Visa applications are a pain in the arse, so as soon as I found out that I could visit my dream destination without one I knew I HAD to do it. I’ve never applied for a Russian visa (or any visa for that matter) but I could imagine it being a rather lengthily and irritating process (I could be wrong). I don’t know why, but everything about Russia has fascinated me from a young age. I remember as a little girl playing with the Matryoshka doll that my mam got on her own Russian adventure in the late 80’s and telling myself that I’d go to Russia and get my own one day. Like I said, everything about this massive country intrigues me like the history, the culture, but especially the language. When I was 15 I set about trying to master this incredibly difficult Slavic language. I remember one day at school I overheard some of the cleaning staff speaking Russian, so I decided to inquire further. My plan was to ask them if they knew anyone who could teach me. An Estonian woman was actually the one who put me in contact with my future Russian teacher. I remember her being so shocked when I arrived in the following week with a Thank You card and a box of chocolates. She asked if I was joking because the students at my school weren’t renowned for being very friendly towards them. Anyway this is totally off topic. Long story short I’ve wanted to visit Russia for a very long time.
One hot day in Salamanca, when I was nursing the mother-of-all-hangovers (when wasn’t I really? Oh Erasmus, I miss you), Ode and I FaceTimed and she somehow put the idea of Russia in my head again. By this time we were pretty sure that we wanted to do the whole two weeks in Ireland/two weeks in Estonia thing again, but we had no idea what we were going to spend our time doing in each place. She told me that if you take the ferry from either Tallinn or Helsinki to Saint Petersburg, you could enter Russia visa free for up to 72 hours. I remember screaming/shouting/jumping, which caused my mate, David to become very alarmed and irritated as he too was delicate that day. From that moment forward our minds were made up. Russia 2015 was happening and booooy was I excited. If you just want the information on how to get to Russia without a Visa, skip to the last paragraph. I totally get that not everyone wants to read paragraph after paragraph of me swooning over my trip. I’ll leave a link to all the good stuff down there. However, I think the website is only in Estonian, but you can always shoot them an email because they more than likely (most definitely) speak English. They’re Estonian after all and I have yet to meet one who doesn’t, especially if they’re working in the tourism industry. I know not all of us are as lucky to have our own personal Estonian besto to get the job done! 😛 Aitäh, Ode! ❤
By the 14th of August we had already been in Estonia for almost one week. I still know the exact date that I stepped foot in Russia, Saturday 15th August. I can’t explain how excited I was during the days leading up to our departure, but we kept ourselves pretty busy by visiting Tartu and going out, so I don’t think it hit me until I had to pack (my least favourite activity in the world). We were going to be on board our ferry for two nights, so I was just taking a backpack and the bear minimum. I remember being so flustered in Ode’s bedroom surrounded by my entire suitcase’s contents. We left Friday, late afternoonish and would arrive in Saint Petersburg at around 9am the next morning.
Once we got our tickets from the front desk at Tallinn port, we appropriately checked in on Facebook to ensure that everyone knew exactly where we were going, because we all know that if it’s not on fb, it didn’t happen. Right? 😛
As soon as we got on board, we set about finding our cabin. I’d been on a few ferries previous to this trip, but never an over night one, so I was excited. I remember as soon as we got in and thrown ourselves onto our beds, we decided to take a pic of the room as a memory because it wasn’t going to stay tidy for long.
Clearly it was already a bit late because we’d made ourselves at home and caused a bit of a mess, but trust me this was the best it was getting! :L
When the ship started to leave the dock, we headed up onto the deck and slowly watched Tallinn drift further and further away from us. I was finally on my way to Russia. Getting closer and closer to my dream destination (so corny but so true!)
Once the ferry docked at Saint Petersburg the next morning, we had a bit of a wait, as people queued to get off the boat and then go through boarder security. We got off the boat and I took my first steps on Russian soil. It was beautiful.<3 The security check was surprisingly fast. We literally queued up, walked up to a desk like at passport control at any airport, they checked and stamped our passports and we were free to go. No questions. No scary men checking our bags. Nothing. It was fab. There was a free shuttle bus from the port to the city. So we showed the bus driver our ticket and hopped on board, making our way towards what I can only describe as the most beautiful city I have ever set my eyes on (it’s a toss up between it and Paris. They’re just so different, so they’re both my favourites but for different reasons). We were dropped of at St. Isaacs Cathedral, so a nice central location that was easy to find and set about exploring. Getting off this bus was where one of us had our first Russian language blunder. *cough* Ode *cough*. Upon departing the bus, Ode decided to thank the driver, wait for it, in French, which I found hilarious. Then I rubbed salt in wound by walking out directly after her saying it in Russian and making her look even worse. 😛 I mean who was the one who came from a place where 40% of the population speaks Russian.
Our first wee stop was at The Hermitage Museum and honestly I can’t even put into words how beautiful this building is. Like there are not enough adjectives of beauty in the dictionary that would do it justice. Our time was limited in Saint Petersburg, we were leaving that evening actually, so I never got to enter the museum unfortunately, but it is on my bucketlist. If anything, this trip just gave me a little taste of Russia and it’s safe to say that I want the full experience. Anyway, we spent quite a while here, taking picture after picture. I wanted one from every angle. You know the usual Kate-on-a-mission to find the perfect pic. This time this need was literally on steroids. I legit have probably 200 pictures of this building alone. I’ll only insert a select few though. 😉
After this, we headed to a bureau de change, because yours truly needed some cash. I changed a lot, especially if you take into consideration that we spent like 6 hours here. I knew that I wanted to get souvenirs not only for myself, but I wanted to get some cool history things for my brother. Plus I needed to find the perfect Russian doll and money was no object in this quest. After I’d finally gotten some money, we headed for a quick snack. We knew that we wanted proper Russian food later that day, but we were getting peckish and decided to stop on a coffee/eclair break. I know, eclairs in Russia. Where did we think we were, ey? This was were the second Russian language fail occurred. My bad!! You’d think between the two us, we’d be able to order two eclairs and some coffee, but apparently not. We still haven’t gotten over the embarrassment. Apparently listening to Dima Bilan songs isn’t quite enough preparation. I have no idea what the name of this café was and I couldn’t tell you what flavoured eclair I even got. It was inhaled quite literally in seconds because I was so hungry. So it must have been decent. It was just a random café we walked past. There were plenty along the way, but this one looked cute and busy so we thought that it couldn’t be too shabby. The girl working there was super sweet and even though she didn’t have the best English, it bet our Russian skills by a mile. It was our first attempt, so I’m going to put it down to nerves 😛
After this we just did what we do best, we wandered. Luck was on our side because it was such a beautiful sunny day, which made the city even more beautiful. When we were in Ireland we thought about doing a boat tour, because if you don’t already know, Saint Petersburg is a city surrounded by water that is actually built over 42 islands. So we did some research, but Ode found out that there was some sort of protest on that day, so it wasn’t going to happen. However when we got there, we were practically kidnapped and forced onto a boat tour of the city by a very nice lady who just wasn’t taking no for an answer. She spoke no English and we barely understood what she was saying, but yeah we ended up on the boat. The entire tour was in Russian, so I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, but I presume it was the history of the city. To the right of us was a smiley young couple swigging brandy from a bottle in a brown paper bag. Standard. Then, all of a sudden some random man started to take our picture. We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves, so we just sat back, relaxed and took in the beauty of the city.
Us on the boat!
When we got off the boat, the man with the camera started to make more sense. He made little fridge magnets with our pictures on them. Cuuute!!! The picture of us was actually decent, even if our faces were a bit like, wtf is he doing?!?! We both got one, but unfortunately mine broke because when I opened the fridge back home, it hit against the cupboard and smashed into a million pieces. It’s safe to say that I was heartbroken! 😥
After all the excitement of the boat, we were feeling famished. I knew exactly what I wanted. Cabbage rolls and Pelmeni. Real Russian goodness. Along with these two delicacies, we got a side of baked sushi. My Russian friends are always posting amazing pictures of glorious sushi on their instagram/fb, so clearly Russia has some good sushi. I’d never had baked sushi before though, so I was intrigued. Basically we liked it so much that we even considered ordering some more. We restrained ourselves though. Slightly regret that decision now, if I’m honest. It was so damn good. The cabbage rolls and pelmeni were also the best I’d ever had. I’d only ever had frozen pelmeni, so there was no competition really. The waitress was super attentive and sweet, so I decided that a tip would be a nice way to thank her. However my main problem was understanding Russian money because I just couldn’t get my head around it. So yeah, long story short, I messed up the tip and I’m pretty sure I gave her like a euro. A lot less than intended and I feel quite bad about it, even a year later.
After we were fueled up, we set about a very important task, which was souvenir shopping. I wanted everything, especially postcards. I was pretty shocked at the amount of Putin memorabilia. Like his face was everywhere. On cups, t-shirts, postcards, you name it, Putin’s face was probably stuck onto it. I decided to get a Putin mug for my brother, he wasn’t sure what to think when I handed that over to him. I bought a lot of things. Things that I probably didn’t really need, but I wanted. I think we must have went to about five souvenir shops and I pretty much bought something in each of them. I got the prettiest postcards, calendars and magnets, as well as some bits and bobs for friends and family. My favourite purchase was in the final souvenir shop, where I spent a stressful thirty minutes (maybe more) trying to pick from the most amazing handcrafted Russian dolls. I had my eyes set on one in particular and was on the verge of buying it. It was 100% handmade/hand-painted etc. and it was so intricate and just so damn beautiful, so to me the whopping price tag (over 100euro) was worth it. However I quickly came to my senses. As much as I wanted it, I had to be more realistic. I had another wee look around and came across a more decently priced one, which in my opinion was just as pretty.
This souvenir shop was conveniently located right next to another stunning building that I fell in love with. Both it and The Hermitage museum are my all time favourite buildings in the world. I don’t think I could pick between the two. This is, The Church of the Savior on Blood, which is another lavish Russian orthodox church. I’m in love with the one in Tallinn, but I must admit that this one takes the biscuit. It’s just so stunning. Like the Hermitage museum, I took many pictures of this too. It was definitely one of my favourite places that I visited in the city. At this point we were coming to the end of our day in Russia, so we didn’t get to spend as much time here. Come to think of it, if I didn’t spend all that time in souvenir shops, stressing over what doll to get, we probably would have had much more time, but no regrets. 😉
We had one more shop-stop that we wanted to make before hopping back on the bus to the ferry. We wanted ice-cream, Russian ice-cream because it is so much better than any other ice-cream I’ve ever had. It’s like so much more creamy than regular ice-cream and it just gives you all the feels. I also wanted to buy vodka. Standard. We entered into a little corner-like-store and decided that this was perfect. I didn’t want to get any old vodka, I wanted to get vodka that the locals recommended. This is where another embarrassing moment occurred. Not the last one unfortunately. I decided to try and ask the shop keeper, in Russian (emphasise on the try part) his recommendations. I think I asked something along the lines of, what is good vodka. He clearly knew that we weren’t Russian and to his amusement answered back in perfect English. Fuck. Fail number three. Anyway, I got a few bottles. Each person is only allowed to take two bottle of vodka out of Russia, but Ode said that I could take two extra and she’d take them for me because vodka is cheap in Estonia too. She’s too good to me. So we left that store with our Vodka, our Russian ice-cream and some Russian sweets. We decided to sit in the park behind St. Isaac’s Cathedral and eat our ice-cream before getting on the bus. It was a super nice way to end our day in Saint Petersburg.
Once we got to the port, we had to go through security again and this time we had to pass our bags through an x-ray to make sure we weren’t taking anything illegal into Europe. We hadn’t separated the vodka at this point because we just hadn’t expected it at this time. It was in this moment that the most attractive Russian man starts to tell me something in Russian. Nope. Nothing. I understood not a single word. I looked at Ode to see if she had caught anything, but nope. So we just stared at him. Why do we do that? Like why didn’t we just say, sorry I don’t understand. But no, instead we just stared at him with a bemused look on our faces. He copped it after a minute or two, when he realised that we weren’t doing what he had asked us to. He then was very cute and very apologetic and told us that we needed to take the vodka out or put into a clear bag. I can’t quite remember. Oh no wait, he told us that they needed to hold it and that we could come collect it when we were leaving. He then decided that it wasn’t necessary because we had so little and basically brushed it off as if to say ah sure fuck it! He was very sweet and funny too. So yeah, they weren’t that strict. I don’t think they care, unless you’re like trying to smuggle a dozen bottles. I think he figured we were just silly girls and didn’t feel like wasting our time or his.
Once back in our cabin, we dived on our beds. We had been walking all day in the sun and we were tired. That night we decided that we were going to go out, if you can call it that. Grab some drinks, that’s better, but first we were hungry again. So we checked out what there was to offer. We opted for sushi again and it was delicious. The woman seemed a little offended that we hadn’t cleared our plates, but there was just so much for such a small price. That night the ferry was on its way to Helsinki, where we were going to spend the following day. We had gone to Helsinki the year before so we weren’t too pushed at being super fresh for it. Like we didn’t mind just wandering around chilling, perhaps a little hungover. If you know what I mean. After food, we headed to a little bar where we had a few cocktails, served by the cutest barman.(Ode: ankles). I guess we just weren’t in the drinking mood. We had a few drinks and then Ode decided that a shot of tequila was needed. I hate tequila but willingly drank it. It was disgusting and ruined me. Before heading to our cabin to just chill, we decided to stop at the store to get some drunk food. This is possibly where we made the biggest mistake of our lives because our food combination choice that night was very questionable. For some reason we got two flavours of crisps, yeah, crisps, what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. Then we decided that we wanted these vanilla wafer things that are delicious, just not with barbecue crisps, as well as sour cream crisps. Like the actual thought of this combination makes me feel sick right now, but that night it was on the menu. We headed back to our cabin, threw ourselves on our beds and I can only describe it as shoveling food into our mouths by the fist full. So attractive, I know. I feel like we thought it was a competition, or that we were scared the other was going to eat all the food before us, but let’s just say this combination did not make for a very happy Kate the next morning and I spent the morning throwing up. The tequila probably didn’t help either.
So morning came and by morning I mean 6AM. I woke to what can only be described as the worst feeling ever. The boat was rocking way more than usual or maybe I’d just never noticed it before because I wasn’t dying the previous day. Let’s just say I was ill for much of that day and Helsinki was the last place I wanted to be. Where I wanted to be, was my bed or to stay on this boat until this feeling had passed. That wasn’t an option because the boat was getting closer and closer to Helsinki and we needed to pack because we hadn’t done that the night before. Now I hate packing on a normal day, imagine doing it hungover. Thank fuck I only had to shove things into a bag.
Have you ever been on a Ryanair flight and seen how people start queuing extra early, even when they have seats reserved? Yeah, well that is the best way to describe people trying to get off these ferries. We did it the day before, but honestly I just did not have the energy or desire to be pushed around by impatient tourists. So while everyone else queued up, myself and Ode kind of flung ourselves on the floor of the lobby, waiting for things to move. We probably looked homeless because everyone stared at us and judged us, but we had zero fucks to give. At this moment Everything I do by Bryan Adams came on and we just went for it and sang out load and proud, which attracted even more attention. We were probably still drunk. Who knows…. I’m sure it was some sight though.
Once we docked we hopped off and thanks to the EU we got to go through the quick queue. Passing all the Russians stuck waiting at boarder security. Thank you EU ❤ We’ll never leave you!!!!!! We decided to make ourselves a little decent because we were looking, well, rough. So we just sat at the port doing our make-up, very slowly. Then we dumped our stuff in a locker and headed towards the city, in search of coffee and breakfast! I must admit the walk did me wonders. The fresh air hit the spot and soon enough I was back to myself. Still a bit moody though because I hadn’t had my coffee yet. It’s a working process. 😉 We did the usual white-girl-coffee and headed to Starbucks because it soothes souls. FACT.
It was a pretty chilled out day, with not much excitement. We chilled down by the water and just relaxed. It was a Sunday so most places were closed, so there actually wasn’t much going on anyway. There was this cool food market though, with food stalls from all over the world. We grabbed a few bites here, but the amount of people and the pushing was doing our heads in so we abandoned ship and decided that we’d just grab dinner at the same Chinese restaurant we dined at the summer before, which was soooooo gooooood and so cheap.
We were wrecked when we got onto the ferry and even more so when we got back to Tallinn. It was an eventful weekend that I’ll always remember and I’m so glad that I got to experience it with my best friend. Russia was more than I ever imagined and I’m still trying to figure out ways I could possibly work there in the future. One thing is for sure though, I will be back.
THE IMPORTANT STUFF!! | How to actually get to Russia without a Visa!!
Okay, so the good stuff and how this whole thing works. Like I mentioned above, you can stay in Russia Visa free for up to 72hrs depending on where you arrive from. I think that it’s 72hours from Finland and a little less from Estonia. This is the site where you can organise your own Visa free trip. It appears as though it’s all in Estonian, but there’s an email address at the bottom, so your best bet is to shoot them an email and you can find out more information that way. I was really impressed with the entire experience. The cabins were amazing, there was such a good selection of food to choose from on board and there was some really amazing duty free prices (especially on cigarettes). The prices for smokes are more expensive on the Helsinki-Tallinn ferry, so if you want to get the best deal, grab them on the Tallinn- Saint Petersburg one. 😉 As well as all this, there’s entertainment each night and lots of bars too. I feel like it was quite a party boat, but we just weren’t in the party mood so we didn’t go looking. It wasn’t noisy though, so if you’re not into that, you’ll be able to chill too. The staff speak a wide variety of languages and were incredibly attentive. We honestly didn’t have one single problem and it all went as smooth as possible, which was great. I’d recommend this company 100%. You don’t get a whole lot of time in Russia, but it’s the only way you can go visa free, so it’s your best bet.