Saturday, September 25, 2004

Summer 2004: Northern Exposure (3rd part)

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.
The Metro was impressive: four lines of VERY fast trains crossing the city. Probably the DEEPEST metro system we've ever seen (it took about five minutes to reach the platforms level from the ground despite the fast escalators - another Russian first: the escalators had an employee sitting in a booth at the bottom of the escalators to them!).
And here comes the exciting part of our journey: we (actually Stathis) were the victims of pickpockets at the St. Petersburg! A very unpleasant experience as Stathis was 'sandwiched' between two bulky Russians while he was 'relieved' of his wallet, which was, foolishly enough, placed in his pocket. Just before the doors of the train close, the group of the (three, as one more was holding the doors) pickpockets ran out of the coach, leaving us wondering what had happened...
Fortunately enough, we realized immediately that we had been robbed. As the wallet contained just 50 euros but many credit cards we were terrified at the thought of us been charged enormous amounts to our cards. Again, we were fortunate to call immediately to cancel our cards (it took us less than ten minutes) and to block them. This had been a big lesson for us (thankfully not a very costly one). Next time we will return to methods of carrying our valuables that we had abandoned (waist belt-wallets etc) and to change also the type and amount of cards we will carry with us (just a few and prepaid ones).

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.
Somewhat relieved to hear that, but still in a rather bad mood, we headed for the famous Hermitage museum. Needless to say, this is indeed an amazing collection of art (the paintings are marvelous) housed in (more than one) impressive, both internally and externally, buildings. A word of advice if you ever visit it: bypass the long lines to the booths selling individual tickets and ask to participate in one of the museum-organized guided tours: it costs 35% less than the individual ticket, you have a guide speaking English to show you the most important exhibits for about 1,5 hour and then you can wander in the museum on your own! We still haven't figured out why people are buying individual tickets! One more remark: prices are different for tourists and for locals, obviously because of the differences in average incomes. Keep in mind that St.Petersburg is not a cheap city although one could tell that its citizens are not rich.

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...

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