I have waited months to be able to use the Bond cliché and now that I can, I will have to find the will power to not give every blog post written in Russia the same title. We arrived in Saint Petersburg via Dubai from Abidjan earlier today. It was not the grand entry we had initially planned for the Russia leg of our trip: riding into Moscow from the far eastern city of Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railway. Yet the four of us are delighted to be able to continue our dream of travelling through the BRICS, even if it is one nation at a time over the next few years. I will not get into how and why the BRICS road hit a roadblock. You can read more about that here. For now let me focus on our first day in what was twice the Russian Capital, St. Petersburg, after having been Petrograd and Leningrad as well. What a year to come and visit it too: in 2017, the city commemorates the centenary of the Bolshevik uprising that is known as the October Revolution.
After flying South African Airways (SAA) down to Cape Town earlier this month, the boys were relieved that we were travelling with ‘their favourite airline’ to Russia. Yes, they are already airline snobs, I am afraid. It must be the delicious child meals, gift packs and special attention they get on board the middle eastern carrier that is lacking with SAA. The latter could not even manage to load their child meals after pre-booking them two days in advance on the phone and verifying both during check-in and on board that they have confirmation thereof. Anyway, I digress, but wanted to stress that it is important when travelling with little adventurers that the trip starts off well from the get-go. Hungry, jet-lagged children do not a happy journey (or mommy) make. Emirates even had a couple of Russian films under their ‘Euro Collection’ as part of the inflight entertainment. Guillaume and I both particularly liked one called Ya Ulitche (‘I am a Teacher’) by Sergei Mokritskiy, which tells the story of one man’s battle to protect his family and loved ones during Nazi occupied Russia.
So, we arrived at St. Petersburg Polkovo Airport a little tired, but happy. The airport is clean and very modern. Clearly, efforts are being made ahead of the World Cup hosted by Russia next year. All signage was both in Russian and English and despite all the numerous ‘why are you going to Russia?’ questions we had before our departure, we were very pleasantly surprised by the large volumes of tourists arriving in the city at the same time. Passport control felt like a breeze despite the long queues and thanks to a new visa-free rule for South Africans travelling to Russia (a BRICS initiative that came into effect on 1 April this year), we were welcomed with open arms. Our luggage was already on the carousel when we came through and after that it took less than half an hour to withdraw Russian Rubles, buy a local sim card and order an Uber into town. I had already worked out beforehand that taking an Uber would be four times less than booking the hotel shuttle and it worked out perfectly. Within 25 minutes we were checked into our ApartHotel, equipped with a kitchenette (comes in handy when travelling with kids).
Max (5) had fallen asleep in the car and couldn’t be roused for the early evening walking tour I had planned, so Guillaume stayed behind with him and Guy (7) while I went for a quick run (I need to keep my New York Marathon training on course). It was raining and not really ideal for seeing the city on the go, but what I did spot were a 24-hour bottle store, several 24-hour restaurants and even a 24-hour florist, in case you’re feeling romantic after a few late-night drinks *note to Guillaume.
We eventually all headed out to dinner on foot at around 19h45. With not a sunset in sight, it felt more like midday. The boys even commented that they thought we were having lunch. We dined at a local family restaurant that offered everything from traditional Russian specialties to pizza and even sushi. The menu was in Russian but thankfully had photos of their dishes, though Guillaume is adamant that we will know how to pronounce all the letters of the unfamiliar Cyrillic alphabet by the time we leave, even if we do not understand the words they form. Dinner was followed by dessert for the boys, several rounds of the card game Uno between the four of us and at which point I looked over at the boys and said, “I’m looking forward to two weeks of seeing Russia through your eyes”. Max’s response? “You won’t see anything in my eyes. I have lots in my head, but nothing in my eyes.” Out of the mouths of babes.
Lots of sightseeing planned for tomorrow, so I’d best get some shuteye.