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Travel Story by Helga McGilp

  St Petersburg
St Petersburg, Russia

Any travel books suggest starting a long journey somewhere ‘comforting’ and St Petersburg seemed to fit the bill because the city was promoting itself as being more European than Russian. It also celebrated its 300th birthday in 2003 and is a young city compared to Moscow.

St Petersburg is regarded as the “The Northern Capital of Russia” with a population over one million. In 1991, 55% of locals voted to change city name from Leningrad to St Petersburg in 1991.

Although I detested reading out at history lessons at Mary Hare, I had fond memories of being taught about Russia and was fascinated by it. You have to understand history in order to understand Russia. I had several flashbacks from films shown in the early 1980s with those powerful historical figures such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

At my 30th birthday party one of my closest friends corrected me as I had referred to St Petersburg as St Petersborough! It must be the occasional GNER journeys to London Kings Cross, which passed through Peterborough, a town near Stevenage!

After my party, stories about the kidnappings of Western women to become prostitutes, muggings and the dangers of the Russian Mafia were imposed on me the day before I left for St Petersburg. It is Russia’s crime capital because of high profile Mafia killings. The Western media had exaggerated the dangers of the so-called Mafia, portraying gangs storming the streets. “The Mafia, whose fingers are indeed in the pies of most businesses, couldn’t be less interested in piddling tourists,” says Lonely Planet.

The best part of St Petersburg was the Hotel St Petersburg where I stayed at, which had good views of the Neva River. The hotel was also near two famous landmarks, Peter and Paul Fortress and Cruiser Aurora.

Peter and Paul Fortress, built in 1941, is the site of the daily noonday cannon that local people check their watches by. I remembered that Michael Palin had the rare honour of firing the 152mm gun from the roof of the barracks in 1991. It occurred to me that I took Pole to Pole very seriously because I was visiting places that Palin had been to. I was not sure where the cannons were so I simply followed the local children on the beach and I witnessed the very spot where Palin had fired. It was as if he had fired the cannon to kick-start my three months trip across Asia. The fortress contained the mausoleum for the Peter the Great and his successors. In 1998 the remains of Nicholas II (Russia’s last monarch) and his family who were killed were reburied here.

The boat opposite Hotel St Petersburg was Cruiser Aurora. Its crew fired a blank shot at the Winter Palace, which signalled the start of the Russian Revolution on 25th October 1917. During World War II the Russians sank it to protect it from German bombs. Now it is used as a museum and a training ship for cadets.

Finland Station is where Lenin returned after 17 years exile abroad and gave his legendary speech from the top of an armoured car to a crowd who had only heard of but never seen the man, in the same square where his statue now stands. In 1917, he returned, this time disguised as a rail fireman. It was not really the same station, having been rebuilt after WWII. I visited during rush hour and this is when you observe ‘real’ people. There were plenty of kiosks selling food, newspapers and beer. Suddenly I had brief flashbacks of Miss Gladwell delivering her history lessons at Mary Hare while Sally and I would pick which was the best good looking Russian soldier from the history books. I was asked to read out several times in history lessons with my speech being corrected especially when pronouncing those Russian names – Zirovez, Brechnez. It is impossible for many Deaf people to pronounce the letter Z!

Interestingly, there was a prison near Finland Station. Books explained that some of Kresty Prison’s inmates communicate with family and friends in the street using sign language.

You would need at least three days to do the sights and spend more time here than in Moscow. It is suggested that a trip to St Petersburg is worth the effort if you pay a visit to the Hermitage Museum, which holds one of the world’s most spectacular collections of European art. Many tourists tired themselves out visiting the Hermitage, which is bigger than both the British Museum and the Louvre put together. Realistically, it would take almost 25km to walk through 300 galleries. I chose works that I was familiar with, the Impressionists/Post-impressionists on the third floor as well as ‘passing’ unfamiliar pictures whilst watching security guards trying not to fall asleep, and looking out of windows overlooking the Neva River.

I fancied a long lunch after visiting the Hermitage on Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street. There were many cafés, bars and restaurants to choose from in the heart of the city. I entered a restaurant whose name appears on the strip of the Russian football team. It was almost empty and the waiter refused my request to sit by the window with good views of Nevsky Prospekt, and insisted that I go behind the red velvet curtain at the back of the restaurant. I refused and the waiter threw me out for apparently no reason and followed me on the Nevsky for about five minutes. After that I stuck to the café opposite the Church on Spilled Blood. I wondered whether one of the character’s quotes in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, ‘There are few more grim, harsh, and strange influences on a man’s soul than in St Petersburg!’ was correct.

The metro at Nevsky Prospekt is the world’s deepest. It was like watching a documentary as I observed people’s expressions. Going down the escalator felt like fifteen minutes but it was really five minutes. Imagine going down on one of those longest escalators in London Underground, but multiplied five times. Five minutes was not enough to stare at the people on the escalator opposite to mine. An interesting fact is that people in London are brought up not to stare at their counterparts, but the favourite pastime of Russians with so little time is to stare at people opposite them.

After much hesitation I bought one of those Matryoshika dolls. I had to buy it because it was based on Arsenal. There were dolls in the following order: Henry, Pires, Wiltord, Ljungberg and Seaman. The best doll was Seaman because he was the smallest of all. You can’t have the smallest player to stop Ronaldinho’s goal for Brazil in the World Cup. It is now used as a bookend alongside my travel books at

Almost all of my fellow travellers on the Trans Siberian Express were silent for a moment when I asked whether St Petersburg was a fascinating place to visit? They felt the locals had something to hide but couldn't work out what it was. Peter, a photographer from Holland, said ‘they hide behind their Great Tragic Russian soul, and nonsense like that. Sometimes true but often an excuse I think’. I found St Petersburg fascinating because it still remained a mystery to me.

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Date Submitted:
22 Aug 2006

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