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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Category: Russia

5 Reasons to Visit St. Petersburg in Russia During the Spring

Paula Gaston

St. Petersburg - So close, yet so far for those of us who are from Finland! At this time of the year, I often think that it would be nice to visit St. Petersburg in Russia again. For Finnish people, St. Petersburg is practically a few hours away, but still many people have not visited. Many might fear the visa process. But if it is too hard to get a visa, you can always go on a visa-free cruise like we did. When you arrive in Russia by ferry, you are allowed to stay on shore for 72 hours without a visa. Even in that time, you will get to see plenty of things.

ENJOY THE SUN WHILE IT’S STILL NOT TOO HOT

The sun has finally returned after the dark and cold winter, and will warm up not only the air, but also people’s hearts. The locals will get out to enjoy the spring time too. The snow has just melted and the sun will make the golden cupolas of the the churches shine even more than they normally do. But the best part is, that it is not too hot to tour around the city even by walking. The evening in fact, can be a little chilly, but the days can be quite beautiful.

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YOU WILL SAVE SOME MONEY BY TRAVELING DURING THE SPRING

In the summer time St. Petersburg is full of tourists, and the prices go up. During the spring you are likely to get your tickets cheaper, like the hotels and other services too. So if you want to save a little money for your future travels, offseason is the time to go. Again one good reason to visit St. Petersburg during springtime.

Happy face in front of the Hermitage in the spring sun

Happy face in front of the Hermitage in the spring sun

EXPERIENCE ST. PETERSBURG WITHOUT MASSES OF TOURISTS

No crowded places, no lines! You can access even the famous Hermitage Museum or the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood within ten minutes wait, and there is space to walk around and take photos without other people being in them. This is true luxury! Just don’t forget that most of the museums and churches are closed on Mondays.

5 reasons to visit St. Peterburg in Russia during the spring, and this is one of them: The State Hermitage Museum.

5 reasons to visit St. Peterburg in Russia during the spring, and this is one of them: The State Hermitage Museum.

FALL IN LOVE WITH THE COLOURFUL EASTER DECORATIONS

Before Easter you will find so many beautiful decorations and hand painted wooden Easter eggs sold on the streets and stores. Easter is a big celebration in the orthodox church, and it is seen in many ways in Russia. I really liked the decorative eggs they were selling and bought some to bring back home to California.

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PARTICIPATE IN ALL THE LOCAL FESTIVALS AND CONCERTS

Springtime in St. Petersburg is full of all kinds of events. Many of them are related to Easter, but there are also other celebrations and many concerts that are held during the spring months. If you like to see local traditions or enjoy different kinds of festivals, spring is the best time for that in St. Petersburg.

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St. Petersburg is an amazing city with so much to see! It is a paradise for those who are into history and historical buildings. And wow, there is so much gold in abundance in those places. Unfortunately, there is also another side of St. Peterburg. Most of the local people don’t live that way themselves. There are many faces of St. Petersburg, and it is definitely at it’s best at the spring!

 

A Day in Vyborg, Russia

Paula Gaston

Last time I told you what it was like to sail via Saimaa Canal to Russia. After sailing for five hours, we spent a day in Vyborg and quickly toured around. Just seeing the Saimaa Canal was interesting, but for us, seeing Vyborg was the highlight of this trip. We started our tour from Vyborg Castle and continued towards Lenina park. When a police car drove in front of us with squealing tires and we had to jump out of his way, it really felt like we are on a movie set. And it definitely felt like we were no longer in Finland. Vyborg showed both it’s sides right away.

THE CITY OF VYBORG

Vyborg is located by the Karelian Isthmus on the shores of Vyborg Bay in Russia, and it has about 80,000 inhabitants. In medieval times Vyborg was ruled by the Swedish, then Russians and from 1812 it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Finland. Eventually Finland got it’s independence, and Vyborg was very much part of Finland until after the winter war, when it was returned to Soviet Union. In 1941 Finland tried to annex Vyborg again, but it was lost once more in 1944. Due to this history, there are still many Finnish buildings in Vyborg. Finnish people were evacuated and had to move elsewhere in Finland, and people from the Soviet Union were brought in to inhabit the city. Some Finns later returned to Vyborg in between wars, but they had to leave again when the Soviet Union got Vyborg back in 1944. Due to this history, Vyborg has always had a special meaning for Finns, and many people still feel strongly about it.

Today Vyborg is an industrial city which also gets income from tourism. Besides Vyborg Castle, the sights to see are it’s many stylish old buildings, Market Hall and Montrepo Park. In recent years Vyborg has gone through a face lift and many old buildings have been restored with financial help from Finland.

VYBORG CASTLE

At the end of the day, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city since our ferry was really late from it’s schedule. The very first thing we wanted to do was to visit Vyborg Castle which was right next to the harbor. The castle is located on a small island, Linnasalmi, which can be accessed via bridge. Vyborg castle is known for its white tower; The Tower of St. Olav, from where you have a great view to the city.

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Vyborg Castle is the only completely preserved medieval castle in Russia. The construction of this castle started in 1293 and continued through years. Later it has been repaired and built up higher. In 1710 the Russians took over the castle, though it was damaged in a fire in the 1860’s. It was repaired again and survived the Winter War.

We had been told, that the entrance fee to the castle can be anything, depending on who is working that day. Especially for the kids. I guess the local kids have free admission and sometimes they let all the kids go in free, and sometimes they make tourist kids pay. So it is always good to check the fee and opening hours beforehand. The castle museum is usually closed on Mondays. Before purchasing the tickets we realised, that if we go inside the castle we would not have time to see the city itself at all. So we decided to take pictures from outside and skip the tour. Too bad.

THE MANY FACES OF VYBORG - AND THE BUILDINGS

While walking around the city we saw many beautiful buildings. Many of them had deteriorated badly and some had been repaired. There were some gorgeous buildings where the house next to them had broken windows or part of it had even burned. What a contrast! You could clearly see the two different faces of this city. If all the buildings would be repaired, this city would be amazing! In many places we did see construction going, on so it’s good to see that something is being done. We walked all the way to Lenina Park and Red Square, while looking at the buildings and taking photos. We stopped shortly by the playground so our daughter could play with the locals.

While walking, we talked a lot about what the life in today’s Vyborg is like, and what it must have felt like to be evacuated from your home to somewhere else during the wars. I’m sure many of those people have returned now for a visit, but it is impossible to imagine what they must of gone through and what kind of feelings it must have brought up. One of those people is my friend’s mom who was traveling with us, so we actually had somebody with us whose life this has affected immensely.

The Round Tower used to be part of the city wall, now it is a restaurant.

The Round Tower used to be part of the city wall, now it is a restaurant.

Old bank building

Old bank building

Statue of Lenin at Red Square

Statue of Lenin at Red Square

Old City Hall now has apartments.

Old City Hall now has apartments.

Different kind of Vyborg…

Different kind of Vyborg…

THE CITY LIBRARY BY ALVAR AALTO

One of the most interesting buildings in Vyborg is probably the city library designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. It is located in Lenina park. The building represents functionalism and it was built in 1935. However, it was left to deteriorate badly. During the Soviet Union era some repairs were done, but according to Alvar Aalto, it just got ruined by them and he was bitter for the rest of his life about his work falling into ruin. Later some repairs were done with the help of the Finns, until the Finnish president Tarja Halonen was able to negotiate a budget for it from Putin. The library was completely repaired, and reopened in 2013. Refurbishment was very successful and has gotten two different awards.

The City Library of Vyborg

The City Library of Vyborg

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THE MARKET HALL

While in Vyborg, you should absolutely visit the Market Hall. From there you will find all the traditional souvenirs like matryoshka dolls or viipurinrinkeli (a local twisted bun). We also bought some beautifully painted wooden eggs which will look great during Easter time. They were also selling some crystals and clothes. We were actually looking for a matryoshka doll with Trump’s face, since we had seen some president matryoshkas in St. Petersburg a few years earlier. We thought it would be a great joke to bring back home to California and to give to somebody. We asked about the doll, and we got an answer with perfect Finnish; “No we don’t have one! Yack! We don’t want him here.” Ha ha! So we didn’t find what we were looking for but at least our daughter got to choose one traditional matryoshka doll and bring it home as a souvenir.

The Market Hall of Vyborg

The Market Hall of Vyborg

The Market Hall building was designed by the Finn Karl Hård af Segerstad, and it was built in 1906. It represents the Jugend style. While visiting the Market Hall you should be extra careful with your belongings, since it is said to be prowled by pickpockets. There are two stories in the Market Hall, so don’t forget to visit them both.

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Our trip to Vyborg was both interesting and exciting! We did wish we had more time to explore the city, so if we were to do this gain, we would book an overnight trip instead. But we did enjoy a beautiful summer day in a great company of our good friends!

We Sailed to Russia from Finland through the Saimaa Canal

Paula Gaston

On our summer holiday we mostly drove around Finland, but we did a short trip to Russia also. We sailed to Vyborg via the Saimaa Canal. And even though it was raining cats and dogs in the morning, the day turned out to be quite nice and sunny. A trip to Vyborg was an interesting adventure through history and today's life at the same time. 

SAILING ON SAIMAA CANAL 

We hopped on the MS Carelia in the morning in Lappeenranta, and headed towards Vyborg. Even just the trip through the canal was pretty interesting for me since I have never travelled in a canal like this. The Saimaa Canal was opened in 1856 and it is quite unique since Finland has a 50 year lease with Russia for this area. There is no such thing anywhere else in the world. The canal has a total of 8 locks, with three of them in Finland and 5 on the Russian side. The border crossing is in Lake Nuijamaa. Even though the canal is only 40 kilometres long, it still takes five hours or even more to get to Vyborg. Ships can't go very fast in the canal and a couple times we had to wait for other ships that were in the locks to get out. Our trip back home to Finland was a little faster. 

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The drop down from the highest lock is 12.4 meters and the canal is 6 meters in depth at it's maximum.

The views in the Saimaa canal on a beautiful day are rather nice. In both directions one gets to see how the locks work and to see some huge Russian mansions close to Vyborg. From time to time one can also spot part of the old canal going next to this new and bigger one. We also saw some floating islands which can change their location. Some of them are still held in place by the roots of the plants growing on them. Very fascinating phenomenon! There is also a historical spot close to old Tuohimäki lock that is worth seeing. There is golden text on the rocks which was made to greet the emperors when they passed by. It says Nikolai I and Aleksander II both in Finnish and Russian. The text was made by the sculptor I.A. Deneis. Too bad I missed the photo opportunity there. 

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MS CARELIA

Cruises on the MS Carelia are sold through Saimaatravel, and it has 200 seats. There are two restaurants: one offers lunch and dinner, and the other is more like a cafe type restaurant with a full alcohol license. At the top of the ship one can enjoy the outdoors on the sun deck. We booked a table in the restaurant when we left Finland, and we ended up sitting at the same place for the whole trip to Russia. Usually they have two servings, but since our table had not been sold for the second serving, we got to keep it. It was nice to have a spot where we could all gather up even though we did spend a lot of time outside as well. The food on the ship was great and I can recommend booking either lunch or dinner. The lunch was served as a buffet and came with salad, bread, beverages, coffee and desert. The main course was fish and beef. Kids also got an ice cream cone. When sailing back from Russia we were not so hungry, so we ended up just ordering a soup. Even that was delicious and kept us going all through the rest of the trip. They offered salmon soup with bread. Coffee and cookies for desert. 

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There was also a small play room for kids on the ferry, which was nice, since the cruise hostess told us that there was a record breaking amount of kids on our trip. It still didn't seem like a huge amount though, so I guess the Vyborg cruise isn't the first choice for families. Our hostess for the cruise took really good care of us during our trip, and told us funny stories from history. She had a great personality and really seemed to enjoy her work. We all loved her! On our way back home there was a bingo game for kids and a colouring contest. As a program for adults, they had a one man band. We were happy to have some kind of activities on our way back since we had already seen the views from the ferry on our way to Vyborg. At the very end of our cruise we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset and we stayed on the deck for a while.

The duty free store on the ship sells some souvenirs, candy and beverages and they can also change your euros into rubles. 

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A VISA FREE DAY IN VYBORG

When you take a visa-free cruise to Russia, you can only stay on shore for 72 hours. We did the similar cruise to St. Petersburg a few years ago. We used the visa-free cruise since my husband and kids travel with American passports and getting visas for them while in Finland was complicated and costly. Before arriving in Vyborg, the hostess of the ship did a little info event at the cafe. She told us about the customs formalities, and how to exit the boat. Since the visa-free trip requires some kind of organised program in Vyborg, and we hadn't booked the bus tour, we were given a coffee voucher to the Round Tower.

I highly recommend going to this info session and getting all the tips from the hostess. She warned us that with American passports we might end up in a secondary interview at the border but said not to worry. We were pleasantly surprised that we were not asked anything when entering the country. The hostess also hands out some customs forms and shows you how to fill them out. Each person needs to have their own form. When we got back to the ship, our bags went through a screening and our passports were stamped. When booking the trip we were told that we have approximately three hours in Vyborg which was not the case for us. Since our boat docked late, we only had less than two hours. This was the only down side of the trip and they should inform more clearly when booking this trip, that this might happen. If we would do this again, we would definitely stay the night and come back to the ferry the next day. Other than that, the trip was very well organised.

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More about our day in Vyborg coming soon so stay tuned!

Vacation in a City - My Top 10 Cities in the World

Paula Gaston

The Internet has made booking trips so much easier that most people book their trips by themselves rather than use tour operators. More and more trips are also made to metropolitan cities. Here are my favorite cities to visit. It was impossible to put them into any specific order since they all are so different from each other. 

1. SAN FRANCISCO

Well, it is almost a must for me to start with the city that I love, and which is very close to my home. San Francisco is colorful, trendy and a little bit crazy too, and it offers something for everyone. When visiting, you definitely need more than just a one day, since there is so much to see and do in the city, and not to mention all the areas surrounding it. You must of course see the Golden Gate Bridge, ride the Cable Cars and visit Pier 39. And don't forget the world's biggest Chinatown outside of China. This is a city where you can walk in a business district one minute and hike on the beach the next. Or you can do a cruise to famous Alcatraz Island. There is nothing that people here haven't seen, so no matter what you look like, they wont be staring at you. No wonder they call it the most European city of the United States. 

Pros: Open minded and colorful city which you will never get bored with!
Cons: Expensive to stay in. Often chilly winds blow from the ocean. Increasing problem with drugs and homeless people can be seen almost everywhere today.

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2. TOKYO

Tokyo is definitely different than any place you have ever been to. Even different sections of the city can be totally different from each others. Tokyo is very hectic and crazy, but they also have beautiful parks where you can go enjoy the silence. The first days were quite confusing to us since the train and metro network is huge and most signs are in Japanese. But at the end we managed to learn how to get around, and even our 4 year old fell in love with Japan. There is tons to do with kids, and for young at heart adults. And we have never felt this safe on any of our travels before. 

Pros: The safest and most different city we have ever been to.
Cons: Hotels are quite expensive and people don’t often speak English.

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3. PARIS

Paris is Paris, what can you say? It has its own atmosphere and you really feel like you are in Europe. Paris feels compact since you can easily see all the sights in one day by using the metro. Beautiful buildings and history is everywhere, not to mention the River Seine. Paris is great for those who love good food and shopping. 

Pros: A mecca for those who love good food. A lot to see and lots of history.
Cons: Hotels are expensive. In many place they don’t speak English. To break the ice it would be good to know a couple words of French. 

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4. LONDON

At the same time modern and old fashioned London needs no introduction. So much to see there, and if you don’t want to tour in a double decker bus around the city, you can always take the Underground (metro). London was my hometown for one summer and there was never a boring day while I was there. You can see and feel the long history of the country all around London. 

Pros: Amazing amount of culture and lots of history. Everyone speaks English. 
Cons: The weather can change quickly so don't go anywhere without an umbrella. 

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5. ST. PETERSBURG

We went to St. Petersburg and I felt like I didn't see quite everything yet. I would like to go back and explore more. There are so many beautiful buildings and museums, good food and many things to see in this city. It would be even better if there was a local guide to show you around. Even though everything on our trip went well, occasionally we felt like people didn't like us. This might not be the best destination with kids since most sights are museums and churches. 

Pros: So much culture, museums and architecture.
Cons: Safety can be a concern. Requires a visa if you want to stay more than 72 hours. 

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6. TALLINN

Tallinn has fast become a very trendy city. People don't go there anymore just because of the cheap shopping, they go there to eat in fine dining restaurants and see the night life. And of course, there is a lot to see in Tallinn, like the best preserved medieval walled old town.

Pros: Still relatively cheap. Lot of historical places.  
Cons: Far away from rest of the Europe. 

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7. STOCKHOLM

Visit the rustic Old Town in Stockholm. I will never get bored of the awesome cafes there. Stockholm is great for shopping, but there is also a lot to do there. It is great with kids and you don't have to leave far from the city center to find cool stuff.  

Pros: A lot to do for both single people and families with kids
Cons:
Staying downtown is quite expensive. Cold and dark during the winter months. 

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8. CHICAGO

Chicago has always been one of my favorites in the U.S. From the downtown with high-rises you can easily get to the beach of Lake Michigan. Also the Chicago River that runs through the city makes it a very unique place. Chicago has some kind of old movie feel, and I even got a closer look at that while I stayed in the Tokyo Hotel which used to be popular among gangsters. During the winter Chicago is cold and it might snow, so summer months are better for vacationing. In recent years the crime rate has increased in Chicago so make sure to stay in safer areas. 

Pros: There is both a lake and a river right by downtown. 
Cons: During the winter it can be cold. Chicago is not called the Windy City for nothing; the flights are often delayed or cancelled due to weather and storms. Some parts of the city are not safe. 

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9. DUBAI

There are many kinds of opinions of Dubai, but I added it to my list since they have most everything there that you could want. They have sun, beach, food and some culture. The local culture is mixed up with this new and fast built city where everything must be bigger and better. It might not feel real but at least it makes Dubai different. Beaches are close by to the city.

Pros: Both beach and city life combined with arab culture. For sure a different sort of place unlike any other.
Cons: Dubai has been questioned for its respect of human rights and for destroying the ocean by building artificial islands. 

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10. REYKJAVIK

Yes I know, it is not exactly a metropolitan city, but at least it is a capital! I really liked Reykjavik. It is known for it's colorful nightlife and many cafes. It is small enough that you can just walk or bike from one place to another while admiring beautiful wall murals. And you can't feel any more safe than you will here!

Pros: Small but full of life. Very safe. People speak English almost everywhere.
Con: The service culture in Iceland is often very stiff and serious. 

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What are your favorite cities?