HELSINKI - ST PETERSBURG - MOSCOW July 2019
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The plane slipped away from the gate at the scheduled time, but there were passengers who had missed the connection due to bad weather. After sitting on the runway for more than half an hour, Delta made the decision that the plane would return to the gate so that the pilot could fly another aircraft to Manchester and some of the late passengers could be collected. I had been happier than a clam with the two vacant seats on the bench where I planned to stretch out and sleep, until a plus sized passenger who wasn’t properly proportioned to fit her bulkhead Delta Comfort seat invaded the ranks taking both seats. She also attempted to appropriate my personal belongings in the empty seat. She tried to convince me there was more room in the bulkhead so that her friend could join her on the bench. A loud and clear message was sent that Plan B wasn’t going into action. Experience taught me that the tray table of bulkhead seats fits into the armrest actually leaving less room than a coach seat. Upon returning to the gate, two passengers boarded who claimed Miss Thing’s two seats.
Another passenger had difficulty maintaining consciousness three hours into the flight. There was a creeping fear that the plane would be diverted with a medical emergency causing a missed connection in Amsterdam. Fortunately, medical personnel aboard were able to keep her alert. Arriving in Amsterdam with less than 20 minutes to find the transfer gate, there was a non-surprise that KLM wasn’t going to accommodate my carry-on that Delta permits. Air France also denied boarding with the bag on the return flight. Morrow of the story is go for a non-stop Delta flight where possible.
Helsinki was never seen territory whose beauty failed to disappoint. The train ride into the city was rather inexpensive and completed within 20 minutes. A taxi taken from the station to the hotel rode in a rather round about trajectory. It was important to see the lay of the land, even though I could have walked had the direction been known. The hotel fortunately was located adjacent to a metro station.
Allas Sea Pool, fresh water and salt water pools
First order of business was to become familiar with the tram network to visit Church in the Rock, Temppeliaukion Lutheran Church. The building is partially excavated in solid granite with a copper roof covering the radiating girders positioned to have the interior illuminated by natural light. This architectural marvel is unlike any other church in the world. Don’t go to Helsinki without stopping here.
Temppeliaukion, Lutheran Church in the Rock
The wandering cab ride paid off in terms of providing a sense of direction for finding the buildings planned for visits the first evening. Helsinki is a very laid-back city with English widely spoken. People are friendly without attempting to become your best friend upon contact. The food offering is cosmopolitan without being as expensive as in Norway and Sweden. The 120€ ($ 135) withdrawal got me through the 4 days with a bit remaining for lunch on the return through CDG airport in Paris.
The Finns have a fascination with spiral staircases, which were found in six of the seven libraries visited. Architectural styles in the libraries are the highlight of Helsinki.
The weather was extremely cooperative with temps ranging from 57° to 71°F and plenty of sunshine. Although Helsinki is well below the Arctic Circle at 60°north, darkness came about 11:30 pm in mid-July with daylight returning at 3:00 am. The period of darkness was much shorter a month earlier at the Summer Solstice.
It's finally dark outside Oodi Central Library at 11:30 pm
The metro (subway) includes newer stations (2017) on the west side that are of futuristic design. Five more are planned to open next year extending the line. The stations on the east tend to belong to the original 1982 construction through 1989 openings. The transit agency was gracious enough to grant permission to use a tripod while photographing the stations. This was done on Saturday and Sunday while traffic volumes were greatly reduced compared to weekdays. Trains were scheduled at 3 to 5 minute intervals leaving a comfortable period to capture photos. All twenty-six stations were visited with almost all photographed.
Finland has had a checkered past with having been subjugated to both Russia and Sweden. Swedish culture and the language are more firmly entrenched than Russian. Subway stations and many other locations have both Finnish and Swedish names. It's very common that subway stations in bilingual countries have names derived from both languages.
Transportation between Helsinki and St Petersburg is provided by a joint venture between the Finnish and Russian railways using the Allegro trains. Travel time is 3½ hours at speeds reaching 140 miles per hour. Passport and customs controls are executed by personnel on board who travel between the two border stations. Track width is slightly different at 1524 mm on the Finnish side and 1522 mm on the Russian side. A dual power system uses alternating current in Finland and direct current in Russia.
Allegro train in Helsinki Central Station
Russian subway stations are generally deep below ground surface. The depths approach 300 feet at many locations. With elevators being a rare find in older stations, escalators are the means for vertical travel. Most are original equipment that requires constant attention. Neither system is designed for the physically challenged.
Sportivnaya metro station, Line 5 (Purple), escalator to -210 feet.
The mindset during the Cold War was that the stations would also serve as bomb shelters. Let's look at the practicality. The radioactive atmosphere would eventually finish off the survivors unless the stations also were built with impenetrable doors capable of stopping the radio nuclides.
Station architecture in both St Petersburg and Moscow render the two cities as having the crown jewels of stations on the planet. St Petersburg runs a close second to the splendor of Moscow's abundant use of chandeliers, gold, marble and polished granite. The stations were dubbed as Palaces of the People when the Moscow system opened in 1935. World War II halted expansion of the system until the 1950s as Russia recovered from the damages inflicted by Germany. Moscow boasts about 236 stations in July 2019 with an aggressive construction program that will include 263 stations and 150 miles of track by the end of 2020 for its 16 lines. The St Petersburg system made its debut in 1955 and currently has 69 stations with a 6th line scheduled to open next year.
Saint Petersburg Metro
The rolling stock consists mainly of refurbished cars from the 1950s and possibly from the 1930s. The sound of the operating equipment generates an impression that the equipment is subject to immediate failure once it's working at full throttle. These classic cars were distributed throughout the Soviet Bloc with many of the cities recently acquiring new trains with distinctive styling. Moscow and St Petersburg now offer state of the art coaches equipped with internet service, USB charging ports and rolling destination information in Russian and English.
The area surrounding a station is almost as important as the station architecture. The 3-minute ride to the surface (and then back) with airport type metal detectors for security meant that most exterior locations went unseen. A terrorist attack on the St Petersburg metro two years ago resulted in the installation of the metal detectors and bag screening. My defibrillator will trigger the equipment instantly and clear all the programmed instructions that keep me healthy. A walk through the scanners caused concern that information had been lost. The card documenting installation was requested on several occasions. This presented a bit of a laugh since the staff probably had very little facility in English. They could very well have been looking the life-time membership card from the favored house of ill-repute and never known the difference.
Transportation between St Petersburg and Moscow is provided by the Russian state railway using the Sapsan train. The Sapsan train covers the 400 mile distance in 3 hours 45 minutes traveling at an average speed of 150 miles per hour. The train is capable of reaching a maximum speed of 215 miles per hour. The 10-car train has a length of 820 feet.
Sapsan train in St Petersburg station prior to passenger loading for Moscow
It was disturbing to see how popular vaping had become with the millennial crowd. Vaping has since been recognized as a cause for health impairment in the US. There seemed to be little difference between the shops seen in US cities and Russian cities, all pushing the products. Russia is no longer an economic model built on the concept of communism. They are every bit as capitalistic as the US, grabbing for anything that will multiply the yield of an investment.
A lesson in Russian capitalism was learned before setting foot in the country. The same train ticket from Helsinki to St Petersburg had two different prices. The Russian railway was charging $ 141 while the Finish railway was charging about $ 45. You are allowed one guess as to from whom the ticket was purchased. Other examples of two tiered costs included an understandable one cost for citizens and more for foreigners at tourist attractions. This is common practice in many countries.
Lakhta Center northwest of St Petersburg is the tallest building in Europe at 1,516 feet
Moscow and St Petersburg, like many European cities, don't have many skyscrapers. St Petersburg has had a long-standing tradition of not building any structures taller than the Winter Palace at 76 feet. The Lakhta Center, located on the city's northwest perimeter, recently opened in 2019 with 87-stories standing 1516 feet. It is the tallest building in Russia and Europe. Moscow has a cluster of about 12 towers comprising Moscow International Business Center. Federation Tower East is the tallest at 1,227 feet.
Moscow International Business Center
Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) was found to be rather inexpensive. 12,000 rubles ($ 195) was the maximum daily ATM withdrawal allowed. Surprisingly, this amount lasted the next nine days covering food, transportation and entrance fees. The equivalent of $ 14 covered 5 day's transportation in Moscow and $ 6.50 covered 4 days in St Petersburg. Single rides on the subway were about 70 cents in both cities. Dinners were had for about $12 to $ 13 per meal. Lunches consisted of pickups from a local grocery store and plenty of fluids (water and iced tea) to drink. The cost was less than half of dinner. The hotels were prepaid, but well within the normal budget. I still had rubles to ditch at the airport with a meal before leaving Russia.
The St Petersburg hotel was a bit of a palace with the fancy chandelier in the lobby and tastefully decorated room. The Moscow hotel was in a 200+ year old building filled with charm and undergoing renovations. The single rooms were on the fourth floor with no elevator. Climbing those stairs was a bit treacherous after walking all day. The room was finished in rich woods, but lacked a sufficient number of electrical outlets for charging electronics. The saving grace of the room was its close proximity of several steps from a metro station entrance.
The weather followed me from Helsinki with a short shower upon arrival in St Petersburg. The first two days in Moscow brought more sunshine and the same temps. The last three days welcomed a cold front dropping the temperatures to 42°F over night. A respiratory infection was the prize that came home with me.
The Russian people seemed to be about as misinformed about "Americans" as we are about them. I sometimes felt they were looking for the horns and tails, as was I. The politicians here and there seem to be the ones keeping the pot stirred with misinformation. It was never divulged that I was from the US, rather that I was a Canadian national. Interactions were kept simple with this falsehood. Basically, they are good people. They weren't the exuberant people encountered in Helsinki, Oslo or Stockholm, but the bread lines seen on television were nowhere to be found and the groceries stores were fully stocked, even if the variety found in Kroger and Publix wasn't there.
Russian orthodox churches
Visiting in Summer is a big no-no. Tourists are all over the place. There were attractions in St Petersburg such as the Hermitage and several churches that I would loved to have photographed, but mingling with 5,000 of my closest friends wasn't on my dance card. Several small churches were found that served the purpose of documenting the ornate interiors of Russian Orthodox churches. There was no disappointment and the crowds were nowhere to be found. Crowds were tolerated at Peterhof, which was Peter the Great's answer to Louis XIV's Versailles outside Paris. The gardens and grounds were more lavish with fountains and gold plated statues. Peter gave Louis a run for the money and actually came out on top.
Peterhof Samson Fountain and canal to the Gulf of Finland
Getting the visa was an expensive hassle. The questions were more probing than those found on a job application. The visa is good for multiple entries over the next three years. I was surprised that I was able to travel independently around Russia and within each city. I would return for further exploration.
For more information and other photographs on the Helsinki metro, visit Urbanrail.net
For more information and other photographs on the St Petersburg metro, visit Urbanrail.net
For more information and other photographs on the Moscow metro, visit Urbanrail.net