why were we drifting? So as not to get to the following bridge too early and miss it being raised! Soon we'd passed that too! There wasn't much of the journey left as we turned back down the Fortanka. Still enough time to grab some wine whilst the saxophonist continued his somewhat lonely vigil. Before long we'd disembarked. This was approaching 2am and the sun was on its way back! Human engineering ingenuity had presented us with some remarkable and memorable sights over the course of our evening, but Mother Nature had a trick in hand too. Look at this remarkable gradation in the sky, preceeding from a very deep blue to a pale dawn. You can't notice the difference between one strip of sky and the next but spanning from side to side, you see how intense the colour change is: And so began a totally relaxing stroll back to the hotel in the tourist-free early hours of the morning. Tomorrow we leave Saint Petersburg for Moscow!
  3. We spent a while this morning debating where we were going to go today, before finally deciding on Tsarskoe Selo. It felt like a potentially difficult place to get to, requiring several changes of public transport, but the town is home to the Catherine Palace, which was formerly a summer residence of the Russian tsars. We didn't want to go into the palace, but we knew it was surrounded by some beautiful grounds and we were keen to see those. After a bit of post-breakfast research, we decided to go for it and brave the public transport. The first step was to catch a metro to Pushkinskaya, which is next to St Petersburg's Vitebsky railway station. I didn't expect the station itself to be anything special, but it turned out to be absolutely beautiful inside This was the first railway station to be opened in Russia in 1837, and it still feels very grand. Buying tickets in the station could potentially be a confusing experience, because there are two places to buy them; one ticket hall sells tickets for long-distance trains, while the other sells tickets for the suburban trains. The research we'd done on the Internet paid off at this point, because I knew we needed to ignore the long distance counter and follow the signs for suburban trains. We were able to buy the tickets we needed from a machine, and a return fare to Tsarskoe Selo turned out to cost the bargain price of £1.14 each! The train we wanted to catch was already waiting on the platform, so we were able to get straight on board. It was good that we were there well ahead of the departure time, because it turned out to be an extremely popular route. The train itself was pretty basic, with hard wooden seats like yesterday's. And the journey itself was a rather surreal experience! We were only on the train for around 30 minutes, but in that time we had two separate people busking in the carriage and a man with a microphone who was trying to sell all manner of strange things from tape measures to rucksacks. No one else on the train seemed even remotely surprised by any of this, so I guess it was all perfectly normal! We got off the train around 11.30 and then it was time to negotiate our final bit of public transport: the bus. This was the part I was most worried about, because it felt like catching a bus when you don't know where you're going is something which has the potential to go a bit wrong. In the end it was fine though. The bus arrived almost immediately, the fare only cost 48p each and Helen had a list of the bus stops we were supposed to pass through, so we just about managed to get off in the right place, a few hundred metres away from the main entrance to the Catherine Palace. We knew we were on the right track when we caught sight of some golden domes on the horizon. We found the correct ticket booth and I managed to buy us tickets for the park. The lady was very nice and gave us all a free map; much better than Peterhof yesterday, where we only got a map because Mom bought a guidebook! Entrance to the park was another bargain at 150 rubles (£1.81). Although we hadn't come to go inside the palace, we had to admit that it looked beautiful from the outside. Slightly frustratingly, after having had quite a torturous journey to get here, we found that the area outside the palace was absolutely swarming with large groups on guided tours. But, once we turned our back on the palace and struck out into the gardens, things instantly became a lot quieter. We walked down tree-lined alleys, then crossed a little canal. This took us towards the hermitage pavilion. It was such a beautiful shade of blue We were able to walk all the way around it and peer in through the windows, getting glimpses of the equipment which was used to host dinner parties in days gone by. From here, we also had a view back towards the main palace. It was a baking hot day by this stage, so we were glad to soon get back onto some shadier paths. We were heading towards the park's main lake. We came to a brick tower which said it housed a restaurant and decided to investigate. Unfortunately, the menu wasn't great and seemed to involve a lot of trout. Mom, Dad and Helen bought some piroshki to eat from a stall instead. Unfortunately, they didn't have any meat ones left (only either cabbage, or chicken and mushroom). Tim and I didn't fancy either of those, so we set off to see whether we could find another restaurant instead. We had seen one signposted, so felt hopeful. Unfortunately, the hope turned out to be misplaced! The first restaurant we found was closed, the second one was only accessible if you left the park first, which we didn't want to do, and then when we walked halfway across the park to a third one, we found that was closed as well It looked like we needed to give up on the idea of lunch! We rejoined my family and began to explore a different bit of the park. There was an amazing display of tulips; it felt so unusual to be seeing them in June! This side of the park was really peaceful. In the distance we caught sight of a rather unusual building. This was labelled on the map as the Creaking Summerhouse. That wasn't the only strange monument round by the lake! We assume this one was a sort of grotto. This one was definitely a pyramid. And this one was a gothic gate. The most striking building was this one, which looked very much like a mosque. It turns out it was a Turkish bath, which had indeed been designed to look like a mosque. The reflection of the building in the water was beautiful We crossed the water via this lovely marble bridge. By this stage we'd walked around the majority of the park. We contemplated trying to take a ferry to the island in the middle of the lake, but no one seemed to be operating it from the side of the lake we were on. We carried on instead and soon we were back to where we had started, outside the main palace. From there, we had to repeat our journey in reverse order. First of all the bus to the station, then the train back to St Petersburg, and finally the metro. I had to buy us a new ticket for the train, because all the upcoming departures seemed to be for the "comfort" class of train which our tickets weren't valid on. When the train arrived, it did indeed seem to be more comfortable, with big upholstered seats and plenty of legroom We made it back to St Petersburg for around 5pm and so were early enough to miss the worst of rush hour on the metro. In the evening, we went out for a meal at the restaurant we'd eaten in on Sunday night which was really nice and really good value yet again. The only strange thing about Russian restaurants is that it doesn't seem to be normal to bring everyone's food out at the same time, with the result that when you're in a group, some people have almost finished eating their dinner before other people's has even arrived. Other than that it was good, and we have more excitement to look forward to this evening with a drawbridge boat tour... if we can manage to stay awake until midnight!!!
  4. We made an early start and were eating breakfast at 07.30 this morning, because we had a big day ahead of us. We were planning to visit the gardens at Peterhof, around 25 miles outside St Petersburg. There are various ways that you can get there, but we'd chosen what seemed the most fun: hydrofoil. We'd already booked our tickets online, reserving seats on the first hydrofoil of the day at 10am. The hope was that that would get us to our destination early enough to see the famous fountains being turned on at 11am. We left the hotel around 08.45 and walked to our local metro station, from where we were planning to travel to a station on the river close to where the hydrofoils depart. We'd got up so early that it felt like nothing could possibly go wrong... and then it did! The doors to the metro station were shut. How confusing! At first we thought that there must be another entrance somewhere and started walking around the building, hoping to find a second door. But there wasn't one, and when we eventually returned to where we had started, we realised that there was a sign outside the door saying it was going to be closed in the mornings for repairs. Oh dear! By the time we had figured all this out, we had about 50 minutes until our hydrofoil. We seemed to have three options: to jump in a taxi, to try and find the next nearest metro station and continue by metro, or to walk down to the river. We checked an offline map, which suggested that the walk was 48 minutes. Tim and I were confident that we could shave a few minutes off the predicted walking time, so decided that we would risk the walk. My family decided to try the next nearest metro station, and so we set off in opposite directions, hoping to see each other again at the boat. I was a little bit stressed about whether choosing to walk was the best decision and whether we were going to make it on time, but Tim was relaxed enough to take photos. In fairness, today was a good day for it because there was a beautiful blue sky behind all the buildings where there had been clouds yesterday. We crossed over the Fontanka river... ...jogged down an avenue of trees... ...got a glimpse of the amazing church from yesterday... ...and unexpectedly ended up outside the Winter Palace again. From there, it wasn't too far until the Admirality building, which was near where we needed to catch the hydrofoil. We arrived at the boat with 10 minutes to spare, but until we boarded we couldn't see whether the others had made it as well. I held by breath as we got onto the boat.... and found that they weren't there Never mind, there were still about eight minutes; maybe they would still turn up! We waited and waited but there was no sign. At the point the boat was due to depart I tried texting and calling, but there was no response. And then just as the hydrofoil started pulling out into the river, I got a text from my sister saying that they weren't going to make it So, Tim and I were accidentally off to Peterhof on our own! The hydrofoil sailed past the Winter Palace, and then past the Peter and Paul Fortress. After that, the scenery became more modern. We got a good view of the Lakhta Center, which - with 87 storeys - is apparently not only the tallest building in Russia, but also the tallest building in Europe After about 40 minutes, the hydrofoil arrived at Peterhof. Luckily the others had managed to get tickets for the next hydrofoil, which departed St Petersburg at 10.30, so we wouldn't have too long to wait for them. While they were still en route, we needed to get up to the top of the canal as soon as possible if we wanted to witness the fountains being turned on at 11am. We could soon see the Peterhof palace in the distance. The enormous set of fountains in front of it is known as the Grand Cascade. We weren't the only people who wanted to see the Grand Cascade being turned on, and the closer we got to it the busier it became. We eventually managed to find a space where we could watch by on the staircase along one side of the cascade. Then it was just a case of waiting until the water was turned on It seemed like we were waiting forever but it was only a couple of minutes and then the water started along with the music Wow! That was really impressive As soon as the show was over, people started to disperse a bit and we made our way back down along the canal towards the waterfront to wait for the next hydrofoil to come in. Within a few minutes we were all reunited, and we were able to have a more relaxed stroll back up along the canal together. It was still busy as we got closer to the palace, but not as bad as it had been. The palace at Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century and designed to rival the palace of Versailles. The palace itself was closed today but that was fine by us, because we mainly wanted to explore the grounds. We started by climbing up the staircase beside the Grand Cascade. From here we had some amazing views. We were now able to look down on the Grand Cascade from above I got very excited when I realised we could see a rainbow in the water. It was also exciting to be able to see all the way back down the canal to the sea! Once we'd finished admiring the views, we carried on across the top of the cascade and onto what looked like it might be a quieter path. We walked around the edge of a pond... ...passed what was described on the map as a "memorable bench", although we suspect in reality it was supposed to be a "memorial bench".... ...and then emerged beside a colonnade. This was full of fountains too When we left there, we passed a surprising patch of tulips... ...then found another, smaller, cascade. We found ourselves beside a huge lake. There was a series of little white bridges to walk across to get to this white palace. We climbed up an embankment on the far side of the lake. From there, we could see back out across the Gulf of Finland. And, of course, we had a great view of the gardens, including the cascade on the opposite side of the lake. We stopped at a self-service restaurant, where we were able to try a variety of Russian food - including piroshki and kvass - for lunch. After we'd eaten, we crossed the canal to explore the opposite side of the Lower Park. There were lots of fountains here too We also found a statue of Peter the Great himself. Mom told us that he had installed "trick fountains" in the gardens, to catch and spray people unawares. Sure enough, we soon found one - and plenty of children waiting to try it out We passed the Sun Fountain... ...and found a pair of beautiful, marble fountains. They were below the final cascade, known as the Chessboard Cascade. We hung around here for a while, waiting to see another trick fountain which signs warned would be activated at 15.00. Some people had come well prepared to run through it After we'd seen the trick fountain alley, we began to climb back up towards the Upper Gardens. Unlike the Lower Park, which you have to buy a ticket for, the Upper Gardens are completely free. But if you exit the Lower Park to enter the Upper Gardens, you can't get back into the Lower Park without buying another ticket, which is why we'd left it until last. The Upper Gardens turned out to be flatter and more... gardeny There were some wonderful fountains here too, though. This one was particularly imposing Meanwhile this one was a little bit creepy! At least, if you don't like fish. Once we got to the far end of the Upper Gardens, we emerged out onto the main road in the town of Petergof. We knew there was a station here, called Novy Petergof, and we began to navigate our way towards that. It turned out to be a longer walk than expected! A system of suburban trains passes through the station, running into the Baltiysky station in the centre of St Petersburg. There were machines to purchase tickets at the station, but it was a bit confusing because we were trying to buy tickets on platform one, but the only timetable shown here was in the opposite direction to St Petersburg. I bought us tickets for the elektrichka train, which seemed an absolute bargain at 60 rubles each (72p!). However, when we eventually found the correct platform on the opposite side of the tracks, I realised that these tickets weren't valid on the next train arriving at 16.54 because it was a "lastochka" train. Not entirely sure what the difference is; it seems like the lastochka trains make fewer stops so are probably more expensive. The first train our tickets were valid on was 17.12, so we had to hang around until then. I experimented with an americano from the station coffee machine, which was once again a bargain at 35 rubles (42p!), but was very sugary. It helped pass the time until the train arrived anyway! The platform got quite busy, but when the train eventually did come we managed to manoeuvre our way on and get seats. It felt like it was quite an old train and the seats were very hard and wooden. It made its way very slowly towards St Petersburg, eventually arriving at the Baltiysky station around 6pm. After that, all that remain was a metro journey back to our hotel. It was rush hour though so the metro was a bit of a crush. We had done a lot of walking today so decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. There was a slightly confusing incident when we ordered a bottle of chardonnay and brought it to us, then reappeared a few minutes later to say that he couldn't sell it to us because it wasn't in the system. Several of us ordered chicken kievs, which felt like they should have been a safe bet food-wise, so it was slightly disappointing when it arrived to find there was more dill in it than garlic It was a slightly frustrating end to what has otherwise been a really lovely day!
  5. Today was our first proper day exploring St Petersburg. It started off with an exploration of the hotel breakfast buffet, which turned out to be for more extensive than any of us had anticipated. As well as the normal things you would expect, there was salty(!) porridge, pancakes which tasted somewhat like they had been deep fried, and an entire buffet table of cakes. It felt slightly unbelievable that so much breakfast was included in the price of our rooms, which already seem such good value! After breakfast we had time for a quick consultation of guidebooks and maps before we headed out to see the city. Unfortunately the weather wasn't forecast to be great today, so there was a somewhat cloudy sky behind the beautiful red church which we'd spotted yesterday. It was Sunday morning and we could hear the church bells ringing really loudly. Then we realised that we could actually see two men inside the bell tower ringing the bells! We stood watching them for ages It looked like really hard work! We passed all kinds of amazing churches and buildings as we carried on walking through the town. Sometimes we just couldn't work out what they were. This beautiful building, which we found while walking through a park, was the Russian Museum. We were headed towards one of St Petersburg's most iconic churches, the Church of The Saviour on Spilled Blood. Unfortunately part of it was under renovation, but it was still really stunning. The church was constructed on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by anarchists in 1881. The building ceased to be used as a church during the twentieth century, being used alternately as a morgue for those who died in the Siege of Leningrad, as a warehouse for potatoes and vegetables, and today as a museum. We were going to go inside, but either we were too early and it wasn't opened yet or it was being used for a church service because today was a Sunday. Either way, we couldn't get in and there was just a large queue in front of the closed ticket desks. It didn't matter though, when the exterior was so beautiful Unfortunately the weather started to take a turn for the worse at this point and things started to become a bit damp. We took shelter inside a bookshop in the very unusual building to the left of the fountain in the picture below. By the time we'd finished browsing books, the weather had cleared up a bit, but not completely. We found that we were close to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. As it was still raining a bit, we decided to go in and have a look. Because it was a Sunday morning there was a service ongoing, which was fascinating to see. There was lots of incense and singing and kissing of icons, and because there were no pews it felt quite anarchic, with people coming and going, walking around as they pleased. At least that meant it was easier for us not to be too conspicuous as tourists! The interior of the church was beautiful as well, but no photos were allowed. The day began to brighten up as we walked down Nevsky Prospect towards the Winter Palace. It was amazing to be standing in front of such a historic place On the opposite side of the square from the palace is the General Staff building, with its huge triumphal arch. The arch commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in 1812. We didn't want to go into the museum which the Winter Palace now houses today, but we were able to go a bit further into the courtyard where the ticket office is. It was really beautiful in there too The next item on our list after the palace was the Admiralty building. We walked through a small park until we found it, topped by this amazing gold spire. If we'd approached it from this direction with the fountain in front, the first view would have been even more impressive There was just one more thing we wanted to see before we went to get some lunch; the Bronze Horseman. This is the famous statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great. By this point we were down by the river. As we were feeling hungry, we decided to walk back towards Nevsky Prospect. On the way, we got some great views of another huge church; St Isaac's Cathedral. We found a restaurant and sat down to have lunch, with varying degrees of success. I had some pasta, which was very nice, but other people ended up with soup which seemed to just be a bowl of water with vegetables in it. It was better than nothing, and soon we were off again, en route to a boat trip which we had booked for 3pm. We had some difficulty locating the exact part of the Fontanka river that the boat was supposed to be depart from. We asked a lady, who sent us off across a bridge to a boat on the opposite side of the river, only to be told there that we needed to go back across the bridge to where we'd started. We got there in the end, with a few minutes to spare before our boat set off The boat started off by cruising down the Fontanka, and we had some wonderful views of the buildings lining it Then the boat moved out onto the main Neva, and for a minute it was slightly scary as the river was so choppy. The boat couldn't do its full route today because the water level was too high for it to fit under all the bridges. We sailed past all kinds of interesting sights, helpfully explained to us by an English audioguide. One of the most spectacular things was definitely sailing past the Winter Palace It would have been nice to be here on a sunnier day, but the views were wonderful regardless. Too soon, we were back to where we had started! When we got off the boat, we had a tantalising view of a church with an amazing blue roof in the distance. We didn't get to the blue church, but on our way towards a metro station we did stumble across another church with beautiful golden onion domes. When we got to the metro, the station itself was quite impressive. And, of course, the escalators were very, very long! We'd taken the metro to Lenin Square, which is next to Finlandsky station. This is the station at which Lenin arrived back in Russia after his exile abroad, in order to take control of the Russian revolution. In front of the station there's a square with a huge statue of Lenin. While we were standing there, admiring the statue and the fountains, we were approached by a man who asked whether we wanted to join a Communist walking tour. We decided to give it a miss As we went back into the metro station to catch the train home, we found a mosaic of Lenin too. After a brief rest at the hotel, we went back out again in the evening to find something to eat. That proved to be a bit difficult, as there aren't loads of restaurants in the area around our hotel. Dad had googled and found a restaurant nearby on the internet, but we struggled to track in down and then when we eventually did, it looked like it was somewhere designed for people a bit younger and cooler than us. We were so hungry we decided to brave it anyway though and it was a good decision, because the food turned out to be really nice. Again, it seemed unbelievably cheap; we all had a main course and drinks, including a bottle of wine, for what worked out as just over £6 each It's been a very exciting. though somewhat tiring, first day in St Petersburg
  6. Our first week-long holiday this year is one that has required an awful lot of planning. Hours of research, hours more attempting to learn a rather difficult language, plus a visit to London to be finger-printed for a visa. Our holidays aren't normally quite so challenging, but this isn't just any holiday; this is our first ever trip to Russia! And it's not just Tim and I travelling alone this time; joining us are my parents and my sister, Helen The journey for Tim and I started this morning at around 4.45 when we left home to drive to Heathrow. I was quite looking forward to the journey, on the basis that it ought to feel significantly shorter than our journey to Gatwick last weekend, but unfortunately that turned out not to be the case. There had been some sort of accident on the M1, which resulted in traffic jams, lane closures and ultimately us having to leave the motorway entirely to circumvent it. And then when we finally got to the general vicinity of Heathrow, the SatNav failed to take us to the correct location for the airport parking, so we had some fun and games driving around in circles trying to locate it. My family arrived at Heathrow ahead of us, having travelled down the night before, but we eventually all managed to meet up in Wetherspoons and have breakfast together before it was time to board our flight. Everything went remarkably smoothly with the flight, compared to the delay when we flew to Kiev last week. At over three hours it felt like quite a long flight to us, although the pilot referred to it as "a short hop to St Petersburg"! As we began to come in to land, we got our first view of the city and initial impressions were that it looks absolutely enormous! We landed slightly ahead of schedule and got off the plane to go through passport control. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the day, waiting to see whether our visas were correct and we were actually going to be let in But in the end it was all really straightforward. We got our passports stamped, were given our immigration cards (which we mustn't lose if we want to be allowed out of the country again!) and then we were in. Phew!!! We retrieved our bags without any problems and emerged into arrivals. St Petersburg airport is a bit outside the city and it isn't on a trainline, so we needed to catch a bus towards the nearest metro station. There was a bus waiting when we stepped outside, which was good, although we weren't 100% sure how we were supposed to buy tickets. There was a conductor lady who appeared to be selling them, so we assumed we needed to give her our money before we sat down, and it was all a bit difficult trying to hold our luggage, get some money out and figure out how much we needed to pay. Afterwards, we realised that we could just have got on and sat down and she would have come to sell us a ticket. Never mind! The good news was that the fare was amazingly cheap at 40 rubles each, which translate to 48p! The less good news was that it turned out to be a bus without a luggage rack, so we had to balance our luggage in somewhat uncomfortable positions for the duration of the trip. Luckily, the journey turned out to be quicker than I'd expected and it can't have taken more than 20 minutes for us to get from the airport to the metro. The metro was slightly more expensive at 45 rubles (54p!). We bought tokens from a machine and then made our way down to the platform. It was a very unusual metro station, in that you couldn't see the track at all from the platform; it was hidden away behind big metal doors, which opened once the train arrived. We had about five stops to travel on our first metro, after which we had to change to a different line and go another few stops before we got to the vicinity of our hotel. Considering it was our first day in Russia and we only had a vague idea of what we were supposed to be doing, it all went rather well I'd tried to download an offline map of St Petersburg to help us navigate, but when I got my phone out it seemed to assume I wanted a map of a place called St Petersburg in Florida instead, which was a bit frustrating! Luckily it didn't matter, because there was a map on the wall of the metro station, and Tim and Dad managed to navigate us to the hotel using that. The hotel is posher than we expected and comes complete with a slightly disconcerting porter, who insisted on carrying our bags for us. We managed to check in, half in Russian and half in English, and the porter led us to our rooms. We definitely can't complain about how spacious this is; we've even got our own sofa! And all for less than £60/night Once we'd unpacked and settled in, we went for an initial stroll into the town. The first interesting thing we came to as we left our hotel was this beautiful yellow church. It turns out this is the Transfiguration Cathedral. We didn't have to walk much further before we caught sight of another colourful church on the horizon. I'm not sure what this one is called, but it was a really beautiful shade of red We were walking in this direction because we wanted to get to the river. Before we reached the main river Neva, we crossed over the smaller Fontanka river, which is a branch of the Neva. The sides of the river were lined with pretty buildings... ...and the river itself was full of boats We found ourselves in the Summer Garden, which was founded by Peter the Great. It seemed like a lovely park, but it was really busy; there seemed to be some sort of festival for children going on. We walked down a long avenue of trees... ...and admired the various statues we found on our way. There were fountains too Eventually, we emerged from the park and we were at the river It was huge and looked really choppy; more like the sea! Everyone was hungry by this point - and the porter had warned us against going out in the evening without coats - so we decided to retrace our steps back towards the hotel. On the way, we passed Peter the Great's Summer Palace from the opposite side of the water. We also got tantalising glimpses of all kinds of other interesting buildings in the distance. There will definitely be lots to explore tomorrow! In the meantime, we all needed an early night. But not before we'd had dinner in the hotel restaurant. It turned out to be unbelievably good value; five of us had a main course and a drink for the equivalent of £30 I'm sure we will find ourselves in more expensive places over the course of the next week, but at about £1 each for transport and £6 each for food, today has been a very cheap day!
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