Day 12

Friday, 28 August 2015
Start: Petrozavodsk (RUS) 09:45
Arrival: Saint Petersburg (RUS) 18:40
Total: 480 km



The next morning I didn't feel to well. With aching tummy, I dragged myself down to the breakfast room. In the basement a cosy little room with a small buffet was waiting for us. My sister and I were the only guests, so our first move was to put the television on mute. Why do hotels and restaurants the world over suppose that their guests want to eat their meal enveloped in a bubble of noise and blare? I needed some calm and quiet. And a coffee. We breakfasted in blissful silence until two young men, guests too presumably, arrived. Their first move was to put the volume at full blast. So much for the soft-spoken-quiet-Russian stereotype. My mood plummeted. I wanted to see my prejudices vindicated! But oh well, we didn't want to raise a fuss and as we were anyway done with our breakfast, we left them to it and went to check out.
Outside was a fresh clear autumn morning, the taste of yesterday's rain still hanging in the air, but with the promise of a sunny day ahead. Boy, could we be wrong. But for now we felt invigorated and ready to explore the promenade of Petrozavodsk in sunshine. There were only a few families strolling along the pier, so we had it almost all to ourselves. Lake Onega stretched out unto the horizon, its waves gently slapping at the stone walkway.
Shortly before 10 o'clock, we were on the main road heading out of the town. Unlike yesterday evening, we had the leisure to admire the beautiful old facades of the townhouses. Petrozavodsk was a much prettier city than Murmansk, the Edinburgh counterpart to Murmansk's Glasgow, so to speak.
At a gas station, we noticed that the fuel had become even cheaper. Barely 35 rouble per litre! We worried that it might be leaded, but we had given up on asking the locals about this. Once again, getting the gas pump to spit out its load was fraught with difficulties. Sonia had to run into the gas station and wave her credit card at the cashier, so that she would unlock to pump. Some people really have a trust issue.
We found the highway to Saint Petersburg without problem, but strangely enough there was only an on-ramp for the traffic going north to Murmansk, not for those going south. Instead, there were TWO off-ramps leading from the M18 into town. We had to take the bridge leading OVER the M18, drive for a few kilometres, almost to the next settlement, finally make a U-turn, head back the same way and, at last!, we were able to get on the freeway. What a strange arrangement! Convinced that we must have missed the real entrance, we looked it up on Google Maps when we were back home. As you can see for yourself, there is indeed no easy access from Petrozavodsk onto the highway. Unbelievable but, apparently, true.
Pretty soon, the sky clouded over and it started to rain again. Along the wayside, we saw dozens of people with buckets full of berries that they must have collected in the woods, offering them to the drivers. We didn't think that most of them would be able to sell much. Undeterred by the pouring rain, others still ventured into the forests, looking for ripe fruit.
Another common sight were speed controls. We used our headlights to warn the oncoming cars of the danger. Grateful, they blinked their thanks back at us. Others warned us in turn. Not that we were driving too fast, but it was nice to share in the feeling of solidarity. Vnimanije - spasiba - nje za shta. :)


Staraya Ladoga

Close to Staraya Ladoga, our first stop for the day, was a huge roadworks chaos. I didn't at all get where I was supposed to drive. After I had manoeuvred my way around all the obstacles, we were, naturally, on the wrong road. Sonia had to get out twice to ask for directions. At a tiny mini-market in the middle of nowhere, a girl (who didn't speak a single word of English) finally explained to my sister (whose Russian isn't that great, either) that Staraya Ladoga did not, as we had thought, lie directly ON Lake Ladoga, but a good ten kilometres inland. Odd. Just as odd as me not noticing this back home, when I had been planning our trip. But now we were luckily back on track and soon reached the tiny, nondescript settlement next to the famous medieval fortress.
I had read that Lake Ladoga, and, by extension, this fortress, was a favourite holiday destination for people from Saint Petersburg. So I had assumed that basic tourist facilities were in place. Like a parking lot to leave the car in. Njet. No such luck. An automatic barrier separated the grounds from the street. On the street itself, there were just two or three parking spaces and they were taken. There was not even a soft shoulder to speak of. I longingly eyed the empty parking spaces at the other side of the barrier. "Can't you go ask them to open the barrier? After all, we're paying tourists." Grumblingly, my sister got once again out of the car into the pouring rain and ran to the cabin at the entrance. After a minute or two, she was back, wet and annoyed. The lady at the ticket office had not been accomodating. Central message: the parking grounds were for staff only and it was not her problem where we would leave the car. Defeated, we drove back into the village and parked on the gravel sideway next to a little shop. Normally it would not have been a problem to walk the 200 or so metres to the entrance, but we were soaking wet after the short run.
Shaking our dripping heads like a dog after a dip in the lake, we purchased an entrance ticket and asked were the toilets might be. The receptionist sent us around the entrance building, insisting on the fact that the toilet was not IN the building, but behind it. Being the suspicious bastards that we are, we deduced from this that there probably was a loo in the building, she just didn't want us to use it. We went in search for it. And indeed, there was the universal man/woman sign, almost within reach of my hopeful bladder. Just at that moment, another young woman dashed around the corner, cutting us off. Had the receptionist sounded the alarm? In any case, she strictly forbade us to use the facilities. Staff only. The toilets for tourists were behind the building.
And there they were indeed. The stench was telling enough. A row of Dixi portable toilets wooed by very interested flies. I gingerly opened one of the doors. Yuk. I didn't need to go that badly. We decided to visit the fortress first, then worry about our bodily needs.
As the woman at the ticket counter had told us, the chapel and the outbuildings were at present closed. That only left the fortress itself, which looked like an Irish half-pint: small, stout and quickly digested.
In the main hall, there was an interesting exhibition, unfortunately mostly only in Russian. We didn't have the stomach (or bladder, rather) to decipher long explanations, so we just soaked up the atmosphere and headed on. As always, it was fun clambering about in such old galleries, halls and staircases. Takes you right back to the times of the Varingians.
When we left after about an hour or so, we noticed a Russian couple inspecting the Dixi toilets. They came to the same decision as we. Back in the village again, we couldn't find any public place that would offer sanitary facilities. Granted, we didn't look very hard, because back home I had bought a travel john, and I was eager to try this new toy. Would I be able to go on the go?
A few kilometres outside of the village, I steered the car into a half-overgrown lane, leading into the fields. "How are you going to turn around here?" my sister asked anxiously. No problem: I manoeuvred the car back and forth two or three times, then we stood about twenty metres from the main street, nicely camouflaged by a blanket of rain, high weeds and haystacks. Potty time. At least here I could be sure that no-one would see me.
A couple of minutes later, I clambered back into the driver's seat, greatly relieved in more ways than one. Just as I put on the seatbelt, a car approached from the back. Slowing down to a crawl, he curiously eyed into our car as he passed. Then he speeded up and drove off onto the main street. Wordless, I put the car into drive. "He probably lives further up in the fields," my sister ventured. As we bumbled up onto the shoulder, she added: "Good thing he didn't come two minutes earlier." Indeed.



After little more than an hour, we reached our second destination for the day: the town of Shlisselburg on the Neva. Here, on a small island close to the lakeshore, lay Oroshek Castle, a large fortress with impressive dungeons and fortifications. Unfortunately, there were no directions whatsoever to this supposed tourist magnet. We asked a lady walking her dog. She was eager to help, but we still got lost in the inner city maze of Shlisselburg. Snail-paced, we crawled along badly battered streets. The buildings here looked really run-down.
Finally, we parked the car at the waterfront and walked around. It had to be somewhere around here. We found an interesting ruin of sorts at a little park. Could it be that we were already somehow inside the castle grounds? Who knew, we might have crossed over to the island without noticing. We certainly had passed over several bridges. Too bad it was still raining. Confused, we walked to the waterside. There was large sign, promising to take you over to the island for a fee. Departure times: until 5 o'clock. It was now almost five, and there was no-one around. They had probably closed up shop for the day. We walked back to a small shop where we asked whether there was a bridge going to the fortress as well. No bridge. Just the ferry. So much for Oroshek Castle.
"You should have researched this part of the trip better", Sonia said, voicing what I had been thinking more than once in the last few days. But it couldn't be helped, and it wasn't as if this was Mycenae or Hattusa. I could live without having seen Oroshek.


The ring road of Saint Petersburg

From Shlisselburg, it was only 40 kilometers to the ring road surrounding Saint Petersburg, or Piter, as the Russians say. We got ready to spot the road signs in time, not an easy feat in the pouring rain. It was really coming down in buckets now. We hadn't managed to get our GPS to work again, after it had turned dead yesterday. We didn't have any maps, just the vague idea that Piter lay south-west of Lake Ladoga, and the Pulkovo Airport, where our hotel for the night was located, to the south of the city. So we just had to get on the ring road, follow it south and head out at Pulkovo. Piece of cake, right?
Unfortunately, I had overestimated the Russian provision of roadsigns, or at least my grasp of it. We hit the metropolis rush hour head on, and before we realized it, were swept away with the traffic, on our way into the centre of Piter. Luckily, I noticed that we had missed the ring road before the candy-sweet front of the Winter Palace loomed up before us. Make an exit, somehow cross the street, throw yourself into the next roundabout, go all the way around and up on the freeway again. We strained our eyes, looking for directions. Pulkovo is a major international airport, it must be signposted. No, it need not. In fact, it isn't.
After some pretty chaotic to and fro, Sonia finally figured it out: in Russia (or at least in Saint Petersburg), the directions are not given by indicating "North" or the next town lying on the way. Rather, major cities are used, even if they are still hundreds of kilometers away. Driving on the ring road of Piter, I need to know that Pulkovo Airport lies to the south east, and so does Moscow. So I must follow "Moscovskoe Chaussee". Still further to the southeast is Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. So southeast travellers follow "Kievskoe Chaussee", or "Kievskoe Sh." for short. Or, in Cyrillic script, simply a ш. To the northwest on the border to Finland lies Vyborg, so "Vyborgskoe Chaussee" leads there. Once we had figured out that we needed to head in the direction of Moscow, I could relax and fully concentrate on the on the traffic. Piece of cake, really.
Even though. The traffic really was dense. Combine rush hour with plenty of roadworks and bad weather, throw in the megacity dweller's impatient way of getting where you need to go as fast as possible, and you can imagine the ensuing chaos. We passed several accident sites, which only added to the gridlock. A BMW squeezed past us, unwilling to be stopped by something as insignificant as a traffic jam. Meanwhile, to our right, a babushka in her Lada Sputnik 1300 patiently waited for the traffic flow to resume.
The 20 kilometers to the airport took forever. Of course, having no map, we could never be sure that we had not already passed the right exit. Maybe we were already half way to the Ukraine? At last, Pulkovo Airport was pointed out. It was the next exit, perfect. At twenty to seven in the evening, we pulled up in front of our hotel.
It was a large Holiday Inn. Granted, not very Russian, but I had assumed that after three long days on the road through Russian countryside, we could do with a bit of familiar American wysiwyg. The service was fast and polite, as expected and the hotel roomy, clean and very nice. After a quick lie-down, we headed for the restaurant. They only offered buffet-style food, and it didn't look very appetizing. So we went down to the bar, where they served small à-la-carte dishes. Unfortunately, it was the most disappointing food we'd had in Russia. My beef stroganoff was, well, edible, mainly because I was really hungry. I longed for the wonderful food we'd had in Murmansk. But this was an American chain. Wysiwyg, right? Speaking of what we saw: the decor was just what you would expect in a sleasy Cold War movie featuring Russia: oversized prints displaying scantily-clad ladies, lavish red plush and a whole wall of empty Vodka bottles. So cliché, so American, and not at all what the real Russia was like. But, to be fair, the waiters were real friendly and their tiramisu was great.


Day 11                              up                              Day 13