After glorious diversions to Helsinki and Tallinn, we were finally bound for the original starting point of the adventure. In the beginning there was St. Petersburg, Russia and gaining admittance to this grand land would prove to be a real bear. Perhaps the visa process seemed painful only because it was a new and unfamiliar experience, so let me begin with lessons learned. Hopefully a brief introduction will make you comfortable applying, because I will close by introducing you to this fascinating destination which justifies the learning curve.
I fear I am a bit spoiled hailing from the United States. This citizenship makes international travel relatively easy and there have only been a handful of countries where a visa was needed. Even then, it was simply a matter of laying down currency upon arrival. Russia proved a notable exception. Securing an entry visa was a bona fide headache involving several unique steps. The first unique step is securing an ‘invitation’, which is a simple document issued by a Russian entity (business or civilian) affirming that you have a place to stay. This struck me as placing the cart before the horse, since I would prefer reserving accommodations AFTER being granted an entry visa, but this helped inure me to the crazy steps coming next.
After securing the invitation it is time to reach out to your country’s Russian embassy and order an application. Be prepared to answer many bizarre questions (and no, I have no prior experience with nuclear weapons). There are plenty of commercial services available to assist navigating the procedure, but I wanted to get up close and personal with the procedure. Some parts were baffling, but working through the forms with common sense and patience led to completion. Then came the scary part, mailing everything off with your passport included! Of course you may dodge the posting by making a personal appointment with a local embassy, but that was not an option for me and I assume for most. I am relieved to report my passport was safely mailed back (about six weeks absent) with several comforting text messages and emails along the way assuring progress.
The happy ending is being reunited with your passport and viewing the Russian travel visa pasted in. While the cost of the visa was not worth its visual image alone (almost $300 US, about ten times more than I had ever paid for a visa), I do confess enjoying seeing my name spelled in Cyrillic characters. Once your passport has been returned you are set to go, but please be mindful you are supposed to ‘register’ for visits longer than seven business days. This is something your hotel can accommodate (for a small fee, of course) and even though our visit would only last five business days. Motivation for registering was the inconsistency of responses when trying to confirm whether it was really business days versus regular days (our stay was five business days, nine days in total). The rules on the Russian
web site state business days very clearly, but almost every local I asked thought it was plain old days so we played it safe. At the end of the day, nobody ever asked to see our registration voucher (you get a slip of paper several days later), so our action was likely an unnecessary precaution.
Despite confidence we possessed all necessary paperwork; the struggle instilled a tinge of paranoia before crossing the Russian border. Here is where I can soundly recommend taking the train. Because our itinerary had detoured through Finland, we wound up entering Russia on an express train from Helsinki. What a wonderful option. I always detest the long lines you need to endure to enter a new country when groggy after a lengthy international flight. When you enter Russia by train they tend to all of the check-in formalities while you are on the move towards your destination, so much more relaxed and a terrific time saver. Better yet, it was tremendously casual. Both the Finnish and Russian border agents asked where my luggage was and I pointed overhead, but neither asked me to retrieve for inspection. Wow, that was easy.
Another benefit was that we were not jet lagged. After checking in late afternoon, we began exploring by checking out a lovely spot near our hotel: the Summer Garden. A public space where the Fontanka canal meets the Neva River, the garden was laid out by Peter the Great in 1710 and entrance is free. From the garden we wandered to a fun restaurant where I ordered my first bowl of borscht during days in Russia.
The main event for our day of arrival would not start until later and was yet another celebration around summer solstice. Not a repeat of Midsummer
Eve from Finland nor St. John’s Day from Estonia, but a modern lsollapalooza known as Scarlet Sails. This tradition gleefully commemorates the end of the school year and only started up after WWII. I suppose freedom from classes is a universal source of happiness, because this festival has grown to epic proportions.
Only aware there would be a deluxe fireworks show, Laura and I walked down to the Neva River around 11PM. One would think we had gained appreciation for late hours from our recent kokko experience, but we ended up standing with crowds for quite some time. During White Nights it did not get dark enough for a fireworks display until 1:30AM. Fortunately it was a glorious bombardment well worth the wait. The most notable observation from experiencing this event was the magnitude of humanity. It was reported there were nearly one million folks lining the streets to revel in the show. Can you imagine? At this hour of the morning? As someone desiring to share in local culture the numbers guaranteed we were mingling with the natives (and I enjoyed observing watching people every bit as much as the explosions on high). Welcome to White Nights!
There was a terrific combination of fireworks and laser lights once the fanfare was unleashed, and the highlight was when the Scarlet Sail ship cruised past our spot along the shore. Apparently there was a Russian children’s story written about a ship with scarlet sails which drove the tradition, and it was an inspiring sight. The fondest memory for me was how much easier it was to monitor proceedings by peering into screens of all the raised cell phones then trying to stand on tippy-toe and vsiew things directly!
Just walking back home at 3AM was exhilarating. Folks poised on window ledges and standing on rooftops were apparently in no rush to retire, gazing down upon the masses migrating back home. This struck as a wonderfully communal rite which reinforced the beauty of landing in Russia during this celebration. Crawling into bed we observed it starts getting brighter again at 3:30AM. Welcome to White Nights!