Vilnius provided a much-welcomed break from our speed-tourism. It is a very tranquil and beautiful city, with a couple of endearing quirks. The Republic of Uzupis, which was once a neighbourhood in the city, declared itself an independent Republic on April Fools’ Day, 1997. It’s a bit like Christiania in Copenhagen, but completely different – they share in their ‘alternative’ approach to things, but it is clear that Uzupis is not regularly raided by the police…

There is also a bust of Frank Zappa on a tall plinth (which Josh was totally unimpressed by), made by the same creators of the various Soviet leader statues which now all stand in the bizarre Grūtas Park.

Vilnius isn’t really a place I’d go out of my way to visit, and I think I’m joined in that by many due to the total lack of tourists (probably due to the economic crash of the Lithuanian state airline during the credit crunch) but just travelling through was very relaxing.

The train journey to St Petersburg (also known as Petrograd or Leningrad) was an experience. It was easier to find the train than it had been in Poland, but the inside of the train was somewhat unexpected. Boiling hot and with no privacy other than in the toilet (an intriguing affair with an all-70s look other than the extremely modern taps), the train became slightly more unncomfortable when the old Lithuanian couple boarded and insisted on moving our bags so they could put their bags under the seats, and standing on our card game so they could store the rest of their stuff. They then proceeded to sit where we had been sitting as we stood in confusion in the gangway. I don’t know what it is about a lot of the countries we have been through – a considerable amount of the time, the people you don’t talk to are extremely rude, but the ones we have spoken to have been really friendly and helpful. This distinction is clearest with this couple, who were quite friendly once Josh helped out with their bags!

‘Right kiddiwinks, you have to get up bright and early, so go to sleep!’ was the implication of all the lights going out at ten pm. In retrospect, perhaps we should have gone to sleep instantly, since border crossings into Latvia and into Russia involved lights on and foot pinching by sour faced and be-uniformed guards for anyone not awake to show their passports and visas.

We arrived in St. Petersburg and started our Russian adventure by watching the Prince of Persia on the big screen TV in our hostel when waiting for a free room! When we turned up, there was a note on the Reception desk with a picture of the Terminator saying ‘I’ll be back!’. We sat and waited, and a few phones rang, until one of the crumpled figures on a sofa stirred.

‘How long have you been waiting?’ asked Andre.

‘About half an hour,’ we answered.

Since he was supposed to have been on reception, our thirty minute wait paid off with free coffee, soup, pastries and the entertainment of the Donnie Darko actor prancing around in a loin cloth bouncing off walls and celebrating the Persian Empire. After that, we were told that unfortunately we had been moved (free of charge) to a double room instead of the 7-bed dorm we had booked. What a shame…

We later found out that the 7-bed dorm no longer exists, as the hostel has changed location since we made our booking. As a result, almost nothing that we booked was available, and we had a late evening adventure to another hostel to use their kitchen (!) because Andre was so insistent that we be able to cook our pasta.

Later on, the hostel was completely silent by about 10pm – no music, no people in the bar. Unnerved by the eerie atmosphere this created, we drank the Crazy Duck beer quite quickly. We found out that the reason for this lack of entertainment was that the rest of the entire hostel (including a sofa in the bar) had been booked out by some Russian Orthodox Christians, who seemed to have demanded silence…

St. Petersburg itself is a spectacular sight. Filled with grandiose buildings covered in gold and bright paint, it is a treat simply to walk around the city. We luckily found time on the one day when the sky was clear and blue to head up the colonnade to have a 360 degree view of the city.

We were directed to the Russian equivalent (and originator of) the milk bar, where you can get very cheap canteen-type food. Both here and in Poland they serve a juice drink that seems like they have boiled red fruit in some sugary water. It’s pretty tasty! Another cheap but much tastier eating spot is Stolle, which sounds German but is a pie chain found throughout St. Petersburg. Real pie here – the mushroom is simply jam-packed with mushrooms, none of this creamy nonsense, just mushrooms and garlic. Yum.

 

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