Entering the Outland: Riga & Saint Petersburg (Part I)

My adventure starts in Latvias capital, Riga. But soon enough I am drawn into luring Saint Petersburg, Russias European pearl.

In Riga, I touched ground on September 18, it was my first stop on this trip. By bus, I quickly came into the old town which has gotten even more beautiful. Not much reminds on old Soviet times and renovated old buildings as well as upcoming new ones (like the exciting looking library) sure give Riga the touch of an European city that knows how to connect its heritage with modern times.

I spent some time strolling through the streets, visiting the old cathedral (it is said to have the biggest organ in whole Europe), and paying a brief visit to the museum of occupation, which exhibits – like in all Baltic countries – the country’s history of being permanently occupied – depending where you go by Germany, Sweden, Poland, or Russia. In front of the museum, I met my first couchsurfing host on this trip, Ieva. She took me with her to her weekly fencing lesson. It was actually my first time to see somebody training with a sword (or rather rapier) and it was very interesting to watch the old art of swordfighting.

Very early next morning, I took off to Saint Petersburg. Expecting quite a long queue at immigration and many questions about why I want to visit Russia, where I would stay, etc. I was very amazed when it turned out it was the quickest immigration ever. After 3 minutes, I was done and also my backpack was already waiting for me inside the airport building – quite amazing.

Entering the first bus in front of the airport, asked “Center??” I was quickly on my way. While the outskirts of Saint Petersburg are not really worthwhile, like in most cities, it was exciting coming closer to the city center. Several huge Soviet time buildings passed beside the bus showing me that for the first time I entered old Soviet mainland. The bus terminated suddenly, leaving me at a big market place including an indoor hall. As I love local markets, I first went there and wandered through the hall. I bought some food from the bakery and then was waved to one of the veggie selling stands. There, the lady was totally convinced a foreigner needed to taste all veggies she could offer – and so I did. After a lot of different kinds of cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and several other things I could not identify, I excused myself for I felt bad she wouldn’t make any money with me – my bags were yet full with chocolade and other stuff, there was no room (and right now no need) for veggies.

In the afternoon, I met my second host, Anna, in front of Saint Petersburg’s most famous museum, the Hermitage. The old, green and white palace is indeed very impressing when one stands in front of it. Also the huge Alexander Column in the center of palace square is very impressive. As I learned in one of the museums later, it was hewn from one single piece of stone (although piece might not be the appropriate word)  that had been transported by ship from Finland and then erected on this square by a massive wooden construction. Now it towered over Palace Square.

Anna used to be a tourist guide which came in very handy now. She lead me to St. Isaac Cathedral where we climbed the tower from which we had a great view over Saint Petersburg. After walking through the center a bit more, Anna finally took me to two food places: The first offering since decades a kind of Russian donuts which was very popular among the locals, the second serving very tasty pelmini, Russian dumplings.

There we met a friend of Anna who took me with her to a private birthday party. As I was not really prepared (less alone dressed) for a birthday party, upon arriving I fished a box of German chocolate out my bag and so at least I had a foreign delicacy for the host. It was quite a fun night and I started right away to learn some things about Russians: Many of them know some German (and as I found out, literally all of them know the following: “Ja, ja, das ist phantastisch!” – obviously from some German porn movie (well, you cannot choose what cultural parts others like most, Dutch people know that as well). Also, instead of “cheese” when making a picture, they say “titts” (сиськи) which works way better for smiling!  I was also amazed that the German opera Rheingold by Wagner is known, as some other cultural things some Germans do not know about themselves.

The next days were full of wanderlust trough the city, walking the main street – Alexander-Nevsky-Prospect – up and down, many (many!) orthodox churches, cafes and Russian cantines. I also bought myself a Russian SIM card including data which helped me greatly finding my way and relevant info to sights etc.

One of the highlights staying in Saint Petersburg were surely the two performances I visited at the famous Mariinsky Opera: “My Fair Lady” as well as to a jubilee concert by Olga Borodina, a famous Russian opera singer (as I learned). The opera reminded me on the Semperoper in Dresden, old, marvelous, with a lot of glamour. Both shows were very nice to see and I am quite happy I went there – and that their staff granted me entry in my travelling clothes.

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