The train was due into St Petersburg just after 7am (ugh) so our alarm went off at 6am to allow us time to have a bit of breakfast and get sorted before arrival. (We could have just woken up when it arrived and got sorted then but we wanted to be at the hotel before rush hour). Considering we only had about two or maybe three hours sleep at an absolute maximum, we felt reasonably fresh.
We ate the snacks that had been provided as a meal and it compared reasonably well to the one we had paid Euro40 for the day before. We weren’t brave enough to try the tea in the samovar though.
In a case of remarkably good timing for us, we finished packing up our things just as the train pulled into Moskovsky train station. We disembarked and strolled up the platform. Because our carriage had been near the end of the train in Moscow, we hadn’t been able to see what the other carriages were like: most of the carriages seemed to be second class (four-berth compartments) and while they looked fine, again we were grateful that we had one to ourselves. When we reached the station’s main building, we were wowed by the size of it and how nice it was – but maybe we had just got cabin fever from being in our little compartment so a phonebox would have seemed vast. The hawking taxi drivers descended immediately but we were determined to make our own way to the hotel (I had sussed out public transport routes on the train and very much liked the idea of getting to the hotel for just 10roubles each).
Moskovsky station opens out onto a large square with five main roads leading into it – which was a mite confusing when it came to finding the trolley bus stop (which according to my map was right outside). This confusion wasn’t helped by none of the stops displaying the line numbers (I have since learnt that the numbers hang down from the overhead lines – but this is still confusing in its own way). Eventually, with a lot of map twisting and turning, we worked out that which road was Nevskiy Prospekt (the second one going in a clockwise direction from the station) and headed down there. We walked down to the first bus stop heading into the centre and with a fantastic stroke of luck, the first bus to show up was the one we wanted – the number 22.
The number 22 route goes almost all the way down Nevskiy Prospekt – which is the main commercial street in St Petersburg. All the guidebooks I’ve read refer to it as wide and bustling – and while it’s wider than your average road, compared to those we had seen in Moscow, it didn’t feel big or that busy (and I don’t just mean during this trip down it in the early morning). In fact, it dawned on us rather quickly how much more human in size St Peterburg felt when compared to Moscow. We were still wowed by various bits of architecture on the ride to the hotel though, including the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan which would later provide me with my only Russian cat experience.
I followed the progress of the bus along my map – grateful to the Fontanka and Moika canals for giving me good landmarks – until it turned down Mal. Morskaya. All of a sudden this colossal building, with huge marble pillar along each side, loomed in front of us and I wished I had paid closer attention to what the base of St Issac’s Cathedral had looked like – I knew it had a gold dome but that would only be a useful navigation tool if we had been coming in by helicopterâ€¦ At the last minute, as the bus curled by the building, I decided we should jump off and assess the situation: if I had got us off the bus too soon, we could either walk the rest of the way or pay another 10roubles each for a bit further on the bus (St Petersburg has a flat fare of 10roubles on all above-ground public transport which is a lovely thing for tourists because you don’t have to say where you’re going or anything). A quick check of the map revealed I was right (as always) and we crossed the square to the hotel.
Following the swishy Baltschug Kempinski in Moscow, we were booked to stay in the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg. I had ummed and ahhed over which hotel to go for – preferring the neighbouring sister hotel Hotel Angleterre – because the guidebooks said the Astoria didn’t have air-conditioning while the Angleterre did. A quick check of the website revealed this information was out of date and anyway, the Angleterre was fully booked, so we went with the Astoria. I had emailed before hand to check what the situation was with regards to booking in early: they said it might be possible if a room had been empty the night before but if not, we could leave our luggage there and book in later. As we walked through the doors, we kept our fingers crossed for the former. The less-cheery-than-Moscow receptionist (in a ugly grey uniform – poor them) said the only St Issac’s facing room available was a smoking room and would that be ok. We were worried it would smell but a quick check confirmed that it didn’t (not even a little bit) so we booked straight in.
The Hotel Astoria is owned by the Rocco Forte group, which, like Kempinski, is a German hotel chain and our room was comparative priced but the atmosphere and dÃ©cor were completely different at the Astoria. The room at the Baltschug Kempinski was huge and decorated formally in (primarily) red and white tones, with tastefully striped curtains. It was nice but a bit formal, a bit businessy, a bit masculine. In comparison, the Astoria was a lot more Scandinavian in design (not surprising since we were in spitting distance of Finland) and felt a lot more like a guest room in a home than a large hotel part of a multi-national chain. It was decorated in pale, neutral tones and Vologda linen used was throughout. It felt calming and homely and in our sleepy state, it was just what we needed.
And the view from the window? Our room looked on onto St Issac’s Cathedral and by “looked out”, I mean if we breathed heavily, we could polish the dome. It was wonderful. Before we crashed out to sleep for a few hours, John took some photos of the golden dome in the clear, morning sunshine (knowing full well that we won’t see 8am in St Petersburg again) and they look marvellous. Equally marvellous was the comfortable bedâ€¦
We woke up again about 11am and started the day for the second time. I kept getting confused about how long we had to spend in St Petersburg and kept thinking we were heading home the next day because it felt like we had already been there for a night.
We were getting peckish again by this time so decided to head out to try to find a cafÃ© called The Idiot along the Moika: according to the guidebook, it was nearby, mostly vegetarian and had an English-language menu – just what we needed in our still sleepy states. We walked past it at first but spotted it when we doubled back: it’s a basement cafÃ© and the door is easy to miss when walking on the same side of the road.
We warmed to the cafÃ© immediately: several little rooms, mismatched furniture, a range of dining tables and sofas and lots of books. If the hotel room was a pleasant guest room then The Idiot was the old-fashioned (in a good way) drawing room that got furnished with the stuff leftover after the dining room got a new suite and the library got new editions of old favourite: another preferred design aesthetic of mine so again, we felt right at home. The menu was mostly veggie as promised so we had lots to choose from. I started with pickled herring (which showed me that they needed not be as sharp as the ones I had in Scotland) and potatoes and John had “Ruliet” which was Georgian goats cheese in an Armenian flat bread with roasted peppers (it looked a bit like a chimichanga). The starters were huge and would have been enough by themselves. However, we didn’t realise this at the time of ordering and so followed this up with mushroom pelmini (like big ravioli) for John and “Made in Oven” (a vegetable pie thing) for me. My pie was a bit dry and tasteless and John felt his pelmini was a bit repetitive – but I think our negative opinions of the main courses were just because we were already full from the delicious starters. John had also had an additional appetiser: with every order at The Idiot, you get a free shot of vodka and he drank his one and only shot of vodka in Russia with his starter. I declined and went for the milkshake with grenadine and ice cream – a wonderful combination that sent me on a sugar-high for the next week and a half.
After we had eaten our fill at The Idiot, we waddled back to near the hotel and around into the grounds of the Admirality. We walked through the gardens to the statue of Peter the Great and saw a whole heap of wedding photo shoots taking place (seriously, about nine). We also saw the Leeds Met/Calderdale NHS students that we had seen in the Kremlin in Moscow, which amused us yet again. We stayed there for a bit, people-watching, then walked along the Neva to near the Hermitage and Winter Palace. We had another sit (because all this took a lot longer than it sounds like it should take on here) then walked back to the hotel the long way around, via Nevskiy Prospekt and the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan.
The Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan managed to combine looking impressively huge but also really scruffy or dirty. There were lots of young people sat in the gardens so I guess it is the St Petersburg equivalent of the Corn Exchange in Leeds (although said people weren’t terribly gothy so maybe it would be better to compare it to a local Spar in any small town at dusk). We sat for a while but it wasn’t particularly comfortable (we were perched on little iron railings) and it was a bit awkward to take photos since everyone was really close together. We looked around the outside of the cathedral for a bit and that’s when I met the aforementioned cat: a scruffy tabby with strange cock-eyes (the black bits were small in the bright light but almost circular). We watched it pounce on nothing (presumably it mistook its nose for a mouse) and I felt incredibly sorry for it (as you might expect). When we walked around the back of the cathedral to go back to the hotel, we spotted another cat, presumably a sibling, and I felt a bit happy that it wasn’t alone.
Back at the hotel, we crashed for a bit, enjoyed the sunset over St Issac’s dome then went out to explore the options for tea. Having been spice-free since the weekend, our first choice was a curry place, supposedly just near the hotel, and if we couldn’t find that, then we would head out to a nearby Greek place instead. We nearly had to give up hope on the curry place – Tandoor – because all the buildings in the presumed locale were completely encased in scaffolding – but then we spotted it, a little doorway into a basement. Inside, it was quite small and incredibly kitsch, but the food was good. We started with onion bhajis and vegetable samosas to share, then John had a veg jalfrezi (very dry sauce-wise compared to the jalfrezis we’re used to – but good and spicy) and I had my new favourite curry filling, paneer, in a medium spicy sauce (creamy but still tomato based). We had naans and lemon rice on the side and it was all very good. Plus, it was literally full-stumbling distance from the hotel – no more than two minutes walk – which is the maximum length of walk you want when your blood-naan level is high.