Chanoy Honeymoon: St Petersburg, December 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

In case you weren’t aware, it is not easy to visit Russia. Don’t get me wrong, the actual act of transportation couldn’t have been easier – we took the high-speed Sapsan train from Helsinki to St Petersburg and it ran as smoothly as anything. The problem is in Russian bureaucracy – the visa application process for Russia was the most complicated I’d ever experienced.

First you need a letter of invitation from someone in Russia which is easy if you’re joining an organised tour, but more difficult if you’re travelling by yourself. We ended up using Real Russia who can provide visa support documents like invitation letters. Secondly when filling out the visa application form, it’s a bit more complicated than simply putting in your contact information and dates of your proposed visit. You also have to provide information about your last three employers and your managers there (sucks to be you if you’re self-employed!), as well as listing all the countries you’ve visited in the past ten years, plus the dates that you were in those countries. I travel overseas at least once a year, most years to more than one country at a time, so that last bit was a bit difficult!

Once your visa is actually approved though, it doesn’t mean you get a smile from the passport control officials as you pass the border. We had a passport control officer standing over us on the train from Helsinki for half an hour as she ran our passports and visas through the system, frowning forbiddingly the whole time. I’m pretty sure I could feel the sweat dripping down my face.

Even when you get into the country, it’s not the end of Russian bureaucracy! It’s expected that all foreign visitors will register themselves with the local police whenever they reach a new destination within Russia, often through a language barrier. We made the decision to not even make the attempt to try to navigate our way to the police station and instead opted to stay at hotels rather than private rentals, as hotel staff will register with the authorities on your behalf. One less thing to worry about!

Don’t let my account of Russian bureaucracy scare you though. Once you manage to overcome these hurdles, St Petersburg is a wonderful city to visit, rife with Imperial history, grand buildings, and a rich cultural heritage. Anastasia, our guide on our free walking tour of St Petersburg described the city as the cultural epicenter of Russia, and it truly is. The splendour and the rich ownings of the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace are beyond compare, and that’s just the start of it!

We took advantage of local cultural offerings by attending two separate performances at the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre. The first, Macbeth the opera, and the second, Don Quixote the ballet. Both were absolutely magical performances, and surprisingly well priced – we paid about $70 for two very good seats to the opera, and only about $14 for two nosebleed seats for the ballet. An absolute bargain. I would recommend watching the ballet rather than the opera at the Mariinsky though – the body language of ballet is universal, but you need some understanding of the local language to understand opera. The Russian surtitles didn’t do much to help us understand an Italian opera!

I’d also recommend spending your first day in the city with the St Petersburg Free Walking Tour. It’s a fantastic, compact tour that takes you to most key points within the city, gives you some interesting background, and helps you shape your time in the city. Our guide Anastasia was particularly excellent – she knew her Russian history back to front, was able to give us some valuable insights into daily Russian life, and suggested a few places to eat as well! Even though it started snowing halfway through the tour, she helped to keep us warm by doing a coffee stop along the way.

We joined the same company later in our visit for a paid tour (700 Rubles per person, or $14 AUD) of the St Petersburg metro system. Our guide Vlad was a particular expert on the Soviet era, and was able to guide us around some particular metro stops noteworthy for their Soviet artwork and architecture, explaining each mosaic and sculpture along the way. He was also very open about the current nature of Russian society, particularly around how the current generation view the Soviet years and Stalin’s legacy. This is a particularly interesting tour, not only for the architecture of the metro, but the Soviet history you learn along the way!

Needless to say we visited all the key monuments – St Isaac’s Church, Kazansky Cathedral, the Church of the Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, etc. We spent a full day in the Hermitage Museum and it didn’t feel like enough time…like the Louvre, I feel as though it’s one of those museums where you can spend a whole week there and still not see everything properly. After all, we didn’t even get time to visit the museum of Impressionist art right next door to the Hermitage (accessible on the same ticket!).

We had meals at places like Stolle, Marketplace and Frikadelki, and Teremok. We also had a lot of snacks along the way – Russian pastries in particular are particularly tasty and remind me of Asian bread in its sweetness. Most of the time we cooked dinner at home though (thanks to a supermarket just down the street), and that’s due largely to the weather! With sunrise at 9am, sunset at 3pm, and cold wet snow most of the time that we were in St Petersburg, we just wanted to get back to our apartment by 4pm so that we could shed our wet layers and get warm and cosy!

I’d love to visit St Petersburg again in the summer, where we get more hours in the day to enjoy exploring outer reaches of the city, and visiting places like the Grand Palace out of town at Peterhof, or the Alexander Nevsky Monastery where you can see the tombs of such greats as Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, we’d also keep paying $14 for two tickets to wonderful ballet performances at the Mariinsky!

Review: Teremok, Russia

I’m not going to lie – we’ve eaten fast food a few times on our trip. I don’t go out of my way to look for McDonalds, but when you’ve been travelling in the car for the whole day and it’s getting late, roadside McDonald’s is just about all you have energy for! (Additional point – K and I have what we call the McDonald’s index, where the cost of a Big Mac in various countries is a good indicator of overall cost of dining out in that country. It really works!)

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In Russia though, there’s no need to resort to greasy Mcdonald’s or Burger King when you feel like a quick and easy meal – Teremok is the place to go! It’s a Russian fast food chain that specialises in Russian blinis, which you can think of as crepes or pancakes. From what I understand, they have a presence all over the country – we went to branches in both St Petersburg and Moscow.

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Ordering at the counter can be difficult, as all the menus above the counters are in Cyrillic. You can always point to the pictures and hazard a guess at what each blini has inside, but we just asked the server behind the counter for an “angliyskoye menyu”. They keep a laminated translated menu behind the counter, which makes it much easier to decide what you want to order! On our first visit, we went for one savoury blini, and two dessert blinis – it was the late afternoon, so I needed a sweet pick-me-up hit.

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Ilka Muramets (pork, mushrooms, cheese and greens), 273 Rubles

We ordered the savoury Ilka Muramets blini, with a thick piece of grilled pork inside, as well as a wafer thin layer of wilted greens and melted cheese. Unfortunately, I didn’t taste the mushrooms that the menu claimed were in this blini, which is a shame because I think it would have added some extra flavour. Still, the pork by itself was still quite tasty with a nice savoury flavour.

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Creamy caramel and apple, 139 Rubles

K was keen for the Creamy Caramel and Apple Blini, claiming it as a combination that couldn’t go wrong. With hot gooey caramel sauce and thick cuts of stewed apple, this was a real sugar hit! I thought it lacked a certain something though – a little bit of extra cinnamon or more spices could have really picked this blini up and made it much more mind-blowing.

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iBlin with condensed milk, 101 Rubles

I chose the iBlin with Condensed Milk – I kid you not, this item is actually called the iBlin on the menu! The condensed milk was a bit too thick for the blini to handle and slowly leaked out onto the plate. If you grew up like me in an Asian household and are used to spreading condensed milk on toast as a sweet treat, you will absolutely love this blini as it takes the deliciousness of condensed milk to a whole new level. If however, you weren’t lucky enough to become accustomed to eating spoonfuls of condensed milk as a child, you’ll probably find this blini too much to handle – sorry!

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Our next visit to Teremok was in a shopping mall in Moscow close to our hotel. Again, we asked for the English menu and were pleasantly surprised when the server was able to take our order in English which made things much easier! This time we opted for two savoury blinis and a salad to share as we had our eye on a waffle place in the shopping mall for dessert.

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Chicken Bogatyr (chicken, mushrooms, cheese), 228 Rubles

I chose the Chicken Bogatyr which was a much better choice than our earlier savoury blini. This one had a much more generous number of mushrooms to go with the tender chicken and super melted stringy cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a chicken, mushroom and cheese combination!

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Royale (a chop, pickles, sauerkraut, and sauce), 209 Rubles

K chose the Royale blini, which turned out to be a hamburger in a blini! The beef patty, melted American-style cheese, sauce, and pickles made it taste exactly like a McDonald’s Royale with Cheese. Not bad if you’re craving a cheeseburger, and having it in a blini means that it’s possibly (?) slightly healthier than having the burger bun?

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Meatless Olivier salad, 133 Rubles

On a healthier note, we ordered a Meatless Olivier Salad to share, made up of small cubes of carrot, cucumber, potato, and canned peas. Served with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and fried onions on top, you mix all the ingredients together to make an Olivier Salad, also known as a Russian Salad. This was actually by far the best Russian Salad we had in the whole time we were in Russia – a big call, but true! I think the fact that we mixed the salad ourselves made all the difference as the ingredients were much more fresher and hadn’t gotten soggy from being pre-mixed.

Teremok is a great fast food chain where you can get some pretty delicious Russian blinis at a reasonable price. It’s not quite as cheap as cafeteria food, but it’s just as tourist-friendly with its English menus. Give it a try if you’re ever in Russia!

Teremok branches can be found all over Russia. For a list of their locations, please visit their website.

Cafeteria Dining in Russia

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

So here’s something I would have never guessed – cafeteria-style restaurants are a thing in Russia! It’s not just a trend either, cafeterias are ubiquitous on almost every street in both St Petersburg and Moscow. They seem to be popular with both locals and tourists – the former because of their well-priced set lunch menus, and for the latter as it means you don’t have to worry about deciphering a menu in Cyrillic, and can simply pick your meal out of the many options available in the cafeteria line.

This style of dining became very popular for K and I during our stay in Russia for both the above reasons – it helped us save a bit of money when we chose the very cheap set lunch options, and it also meant that we could pick our lunch easily without needing to labour over slowly sounding out each Russian word on a menu with our cursory knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet.

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Our first lunch in St Petersburg was at a cafeteria-style restaurant called Marketplace on Nevskiy Prospekt, suggested by our free walking tour guide who spoke well of their set lunch menu (business lunch as she called it) and what a bargain it was. At 200 Rubles ($4 AUD) for the set business lunch, it certainly was a good deal!

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The set lunches change everyday depending on what produce the restaurant has available that day, but it always consists of a soup, a salad, a main, and a free ‘summer drink’ which is essentially just like a fruit cordial. We skipped the summer drink (I was quite wary of drinking anything not directly out of a bottle because of the unreliability of Russian tap water!), but had the other lunch items.

On the day we went, the business lunch consisted of a mixed diced vegetable salad, a chicken and vegetable soup, and a turkey meatball with boiled potatoes. Both the salad and the soup had a surprisingly good amount of vegetables to keep us healthy, albeit with a bit too much potato but this is Russia we’re talking about! I really liked the turkey meatball as well with its smoky grilled exterior and surprisingly yummy herbed mince mix. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.

Marketplace is located at 24 Nevskiy Prospekt, St Petersburg.

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The second cafeteria lunch we had was at Frikadelki, a chain restaurant with branches everywhere. It’s very similar in style and process to Marketplace, with with a slightly cheaper set business lunch at about 190 Rubles – you have to stay competitive in this market of course!

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The business lunch on that day was a vegetable soup, a vinaigrette salad with beetroot, potato mash and another turkey meatball – this time stuffed with spinach and cheese. As you can tell, it’s very similar in style to the Marketplace set menu. After eating this though, I think I’d rather pay the extra 10 Rubles and eat at Marketplace as the food is of a slightly higher quality. Everything was just a little bit off at Frikadelki – the soup was oilier, the salad was blander, the turkey meatball was drier, and the potato seemed more plasticky. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.

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On the bright side, Frikadelki has a much more relaxed attitude to the species of their diners – we encountered these two gorgeous Capuchin monkeys dressed in fur coats on another table in the restaurant! While obviously adorable, I felt sorry for them as they’re definitely not accustomed to surviving in a Russian winter – they must have been suffering quite a bit. It seems to be the case that people like to keep exotic animals in Russia though, as we walked out of the restaurant only to encounter another person with a pet raccoon on their shoulder!

Frikadelki is located at 8 Griboyedov Canal Embankment, St Petersburg.

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Moving onto Moscow, the guide on our free walking tour suggested that we visit Stolovoya 57 on the third floor of the GUM shopping mall. She said to us, “Even though all the shops in GUM are very expensive, you can get a very cheap meal at Stolovoya. I go there all the time for coffee and cake, and have full meals as well.” It’s certainly a popular choice with a long queue going out the door – primarily of locals looking for a break from a full day of shopping!

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We decided to move away from the set business lunch here (in fact, I’m not sure if it’s even offered), and went all out with a big lunch which included: two soups – one borsch, one pea and ham; one Russian salad; one cold stuffed aubergine; one stuffed chicken breast with rice; one grilled chicken breast with beef stroganoff on rice; and a slice of honey cake. What a feast! This was obviously quite a bit more expensive, costing us around 1000 Rubles ($20 AUD) for the two of us, rather than 400 Rubles ($8 AUD).

The food is a bit hit and miss here though – the chicken breast was dry and the stuffed aubergine a bit tasteless. They really excel with their soups and dessert though, so I would suggest ordering a bowl of soup and bread for a light lunch before indulging in a slice or two of their many different cakes for dessert! Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.

Stolovaya 57 is located inside GUM shopping centre off Red Square in Moscow.

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The last cafeteria lunch we had in Moscow was at Mu-Mu/Moo-Moo (or My-My if you’re using Cyrillic characters!), another cafeteria restaurant with branches all over the city. We went to the branch located opposite the Kremlin, sub-street level. While I believe Mu-Mu offer a set business lunch, we found it too hard to navigate and feeling lazy, decided to just pick random dishes again.

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The dishes we chose here were: two salads, a garden salad and a vinaigrette salad; a chicken noodle soup; cheese covered mushrooms on a steak with potato wedges; a fish cake with buckwheat; and a slice of honey cake. Again, this cost us around 1000 Rubles, or $20 AUD. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.

The quality of the main meals at Mu-Mu was definitely the best of all the different cafeteria restaurants we went to – the mushrooms on steak and the fish cake were both delicious, and the wedges were crispy and crunchy. The salads were well-dressed, and the chicken noodle soup was savoury and hearty. The only downside is that the honey cake wasn’t quite as nicely spiced as the cake we’d had at Stolovaya 57.

Mu-Mu is located at Manezhnaya Square, opposite the Kremlin in Moscow.

The whole concept of the cafeteria-style restaurant is interesting to me as it’s really not something that you encounter in Australia outside of the Ikea cafeteria. From what I understand, it’s a holdover from the Soviet period when workers for the state would be fed every day at state-run cafeterias. Fifteen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, cafeterias are still the place that Russian workers go for a reliable lunch that ticks all the major food groups – even though they now have to pay for their meal.

The Russian cafeterias are particularly tourist-friendly, particularly for those unable to decipher a Cyrillic menu, so no doubt I’ll be looking out for them again the next time I’m in Russia!