28 June 2014
Midsummer break is a huge affair in Finland. It comes, of course, over the Summer Solstice weekend. As far as I can tell, the celebration doesn’t track one specific historical event like many of the US-based holidays do. However, the celebration has deep roots that you can check out by visiting that link at the top of this paragraph. Most Finns have some sort of plan to take advantage of the long weekend in order to break from the routine. Plans can include partaking of various Finnish beverages and stoking up the grill.
As with most holidays, a high-jacking of sorts by the religious world has occurred but as far as I can tell it simply coincides with the longest day of the year and if you are lucky perhaps some of the best weather to be had in the region. I can see why this celebration exists in a country where the winters are long, dark, and cold.
Midsummer for us meant an extremely thin week of football practice and probably the one chance that Charlie and I could extend out beyond the borders of Finland to see something new. Last year, we took a weekend trip to Tallinn in the little country of Estonia. That trip was a lot of fun and very interesting. This year we decided to take a look at Saint Petersburg Russia.
Considering all the hype and issues that had been going on with Russia and the Ukraine, we did have a bit of angst surrounding this decision. However, in the end we decided that there really should be no issues. However, we did do our homework using the Internet for advice on traveling to Russia as Americans. What we discovered was that Saint Petersburg is set up for visa-free visits as long as you don’t stay over 72 hours. And, Helsinki had a direct connection with Saint Petersburg through the Russian cruise line St. Peter. So the trip would be relatively easy to pull off. We just had to hop on the VR train to Helsinki on a Saturday, take an overnight cruise to Russia, spend Sunday checking out the city, back on the boat that evening and take the train back up to Seinäjoki on Monday. It was fairly cheap as well. The trip was 247 Euro for the two of us plus some tickets on the train, which when purchased about a month in advance, ran around 120 Euros for the two of us. We were set to take the train on June 21.
The nice thing about this trip was that there were no suitcases involved. A few items in a small backpack and we were ready to go. I decided to not even take a laptop computer with me. Charlie did bring his small tablet, which as it turned out later, was a life saver.
We hit the train, which was really a bus, at 9:10AM. The trip to Helsinki was part bus to Tampere and then a transfer for the remaining two hours over rail. The bus was a nice and comfortable ride to Tampere that had a single stop and took about two hours. From there, the VR was predictably smooth.
The above two photos are actually from the transfer station in Tampere just before boarding. Here is a look at inside the rail car. The seats are very comfy and reclined nicely. The station at Helsinki is fairly large with about 8 or 9 tracks.
We got off the train and headed into the station. The plan was to take our time walking through the city to the St. Peter Line. We had arranged to have plenty of time. It was about 1PM and we did not leave on the boat until 6PM that evening. The line was a different one that what we took last year over to Estonia but we knew the general direction in which to go.
Here are a couple shots of the entrance to the train station and then just as we exited out to the street on the other side, which is right downtown Helsinki.
I took a couple more shots down the adjacent streets. The street with the Subway and McDonalds was really cool. There were a lot of nice shops and really nice surface work.
We took off in the general direction we thought was correct, which was toward the Helsinki Market Square. We got to see this market last year and it is vibrant. It had been packed with tent vendors selling furs from the Lapland, artwork, souvenirs, food like reindeer meatballs, and so forth.
Along the way we hit the Helsinki Cathedral. This is a huge building completed in 1852 and set atop a big set of steps and overlooked Senate Square. Right in the middle of Senate Square was a statue of Alexander II. The previous link has a good panoramic view of the cathedral and the square. Here are some shots I took.
After we left the cathedral, we headed down the streets and eventually ran into the market. I got a photo of it while standing right by the office of the St. Peter Line, which was closed. Because we did not know where we were really going, we ended up at the office by Googling it on Charlie’s tablet. We thought there might be a map or something that would get us going in the right direction. But, the office was locked up tight like most of the businesses here due to the Midsummer holiday.
The other photo to the right of the one I took of the market is of Hietalahden kauppahalli, which is an old restaurant as best as I can tell. I did some research and that is what I think it is. I took the photo because I thought the building was pretty unique.
With a little luck and some wanderings, we finally found the St. Peter Line. From the market we could see a couple of large ships and we eventually found the Princess Maria, which was our boat.
Inside the terminal, we checked in and got our passes and had some time to kill. We found a bar nearby the loading area and decided to have a couple Karjalas, a local Finnish beer.
We boarded the boat and found our modest little room. It was tight but functional. We had not splurged on accommodations that was for sure. Each side of the room had a small cot. There was a miniature bathroom with everything you needed and might possibly be able to use if you were about 4 feet tall… we did seem to manage though.
Earlier, we had exchanged some Euros for some Rubles. The going rate was 40 Rubles for each Euro.
So this was the first of two evenings to kill on the boat. It was only about 6PM or so by the time we got into the room and dumped off our backpacks. We headed to Deck 7, which contained the duty free store, the bar, a couple restaurants, and a night club. We were both very hungry so we hit the first place, which turned out to be pretty good, we saw – some rabbit-themed bar. It had a lot of televisions, some good chicken wings and cold beer. We basically spent the entire evening in this place. Note the funky decor.
Later, when we were visiting the Fortress of Peter and Paul on Hare Island in Saint Petersburg we saw a small statue of a hare coupled with a fairly large statue of another hare that everyone wanted to have their pictures taken with, we made the connection. This link has a bit of history on the hare.
After eating and before heading back to the bar to watch World Cup and drink some more, we did wander up to the top deck and got some shots of the water.
We hit the sack around midnight in fairly good shape. It was a little different than our boat trip to Sweden for the infamous pre-season scrimmage we took with the team last year. I don’t think we found our rooms for that overnight trip.
The next morning we woke up with only about 30 minutes before making landfall. We gathered up our stuff and headed out to find some coffee. Along the way, I got a couple shots of the port into which we were landing.
There was a little place on Deck 4 that had some friendly girls running a small food shop. This area turned out to be where everyone was congregating to exit the boat as well. We got some coffee and took our time not wishing to mash into the press of humanity jockeying for the pole position at the door. Later, we found out why there was a big concern for getting off the boat as fast as possible.
After the swell of people had made their way off the boat, which incredibly was over a single, roll-up stairway device that attached to the side of the boat, Charlie and I made our way off and down into immigration. As we walked into the small area where immigration services were conducted, our nimble minds put it together why everyone wanted to be first off the boat. The lines for processing people were horrendous. The area had four booths painfully processing the entire ship’s population. We immediately made the mistake of picking the nearest line, which of course had no structure. This is the line that it seemed into which everyone had decided to merge. Had we been thinking, we would have worked over to the far wall where it later became obvious that some civility existed.
Resolved to our mistake, we remained in our ad hoc line and slowly inched forward over the course of 90 minutes. Total distance traveled in those 90 minutes was probably 10 yards. By the time we got to where we actually had a shot at getting processed, the situation became even more tense as others positioned to be the actual “next” person to get serviced. To compound the situation, we both were sort of on the outside of the line and had to literally force our way into a spot where we could actually stage ourselves for the booth. I finally indicated to this couple that was parallel with me that I would be going in after them. They said “fine.” Before this happened, though, I should mention that some older lady from New Hampshire decided it was necessary to announce to Charlie and I that the family behind them had been waiting “a long time”. I decided not to respond to this in the several ways that I could have responded to that inane announcement. Instead, I just stared at her blankly. Her husband, who was obviously embarrassed by his wife’s stupidity, muttered something unintelligible as he himself moved toward the immigration agent.
The couple I had negotiated with finally was through and I was seemingly next up. At this point, some guy behind me decided that since he was traveling with this couple that he should be next so that they would not have to wait on him. After some polite pushback I pretty much had had enough of him and told him that I “didn’t give a fuck about it” and that was the end of that conversation. Maybe I should have let him go but I was getting a bit irritated by then.
I got processed by the agent and was waiting for Charlie, who was in my “group”, to get through after another five or six people. Meanwhile, the tool that had had the issue with me going before him got through right after me and his friends had somehow had to endure an additional 45-second wait.
By the time we actually hit the outside, it was about 10AM. We found a free shuttle to drop us off in the city. Ironically, the group of three were on the same shuttle, which I thought was pretty funny.
After the short shuttle ride, we got off and got our first true look at the city.
By this time it was close to lunch and we were getting hungry. We picked a random direction and headed down the street in search of something to eat. After a short distance, we discovered a sidewalk menu in English with the familiar word “Pizza”. That pretty much made our minds up.
We entered the place and it was quite nice. It was an Italian-based affair with comfortable sofa-like chairs. We were the only customers as it was still a bit early for the traditional lunch period.
We got a couple pizzas and a beer and water. We had learned that in Europe when you order a pizza, that is a one-person meal. Unlike in the states where if you get a large pizza you pretty much are sharing it across the table. The pizzas here, which turned out to be just like those in Finland, are fairly large but have very thin crusts and not a lot of cheese. They were pretty good and would do us until we hit the boat again in the evening.
Afterwards, it was back out to the street. Our goal was to find a few key places that we had researched prior to the trip. We had a rough map and were going to go it on foot rather than use the “Hop-on Hop-off” bus system.
The above photos were just a street shot outside the place we ate and a license plate from one of the autos. I thought the Russian plates were pretty cool so I wanted to get a shot of one.
We headed toward the river in hopes of finding the church of blood. That was our first goal. On the way we came across a cool archway leading into some large area. It turned out it was the General Staff Building whose archway led into Saint Petersburg’s Palace Square.
Atop the triumphal arch was an array of horsemen and soldier statues commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in the Patriotic War of 1812. Across the square was the famous Hermitage Museum. Right in the middle of the square was the tall Alexander Column.
According to what I dug up on the Heritage, it is something you could wander around in for several days and just scratch the surface. Our time on the ground here was severely limited so we basically did not have any time to actually go into any of these places we were seeing. If I ever had the chance to visit this city again, it would be over the course of several days.
On the way out, we passed one of the Portico of the New Hermitage. It was a pretty impressive entrance. If you check the link out you can read more about it.
Nearby was the next place we accidentally stumbled upon – the Field of Mars. This is a large park with a center dedicated to the Roman God of War. It had a fire pit in the center that, I presume, continually burned.
I must admit that between the time spent on foot in Helsinki the day before combined with today, my older hips and feet were beginning to talk to me a bit. We were still trying to find our number one destination goal of the Church of the Savior on Blood. Thus far, we had not found it.
We finally spotted it quite by accident as we were leaving the center of the Mars field.. There it was on the horizon nearby. The architecture and colors were very distinctive against the sky.
We headed off in that direction and were soon at the foot of the church with hundreds of other tourists. It was set up so that you could pay and go in but of course we did not have the time to do that. So we settled for some pictures.
According to the information we had dug up before making this trip, the site was where Alexander II was assassinated by a couple of grenade-wielding anarchists. The building is, to say the least, impressive.
Just outside the site, was an ornate gate that led into a pretty large park. We later learned that it was Alexander Park, which also included Leningrad Zoo. We did not take the time to explore the park let alone check out the zoo. Here is a good shot of Charlie, though, standing by the gate.
The next major point of interest we wanted to hit was the Peter and Paul Fortress. This structure was over the water and quite large. There was no mistaking how to get there as it dominated the shoreline from where we were. It was over the Trinity Bridge, which was quite long.
Once over the bridge, we navigated another shorter bridge called the Ioannovsky Bridge, which lead directly into the fortress. Here are a couple photos with the first being the entrance right over the bridge and the second being the first look inside the fortress grounds.
A dominating structure in the fortress was the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Very near the cathedral was an old cemetery where many famous Russian generals were buried. I couldn’t find any links for this particular outside burial grounds but the plaque on the side of the iron-wrought fence listed off about 20 famous generals going all the way back to the early 1700’s.
Right across from that burial grounds was a small statue of Peter I seated on a throne or chair – Monument to Peter I. We stood quite a while looking at this odd rendition of a man. The first thing we figured was that whoever sculpted it must have been heavily influenced by the Shuar, which would be found in the jungles of Equador and Peru and also known for their head-hunting and shrinking practices. However, a little digging into the sculptor, Mihail Chemiakin, revealed that he was a non-conformist of sorts and had actually undergone treatment by the government to attempt to rid him of his particular thinking along those lines. Bottom line though, the miniature head, elongated arms, and intricate hands did not dissuade the line of people taking the time to have their photos taken with this fellow.
Directly across from Peter was a the fortress Guardhouse. I thought this building was particularly cool and its perfect symmetry provided a nice contrasting backdrop against the misshapen monument to Peter.
We continued to wander around the large fortress grounds and found lots of interesting buildings. Here is a shot of the Boathouse. I haven’t a clue as to the other building. I thought, though, that the lettering was interesting so I took a shot of it.
The time was getting on and we decided to head out and try and take a riverboat tour. We had seen several venues available while walking through the city. On the way out, we entered an area that had a stage set up that had what I am guessing to be an 80-person orchestra set up. By the looks of it, it was the full deal. It had violins, a huge cello, cymbols… everything. We decided to stop and listen as it seemed they were about to start up.
As we stood there, we listened to no less than three Russian dignitaries give lengthy speeches around the event. We, of course, had no idea what the event was commemorating or, for that matter, what any of the words meant. Well into the third speech as we stood there with the crowd in rapt silence, I turned to Charlie and asked him how much he would give me if I yelled out “FREEBIRD” from our position in the back. We decided that it would not be a smart move and that we might actually be hauled away. So, after listening to one of the pieces, which was quite good and very representative of classic Russian music, we made our exit.
Back over the Ioannovsky Bridge and we were right on top of several boats conducting river tours. We still had about 2 hours before we needed to be back so we popped the 500 Rubels each and found some seats. The tour was about an hour and the only negative was that it was all in Russian. Nonetheless, it was very interesting and gave us another unique perspective on the city.
These photos were purely random as we had no idea what was being said by the tour lady. I had plenty more pictures but this blog piece is getting long and the images were pretty much the same. The Russian lady did utter a short phrase that helped Charlie out at one point. We were entering underneath one of the low, short bridges inside the city and we distinctively heard the words “low bridge”. Charlie was able to turn, see and avoid the oncoming light fixture with which he would have collided had she not given him that warning.
After the boat tour, we were back on the street and took no time in finding a taxi that drained us of our remaining Russian Rubels for the ride back to the St. Peter Line. This driver didn’t speak a lick of English but was intimately familiar with the streets of Saint Petersburg and the operation of the vehicle’s accelerator.
Once at the terminal, we checked in, boarded the boat and settled back into the Rabbit Bar to get some food and beer. We were both pretty hungry.
The overnight cruise was uneventful and we soon were back in port in Helsinki. It was about 8AM in the morning. Again, we got some coffee at the little cafe near where you left the boat. This time, we decided to just wait things out and let the masses get out. We were in no hurry to stand in a line for hours.
Finnish immigration turned out to be an adventure in itself. After getting to an agent without having to threaten anyone, I was lectured about my upcoming departure date in September. The guy running the booth and scrutinizing me told me that I could not be in Europe over 90 days without some permit. I indicated that the organization I was coaching for was dealing with that. So, after getting lectured a bit more, he stamped my passport and I was cleared to enter the country.
Charlie, however, was not so lucky. He had spent two months coaching football in Corsica off of France before flying to Finland to coach. His days in Europe exceeded the magic 90 day limit. I was waiting for him just outside the officer booths when he and two escorting officials arrived and informed me that “my friend” was going to be deported back to America.
To no avail, we explained our situation to them. I was “invited” to come along to the holding room where we might try and straighten things out. Here is where Charlie’s tablet came in handy. Neither of us had phones or any numbers memorized that we could give to the officials so that they could call someone from the Crocodiles to see if this whole thing could be avoided. Through the tablet, Charlie got off a key email and found some phone numbers and we did get a hold of someone with the team. Unfortunately, it could not be resolved.
I was quickly separated from Charlie and sent on my way while he was loaded into the back of a holding van and transported to the Helsinki airport for deportation. This all happened so quickly that I failed to get the apartment key from Charlie or even say goodbye for that matter. As he was whisked away, I headed down the road on foot to the railway station with a million things going through my mind on how to deal with this situation.
After about 45 minutes, I reached the VR station where I grabbed something to eat and had a beer. I then waited out the two hours before boarding the train. I arrived in Seinäjoki about 5:30 that evening and was met by Aki, our faithful team manager, who told me everything had been worked out with Charlie and he would be arriving around 8PM.
Evidently, once Charlie had gotten to the airport, a different investigator took over the “case” and determined that they deportation was not necessary. The deal was that Charlie had to turn over his passport but could pick it up in a week at the Seinäjoki police station as long as he had the proper paperwork filled out for his extended stay in Europe.
Thus ended our adventure to Russia. Overall, the trip was great! It was something we had really wanted to do last year but did not have the time. We learned a lot about Russia, the people, line dynamics, and immigration laws. If you made it this far reading this blog entry… way to go!