Day 13

Saturday, 29 August 2015
Start: Saint Petersburg (RUS) 10:40
Arrival: Helsinki (FIN) 21:30
Total: 448 km



The next morning, we were greeted by fantastic weather: the sun was smiling down on us, the sky was clear and it was even relatively warm. We spontaneously decided to visit the Catherine Park in Pushkin. A few weeks earlier, our parents had visited the adjacent palace, which is famous for its Amber Room. The pictures they took had been really impressive. We didn't feel like doing exactly the same tour, but after three days of rain and drabness, it would be great to get out of the car for a while and stroll around the extensive palace grounds.
Pushkin lies only 12 kilometers to the southeast of Pulkovo Airport. As our GPS receiver wasn't working anymore, we painstakingly noted down the directions from Google Maps and set out. And lo and behold – we found the place without a problem. Which goes to show that a little bit of advance preparation is a lot better than blind faith in some technology that might fail you at any moment.
Pushkin, or Zarskoye Selo as it was formerly called, is a beautiful little town. The Catherine Palace and Gardens complex with the adjacent restored 18th-century houses and streets is actually still called thus. The name means The Tsar's Village in Russian.
At the town entrance, we passed a roundabout with an impressive Eyptian-themed gate. A tree-lined boulevard lead directly towards the tourist complex. Helpful signposts saying Dvoretz (meaning "palace") pointed us in the right direction. So far so easy. Now to the harder bit: where to park our car. You would think that a tourist magnet like Pushkin offered its visitors a large car park. Well, no. At least we didn't find any. Luckily, it was still relatively early in the day, so we finally located a tiny parking spot along the street. I squeezed the car into the free slot and we went in search for a ticket machine. There was none. Strangely enough, you didn't need to pay for parking here. Town officials take note: I am sure most drivers would prefer a large car park and would gladly pay for the privilege.
We walked about three minutes to get to the palace entrance. Coming up to the gate, you need to walk through a pedestrian street full of souvenir stands. A true tourist trap. Everywhere, they were selling mugs and T-shirts with Vladimir Putin's picture on it. We wondered whether they were a hit with foreign tourists or rather with the Russians. I couldn't imagine many Germans buying cups with Angela Merkel's portrait on it. Or Luxembourgers buying Jean Claude Juncker T-shirts. But maybe that was just due to my lack of imagination. And in any case, American tourists might like them.
In front of the palace, a group of artists were dressed in period costumes. Alexander Pushkin asked us if we wanted to take a picture with him, for a small fee. We didn't, but many people did, and it was nice to see.
Oddly, there were not many people at the ticket gate. I suppose most tourists come in bus groups and are steered through a different entrance. We quickly obtained our tickets for the gardens and walked in. Unfolding the detailed map that the lady at the ticket booth had given us, I noticed that the descriptions were all in Russian. But they also had English maps at the booth, I was sure the man in front of me had been given one. Well, that's what you get when you ask for your tickets in the local lingo. We set to deciphering the explanations: Parkovaya skulptura, nizhnyaya vanna, ermitazhnaya kukhnja, rybnyi kanal, grot, all obvious enough. But what was a prud? Did we want to see the prud? Naturally, we wanted to see everything. This wasn't really helpful. So I stuck the map back into the pocket and set out to explore the grounds.
The park was huge and there was so much to see. Luckily, there were not many tourists around. It was quiet and pieceful and we enjoyed the lakes, statues, ruins and various follies that the former rulers of Russia had built here. We encountered a small group of young Iranian tourists waving, for some unfathomable reason, little flags of Iran. We had been learning Persian for a few months, so I strained my ears to snatch up parts of their conversation. I even understood a word or too, mostly French leanwords. LOL I'm not a Ferdowsi yet.
There was music drifting out from one of the pavilions. Curiously, I stepped closer. The somber domed room looked deserted, at least there were no other tourists inside. In a corner near the window, a group of men stood together, lightly singing something from a partition. When he noticed me, one of the men faltered in his song and turned his back on me. Oops, looked like I was interrupting a rehearsal. I quickly withdrew back into the sunshine outside.
We had the more remote parts of the estate almost completely to ourselves. This made you feel like an Rococo lady, wandering around in her pleasure garden. The marble bridge, the hidden little paths under vast trees, the cute little girl feeding the ducks at the pond (by the way, prud means pond, I know that now). All heavenly. I could have stayed here for hours and hours.
But we had a long journey ahead of us. Tonight, we would hopefully be sleeping in Helsinki. So better get going. Back at the palace entrance, we fell into a gaggle of Japanese tourists. Or were they from China? And why did they always seem to move around in cohorts? Or maybe I only noticed those that did come by the busloads. In any case, they built up a huge racket, giggling and discussing way too loudly for my taste. Time to leave.
Back in the pedestrian street (the one with the Putin paraphernalia), I noticed a heavenly scent wafting out from a small shop. I followed my nose. They were selling pancakes in there! Of course I had to have one. A wonderful steaming hot pancake with chocolate. And a not-so-great kvas. I remembered the refreshing kvas from the street seller in Chisinau, Moldova, three years back. Sooo much better than this canned kvas. Mental note: either go for the real thing, or stick to Coke. The little shop was actually a tiny military museum, with adjacent cafe. In any case, the pancake was delicious.


On our way out of Russia

Around 1 PM, we were back at our car and ready to get on the road. Which was not that easy. The traffic had thickened up to a treacle-like consistency. Or actually, it was more like bitumen. It seemed to kinda flow, but then again, it didn't. Not a single driver would let me get out onto the street. Even when I had managed to squeeze into the traffic flow, we inched forward at a snail's pace. Which did have its advantages: plenty of time to get our bearings, decide which road to follow, and above all, time to snap some pics. Sonia snapped away, I being the driver would never do that of course. Nooo.
The ring road around Piter was just as congested and crazy as yesterday. Several roadworks and traffic accidents later, we debated which "chaussee" we needed to take. Was it Vyborgskoye Chaussee leading to the city of Vyborg on the Finnish border? Or rather Primorskoye Chaussee, which, according to the roadsigns, seemed to be the beginning of the M10 highway to Finland. But according to our map, there was no M10, only a short stretch of freeway leading west, then ending abruptly. And it would be a detour. A hard decision. If we missed the right road, it would mean turning around, or worse, groping our way through the Russian countryside, not knowing were we even were. At last, we decided to go with Vyborgskoye Chaussee. At least it would bring us without ado to the Finnish border.
We got onto the A122 to Vyborg. O-oh, this was definitely not a four-lane freeway. At first, we trundled along an inner-city street in a one-dog-town, simply following all the other cars who had taken this exit. This place had the traffic of a megacity coupled with the infrastructure of a Luxembourgish highland village. Even when we finally left the town behind, the road didn't get any larger. It was one lane in each direction, with an additional emergency lane on the hard shoulder. As there was so much traffic, the emergency lane was actually used as a crawler lane.
Usually, I don't mind letting faster traffic pass. In Greece, I had always been grateful for the truck drivers who swerved onto the hard shoulder to let me pass. I had returned the favour by getting quickly out of the way when the need arose. "Quickly" and "when the need arose" being the crucial words here. On the road to Vyborg, the need was constant and unrelenting. The fast drivers seemed to expect the rest of the traffic to use the emergency lane as a constant crawler lane. They positively pushed you onto it, if you didn't want them to pass you in the oncoming lane, where the traffic was just as heavy. This was inasmuch a problem as the emergency lane was often used up by halted cars. I don't know whether these cars had all broken down, or if the driver was just making a pitstop along the wayside. In any case, it's dangerous to be driving 80 or 90 km/hour in a lane which could at any moment contain a stopped car.
The heavy traffic, the constant pushiness of the car behind, the hair-raising manoeuvers of the oncoming traffic... the way to the Finnish border seemed very long indeed.
Finally we made it. At 16:57, we arrived at the border. There were two lines: one for Russian citizens, and one for foreigners. Fair enough. There were only three or four cars in front of us, not nearly as many as we had feared. This should be a piece of cake. Ten minutes tops.
But the time passed, and unfortunately, the line didn't get any shorter. We wondered why. How long can it take to check a car? When we finally arrived at the beginning of the line, we found out what the problem was: Four cars – two from the Russian and two from the foreigners lane – were let together into the "checking area". There, the passengers had to get out of the car and go to a booth. There was only one person manning the booth, so we all had to queue. As in Northern Finland, the Russian border employee checked each document reaaally slowly and carefully. Meanwhile, several other officials stood around, doing nothing. Two of them were curiously eyeing our car from the outside. Seeing that this would take some time, I waited in line while Sonia got back to the car. Maybe they wanted to check the car while we were waiting for our documents to be checked? That would be efficient, no? No. First, we had to queue.
We stood there for a good twenty minutes before the passengers in front of us got through. Behind us, several more people were waiting for their turn. Shortly before 6 o'clock, we were finally able to present our documents. After a few minutes, our passports were stamped. If all four booths had been open, this would have been a breeze.
Now to the car check. One customs official asked me to open the trunk and poked a bit at our luggage, while casually asking where I was from. I quickly enlightened him that I was from Luxembourg, yes the L meant Luxembourg, nothing else (and certainly not Latvia). Meanwhile, his colleague asked me where we were going. Home, unfortunately. Holidays are over. Then I was told to please open the largest suitcase. Oh, and what places did I visit in Russia? I proceeded to take the suitcase out of the trunk, but he waved me down: no need to, just open it. "So, about your trip? Did you like it?" Wrestling with the suitcase which lay underneath several other things (why didn't they just open it themselves?) I told them about Murmansk. Yes, it had been a very nice trip. When I finally had the suitcase halfway open, he again waved his hand. Everything ok, just close it again. Was he kidding me? Slightly miffed, I struggled with the unwieldy thing. With a friendly "Shastlivyi putj", have a good trip back, they walked away. I strongly suspected the guys to have staged this whole "checking event" just to smalltalk. Couldn't they have done it the gentlemanly way, by handling the suitcases themselves? But that was probably forbidden by their strict policies. The quiet, polite, by-the-rules Russian border police was really a far cry from what some bloggers wanted people to believe. Annoyingly meticulous, if not to say pedantic, but certainly not irrational, mean or corrupt.
At a quarter past six, we left the Russian checkpoint. Behind us, the gate was still closed to the next four cars. They would only be allowed to pass into the checking area when all four cars from our batch were finished. A study in bureaucratic inefficiency. I'm not blaming the guys at the checkpoint, but someone definitely wanted this border clogged up.
All by ourselves, we drove on through the no-man's-land between Russia and Finland. After about half a kilometre, we arrived at the Finnish checkpoint. Several wide lanes, each with a manned booth. And not a single car in front of us, as they were all held up by the Russians. We were spoiled for choice. The guy behind the counter spoke perfect English. What a boon to be able to talk English again! We showed our passports, the Finn had a quick glance into the back of our car, then we were waved through. As I write this now, three months later, with the whole of Europe going crazy because of a terrorist attack in Paris, I wonder whether this border is checked much closer. Eight suicidal madmen were enough to have the French president throw all rule of law overboard and half the population of Europe cheer him on and scream for their rights to be restricted in the name of some spurious promise for safety. What a sad state of affairs for our beautiful continent that I so wish to be open and free and good. It's not our declarations that make us who we are, but our actions. This holds for states just as well as for people.
But back to our trip. In Finland, the traffic was much better, mainly because there were much fewer cars, but also because there was a passing lane every few kilometers. We stopped at a gas station, and again I didn't manage to fill up the tank. This time, you had to push an elusive button before the pump was activated. The girl had to come out and show us. What a strange system.
We had dinner at a roadside restaurant. The menu was posted in Finnish and Swedish. Who would have thought that I would long for the Russian language so soon? But again, everyone spoke English and was very helpful. Waiting for our food to arrive, we enjoyed the sunset over the Finnish hills. It would be dark before we arrived in Helsinki. But, we knew Helsinki from a daytrip the month before – the Finnish capital was well-organised and had good traffic signs. I was pretty confident that we would find our way around the centre. Little did I know...



When we turned into the centre of Helsinki, the last rays of the sun had just disappeared behind the horizon. My sister took the GPS receiver out. "It's not working anymore", I reminded her. "I just want to have a try. You never know." And indeed: After some shaking and fumbling, the device came back to life. It should have done that on the ring of Saint Petersburg! So it was probably just a loose connection. Excellent. Following the instructions on the screen, I steered the car into a makeshift alley behind some roadworks. "Now the navi tells me to turn around," my sister complained. No can do. The alley was a one-way-street, leading us all the way around the construction site and onto an island. Do we want to be here? No. Sonia instructed me to make a right, then head back where we came from. After a kilometer or two, the street was blocked and we had to turn into the makeshift alley once more. And off we were, on the road onto the island again. Noooo! "Please, find me another way", I asked Sonia. Zooming out, she just managed to locate our hotel and the approximate direction we had to take, when the receiver went black again. Oh no!
Maybe that was for the better. Let's use our eyes and brains instead. After a few educated guesses, we were almost at our destination in the southeast of Helsinki. But now the road was blocked again. We tried the next street. Blocked off, too. We followed the main road down to the port, but again we were stopped by a woman, waving the traffic into precisely the wrong direction for us. I stopped to ask what the matter was. No can do, just drive on, quickly. Nonplussed, we turned around the block. All the streets to our hotel seemed to be barricaded. At the next roadblock, we asked a young man in an official-looking T-shirt. "The street is closed for the marathon," he explained. Tonight was the Helsinki Midnight Run! Just our luck. We asked him for directions. Apparently it was not easy to get to the hotel tonight, but he was pretty sure it should be feasible. He just couldn't tell us how. Great.
After some more trial-and-errors, we ended up at the bus station at the seafront. We again tried to ask for directions, but the young man stationed there was clearly not up to his task: "Leave now, go away!" he screemed at us. Gladly, but where to? All the roads from the bus station were either blocked or one-way-streets into the wrong direction. "Just leave!!!" he bellowed.
I took off, heading into the first one-way-street available. Sonia looked hard at her map. It really should be just around the corner, she mumbled. And so it was. Not two minutes later, we were safely parked in front of the former prison of Katajanokka Island, now housing a Best Western Premier Hotel. The foreboding sombre fassade looming up before us was a most welcome sight. Inside, all was cosy and warm and welcoming. The lady at the reception cheerfully wished us a most pleasant stay in our cell. And that we had.


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