Fair weather Scooter Steve. Yup! There is a thermal level below which I don’t don my open face helmet and twist the throttle. Somewhere around the 0-degree level snowballs have a better chance.
So when I am not scooting up a blaze the next best thing is to drink beer. Those who know me, or think they know me, know me for one other thing. My appreciation of the amber nectar. I have spent the better part of my legal adult life consuming as much of the stuff as I can. When I travel I make a point of sampling as many variations of beer as humanly possible. And my recent trip to Mother Russia (say it in a Baltic accent) was no exception.
It all starts with a visa. Even for Europeans!
As a Saffa (South African) the journey beyond the iron curtain begins in Pretoria. A monstrous face-brick monolith conceals the consulate. Alas, no Kalashnikov rifles greeted me at the visa application center. The days of cold war hostilities are over. Come to think of it, South Africa and ex-MK have always been on pretty good speaking terms. However, the current diplomatic feeling seems somewhat strained. A tangled spaghetti beaurocratic process now awaits you to get your entry permit for a short stay in Russia. I am used to applying for Schengens and African Visas. The Russian Visa takes similar ingenuity and verve. First you need to get your head around Cyrillic application forms. The next barrier to entry is arranging a letter of invitation in the form of a tourist voucher. Most good hotels in Russia are licensed to issue this voucher. You need to pay for your stay in advance. Only when you have this voucher in hand can you start the online application process. There are some online voucher vendors like VFS global but I personally wouldn’t use them. Europeans and American clutter the online forums venting their frustrations. They feel that their freedom of movement is violated because they actually have to plan their itinerary upfront. I laugh! “Welcome to my world!”.
As a South African we have one of the most restrictive passports in the world. I think the only country north of the equator we don’t need a visa for is Somalia. Quality holiday destination I hear!!!
Touchdown St Petersburg (Via Frankfurt)
Touchdown Pulkovo Airport. Passport in hand my arrival into the winter wonderland was all but smooth. The company that has the tender to supply South African passports ran out of ink the day they printed my passport back in 2008. The photo is distorted and the authenticity leaves a lot to be desired. The Russian customs official were onto this suspicious looking African. Several in-house experts examined my passport under duress and microscope. My only defense was that I had been allowed into the US and Europe on several occasions so if it passed Obama’s and Merkel’s scrutiny who was Putin to think he was better? Probably the wrong choice of logic but it worked. Welcome to Russia ScooterSteve. Or as they say, “Dorbro Pozhalovat!” (добро пожаловать)
Forget Vodka, It’s time to find Pivo aka beer?
St Petersburg has a very European feel. A no brainer considering it’s in Europe and not Asia. The architecture is grand and opulent unlike the soviet era face brick façade of the Pretoria Embassy. The Grand Palaces of the Romanov’s flank the Neva River and its canal systems. Anything but drab and grey. It’s about time I found a beer. Yes! Beer. The reason for life.
“Craft beer shmaaft beer”. If it has the words artisanal, craft or boutique in it I wanna vomit. 21st century marketing bollocks that reeks of skinny jeans, hipsters and un-manicured beards. Yes I have issues! Agreed, these buzz words draw in the crowds. That’s probably why I hate them. It’s marketing for the sheep. But if St Petersburg and I were to become friends I would have to get over myself. They are a few years behind the curve so there is still a sincere honesty about their “micro breweries” and “craft beers”. Micro is fine. It says small and unpretentious! The man in the street drinks his Baltica lager proudly, but the new wave of Russian drinkers are bored. A pale ale is what they want so an IPA is what I want.
Geography: There are 3 main districts (islands) to St Petersburg worth noting. They are Admiralteysky, Petrogradsky & Vasileostrovsky! Everything is suffixed with a sky! Pronouced: ski
Scooterstevesky recommends a Laughing Sam!!!
And boy did I find a beer worth a laugh. I stumbled across the Craft Brew Café across the road from the Metro station on Admiralteysky island near the Hermitage. This spot is top notch. It has a quasi California beach theme. The redeeming feature is the choice of 10 local ales. Not a mass produced Baltica anywhere.
My favourite was an IPA called Laughing Sam. The irony! Its flavour has notes of “die American capitalist pig” with a hint of “anti-west propaganda” after taste! A bargain at 190 Rubles ($3)
Global Warming wake up!
I was expecting St Petersburg to be cold. The locals are complaining ‘cause it used to be a place you could experience a white Christmas. These days the snow melts away, even in mid December. Despite the unpredictable weather the snow bursts are frequent and help deliver that winter wonderland effect. The average temp this December was just above freezing. The low season from a tourist perspective which suited me fine. I had all the attractions to myself. (Cruise ships can’t sail in the ice packed Neva and Gulf of Finland!)
Scooterstevesky is not a museum kind of guy. But when you have the whole town to yourself you make exceptions. The Hermitage is epic. Like Victoria Falls Epic. It WILL blow your mind. The Hermitage is made up of 6 buildings with the Winter Palace taking center stage.
3 million art works on display. Entire floors dedicated to masters like Da Vinci and Van Rijn are yours to enjoy without a selfie stick in sight. For 600 Rubles ($10) it’s a crash course in art appreciation.
My beer appetite needed to be satiated. And I needed some good grub. The Russians can keep their borscht. Sour beetroot soup won’t cut it. With its close proximity to Finland and greater Scandinavia, St P’s gastronomy shares similar themes. Smorgasbords have gone Michelin Star and Buterbrodskybar in Vasileostrovsky is leading the way. Amuse-Bouche meets Spanish “pincho” tapas – and they serve a multitude of local brews. A 5,8% Ingria ale was my brew of the night. What could go wrong?!
A few too many beers later I had to snow-graffiti a parked car. Politsi!
Russian Pie = Russian hangover cure!
The search for beer is never ending. So is the cure for a hangover. Luckily this is something the Russians know a lot about. Pierogi (pie) is a Russian staple.
Peppered throughout the country is a franchise canteen restaurant called Stolle that specialize in amazing meaty, fishy & fruity pies. Take away or sit down order your slice and enjoy.
“Ready for another beer?”
St P kept me entertained for 3 full days. Plenty time to see all the attractions and get a feel for the city. Apart from beer here is my list of must see places:
1. Do a “Hop on hop off bus trip” to get the lay of the land from above ground. You’ll see all the major attractions and realize you can skip all of them!
2. Hermitage Museum. Get there early, or come in winter!
3. Church of the Spilt Blood is impressive. Worth a walk past.
4. Skip the Vodka Museum. Tourist trap.
5. The Faberge Museum. The original Kinder Surprise. This place has 15 of the known 43 eggs. Tours are only in Russian so hire an audio book.
6. Day trip to Pushkin 20km south of St P. Visit the Summer Palace and Amber Room. Get a sense of how rich the Romanovs were!
7. Ballet. Go to the Mikhailovsky. It’s less commercial than the Mariinsky Ballet and equally as good. Buy tickets here.
Top Tip: St P has good public transport. Use the ubiquitous trolley bus OR the underground metro network
The new Russian: Rossiyskiy Patriotism
You’ll get tired of speaking politics. Everyone has a theory. Russia has a long complicated past. Its worthy to note that the Soviet Era and Communism only reflects the period from 1917 to 1991. Russians are more eclectic, racially diverse and multicultural than you can ever imagine.
The stereotype of Russians being unfriendly is nonsense. A Hollywood’ism. Don’t get me wrong. The average working class man in the street in any city is grumpy! Russians are no exception. But, they are very approachable and eager to chat!
You’ll read many articles highlighting Russian intolerance toward minorities (LGBT,Jews, Africans, Turks etc). Read this article on the new wave of Russian Patriotism to get a better understanding of their past, their future, and the modern multi cultural Russian reinvented.