I unselfishly prepared Mike his lunchtime omelet first with the loving care and attention you would expect from a wife of my calibre. I then lit the gas ready to make mine and WOOOSH! A gas flame flared out of the hob and burnt all the hairs off the back of my hand. Nooo, gas, scary. It kept happening. Mike switched off all the safety valves and we rang Wildax, the van manufacturers. They suggested a faulty regulator. This is so annoying. We rarely stay on campsites as we like the self sufficient nature of motorhome life. Our gas provides hot water, powers the fridge and of course is cooker. It won't be long until we need it for heating the van as well. Without gas we would need an electric supply to keep the fridge cool and we would still have to buy something to cook on. This means campsites and the end of the season is only a couple of weeks away. Luckily this campsite has a kitchen, like the ones we have in a youth hostel, so I was able to make our supper in there.
Before supper I went for a big bike ride around the area. This had been the grounds of a palce so there were lots of interesting features to go and look at. Well tended gardens and fountains, sea views and a very quaint harbour. There was a very chilly autumnal wind blowing in from the north and I wished it had been earlier in the season.
After an amazing power shower in the conference centre this morning we hit the road and arrived at the border at 12.30. It was all a bit confusing with four different queues, numerous highly important officials checking and rechecking our documents. I even had to fill out a form by matching up the Cyrillic script to another one we had filled out at the Poland/Belarus border. The van was inspected inside and out, including under the bonnett and we were finally out and heading accross the bridge to Estonia. Mike knocked on the kiosk window and a pretty blonde in blue uniform asked what he wanted. Her tone of voice sounding as if he had just asked for an ice cream. Anyway, she was lovely, another very officious one checked the van again and we were finally through. An hour and 40 minutes later, pleased to be keeping all these Russians and Estonians employed.
About 40km along the coast we found a really nice campsite at Toila. It is in the grounds of a spa hotel. Mike noticed that the offside of the van is coated with thick tar. This we must have picked up along the road to the border on the Russian side. It has set like thick black paint and is going to be very difficult to remove.
Estonia is one of the a Baltic states and was a part of the Soviet Union until it's break up in 1991. The language looks and sounds Scandanavian. We went out for a meal this evening to the only restauarant in the village. Amazing high quality food. Fillet Steak on the menu as a main dish for 10 euros!
Cycled to Peterhof, the summer palace of the Tsars. The road was very busy but it made a nice change from the daily commute into the city. The park, gardens and fountains were beautifully maintained. Mike went to pay for an extra night at the Stellplatz over in the conference centre and was shown where the shower was for us campers to use. Better late than never I suppose, but we'd had showers using our watering can that morning to conserve water.
Jon and Linda are providing water for us for the duration of our trip. Taffy has a sophisticated water system which is filtered. Russian tap water is of inconsistent quality so they fill up and we take it, filtered and safe to drink to put in our tank.
We're going to set off ahead of Jon and Linda tomorrow as they still have more to see in St. Petersburg. Mum has just found out that she is to have a knee replacement on 13th September. That's such short notice and I would like go and see her after the operation. We need to get back into europe so I can get a cheap flight back.
Got up early to visit the Hermitage Museum and beat the queues. We arrived at opening time and after a lengthy wait were told we had to go to a different kiosk to pay with a credit card. So it took well over an hour to get in as we had to queue twice. The Hermitage is a huge museum stuffed full of treasures, paintings and artefacts. It was very crowded and busy. We kept getting disorientated as there were so many rooms but we had pre planned which rooms we wanted to see, making it a little bit easier. It just highlighted the differences between rich and poor when the Palace was built. No wonder there was a revolution.
Walked to see the World's Widest Bridge, (doesn't qualify in Guinness Book of Records) that was actually a car park, then back to the van for an early finish.
The bus conductress was the same lady as yesterday evening, on our return trip. Another staff related coincidence, and she recognized us.
Our second day in St Petersburg and this time we knew our commute into the city. Incredibly it was the same conductress on the bus as the day before, she recognised us and made sure we got off at the right stop. We really warmed to these conductress ladies. Each one is definitely in charge of the bus. If a woman gets on and there are no seats available a young man will receive a sharp tap on the shoulder and they are very obedient and vacate their seat straight away. The passengers are also very polite on the metro. Seats are vacated for children as well as older men and women. I tried to give up my seat to an elderly lady but she just said 'Sit' to me. I wonder if this was because I am a tourist as she did accept a seat further up the carriage from a Russian, younger than herself. In a kiosk at the bottom of each escalator to the metro is a small booth with a uniformed member of staff inside, wearing a bright red Thunderbirds style cap. Each one, we only ever saw females, would just look at a computer screen and we wondered how anyone could tolerate the boredom. As our train approached a station an order was given in Russian and everyone got off the train in a very obedient, orderly fashion. No one said anything but a few exchanged glances. Thunderbirds meant go for the lady in the kiosk. She shot out, sprinted to the train and checked each carriage very carefully. It must have been some sort of security scare or practice. When she had finished the empty train just trundled away from the platform. One more bit on the metro, if you ever visit St Petersburg, the stations are lovely on the red line, including chanedeliers.
Our first stop this morning was the The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Another church that was more of a museum. This was beautiful inside and it's coloured spiral shaped onion domes looked like they were made out plastic and are the same colour as seaside rock. They're actually ceramic and in a spiral shape so that snow can't settle on the domes. That shape is also meant to represent the flame of a candle.
We spent some time in another 'real' church nearby where people were queueing up to be blessed. From there we visited the museum comemorating the siege of Lenningrad, a sad and moving experience. People were so hungry they were living off items such as boiled leather belts.
We met Jon and Linda in the evening for a curry near St Isaacs Cathedral.
Our Stellplatz is located in a very pleasant, leafy suburb of St Petersburg. It is approximately 30km from the centre of St. Petersburg on the road to Peterhof, the summer palace. Jon had researched our closest tube station would be Abtobo and we could get there by tram or bus. We all agreed it would be more fun to go on the tram so we cycled to the closest tram stop and secured the bikes. A very dilapidated red tram pulled up and the driver and conductor both said it wasn't going to Abtobo. We got on anyway and one of the passengers, a retired member of the Russian Navy helped us as we looked at the map. The conductress turned up and spoke to us again and our translator told us it wasn't going. Sunday engineering? Who knows. We walked to the bus stop and got on to the next bus. The conductress didn't speak a word of english but we managed to communicate that we wanted the metro. She was very helpful and made sure we got off at the right stop. The public transport is much easier to navigate here in Russia. Buy a single ticket for your journey from the conductor on a bus. When we got to the underground we had to purchase a single token for our journey from the ticket office. Same flat fare, everywhere. So much easier and simpler than other major cities we have visited.
We got off the tube in the centre of town, on the main thoroughfare, Nevskiy Prospekt. This long and busy street took us towards the river. The tourist office was closed (not very helpful on a Sunday) but it was good to be out walking on such a lovely sunny day. When we reached the river Mike and I split off from Jon and Linda and continued our walk around the old fortress on the other side of the river. St Petersburg is a huge tourist destination. There were 5 cruise ships on our first day and we have heard that there can be up to 15 in the high season. The city was established about 300 years ago, so is relatively young. It has had a very turbulent history with name changes during the Communist years (Leningrad) and has been rebuilt since World War 2 as Hitler saw it as a mission to try and completely destroy the city and the people. Before we arrived we had been told that 12 mafia shootings a day occur in the city and although I knew that tourists would be protected this kind of talk made me think that we could have been entering a threatening gangland. I felt safer than I have done in parts of the UK. Everywhere we visited was very well maintained and there were no loitering youths, no graffiti, in fact nothing made me feel unsafe at all. The authorities must be working very hard to protect tourists from any crime and we didn't see any 'dodgy' suburbs.
We visited St Isaacs Cathedral which is more of a museum than a place of worship. We ate at a very nice traditional Russian Restaurant before our journey back to the van which took about an hour. We showed the bus conductress a picture of the palace near where our Stellplatz is but we got off early by mistake. This added another 3km on to our walking day which we didn't really need!
We arrived here the day before yesterday and negotiated staying in the carpark of the Intourist hotel at Novgorod. It has provided us with a nice quiet place to stay with water and dump facilities and is conveniently located approximately 1km from the old Kremlin. Mike and I can just see the river from the van. We took a cycle tour around the old Kremlin and looked inside the churches. This was a very important trading town and is very old. It was flattened in WWII and the Russians restored afterwards it as a priority. There were so many churches on both sides of the river and a cathedral within the walls of the Kremlin. It has all been very well restored and is the most touristy place we have seen so far with cafes, bars, and stalls. Jon and Linda found a very posh Italian restauarnt where we ate on Friday night. There were 3 different groups of people who had obviously just got married. Small, close family groups only. While we were staying at the hotel a group of 10 German motorhomes turned up. They were part of an organised tour. They had a Russian folk group organised. The entertainment took place in the carpark and consisted of singing and dancing with accompanying music on a variety of instruments including a 3 stringed 'lute', an accordion and a wooden wind instrument in the shape of a duck, played like a recorder with the mouth piece the duck's backside. The single male in the group was an accomplished dancer who leapt about and performed some 'Cosack' style moves. The girls also sang and danced beautifully. We were encouraged to join in with dancing but felt a bit self concious doing so as we weren't part of the tour. The Germans didn't mind sharing at all and seemed disappointed when we left to go and eat as it appeared they wanted to chat more with us.
We left Novgorod after our two day stay this morning and joind the main road to St Petersburg. This was our first real exposure to Russian driving on one of their main thoroughfares. They are maniacs behind the wheel, their driving style encouraged by machismo , many have ultra powerful cars, others old wrecks with underpowered engines and shoddy tyres. Their attitude appears to be a lethal combination of suicidal, impatience, with a murderous quality in vehicles that aren't really roadworthy. The trucks are also badly maintained and badly driven, their drivers also in a tearing hurry. They overtake at inopportune moments. When we set off it was raining, the road was slippery. We got caught in a traffic jam which lasted for about 5 miles. The cause of which was a lorry that had jackknifed on the other side of the road. There was an elderly ambulance and an ancient fire engine in attendance. A single policeman in his vehicle at the scene. An apalling lack of basic services.
After 2 brief stops, one for lunch and another for fuel we were held up again by another accident, again in the opposite direction. This time a young couple were standing with their arms around each other. Their belongings in a pile on the road next to them and their car. No bonnet, engine exposed, and the back completely destroyed.
We arrived in a suburb of St Petersburg during the late afternoon. Jon and Linda had found a Stellplatz, through researching the internet and it had only opened in May this year. It's lovely here. We're parked on a hard standing secure car park, a view of a small marina and the gulf of Finland. Mike and Jon have paid for four nights and there is meant to be a shower here but we haven't found it. It's in the car park of a conference centre and there is also a palace in the grounds here as well.
We drove to Pskov today and parked the vans in a supermarket carpark. A taxi pulled up in front of the store and Mike asked the driver how much it would cost into the old town. One of the departing passengers overheard and translated for us. Using her index finger as a pen she wrote 150 in the dust on the side of the vehicle. We wanted to visit the old Kremlin and she translated this for us. We were lucky to stumble upon an English speaker and we all thanked her profusely. Althugh she can only have been in her early forties she returned our thanks with a toothless grin. The taxi whizzed us along the dual carriageway into town with several abrupt lane changes. The Lada didn't look capable of the speeds it achieved but the driver used his indicators and mirrors and we were safely delivered to our destination at a cost of 100 Roubles. (£2.00)
The Kremlin was a nicely restored medieval castle wall around a cathedral. The views of the river were lovely even though we couldn't climb up onto the parapet wall. The lady in tourist information just up the road advised us where the post office was. It didn't really look like a post office from the outside and when we went in there was a continuous counter running around three sides of the large hall. Long queues had formed at points where there was an employee but there was absolutely no way of knowing who was waiting for which service. We stood in one of the lines and a customer two places ahead of us overheard us talking in English and offered us assistance. Beaurocracy is clearly still alive and well in Russia as even he had to ask which was the counter for stamps and double check that we would be served. As we walked searching for a nice cafe we noticed beggars whose bruises suggested a severe fighting/accident habit, possibly fueled by alcohol consumption. This we hadn't seen in Belarus. Then we saw a building that looked next in line for renovation along with the Kremlin and churches around the park. As we approached we noticed ambulances parked outside. It wasn't a ruin at all but some sort of medical facility. I looked in to one of the offices and saw a consultation in progress. Further evidence that life must be harsher and poorer here in Russia than in Belarus.
After about 10 minutes trying to to hail a taxi from our drop off point outside the Kremlin Mike found a taxi rank on the other side of the road. No wonder no one was stopping. Before we climbed in Jon showed him a map and a picture of our supermarket. This journey was much more sedate than the one in to town. This was because the driver was watching a soap opera on his dashboard mounted TV and must have had only one eye on the road.
We did the shopping befire we left. Food was surprisingly expensive and one of Mike's cans of beer punctured at the till.
We found a TIR park for the night just a few KM outside Pskov on the road to Novgorod.
Mike's wasp sting looks very sore today and his leg has swollen. He took a cocktail of tablets last night, and anti histamine and pain killers but the most relief was from a keeping his leg raised and the application of an ice pack. The road to Novgorod was the worst one we have come accross. Huge pot holes and stretches without tarmac. Mike criss crossed trying to find the least bumpy line and we averaged less than 20 miles an hour in 3rd gear. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic on the road. We drove through some tiny hamlets, without even a shop. The houses are still the wooden hut type but they look less well kept than the ones in Belarus. There were signs to other places along the way but they were just sandy tracks. It must be a truly miserable existence here in winter. There isn't even mains water, we have seen wells along the way. People are selling produce but this usually consists of a single container of berries or mushrooms from the forest. We found it very distressing to witness, this grim existence more what you would expect to see 100 years ago, not in the 21st century when there is so much wealth in Russia.
We are now at Pskov approximately 300km south of St. Petersburg. Mike took advantage of a lovely sunny day to get on and do the washing. It took him all day doing hand washing with breaks just for meals and drinks. After lunch he reclined on his sun lounger and promptly got stung by a wasp. No rest for the wicked.
Before we arrived in Belarus I had no idea of what to expect. I'd done no research on the country at all and had no pre conceived ideas. All I knew was that it was a former soviet state and that there was going to be lots of mosqitoes.
Having been in the country for nearly three weeks I've learnt a lot and done some research. From what I found I think I may have been terrified to go there. The last Dictatorship in europe, a closed country with closed currency. The border crossing was slow and laborious when we arrived and it was clearly a beaurocratic country. After crossing the border we travelled freely and were not stopped or questioned once. The people were kind, helpful and friendly. The english speakers we met were curious about us and we pumped them for as much information as we could. It looked like a harsh existence out in the villages which appeared poor. There is a lot of work being undertaken on infrastructure with towns and monuments being smartened up and the roads were of a high quality.
Just before the Russian border we stopped to purchase vehicle insurance. Would there be huge queues? What could we expect? Nothing, not one official. It was an open road straight through. The border has been opened up between Russia and Belarus.
There was a lot more traffic on the road, and the driving is crazier. Approaching suicidal, like the Greeks. At about 5pm we saw a TIR park and a new motel at the side of the road. We parked and went in for a drink. A lovely new bar and restaurant. The lady behind the bar was also the waitress and she kindly let us behind the bar to choose what we wanted to drink as communication was proving a bit awkward. There was a very distracting Russian pop concert on TV with Western Acts such as the remnants of Boney M. I was desperate to see if they played Rasputin' ("Oh, those Russians") but sadly the channel was switched, which was more sociable for our little group. We were unsure if the clocks had gone forward so I went over and asked our lady for the time by gesticulating at my wrist. She took me into the spotless, stainless steel kitchen and pointed to the clock, which had indeed advanced by an hour. There was a menu in English and some of the snacks translated well. Having seen the kitchen and found out it was suppertime as well we decided a full range of snacks was in order. Not very healthy, but delicious. My first Borscht soup and Mike had a lovely salad with very tasty, tender lumps of pork. Entitled snow drop salad it could have been anything.
Although close to the road we slept well and the following morning hit the road north.
I love travel, any type. There is always a buzz in finding & exploring a place for the first time, meeting and making new friends and if you return things are never quite the same.
Going away? Travel essentials from across Amazon
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