This was a British Airways flight so there was a level of sophistication to which we have become unaccustomed in our recent travels with the budget airlines and it was nice to be travelling in a civilized way rather than on the Ryanair cattle truck.
There was allocated seating, comfortable seats with plenty of leg room, a well-spoken captain who I suspect was probably called Toby, flight attendants with smiles and wearing smart uniforms, in flight entertainment, complimentary drinks and a rather good breakfast. Thirty minutes into the flight Kim leaned across and requested that we always fly with British Airways in the future which would be very nice but probably not always within my airline flights budget so sadly it will be back to the Ryanair ‘couldn’t give a jack about customer services’, then later this year!
It was a clear day so with the help of the video display which charted flight progress I was able to follow the coastline of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Estonia and Finland as we travelled east and crossed several World Time Zones losing three hours of our day in the process. Eventually the plane began its descent through the dainty clouds that decorated the sky over the soft pale blue Baltic Sea and landed at Saint-Petersburg Pulkovo Airport to the south of the city just as we finished filling out our Russia entry forms for passport control.
I was expecting this to be a rigorous and lengthy process but although the officials were thorough the queue of people was processed efficiently and on the whole it was a lot better than getting through UK immigration at Stansted or Heathrow. Eventually it was my turn and I was called forward to be admitted by a young woman who had been selected for this job because of her fierce looks, inability to smile and for having a good stamping ability which she demonstrated as she thundered a date stamp on every single piece of paper and document that I had passed over for scrutiny before she invited me to proceed into the country.
Normally we would travel independently but this time we were on an organized tour so now we had to find our group and wait for everyone to turn up. Nineteen of the twenty soon gathered around the tour guide but we had to wait for the last person for almost thirty minutes as she had managed to get herself to the very back of the immigration control queue. Kim and I agreed that if this was going to be like the TV programme ‘Coach Trip’ then she was going to be the first one voted off!
It was hot and humid and under cracked marble skies we were eventually escorted to our coach and began our journey towards the city through busy roads heaving with late afternoon traffic as we drove north along a long straight road into the centre of the World Heritage city of Saint-Petersburg past the massive Victory Monument (1945), St Isaac’s Cathedral and the famous bronze statue of Peter the Great and across the River Neva and on towards our hotel somewhere on the edge of the City on the Gulf of Finland.
The ex Intourist Hotel Prybaltiyskaya was a two-thousand, one hundred room tombstone grey monster surrounded by towering concrete apartment blocks and easily the biggest hotel that I have ever stayed in and as we approached the cavernous reception some doubts began to creep in but true to its word our eight floor accommodation had a view of the sea and the room was excellent.
My first job was to visit the supermarket that was close by to purchase essential supplies for the room so I made my way to the store which was on the first floor of the cold grey and rather gloomy looking apartment block next door and there, tucked away behind a single pair of doors was a well stocked shop and lots of local shoppers.
I wanted some Russian beer so I asked a store assistant for some selection advice but he clearly wasn’t a patriotic drinker because he suggested that I might prefer the Stella Artois. I was determined to sample the local brew however and he looked on disapprovingly as I selected some Siberian beer in a green and gold labelled bottle called CИБИPCKAЯ KOPOHA. I wasn’t so adventurous about the wine for Kim though and I played safe and bought a bottle of Spanish red!