St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 

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Almost to the North Pole ~ My adventure in Tromso

27 09 2014

The Nordic region has always been on my “to go” list. The beautiful fjords, the mysterious northern lights and the excitement of getting “almost” to the North Pole will add up to what I will call a perfect vacation. So when friends happened to be in Norway, I decided to join them and embarked on my Norway adventure 🙂

Apart from the typical Oslo to Bergen trip through the beautiful fjords (see https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/norwayinthenutshell/), I decided to make a side trip into the Arctic Circle to Tromso, often known as the Paris of the North and the gateway to the Arctic. It was a 2 hours flight from Oslo and as the plane was approaching Tromso, the view was breathtaking with beautiful fjords covered in snow. I would say that Tromso is a nice little city with scenic landscape.

Tromso 1

 

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The city area is pretty small and walkable from one end to another. The most iconic sight in Tromso is the Arctic Cathedral, which stood across the Tromso bridge at the “opposite” band. Built in 1965, the Cathedral is structurally distinct, inspired by Northern Norway’s landscape. When night falls, it is beautifully lighted up and stood like a shining star in the dark Arctic night.

Artic cathedral 1

artic cathedral 2

 

Behind the Cathedral is the Fjellheisen Cable Car that takes one up the Storsteinen Hill which is 420 metres above sea level. I will highly recommend that you do this ride up as it offers breathtaking panoramic view over the city and the surrounding mountains and fjords. For museum lovers, there are many museums in Tromso and they are great places to be in when it is either too cold or too wet. Even for those who are not fans of museums, l will suggest that you check out at the information counter of the “free admission” museums. Trust me you will need them when the weather is just too miserable for you to stay out.

cable car 1

cable car 3

If you have the time, head to the Lyngen Alps outside of Tromso is a beautiful area with awesome scenery. It is about an hour’s drive to the ferry terminal and 30 minutes ferry ride across the fjord to the Lyngen Alps. The Lyngen Alps is a great place all year round for activities. In summer, you could do hiking around the area and in winter, winter activities like snow mobile, snow shoeing, dog sledding and so on. I rode the snow mobile to get around and see the Lyngen Alps, which has beautiful frozen lake, snow cave and pristine landscape. Oh yes, 2 interesting incidents took place during my snow mobile ride. A friend lost control of her snow mobile and fell off the snow mobile. Thankfully she was not hurt but was obviously prohibited from driving the snow mobile after the 2nd fall lol. The other incident was that one of my legs got stuck and buried in the snow while attempting to climb up a hill to find the snow cave and I have to be pulled out of the snow by my friend. Interesting and hilarious experiences haha.

lyngen 2

lyngen 1

I am happy to share my itinerary, just drop me a note with your email details via the comment if you are interested.

 

Tips for Tromso:
1) You can take the flybus from Tromso airport to the city centre. It costs NOK 70 and takes around 15 minutes to get to the city centre.
2) For northern nights tour, I know many people will recommend the small vans which promise to “chase” the lights. Particularly, Guide Gunnar is highly recommended by friends and family who have been on the chase with him. However, during the time that I was there, he was not available and hence I signed up with Greenfox (a small van tour operator who also promises to chase the lights) and another one with the big bus tour. After chasing 2 nights with different tour operators, I feel that there is not much of a different as big bus tour will chase the lights too and is much cheaper. Also, the big buses will have a toilet on the bus which will come in handy for a long night chase (remember you are out for at least 6 hours). For smaller vans, you just have to use the “natural toilets” aka combat style toilets so may not be convenient for ladies.
3) Friends were asking whether Norway is preferred to view the Northern Lights, or whether Iceland is better. You need clear skies and a good level of activity to see the lights. The general view is that Norway offers a better view, though if the activity is strong, Iceland could also offer equally great view. The weather in both Norway and Iceland are equally unpredictable. Thus, I typically will recommend Iceland if you have limited time as there are more things to see/do in Iceland apart from Northern lights. For Norway, you will need to fly all the way to Tromso or other parts of Lapland and there are fewer things to do there. If you have more time (2 weeks), Norway will be great as you can then combine with sightseeing in other parts of Norway such as Oslo to Bergen across the fjords. For a more stable weather (increasingly your chance to see the Northern lights), you may want to consider going to Finland and Sweden instead.
4) For dog sledding, do note that if the snow is “fresh”, it will be difficult for the dogs to pull and hence you may need to help the dogs by running along with them. This can be physically tiring so if you are not in the best shape, do let the tour operator knows so that they can see how they can help.

dogs 1
5) If you are a student, remember to bring your student card (any student card issued by your institution would do). You will be entitled to discounts on transportation, entrance fees and tours. I managed to save quite a fair bit thanks to my student card 🙂
5) The power voltage in Norway is 250V. So when you bring your travel adapter, make sure it can take up to 250V, particularly for hairdryer. My friends learnt this the hard way by blowing 2 adapters lol. Alternatively (and I will recommend this), ask the hotel whether they can lend you theirs.

 

Food:
1) Many people commented that food in Norway is expensive. I agree and will say that Tromso is the most expensive place in Norway that I have been to! A simple meal of sandwiches and a drink will set you back at least USD 30-40. However, if you top up slightly (say around USD 40-50), you can get quite a decent meal of a nice main course (eg cod, salmon), drinks and possibly dessert. The fine dining restaurants seem to have comparable prices as what you would be paying elsewhere (surely cheaper than Singapore and Australia). So I suggest that if you can, just top a little for a better meal. It is much more worth the value.
2) Do try out Emma’s. It is really a nice restaurant and the price for lunch is super reasonable (around US$30 for a good meal). I highly recommend the fried cod tongue as the starter. It tastes like the fish meat so nothing offensive. Emma (the owner) was nice enough to split our starter into 3 separate portions so that we could share the food. The service was great and Emma came over to chat with us and we made friends with Emma. We find the lunch so good that we decided to go back for dinner for the next evening which is more expensive. For dinner, do try the dried cod (super yummy) as it is one of the signature Norwegian dishes. The steam cod loin and fried Char was good too. I was pleasantly surprised that Emma told her staff to give us free sparkling wine (saw that only our table has it). So it is always great to make more friends haha! Do make a reservation beforehand as it is a pretty popular restaurant.

emma
3) For cakes and coffee, Eli’s cafe is a nice one. They serve sandwiches too and I love their scrimps and salmon bagel.

Eli

 

Accommodation:
I stayed at Viking Hotel Tromso. It is a simple 3 stars hotel, nothing fancy. The room is like the usual Norwegian standard, very small (and I stress again the “very”) but clean. It is slightly a little walk from the city centre (though not too far), around 5 minutes walk to tourist information center and 10 minutes walk to the Rica Ishavs Hotel which is the meet-up point for most tours. The one good thing about the hotel is that it served free waffles and hot drinks in the lobby for afternoon tea. I will recommend this place if you are just looking for a clean room to sleep without hurting your pockets.