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Petrograd. Leningrad. St Petersburg. Which ever you prefer, the place is grand. And I mean in the most over the top way you could possibly imagine. The Hermitage, possibly the world's second best museum after the Louvre, is housed in the former winter palace of the Czars, and it's hard to pay any attention to the exhibits due to the constant distraction of the palace design. It is an absolute masterpiece of baroque/classical architectural styles, layered with guilded gold leaf and extravagant embellishments of all forms around every single turn. It's jaw dropping really. The Czars knew a lot about class, and I am certain they gave the French a good run for their money.

On the streets, St. Petersburg makes you feel small. All the buildings, bridges, churches, and canals are of such scale that you sometimes feel you are getting lost in the shadows. Yet, this grand "Venice of the north" is so full of museums, artistic cafes, angular streets that hide their next attractions, and basement restaurants that the entire city feels a little like an art university. It's quite wonderful, but truth be told, I preferred Moscow because it seemed to be more "alive". That is not to say that St. Petersburg is not superb - it is - it's just that it seems to exist on a single theme; the preservation of Russian culture.

Our guide Olga was funny - she was actually revelling in the grey dreary weather we had the first day, saying that that was what made St. Petersburg so great - the greyness of it. And man, she was right, when there is no sunshine, the place looks like it was sketched with a lead pencil. But the sun came out the next day, and all the building lit up like Christmas trees. Still, the city's residents are fonder of the dreary grey look, which I suppose is just a part of their nature and history. Of course, they have the compulsory Russian anti-smiles to match. :|

The other strange thing about the city is that it does not feel as safe as Moscow. Indeed, an American couple in our hotel told us how they were mugged on the subway by a gang of thugs while everyone looked on and no-one lent a hand. All they had left was their passports, and only because they left them in the hotel. Everyone tells you never to speak to the police - just walk by with no smile, as this might cause some sort of interaction; they are all supposedly very corrupt. You can watch this happen. I think the safety of the city has something to do with the fact that there are so many broad streets with high buildings on either side, but not many stores or green spaces, or even people walking around (except on Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main drag). The lack of people makes the streets feel deserted, as though someone will jump from the courtyard shadows without warning. It was one of the first times on the whole trip where I said to Kristine "Nope - were not going down that way."

But the splendour of the many palaces, churches, and former mansions provide the redeeming characteristics that make the city a very compelling place to visit. It will still be one of the highlights of the trip I think. The last night with our trans Siberian group was spent at the world famous Marinsky Theatre where one of the top ballet troupes in the world regularly performs. This is the group from which many dancers defected during soviet times, and today's dancers were equally talented. Of the three pieces included in our ticket, Scheherazade was the best, mixing modern and traditional styles with an Arabian theme - pretty cool. The theatre itself is entertaining, with five levels of seating, and grand balconies where the likes of the Czars and Czarinas once sat and observed. Of course, we could only afford the nose bleeders, but it was spectacular nonetheless.

After we split from the trans Siberian group, we headed over to the official Hostelling International hostel on the other side of town. Taking the metro with all our bags was a bit of an experience, but it worked! But what a rude awakening it was to be back to hostels! Essentially, it was a switch from a nice boutique style hotel to a crumbling monolithic block with simple radiator style heaters near the walls. And after being with groups since Hanoi, where all the hotels have been pretty decent (I guess we are paying for it....), the switch was a bit of a rude awakening. I guess we better get used to it though as we are moving into the more costly phase of the trip (Europe), and I think the bathroom will almost always be down the hall, much to the disappointment of Kristine (and sometimes me) :( On the plus side, our rail tickets arrived properly from Vancouver thanks to our super duper travel agent in Vancouver (thanks Spencer!), which really helped because you can't buy discounted rail passes for Europe while in Europe (why, I'll never understand) and we couldn't get them in China or most of SE Asia, so we would have been in a pickle!

Today we just walked around town soaking up the sunshine and spent time getting some postage off. The visit to the post office was hilarious as it was obvious that soviet bureaucracy is alive and well here. We were shuttled back and forth from wicket to wicket to get things weighed, buy the proper packaging, get the stamps, lick the stamps, and finally post the package. All services without a smile or positive attitude of course. The woman selling me the stamps took what seemed to be eons to meticulously count out all the stamps to the correct amount. In spite of her glasses, she could not see inches beyond her nose and I thought she might drool on my package. But eventually she found the right combination to give me 94.20 Roubles exactly. They couldn't even give Kristine the combination of stamps she needed for her postcards, not without covering up all the wording at least. I suppose some things might never change here, but then again, is our postal system any better? Hmm...

Tomorrow we are off to Warsaw via Denmark (Copenhagen). Just a connection, and we're not planning any time in Denmark - maybe another time. This just happened to be the cheapest option to Warsaw from St. Petersburg for our dates. After a few days there, we're heading south to Krakow for the former concentration camps, and then on to Prague - lovely Prague - I always knew I would be back someday; as the folklore states, if one touches the statues on the Charles bridge, one always returns...



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