Having Helsinki as our base for the next days, we were planning to visit first Saint Petersburg in Russia and then Tallinn in Estonia.
This is the most exciting and unfortunate part of our journey; so if you managed to read this far, don't give up now!
By train to Russia... this was our first visit to Russia and we had a few things to be concerned about: Would we be able to receive our train tickets? (the ticket cashier in Helsinki had told us that the tickets were not ready yet and they would be delivered to us by the train ticket conductor) Were our visas OK? (There was a mention somewhere on our visa about a 'tour group', which of course we were not) What would Russia be like?
The bureaucratic part went on smoothly. What are our comments about St.Petersburg? We had been told that this was the most Western European city of Russia-and we think it is indeed rather Western European, at least on the surface. It is a city with many majestic sights and certainly impressive. Not really a 'Venice of the North' but many canals and the river are also interesting features of the city.
Some things that gave us a hard time:
- the distances are enormous; it takes forever to cross an average square...
- The public transportation system (?) was chaotic, relevant information was scarce and a large part of it was left to private entrepreneurs with minivans!
- Despite the similarity of the Cyrillic and the Greek alphabet, the Russian language was rather different and difficult for us.
- One of the worst problems was the warning we had had (by our travel guides) that the water pipes of the city were unclean and dangerous and that we had to use mineral water in bottles even to brush our teeth! (The advice: 'cook it, boil it, peel it or forget it!') As the hot water from the tap was rather ...brownish (despite the generally good standards of our hotel) we even showered with cold water (brrr!).
- Not unlike their Greek counterparts, civil servants were not very helpful or polite - but the people were in general friendly and helpful.
Right after this incident we visited the Greek consulate to see if there was something they could do for us. Not that we needed much (we still had some cash left and Maria's cards), but they didn't do much to help us in some way either. The staff was friendly and sympathetic though.
Contacts with the (very efficient and helpful!) bank call centers reassured us in the meantime that efforts made by the thieves to use our cards had failed as the cards had already been blocked.
Returning in Helsinki was rather a pleasant thing after all we had suffered. Once again we were impressed by the small things that prove that the Finnish are good and civilized people: as we had lost the parking card (it was stolen with the wallet) they accepted without hesitation our (honest!) declaration that the car had been left for three days in the parking lot and we paid accordingly. Had we been dishonest, we would have paid less and they wouldn't know...