St P to Moscow 20.9.16

I awoke very early on my 44th birthday to realise my wife had given me a present beyond imagination. A present I will never forget. A gift that you cannot put a price on. Something you never imagine you will have.

 Bedbugs.

We caught the 7.05 Sapsan high speed train between St P and Moscow. The premier Russian line. It can hold a thousand passengers and travels up to 200kph. There are conductors per carriage that check your ticket, movies and free food like a flight and pointless merchandising souvenirs also like a flight. It was very efficient and unlike British trains, on time.

I know normally our readers are only interested in our food pictures but today you are in for a treat. Hold onto your napkins as I indulge in pictures of my birthday food.

Free chicken butty on train:-

Crimean Fizz and birthday cake Alison pulled out of her hat:-

We caught the tube to near the hostel and as we didn’t have a map turned on the smartphone GPS and walked to the hostel. You know the drill – check in but you’re too early so leave bags and head out but this time we chatted to a young enthusiastic German lad who spoke fluent Russian and English and was on his way home to start his PHD. By the time conversation was petering out the hostel man said our room was ready so we actually did check in.

We walked to Red Square and on the way stopped for a canteen lunch. I apologize for the autocorrect American spelling of apologise but workman tools etc.

Sorry I digress. I apologise for the blurry picture but in my hungry haste it wasn’t taken correctly and I only post it here for historical prosperity.

Anyway Red square was historic and beautiful. Surrounded by destinctive, individual, recognisable buildings but it was an oblong in Al’s opinion.

Wonderful Moscow tube again to an area supposedly good for food. Exit tube and we spied a building which we both wanted to cross a six lane road full of speeding drivers to get a better look at.

Food area is bad but we pass the Finnish equivalent of McDonald’s and our curiosity gets the best of us. It tastes of cardboard.

Full of gas, we walk off the indigestion for the culinary  highlight (so far) of the day of afternoon cake. I didn’t realise my wife was a British imperialist or a Victorian lady but when we travel, 4-5 o’clock for her means cake and tea. I’m not a man to start a row, so acquiesce and order my birthday cake. Triple chocolate with jasmine tea. Lady Victoria has lemon meringue and spiced currant tea.

Bloody special.

Back to the hostel where I was stripped down and hosed to try and remove parasites.

We read, we chilled, we realised our body clocks no longer ring to the 9.30 – 6.30 sleep bell that they chimed to for the last seven years and at 9.30 we went out for food.

The rules of our backpackers prohibited alcohol. Wow. They didn’t mention that in their sales pitch. 

Anyway, now I’m 44 and with age comes wisdom. They may ban alcohol in our backpackers but that’s for the noisy 20 year olds disrupting everyone else’s sleep not for the wiley 44 year olds. For my birthday tea we headed for the supermarket and bought salad, cheese, essential pickles, crab crisps and the prohibited vodka. Can you spot it in the photo?

For this years birthday treat I didn’t clean my teeth, simply gargled with vodka. (Sorry mother and father-in-law, its once a year)

Thanks for all your kind birthday wishes today, I really appreciate them all. We both love and miss you all when we do these trips but I’d especially like to thank Meg, Isobel and Billy my nieces and nephew who sent a wonderful video message. Great singing, keep it up. Your parents want to hear you practice more.

Gillian, this is for you

Last day in St P 19.9.16

Pastries for breakfast.

A lovely sunny day for our last one here but the temperature has noticeably dropped and a jumper and light coat are required.

After a sizeable breakfast we view the Leningrad (as St Petersburg was known in the Soviet era) blockade museum. Photographs, memorabilia and paintings about the 900 days siege during the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Very sobering. There were English information cards which were helpful but had been filtered through a propaganda sieve which wasn’t really necessary considering the subject.

After lunch in a more upmarket restaurant than we’re used to, we headed down the ever busy Nevskiy Prospekt for one last time following our guide books descriptions of the buildings. 

The Stroganoff’s palace, Cathedrals, Churches, Fabergé’s showroom, Singer sewing Co HQ were all gawped at in bright late summer sunshine.

We have both loved St Petersburg. It is a very big city with wonderful architecture and despite what people assume, friendly people. Its also a good introduction to Russia as street signs and metro signs are in English as well as Cyrillic.

Catherine the Greats’ Winter Palace

Singer Sewing HQ

Kazan Cathedral

Church of Spilled Blood

All Metro stations we’ve used have been round

Our hostel

Hostel stairwell

Fact of the day – Russian hipsters wear New Balance trainers

St Petersburg 18.09.16

Over a breakfast cup of tea I chatted to an American guy who recommended a bakery for breakfast so we descended onto Russian Greggs and bought a load of pastry products for brekkie. 

Today our hostel owner, Tigram had promised a Dostoyevsky walking tour around the area of Saint Petersburg that features so atmosperically in Crime and Punishment (one of my favourite books) so we waited in the hostel for him with eager anticipation, especially Al.

He arrived and we headed off to the haymarket area, which in the 1860’s when the novel was written was full of jobless, kopekless peasants doing whatever they could to survive. Drinking dens and gambling houses and all the other stuff that goes with it that can’t be mentioned on a under 15 rated blog. The area is still run down and after wandering around the beautiful bits of St P over the last few days was quite a contrast. Market sellers demonstrated carpet cleaners or vegetable peelers and cheap bars blared out high tempo pop music. We walked the streets and saw the apartment Dostoyevsky wrote the majority of the novel in.

 We passed the apartments that inspired those of Raskolnikov, The prawnboker and Sonya. We passed the crossing where Raskolnikov is accused and the real police station (still in use) where he is called to. Although a work of fiction, Dostoyevsky was a very precise, methodical author and to see the locations so clearly described in the book was an afternoon I won’t forget, especially as our host had done it for free on a Sunday, his day off and with such passionate enthusiasm.

Time to play on the tube again which is beautiful.

We headed out to the huge Soviet housing area to the south of the city. We saw statues of Lenin and huge apartment blocks and a six lane road where Russians zoomed by. I’m not sure what the speed limit is and neither do the locals. We watched the Russians at play wandering round a huge park. Sunday afternoon couples hand in hand or families taking a stroll, one bloke on an air blade loving his new toy.

Tube back to the central area and another long stroll ended in a Russian theme restaurant where we enjoyed pickled cucumber, saurkraut and smoked fish to start. Our main of 5 different caviars and pancakes came with 250 ml of chilled vodka and two shot glasses. When in Rome. We also squeezed in fish and crab sausages and rice. Delicious.

Full, we headed home and broke the journey with a dark ale. Craft ales are popular in St P too. Approaching the bar and seeing no staff, we were shocked when a lady suddenly stood up and asked what we wanted. We have already experienced the “Pop-up” attendant in the museums we’ve visited where you are asked to dispense with you coats and bags at the cloak room and usually there is no one in attendance but suddenly a 90 year old grandma appears from nowhere to take your stuff. Ninja grannies sitting under the bar.

We ended the night in the Liverpool bar a few hundred yards from the hostel. Live music and more dark beers. The place is a shrine to the Beatles with records, photos and memorabilia everywhere. The barman managed to look away from the ice hockey (Russia vs Sweden) long enough to serve us and we were treated to a very good acoustic guitarist and his bassist mate play covers with the inevitable Beatles number thrown in. Best though was a cover of ordinary world by Duran Duran. Very poignant.

17.9.2016 Saint P

So, yesterday I was rocking the shabby chic wear your husband’s trousers look, as all my clothes were being washed to get rid of the bed bug that kept biting me. So putting on clean, fresh clothes that fitted was a joy. It is the little things in life which make you happy. 

We decided to walk to Dostoyevsky’s house today, it wasn’t far (by St P standards) and it was ace. Although not the actual house as it was rebuilt and refurbished according to photos gathered it was pretty atmospheric and you got to see his hat! Guy was in his element.

On the same street was a food market so of course we had to have a look around. The fish counter was huge along with pickled herring and loads of smoked fish which looked delicious but impractical to carry around with us all day. St P also had loads of coffee vans selling all types of coffee out the back of a van, as you see in the UK but what they also have here are smoked fish vans, oh yeah, smoked fish out the back of a van, why not?

After that we went to the church round the corner. Rules on entry are that lasses have to cover their heads and wear no lipstick, guys have to take off their bowler hats. It was full of gold, lots of gold, and icons, lots of icons, as you would expect from a Russian church. 

By now it was lunch time and we hit the Soviet canteen, school style with food being kept warm (tepid) over water baths. I had potatoes, veg (well boiled) and fish,  Guy did better with his rice (saffron, Uncle Ben style) veg (well boiled) and chicken with cheese and tomato topping, with cup of green and earl grey tea for 530 roubles (about a fiver) and no stomach issues have been encountered – result!

Then off to State Museum of Russia, full of Russian art, folk art, and modern art. It was so much better than the Hermitage…..which you are not supposed to say but it had more interesting exhibits and showed Russian art through the ages. The modern Soviet realism was at the end so we were weary by then but still found it facinating. (BTW I now know it was Soviet realism on talking to a fellow hosteller who knows about these things).

Time for cake and tea, so we went to Ivans cafe and had cake and tea. Although we felt a little hard done by as the two couples either side of us were having a meal with what seemed like about 100ml of vodka to have shots of through the meal.

On the way home we passed a fancy looking wine bar and couldn’t resist a cheeky glass of Georgian wine. It was the only local wine in the menu, the rest were all well known brands back home that you would find in the mid range section of a supermarket, only much more expensive!

Having a taste for Georgian wine we went to our nearest bottle shop and after quite a lot of deliberation chose a Georgian red to drink at the hostel, whilst catching up with the blog and the latest Dostoyevsky book. 

As it was Saturday night we thought it would be rude not to go out and experience St P nightlife, so we wandered up the street looking for a bar that was supposed to do live music,  o.k. it was also an English bar, however we couldn’t find it so ended up in a Russian cocktail bar, playing English indie music, drinking red wine which came with its own canapes, Spanish wine had chicken liver pate tart case and South African pinotage accompanied by prunes! Dinner sorted we paid up, got a chocolate with the bill, and got back into our bed, 7ft in the sky, with no casualties! 

St Petersburg 16.9.16

Soviet era donuts for brekkie then the world famous Hermitage museum, of which the director once said “I can’t say that the hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not the second.” He clearly hasn’t been to the black country museum in Dudley.

Anyway, we bought tickets at the electronic machine so we dodged the 30 min queue (Sometimes I don’t understand my fellow human), but had to navigate around the many, many tour groups at the entrance to the museum. Non art lovers please look away now and jump to the next paragraph where normal service of pictures of food will resume. The guides say there is so much stuff here you’re better to just focus on something and not wander so we headed to the Da Vinci room to see the two versions of Madonna with child and on the way we saw a huge golden peacock clock and lots of tour groups. The Flemish art was good but for me the best thing was the Siberian exhibits in the basement. 6000 year old carpets and mummies from the steppes. INCREDIBLE!

Russian food for lunch, borscht,  solyanka  (meat soup) and salmon roe pancakes. 

After this, some medical affairs to attend to. Alison was savagely attacked by bed bugs in Copenhagen and has been suffering desperately since. The worst part is that they are on her face and neck, so besides the flaming itch she is very self concious of the huge red lumps she has to bare, so we headed to the American Medical Centre to get her some medication. They were very helpful despite our terrible Russian and we managed to get tablets and cream which were used immediately. 
The afternoon entertainment was the Museum of Political History which we mistakenly walked to. An hour later, after crossing the Neva river we entered the former home of the Prima Ballerina and Nicholas the Seconds mistress (job perks). This museum was fascinating offering an unbiased view of the events leading up to the revolution, the revolution, Stalins gulags, the Thaw (softening to to the west) and then Yeltsin handing over to Putin. Very interesting , but sometimes the English translations of the Russian text was a bit difficult to fathom out. We saw Lenin’s desk though!

We tried the tube for the first time and entered a futurist circular building and spent 3.5p each to cover the hour walk to get home.

Georgian food for tea as it’s been on my mind. Spinach and walnut pkhali

beef khinkali

light bread with raw egg

tomato and beef stew and sausages. Very nice. 

Tired. Home. Sleep 7′ in air.

Arrival in St Petersburg 15.9.16

Woke up feeling slightly worse for wear. Left the cabin and headed to the top deck for some fresh air where we were treated to views across a grey, industrial St Petersburg landscape. It’s how I thought Russia should look based on my childhood in the 70s, where the cold war and space race were in the news and Russia was portrayed as a cold, drab industrial society.

On leaving the ship, the scary looking pass inspector stared at us and after a few seconds broke into a smile and told us to smile. I guess our faces mirrored the colour of the sky.

Passport control took 45 mins to get through which is frustrating if you’re on a day trip which many of our shipmates were, but we hauled our heavy rucksacks through with pride knowing we had 5 days to explore the self titled Venice of the north.

We dodged the taxi touts determined to walk to the local tube to get to our hostel but after 15 mins and the realisation we needed the 18th left and we had passed four, we weren’t so proud of our heavy rucksacks and spotted a kosher looking cab who agreed to take us to the hostel for 500 Roubles. A decision we were pleased we took when the size of this city dawned on us. The cab took 20 mins to cover a small portion of the map we had.

The hostel were extremely friendly and gave us a shot each of rowan berry liquor which went down a treat at 10 am on top of a hangover. (Yikes) The owner also enthusiastically waved around pistols that he bought from a Berlin flea market so things were a bit surreal but that’s a state we think we can cope with.

As all tourists do we headed down Nevskiy Prospect towards the hermitage museum located within Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. The streets were wide and very busy and bordered by faded neo-classical mansions which nowadays house shops, restaurants and bars at basement and ground floor level. 

Capitalism is embedded and we saw H&M, Zara, M&S, Lush alongside a very cosmopolitan array of restaurants, but inevitably we ended up in a Soviet Cafe for lunch. Al had pelmeni,  a dumpling and I ordered fish soup which came with a pasty and a shot of vodka.

Pottered home to do the washing and check the room which had an amazing ceramic heater and a bed 7 foot in the air, ideal for vertigo sufferers.

Had a Korean for tea and were kept up by very loud chinese folk in the hostel.

14.9.2016 Tallinn Day Trippers 

So, an insight into Team Roberts is that I rarely get to be in charge of the cash, so after some discussion we agreed that I could be in charge today so I put our final few euro coins and 15 euros in notes into my pocket. We decided to take a walk to the top of the cruise ship and check out the view. Off we trotted, up to the 8th deck and we pretty knackered when we got there, I took a breather and looked around to see the 15 euros disappear into the water, churned up in the back of the ferry.  OOPS!  Guy’s face was a picture of disbelief turning to anger turning to ‘Why the hell did I let her be in charge of the cash’ face which was a new face I had never seen before! Every day brings different experiences when you are travelling!

We are still speaking after seeing the funny side of this, and had a day in Tallin to get through yet and disembarked from our cruise as proper daytrippers, and set off walking into the Old Town which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a beautiful walled medieval city with cobbled narrow streets majestic sturdy churches and colourful wonky buildings.  We were hungry as breakfast had been fruit so were on the lookout for an Estonian breakfast, which we found in a beautiful café,  I had a cabbage pastry and Guy had herrings and egg on Rye bread. Unfortunately the cafe seemed to be a tourist attraction in its own right so just as Guy was navigating through the tables with breakfast about 50 tourists descended into the cafe engulfing everyone! 

We then wandered the streets of Tallin and without much climbing found ourselves at the high viewpoint over the city, which was part of the medieval walls, very high and terrifying for us as we both suffer from vertigo. When a youth sat on the walls and swung his legs over to perilously sit and potentially fall thousands of feet to his death (in my head) I had to walk away as I felt so sick! 

Nausea passed and it was soon lunchtime so we eventually stumbled across an Estonian restaurant and had a warm honey beer (nice!), crispy pigs ears (scratchings) 2 fish soup, followed by wild boar stew, and Estonian roast pork,  all very hearty fare and we were stuffed after that! So a few more miles walked around the town and we were back in our first cafe for cake and tea, how civilised?

We then made our way back on board for sunset wine, cheese and reindeer for tea, view was stunning across the Baltic. 

As we seemed to have travelled through another time zone the football wasn’t on when we were expecting it to so we decided to do the cruise thing and get great seats for the cabaret. I think I can safely confirm that it is not for me, far too many scantily clad lasses and not enough male eye candy, still as red wine was flowing we stayed until the end.

Jim – door

Stockholm to somewhere in the Baltic Sea 13.9.16

Checked out and left bags at the hostel. Went for an 8 mile potter round Stockholm covering 4 of the 30000 islands that make up the city of 912000 people. I have to admit that after such a great time in Copenhagen, my first impressions of Stockholm were a bit flat but that was very unfair to a relaxed, cosmopolitan, progressive city. Stockholm is a big place. It is spread out and has wide roads and many green spaces and you feel like you have room to breathe. It is too big to wander about for two days and pigeonhole it but we’ll be back, it’s a grower.

We crossed over a very high bridge which caused a few twinges as neither of us are good with heights but gave wonderful views across the “downtown” area.

Back to the hostel via a supermarket salad which unfortunately didn’t have any wild strawberries, then collected the bags and headed through the tube to the port. We managed to get a tube ticket but when we arrived at our station there was no slot at the exit barrier to put the ticket into. The attendant indicated we should go through so we waggled our paper ticket on the sensor where the locals were placing their passes but the barrier didn’t move. The attendant opened her window and shouted “Just go through” and we walked through the motion sensitive barriers and on to the ferry port.

Check in with St Peters line was straightforward and we were issued with a boarding pass that doubled as a room key. We boarded the Princess Anastasia and entered our cabin which was compact but boasted two bunks, a wet room with shower, toilet and sink and very clean sheets all for the pre brexit price of £56 for two nights. A bargain. 

A pint of Lapin Kulta, a tasty Finish lager was €2.50 so things looked good. We explored the facilities and after leaving Stockholm and watching the beautiful Swedish coastline drift by with its classic individual wooden houses dotted within pine woodland we decided to head to duty free. I have to admit I bottled buying the €5.50 a litre Estonian vodka and went for the much more popular Ukranian vodka at €6.40 a litre ( a decision I regretted after visiting the friendly Tallin). We also bought cheese and smoked pork to go with the bottle of Sicilian red we had smuggled aboard (a boat with duty free). Cheese, pig and red were devoured on deck with views over the Baltic Sea. The vodka was tested with miranda fizzy orange and the cabaret in the Columbus bar where we saw a band playing instrumental Phil Collins, a film noir dance routine and a big haired songstress. Unfortunately we were too tired for the end of evening disco so headed for our bunks but pleased we could still see.

Stockholm 12.9.16

​Deep within the sensory deprevation chamber of room 4 Hostel Dalagatan,  two middle aged travellers slept. Eventually after 10 hours, without the noise of neighbours, trains, farting or extreme heat they awoke feeling pretty damn chipper.

Another beautiful sunny day ahead (our luck can’t last) we headed out for a great big stroll around the capital of Sweden. Down wide streets and through parks we pottered watching the locals do their Monday morning thing which seemed to be lunges in the park, sitting outside coffee shops or if you are a 30 year old bloke, pushing a pram. Eventually we stopped for lunch at the Ostermalm Saluhall,  a food market which has the best of Swedish produce. There were sides of salmon which make the ones sold in Morrissons look like goldfish. They were a bit pricey though so we opted for classic Scandinavian open sandwiches of herring and prawn which were very good. After that a cardamon roll and cinamon roll from a tiny bakery which only accepted card payment which we’re finding the norm here.

We continued walking along the waterfront to an island of the Djurgarden or Royal gardens where we passed the Absolut Spirit gallery, ABBA museum and Tivoli  fun gardens,  none of which interested both of us.

On to Gamlastan island or old town which is the island in the centre of the whole bay of islands which makeup Stockholm.  As the name suggests it is made up of old cobbled streets and alleyways shaded by tall buildings and lit by old iron lamps. It is historic and quaint but the nostalgic feel is tempered by gangs of pre – teen lads chasing around waving mobile phones playing pokemon.

We both fancied one last glass of Red before we head to Russia and as we couldn’t buy any yesterday we were intrigued to look round a government run bottleshop called Systembolaget.

We were shocked to see wine the same price as in the Uk as in some Stockholm bars a glass of house red was £9, so we bought a bottle.

Time for food and as we’re in the home of Ikea it had to be meatballs so we found ourselves outside Meatballs For The People where we had deer meatballs and mash with pickled cucumber and lingonberries which was very very good.

For those interested Al’s fitbit said we walked 12.79 miles today.

11.09.16 Copenhagen to Stockholm 

So, the pleasures of dorm life were brought home to us about 3am when our fellow traveller returned from a night out, blazing a torch around the room, for what seemed like half an hour, farted loudly, giggled and went to sleep. 2 hours later our fellow Belgium travellers got up for their flight home and we were then up at 6am for our train to Sweden. To say we were grumpy and tired is probably not required but I will anyway. 

We walked the 100 yards down the street to the train station observing the litter that was everywhere! Saturday nights here are obviously great!

We were so early at the station that we entered the platform before the international barriers had been moved into place.

Train left on time at 7.16 with about 6 people on board which probably says something about the Danish and not being fond of getting up after a Saturday night out.

I dozed like a nodding dog on the train, by the time were were a few hours in I was also becoming slightly itchy which I put down to being tired and sensitive.  The train quickly filled up on leaving Malmo and we had luckily been allocated seats in the quiet zone so were able sleep and read when we liked. I also heard my first’tut’ when someone’s phone went off. 

The views through the train window were stunning, pine forests, lakes, the odd mountain, more pine trees and more lakes with a few wooden houses dotted throughout – exactly what you would expect from a Swedish holiday brochure. 

Arrived in Stockholm on a Sunday afternoon with blue skies above. Walked 20 mins, mainly uphill, with increasingly heavy backpacks to get to the hostel. We are wishing it was winter so we could wear more clothes and have less to carry. On check in, we were shown to our room which was spacious and had an ensuite. OMG! We were over the moon! Who cares there was no window, ensuite and space more than made up for that.

As it was only 2.30 we made our way into town to a local food stall we had seen on the Hairy Bikers show that sold herrings, in all kinds of ways. 

We walked through the main shopping street with all the usual names- H&M, Starbucks, Joe and the Juice (Skandi chain which is fab), Zara, burger king etc etc. We got to the end and over to the next island which was crammed with Sunday strollers out for a slow walk. Unfortuntely we weren’t, we were hungry and tired and needed a herring fix NOW! Without elbowing too many locals out of the way we made it over the next bridge and to the food stall nystekt stromming. There was a small queue but he was still selling herring so we waited patiently and got a plate of herring, mash, and three accompaniments (for £7.50) and it was delicious! My accompaniments were the best, the mustard sauce was sweet and goes so well with the oily fish. It was healthy and delicious, what more can you want?

Less grumpy we ventured further into Stockholm and weren’t that impressed but I think we had been spoilt by Copenhagen. All the bars were either English, Irish or American it seemed really difficult to see what a Swedish bar was like so after a wander and a pint (Swedish beer- nice, nothing too special) we headed back to the supermarket over the road for Supermarket Tea. This time it consisted of pickled herrings, smoked salmon, rocket, kartoffelsalat (creamy), smashed avocado and gluten free crispbreads. It was delicious. 

We had also looked for a cheeky glass of white wine to accompany this fine dinner but to no avail. On googling Booze in Sweden we found out that hard liquor (as anything over about 3% is known in Sweden) is licenced by the Government and only sold in shops open til 7pm or closed on Sundays, healthy lifestyle it is then. 

By this time I was becoming increasingly itchy and disgruntled. On checking my face, arms and legs small bites were appearing, in small clusters, reminiscent of bed bugs, the memories of Asia came flooding back. Paying £35 for a bunk bed and getting bed bugs was a little disheartening.