Published: August 2nd 2012July 30th 2012
Russia is near enough to the final European nation that still enforces visa restrictions on most foreign nationals. It's like a Soviet hangover, as if they still have the shivers from the Cold War and maintain a 1000 yard stare across the border to those western capitalist pigs. Neither is getting your hands on a visa a walk in the park. The reddest of tape needs to be negotiated first. Got a month up your sleeve and a spare 400 or so dollars in your back pocket? We didn't.
There are a couple of back door options, such as.........A single click of the payment button on the "Vacations To Go" website and hey presto, we had jumped from DIY tourists to cruising for a bruising.
For a relatively economical up front outlay, we latched onto a 9 day Baltic cruise which included 2 full days in St Petersburg plus a tasting plate of a few other Baltic hot spots with the added bonus of sidestepping the Russian visa process. 2 days in St Petersburg is hardly ideal but it's 2 days longer than the alternative.
Of course those pesky Russians still had a spare joker in their deck.
Sure you can play landlubber on consecutive days in this magnificent city but only on organised excursions. Freelancing? Not Here Vladmir. When you're an indie kinda visitor, having your hand held and led around is a tangent shift that required some acclimatising.
The human face of former Soviet red tape is any Russian in a uniform. Where in the world would we be without humour? Probably Russian Immigration. Trying to get a Rusky official to crack that stoney face is as daunting as getting an Indian to join a queue. Standing at passport control, I felt like George Castanza trying to get some bread off The Soup Nazi. One false move and "NO RUSSIA FOR YOU".
Ve vanted Russia more than ve vanted the happy passport man to smile so we toed the line and booked in for a few tours. The array of excursion possibilities was vast but it wouldn't hurt being a Russian oil baron to afford them all. The 2 half day and 1 full day tours we chose set us back around 750 greenbacks and we by no means spent anywhere near the possible maximum. One of these excursions offered 3 hours of free
time to do your own thing so in effect we were literally buying time.
One of the half day tours would also be a competitor for history's worst ever tour. The "St Petersburg Through the Eyes of its Citizens Tour".
Phase 1 - go to a mall. "Hurry, 20 minutes, look, take pikcha". Never been to a mall before, how exhilarating.
Phase 2 - go to farmers market. "Hurry, 20 minutes, look, take pikcha". Couldn't help but notice there weren't any Russian farmers, or even Russian customers for that matter.
Phase 3 - catch metro. Couldn't possibly have caught a train on my own.
Phase 4 - vodka tasting. " Hurry, 30 minutes, get drunk, take pikcha". At least that was a fun social exercise.
Phase 5 - look at gift shop. "No hurry, take your time, spend all money, we have all afternoon". Why do seemingly all tours spend ridiculously disproportionate amounts of time dragging customers to gift shops? "We could take you to the Winter Palace but wouldn't you rather look at fridge magnets"?
At least our guide that afternoon, Anatoly, was a wit, honestly. He was very open on his
opinions on the anomalies of his nation, including politics, a freedom he didn't enjoy a generation ago. With that in mind I quizzed him on corruption in everyday society.
"NO. There is no corruption any more in Russia. If you need a lawyer, for example, but you can't afford their extravagant fees, you may still have enough to buy the judge".
I've been way too disparaging here so let me at least lather St Petersburg with the type of superlatives it's pedigree deserves. Custom built from the ground up starting in 1703, the realisation of Peter the Great's vision fully justifies it's "Venice of the North" tag. Yes folks, it's magnificent. The architecture lining the canals, apart from being the sweetest of optical treats, seems almost interminable. It's a living, breathing open air museum that also crams in around 150 museums of the indoor type into the confines.
Art, music, ballet, they're all liberally represented but how do you do a city like this justice in 2 days? You don't. With a penchant for art, a week could be spent in the Hermitage alone.
Thus we leave slightly unfulfilled but with a promise to return, if
and only if the aforementioned restrictions are relaxed.
So what about this cruising game. It's fun and absolutely fills a niche. The concept doesn't exactly suit us but it did suit a purpose.
My dear old dad, rest his sole, loved his cruises and once said to me:
"I don't know why you don't go on a cruise. You're treated like a king and everything is done for you".
The second section of that probably explained part of the reason we prefer the freelancing ethos. I don't need to be treated like a king nor do I want everything done for me.
I threw dad the conundrum of whether travelling is about the journey or the destination. For me the journey is a necessary evil in arriving at the destination. Occasionally the journey can be a treat, planes never, trains usually. With cruising, the journey is the main course and the destination something of an addendum. "Quick, you have 6 hours in Stockholm before you need to be back on the ship".
Back on that ship and a day's activity programme is a lesson in how to cram as many forms of entertainment as
humanly possible into waking hours. It's fun and social, no denying.
By the way, the journey out of Stockholm through Sweden's southern archipelago was almost worth the price of admission alone. Grab a drink, a viewpoint and enjoy 4 or 5 hours of a part of Sweden that is largely unavailable to anybody not on a vessel of some sort. Fabulous.
I won't rule out another cruise in the future, but it would more than likely be because freestyle options are thin on the ground.
Alaska's inside passage, for example, sounds tempting. Better go check that "Vacations To Go" website again.
Travelling for 12 months you would think we would have all the time in the world to see what we want and get to where we want to go, but Russia is a little more elusive with all the visa requirements for Aussies.
Given we have backpacked, RV'd, rented apartments since departing Australia in January, a cruise seemed an obvious one to add to the travel list. I was quite looking forward to kicking my feet up for a few days, reading a few books, having someone else cook and
clean up after me and just play tourist.
Our first night on the cruise we dined out, drank a little too much and toasted ourselves to another stage of our 12 month journey. Waking the following morning Gary didnt feel all that good and it was not a hangover, it was something he had eaten. So instead of disembarking and checking out Germany with me, Gary was quarantined to our cabin for 24 hours. No contact with the outside world, no wandering around the boat. Ooo that wasn't in the brochure. A word of warning for anyone embarking on a cruise. If you feel unwell from something you eat while on the boat, do not, DO NOT go to the medical service on board as you will be quarantined from all other passengers.
Another 24 hours and Gary is back to his old self, same old jokes, rattling off Spanish and French to other passengers like a real local and working out where we will eat that night etc etc.
St Petersburg square is larger than I had anticipated and the city is more spread out. The cathedral of spilt blood is beautiful and just as dramatic
close up as all the pictures.
For the short duration we were able to wander at our own pace I wanted to hang out with locals and try and avoid typical tourist hangouts. I thought we could head to the " Singer Building" that in modern day is a converted book store and cafe. Perfect place to try real Russian coffee and watch the passing parade. $ 27 later, for a coffee, juice and two small Russians sweets, we wrapped the visa card back into the vault.
Fortunately it's a very photogenic destination and I am happy to leave Russia with just a few good photos for memories and not spend any more $ here.
I wasn't sure if I would like the cruise concept initially, however I don't know if we have been extremely lucky with the cruise liner we chose or the actual area we are exploring, but it has surpassed my expectations. There is plenty to do, way too much to eat and no excuses not to get a little fit since the gym is located overlooking the ocean and has the best views coming in and out of port. If the
gym is not your thing, the restaurants and bars are spread out enough throughout the ship that you are walking back and forth up and down the ship clocking up kilometre after kilometre. You can take a lift, but it's more fun walking in and out of bars, clubs, cooking classes, trivia nights, acrobatics, circus performers etc etc. Norwegian Sun gets a big thumbs up from me.
While all our port stops have been brief, we are visiting them in the knowledge we are heading back to each of them over the next few weeks to spend more time and explore in more depth. The tasting plate of destinations has been delicious and I can't wait to get back to Estonia, Finland and Sweden, but today we are heading back to Copenhagen.
There are more photos below