Russia was not as scary as I thought. Maybe it’s the professors who do their best to scare us into behaving or maybe it’s what I remember from global history about Soviet Russia, but when I stepped off the ship in St Petersburg I was expecting a more rough-and-tumble town than I encountered.
Our dock was located along the picturesque Neva River, a tree-lined waterway that flows through the heart of the city. We walked along the wide pedestrian walkway, where Petersburgers spend warm summer afternoons fishing, biking, and rollerblading, heading towards the city center. We crossed one of many drawbridges; a passage that caused anxiety amongst some students. The drawbridges are down most of the day, but are raised late at night to allow assorted ships and barges passage through the city. This didn’t bother me much because I think returning to the ship before 1:30 AM while we’re in Russia is a good idea anyway, but a large contingency of students felt the need to check into hostels in the city center so they would be free to drink and be merry late into the night without any hesitation. I would rather sleep in my cozy bed bug-free cabin on the ship, so Erin and I were mindful to remember which streets we wandered down so we could retrace our steps later.
We were wandering in pursuit of a booking agent, planning on taking a train to Moscow. We stopped into a boutique hotel, hoping the concierge desk might be of some assistance. It is there that we received our saving grace: a free map of the city of St. Petersburg, conveniently written in English. Empowered, it didn’t take much longer before we had tickets for an overnight train to Moscow. We were then free to begin checking out scenic St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is notable for its cathedrals and architecture. The city was built with the intention of being more European in style. Many of the beautiful, Italian-designed buildings seem almost out of place. The city is beautiful, but at some points excessive. These amazing cathedrals, the ones we’ve all seen in photographs with the funny-looking roofs, are gorgeously decadent and were built centuries ago, when the tsars ruled and most of the country suffered. Before we arrived in St. Petersburg the resident geography professor gave a condensed history of Russia, broadly speaking about the monarchy, which clung to power far longer than the monarchies in other countries. The beauty of these buildings astounded me, especially considering the societal conditions at the time these gold-domed towers were erected.
We walked around the city, the Church of the Savior on Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Winter Palace, stopping for lunch at Subway (which serves beer in Russia, FYI), and then returned to the ship once our feet had suffered enough. We formulated plans for the evening over dinner on the ship and then headed out in search of an ice bar. I’ve never been to such a bar, but apparently everything is made out of ice, and there was supposedly one in St. Petersburg. I’m sad to say that after two hours of searching, the St. Petersburg Ice Bar turned out to be pure myth. The Irish pub that we visited instead, though, did not disappoint.
When we walked into O’Hooligans we were glad to simply be sitting down after 2 hours of questing for a mythical place. O’Hooligans, though, turned out to be a Russian cultural experience in itself. On a Thursday night young Russians were packed into the small pub. The ales were flowing and the patrons and the staff were puffing away. It was a shock to see people smoking in a restaurant but in Russia it’s still totally legal. There is a small and separate (less fun) non-smoking section. I met a young woman named Jessica who spoke English excellently because she works for a marketing firm where she must speak the language for her job every day. I was excited to finally meet a local who I’d be able to speak to in English.
Jessica answered my questions on a range of topics. We discussed national politics (how Putin does not have popular support but will probably remain in power until he dies), local politics (how the police in St Petersburg don’t enforce the speed limits unless they can get a bribe out of it), culture (what Russians like to drink, where they like to go on vacation), and a selection of other topics. Besides our conversation, the other interesting part about the bar was when a friend of mine ordered absinthe. There is a misunderstanding amongst most people that absinthe is illegal in the United States. The ban has been lifted since 2007, but that hasn’t led to any sort of American absinthe craze, so it’s fun to order it in a foreign country. There’s many different ways to prepare absinthe, but the Russian version involves lighting it on fire, extinguishing the flame, then huffing the vapor, reigniting the absinthe, adding sugar and water (distinguishing the flame) and drinking the mixture. It was a gimmicky way to have a drink but nothing is more fun about traveling than trying something you’ve never done anything like before. After a fun time at the bar we headed back to the ship before the dreaded raising of the drawbridges and rested for another day in Russia.