Monday, 19 March 2012

Tallinn to St. Petersburg

Said to be Russia's 'window on the west', St. Petersburg is expected to be the most westernised and European of all of Russian cities. I travel from Estonia's capital across the border to the heart of St. Petersburg, to discover the transition between both of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites of exquisite beauty.

Life is a struggle, an inconvenience and a bother with snow - at least in the UK. Landing in the Baltics, swooping over a wondrous frozen lake, it's clear that the snow and ice in Tallinn, like all other Baltic countries, is a valued and ubiquitous aspect of winter. Estonians take it all in their stride. Snow ploughs gracefully clear paths across the runway. No sign of British cynicism and resignation here.

Tallinn seems perfectly balanced as a town, like a well-orchestrated meal on a dinner plate. The modern, times square-esque skyscrapers within spitting distance of the airport, and then the Old Town another 'spit' away from that.

I marvel at how the taxi driver, and every other driver on the road; feet of snow piled either side, negotiate the ice covered lanes with such abandon. I'm pretty sure if this was the UK, we'd have all been told to stay at home.

Carefully stepping out in front of the hotel, my snow boots still buried in my bag, for the first time I notice how it doesn't feel so much as uncomfortably cold, but rather very fresh.

After a warm Estonian reception and checking out a spectacular first glance of Eastern European architecture from the 26th floor, I head to Tallinn's Old Town.

Now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, the town survived most of World War II's torments, and displays very little, if any evidence of either Soviet or Nazi past occupation. As I walk past the snowy hill of Toompea, the Old Town begins to resemble a fairy tale village, particularly against the bright blue sky.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral looms large and monumental, as an indicator of Russia's architectural influence on its neighboring country. Along the walls and at the entrances to the Old Town are medieval towers. In contrast to the onion domed tips of the cathedral, they look relatively ancient. Staring up at one of them it's easy to transcend time, at least momentarily.

The fairy tale continues as I venture further, past snow frosted statues and increasingly archaic and naturalistic architecture. A map is definitely not required as I find myself conveniently funneled towards the iconic Town Hall. Surrounded by more medieval buildings around a cobbled snowy square, the fairy tale is at its peak. The locals beckon outside shops, and themed stands, adorned in periodic costumes, at times making it feel almost reminiscent of a theme park.

The theme park feeling continues as I walk towards the east wall entrance. I muse a little at what is perhaps the most perfectly assimilated McDonald's I have ever seen - quite literally built into the Old Town's structures. But this isn't a theme park - this is old and new Eastern Europe perfectly combined, with a lack of any conflicting interest.

From the romantic viewpoint of Kissing Hill I see one of several perpetual 'Christmas trees' I have seen in Tallinn. The season to be jolly seems to transcend time for that little bit longer here, appearing accustomed to their winter wonderland, and old stonework surroundings.

Trekking through a busy, modern shopping mall on the way back to the hotel, it's evident that Estonia is no exception from liberal consumerism, akin to the rest of Europe. I begin to wonder what differences I will observe when I cross the border.

Bleary eyed, I collect a pre-packed breakfast bag from reception while checking out at 5am. A taxi then whisks us to Tallinn bus station. After a little bit of early morning confusion, we wander past icicle dressed bus stops to find a warm waiting room. People sit patiently for the bus to arrive. I contemplate what they might be travelling to Russia for: work, family, or perhaps like myself, just plain curiosity.

A shuffle of activity suggests that the bus has arrived. The Lux Express will be my transport of choice for making the six hour trip around the Gulf of Finland, across the border and on into St. Petersburg. Grabbing a visa form, I find my seat at the front of the bus. Appointed more like a 'business class' on wheels, it becomes clear that this trip should be as comfortable as possible.

We set off. Eastern European buildings gradually dissipate, replaced by endless snowy forest. I sink into the reclining seat and drift off. But not for too long.

The bus swerves and stops beside a snowy trench of a bus stop; some hard-faced looking Russians extinguish their cigarettes and board the bus. This signifies that we have arrived in Narva; the last bastion of Europe before the border crossing. I begin to feel a little apprehensive as I scramble for my passport and visa documents.

As if we are about to embark on a safari, the bus pulls up to an imposing looking fence, topped with barbed wire, before entering what can only be described as a cage. The driver shouts something in Russian, and disembarks the bus, prompting another small shuffle of activity. Passports at the ready.

 A very militarised, beret donning Estonian official boards the bus, and I'm a little bewildered as he not only scrutinises, but takes away my passport - and everyone else’s. A lifetime passes, during which I notice the impromptu appearance of a very skinny looking cat, conveniently just passing through gaps in the ‘cage’, and wondering onwards without a care...

Finally the official boards the bus again, and hands back my passport. The cage door opens, and the bus continues through. But this is just the Estonian side. No smiles yet.

Adjacent to the beautiful Hermann Castle, the bus continues forwards to a heavily fortified bridge. I try to take in the impressive castle, dating back to the 14th century, as much as I can as we cross the Narva River. The bus creeps forward, passing the first Russian officials that I see. These guys mean business.

The bus stops in front of what looks like a very dated old petrol station. But a petrol station this is not. Something is shouted in Russian again and we all leave the bus, ushered into the small building.
Silence and tension fills the room, as well as the scent of dated cigarette smoke as I slowly shuffle forward, waiting for my turn at the passport control window.

One might think I have been transported back the Soviet era already. A stern, female Russian voice beckons me to the window. Her demeanor, uniform, hair, makeup... everything communicates that she means even more business than the officials outside. I flicker a brief smile, before it's extinguished by her authoritative and emotionless glare. Another lifetime passes as she endlessly inspects virtually every page of my passport. She utters something in Russian, which I surmise when translated must mean something along the lines of 'stay', and disappears through a back door, with my passport.

Another age passes as I hear the 'stamp, stamp, stamp' of the Russians behind me being granted access to continue. Finally she reappears, and I hear the universal language of 'stamp, stamp, stamp', this time telling me I can go through.

I wait until the bus has finished being inspected, before everyone ventures back into the snow, and jumps back on the bus. Apprehension is now replaced with excitement as we journey on into Russia.

Bump, bump, shake. The first part is familiar - endless snowy forest. However, this time I know I must be in Russia, because the road is incredibly bumpy; a patchwork of pot-holes and cracks. Despite this, like its neighbour across the river, great care has been taken to rid the roads of dangerous ice and snow. I contemplate again how if this were to be in the UK, all but essential travel would have been ill-advised.

Snowy forest gives way to my first glimpse of some of the poorer provinces of Russian housing. In contrast to the fifties apartment block buildings one expects, there are many communities consisting of small wooden huts. Many of them look like they have been constructed independently, perhaps by each family, from whatever material was available. Although under feet of snow, I see what looks like chicken coups and agricultural facilities. Clearly these are people able to adapt to living conditions as best as they can.

Most of them appear to have the windows boarded up. I speculate that this must be to keep the harsh cold out, and I envision generations of families living inside them, huddling around a fire.

I take amusement, and also a feeling of crossing to another time as well as place, from the ever increasing sight of ancient, prehistoric cars. I'm pretty sure that most of them cannot be newer than early nineties. I wonder if this travelling automobile museum will be present in St. Petersburg...

As the wooden huts begin to dwindle, and stereotypical Soviet tower blocks begin to show up, I assume that we are nearing a city. No sign of historical, 18th century buildings yet. Just a bumpy, neglected, yet perfectly straight tree lined road passing through equally neglected fifties blocks. The Soviet dream that never was.

Finally, the sighting of more and more dated buildings signifies that we are nearing a historical centre, and the bus arrives at Baltiyskaya station. I step off into the snowy sludge, and glance around for the metro station. A buzz of excitement, intertwined with a slight tint of intimidation and fear grips me. In researching St. Petersburg, I had read a lot about crime and vulnerable tourists in Russia - perhaps most stories are grossly overrated, but everything I read about mafia syndicates, pick-pocketing, gypsy gangs and corrupt police officers bounces around my head as I firmly clutch my bag, and head to the metro station.

The exterior of the building is the first clue that the metro here is something rather special. I eventually figure out that I just need to ask for a token from the booth inside, and I head down for the trains. I am awe-struck by a vast domed ceiling, and ornate Soviet insignia designs on the wall, while stepping on the top of the escalator.

St. Petersburg's metro system is one of the deepest in the world, due in part to its construction in the nuclear-fearing fifties, and it shows. As I am taken down the seemingly never ending escalator tunnel, I notice people are reading books. I learn that this is an indicator of just how long the journey down is. During the five minutes or so, I admire the detail of the beautiful Soviet red marble walls, and old lamps illuminating the way down.

At the bottom, I am just as impressed. Exquisite chandeliers, fine marble, fanciful columns and more Soviet motifs bedazzle me. Unfortunately, and most likely stemming back from the Soviet era, photography down here is largely prohibited. As a tourist I didn't want to risk any engagements with the police - but the fact that one has to experience it to see it, makes it that more special.

More fifties decadence as the ancient royal-blue train pulls up into the station. Inside, the marks of modern culture and graffiti are present. I head to Vladmiriskaya, the nearest station to my hotel.

After an equally impressive departure through the elaborate station, and greeted by a huge Soviet star motif dominating the wall, I exit into the street to be greeted again by the sight of the 17th century, onion domed Vladmiriskaya Church.

My sense of dis-proportionate fear of crime continues as I navigate the icy streets with a sense of urgency. I want to find the hotel a quickly as possible and dump my bag off. Crossing a road, I am shocked and slightly perturbed at the continuing appearance of one of many completely non road-worthy cars - but this one battered beyond belief. A certain write-off back home. At the same time I also learn that traffic lights are not obeyed here, as the write-off lurches forward towards me as I dart across the road. It dawns on me that many of Europe's governing qualities may not apply here.

As a first impression, St. Petersburg's streets are lined almost exclusively with pre-20th century buildings, but already I spot a few 21st century businesses - at least those I can decipher. Internet cafes, modern banks and beauty salons are plentiful, though respectfully assimilating themselves within the historical architecture, rather like back in Tallinn, although I am yet to see any globally identifiable brands.

Negotiating a very slippery yard, I attempt to locate the hotel. What I discover is something quite unique to Russia - the rules are slightly different here in terms of the allocation, or use of a building’s interior. A shop, hotel or cafe; one would expect to find its entry point at ground level, clearly signposted. In quite a similar fashion to Japan, a business here might be located on the second, third or any other floor of the building. I find what I evaluate MUST be the entrance to the hotel, and recall a code that must be input to gain access to the building. No signage for the Acme Hotel on Rubinsteina is seen outside, just a small hotel logo on the secured entry door.

The old stairwell is reminiscent of a bygone Russian era, with its wrought-iron lift in the center, concrete steps, and the strong, but surprisingly pleasant odour of long-faded Russian cigarette smoke.

A pristine brown wooden door on the second floor reveals itself to be the entrance to the hotel. The stairwell is almost an integral part of the street - just another public area to be navigated until the hotel is found.

I am greeted with a smile for the first time in Russia, and grab the keys to my room. The hotel is very small, with only five rooms, but its 'secretive' location makes it feel like an exclusive safe haven; it has a feeling more akin to being a guest in a Russian home. The 'Pushkin' room essentially represents the Russian attitude of making the most of what's available - with an obvious attempt at a decor theme, but made with basic yet ample furnishings.

Snow boots on, I wander out of the yard and up towards Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main street; a hub and central focus point for the city, with easy access to most of its key sights.

Turning the corner on to Nevsky, I spot a McDonalds - though not so familiar looking written in Russian, and the first of many Subway sandwich shops. These are reminders that the Soviet era had ended, and the modern west is very slowly moving in. Though without these reminders, I otherwise feel transported back in time as I continue to walk past one eighties car after another, and timeless buildings.

Nevsky itself is immense, intimidating and ironically spectacular: wide, opulently paved streets; battered old buses, running on electrical cables overhead; dirty, neglected eighties police cars; and some of the most extravagant, pristine buildings I have ever seen. The whole thing is 'reminiscent' of some old and forgotten, or even parallel universe version of New York City.

Crossing a bridge over one of the many frozen canals, I admire the seemingly untouched artistic detail along the bridge railings, and above it, a magnificent horse statue. I begin to contemplate the irony of the weathered, neglected and downright backward aspects of 'modern' Russia, alongside the absolutely pristine sanctity of the pre-20th century monuments and buildings.

An icy 19th century statue of Catherine the Great is revealed further down the street, as another reminder of the perseverance of all of St. Petersburg's, and Russia's periods of history. Rather like the Soviet reminders I have seen so far, this and other monuments stand tall and proud as if they are just as relevant today. Catherine was Russia's longest ruling female leader in the 18th century.

Gostiny D'vor is, allegedly, one of the oldest shopping malls in the world, dating back to 1757.  To reach it across the road, I walk under one of the market stall lined pedestrian subways. Russian dolls, vodka, Soviet memorabilia and fur hats; clearly they are ready for tourists here.

Entering Gostiny D'vor I am somewhat disturbed to find that I am the only person, seemingly, in the entire building. It would seem that the Russian's are either not ready for western designer shops, or, like me, simply cannot afford them.

Next up along Nevksy is the Kazan Cathedral, with its immense columned crescent, green domed roof, and bright golden sun inspired motif on the front. Being unable to read the Russian sign on the door, I cautiously enter to have a peek inside. I am struck by a wonderful scent of burning incense, or candles, and immediately awestruck by its decadent interior. A line of patient people stand in front of me holding candles, awaiting some sort of religious homage at the altar.

Trekking back out and along the bank of another frozen canal, I am on a mission to find the Church of the Saviour on Blood. The canal seems to infinitely curve around a corner, and I begin to assume that I have taken a wrong turn. Just as I am ready to give in and turn back to Nevsky, I spot one of the bright domes of the church past some trees in the distance. I have found it!

Completed in 1907, and recently renovated in 1998, the church looks stereotypically Russian, and wonderfully alluring, with it's almost playfully colourful mosaics and domes. The theme-park-esque feeling, invoked by its pristine condition is back again. But this is most definitely real and steeped in history, having been constructed to mark the spot of Alexander II's assassination in 1881; a Russian Tsar who oversaw many important reforms, such as granting Serfs, or 'peasants' access to the city.

After succumbing to snapping up some questionably authentic Soviet items from a market stall outside the Church, I trudge through the sludgy snow back towards Nevsky Prospekt.

Heading in the direction of the Palace Square, I encounter a small blue sign painted on the wall; in front of it lay small floral offerings. Roughly translated from Russian, it reads: "Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during artillery bombardment". This is a ghostly, incidental memorial of the German Nazi occupation.

From 1941 to 1944, for 872 days the Germans seized the city. Of course during this time, following the early 20th century revolution, the city was known as 'Leningrad', changed from its earlier 20th century name of 'Petrograd'. The Soviet era Leningrad name would last until relatively recently. This 'Siege of Leningrad' took the lives of almost one and a half million people. I ponder for a minute that such a tragic portion of the cities history is remembered by such a small, but potent symbol.

From one slice of history to another, as I truly descend into another time as I reach the beginning of Palace Square. Every step towards Alexander’s Column, a memorial for Alexander I, further ensues a feeling of awe and overwhelming scale; the vast Winter Palace on my left, and gigantic curve of the General Staff Building on my right.

The elaborate baroque Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian Monarchs from 1732 to 1917. Today it houses a large proportion of the Hermitage museum's collections.

Standing in the square, I envision the historical events that took place here; Bloody Sunday in 1905, and the October Revolution of 1917. The site was witness to the birth of a new era of capitalism, during which time the city was renamed as the more Russian 'Petrograd'. Still it stands timelessly, and effortlessly, as if it was built yesterday on some extortionate, unlimited budget.

Clutching my camera, with a lingering, perhaps completely needless sense of impending crime, I walk onwards to the banks of the Neva River. I look out over to the Greek revival style Stock Exchange building, and across from that the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Unfortunately I don't have time to cross the Trinity Bridge and visit the fortress, but this encapsulates yet another well preserved and undisturbed portion of St. Petersburg’s history, established by the founder of the city, Peter the Great in 1703. The city’s original name from this period, and St. Petersburg’s true historical heritage, wouldn't be returned to the city until the dissolution of the Soviet era in 1991.

Passing scores of model-like, slender Russian women on my walk back down Nevsky Prospekt, and hordes of weathered looking Russian men, I muse at this cultural phenomenon; suddenly the 'Russian brides' websites we have all heard of make a little bit more sense. I guess the 'selection' on offer, combined with a difficult and sometimes oppressive life gives these women little option, but to try and attract a western husband as a means of escape.

I once again navigate the increasingly treacherous icy yard after grabbing some curious Russian food, and call it a night.

Eating breakfast the next morning in a nearby cafe, gazing out the window, observing the curious similarity of elderly Russian women, and whilst admiring the architecture of the building opposite, I have no idea of the drama I am about to witness. One that will exemplify the care and pride the city has over its historical buildings, much unlike its cars.

Chaos erupts as I step outside; fire engines, police cars and television crews race past me. As I am ushered around fire hoses blocking the pavement on Nevsky Prospekt, to the middle of the road, I realise that the building opposite where I was sitting is on fire.

I stop and join the bewildered looking crowds, their concerned faces staring directly upwards at the roof of the Palace of Belozerskie. It seems everyone's attention, including the stopped traffic on the road, is focused on this 1848 treasure.

As I trek past the drama, ready for my return bus journey into Europe, I consider how this speaks volumes for my overall impression of St Petersburg - a city so focused on the pristine preservation of the cultural past, but yet seemingly neglectful of, or more so opposed to modern Europe, and the Western world.

Travel insurance is somehow a poor comfort as the driver of the return bus seems to have an icy death wish. Eyebrows are raised as the bus hurtles around snowy corners at alarming speeds. I worryingly ponder that if the worst should happen, I'd rather it was after the Soviet-esque border crossing.

Relative safety is pleasingly defined by the sudden smoothness of the road as we arrive back in Europe. Eventually I arrive at another wonderfully plush hotel in Estonia - I feel nurtured, and perhaps all too comfortable again.

If St. Petersburg really is Russia's 'Window on the West', I wonder just who is actually looking. Whoever they are, perhaps they have more of an inclination for 'window shopping'.

Sadly, just days after my visit, a much opposed bill was signed in St. Petersburg that would control the publication of written material that includes homosexual content. This could be a biography, a journal, or anything with even the slightest hint of such content.

Clearly in Europe, this would be vastly viewed as a clear violation of free speech; a prime example of how the 'Iron curtain', has shifted to an 'Iron window'.

As examples of architectural history, solidified in time, however, both Tallinn and St Petersburg serve well to encapsulate this. Particularly in St Petersburg, the structural forms may not speak to well of the human struggle that accompanied them, but do speak well of how high art, and refined culture triumph over war and chaos. They persist over time as well treasured byproducts of a history fraught with fear.

One has to witness the transition, and irony experienced in travelling from Europe to Russia, with such pristine cultural preservation and overwhelming beauty, in contrast to relative political unease.

If anything at all, on the lowest level, I leave with a sense of gratefulness. Not just for smooth roads, but for the Europe we live in today.

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