Day one in St. Petersburg was game day!
I arrived by train very early in the morning so you know day one is a long one. I headed on foot to my hostel which luckily was close by. Within a few blocks of walking I already knew that I liked St. Petersburg. This doesn´t happen very often on first glance but in those meer blocks, I knew there was something great about this city although I was not prepared for what I was about to see later that day.
After checking into the hostel at 5 am and realizing I actually arrived a day late to my reservation, ha ha oops, I was able to rest a bit before heading out to explore…enjoying my mishap that turned out perfect in the end. Rest was needed because by the time I got to St. Petersburg my body was literally over the whole travel thing; I had no urge to go out and do much. I was tired and just wanted to rest…obviously this didn´t stop me but I do feel that I missed a good chunk of this city; a worthy city to absorb!
Before I get into the details just know to take your time here if you go, totally recommend St. Petersburg and I will go back.
St. Petersburg, unlike Moscow, is a very walkable city, at least for seeing most of the main tourist attractions. Upon leaving the hostel and turning on the main drag toward the center I only made it a few feet before I had to stop, stare, take photos, stare some more, step and do the same over and over again.
St. Petersburg, is mind blowing….Insane, nearly all the buildings are detailed works of art, it is like Europe to a beautiful extreme, then throw in canals as if it was Venice or Amsterdam, then huge buildings that were palaces as if in France or England, and then the Baltics during Summer with so much blue water right there and long days with bright nights. This place was mind blowing I tell you!
First, I ran into an old castle which is now a museum, then into a park that is the backyard to a palace (now a museum) and eventually along the canals and to a big plaza where you find the enormously beautiful Hermitage Museum (an old palace, Winter Palace for Tsars). This building is hard to miss, so detailed, huge, beautiful, etc. When I arrived I had no clue what it was, and after seeing so many mind blowing buildings along the way this one topped it off and left me teary eyed. I wont even go into detail about what it looks like inside because the next day I did that and it is overwhelming yet still mind blowing and sooo beautiful. It is nearly impossible to see it all in a day, and one doesn´t know if they should look up at the detailed ceiling or at the beauty and history displayed in front of them in each room. Let´s just say one girl in my dorm tried to do the whole museum in 1 day (the 2 main buildings) and spent literally 8+ hours walking it and was left destroyed. Plus I don´t think she saw everything as I spent 3+ hours and I am certain I barely broke ground in the second largest museum in the world! Interesting was the fact during WWII the museum remained open but many paintings were removed and stored for safety…this didn´t seem to stop people from going as the place is still mind blowingly beautiful.
The last thing I did before the game was tour a massive church, again mind blowing, with some Morrocans I met in a park. Turn´s out we went to St. Issac´s Cathedral and it is one of the top tourist attractions here for it´s views, needless to mention the incredible mosaics and gold found on it´s interior. I´d like to mention that before arriving to the city I had not investigated much as what to see since I generally wander and learn as I go (maybe I have 1-2 things I want to see before I arrive but not always). This could be why when I stumble upon places like these I don´t know what they are or if they are even important…it is only later that I discover the importance. Turns out this Cathedral is one of the highest and apparently heaviest (300,000 tons of natural granite used just in the columns around it) buildings in the city. The height and massive gold dome (cast iron covered with 100kg of pure gold) is what attracted us to enter…imagine!
To get to the game you had to take the metro and you can imagine how that was knowing the city was flooded with so many football fans going to the game. I ran into more Moroccans then Iranians, as one should expect knowing that around 40,000 Morrocans traveled to Russia for the WC. The atmosphere was friendly and happy. Even before the game people were taking photos with those from the opposing team and wishing them good luck. People were simply happy to be here. The whole way to the stadium both countries were singing and chanting, there was no hatred just happiness to be there. It was truly amazing to see and hear this, as I really expected a bit more negativity or aggressiveness as one might expect between rivals. Maybe these were not rivals teams but I don´t think any matches had negativity as those who were here were generally well educated people who have some money from each country, aka good manners in general. Also no local fan aggression existed because Russians in general are not huge football fans….and their team played exceptionally well in the WC. In general most Russians I met, despite being know to be cold or rough people, were pretty happy and very hospitable people, the only downside was the language barrier (but that didn´t stop interaction much).
Like me, there were also plenty of people who didn´t have a team and were just there for the experience and fun. During the whole WC I was supporting Panama as I used to live there and it was their first time in a WC, I couldn´t resist supporting them during this historical moment. I actually ran into some Panamanians at this game who lived in NYC and we took photos and everything because I was the first time they saw their jersey, fun stuff. It was also cool to sport a Jersey that was hard to find, people loved spotting it!
SIDE NOTE: Although I did not go to a game I wanted to mention how they did because for Panama it was not about winning the WC for them success was measured by simply making a goal…which they did achieve! This goal, for those who were at the game or who are Panamanian was celebrated. A German friend at the game told me the way they celebrated that 1 goal was as if they had indeed won the entire WC…how amazing/special that must have been to experience that goal or be from Panama this WC!
Lines to get into the match were ridiculous, I ended up in one that was high security without knowing (for those with big flags and other large items like drums) and it didn´t move at all. In front of me in line was a celebrity from Morroco that people kept taking photos with, I also did so, because why not..ha ha but then I said bye to that line as time was ticking fast….the new line was so much faster but I arrived late to my seat anyway, like 1 minute late but many people were late.
I loved the game although no one scored until literally the last second. What I loved was that it didn´t matter what people were singing, chanting, yelling, it all became one common language, football! You could tell what they were saying without understanding their language at all and you could cheer along. People were happy, just happy to be there, although eventually 1 team was going to be sad, and in the end it was Morocco as Iran scored that goal in the last second. I was actually going for Iran but sat next to a nice Moroccan guy so I didn´t celebrate as I felt bad but funny this Asian guy next to us sure did, it was hilarious. A goal in the World Cup, definitely something awesome to see. I knew the Moroccan was sad and as he was going to leave I said hey not everyday you can go to a game at the World Cup, and for Morocco the last time was in 1998! So he stayed a bit longer to see the excitement even though it was not his, then well too much was too much so we left…ha ha
It was fun to be a part of this game even though neither were my teams, nor have I ever been to either country, it was very fitting for me actually. It did leave me wanting more and bummed I was not going to a game from some Latin American country now that I have lived over 6 years in Latin America…but I guess I can wait another 4 years. Back in Colombia I did get to see one game between travels and it was great! even though we didn´t win it.
I also loved the stadium location, very calm and beautiful, located on one of the several islands around St. Petersburg. The stadium was pretty new, built in 2017 and we were the first WC game fans to enter…Attendance 62,550. After the game I stayed for awhile as the the water at sunset was mesmerizing and the view amazing. I sat and reflected and took it all in as a local band played behind me. I snapped some photos of the cool lone standing skyscraper off in the distance also reflecting the water and sunset.
SIDE NOTE: In Colombia I felt the same energy as I did going to my 1 game in Russia. In Colombia…Football is in their blood, minds and hearts. Typically in Colombia for games you will see people gathered outside restaurants or bars staring from the outside watching. For WC the City set up big screens in various parks throughout the city, so parks were full as well as gawkers outside restaurants & bars. Ha ha Colombians must watch the games so concentration at work is difficult…at our office when Colombia played we had catered snacks and were able to watch on the big screen. It would be awesome to have WC here one day!
Also interesting at WC are the people who show up. I met tons obviously, many huge football fans there to support their country´s team, those who have been to all world cups, others who travel to nearly all games, some who check off stadiums, others who just happen to be there at that time and others like me who are checking out the experience of WC. One story to share is about a fellow I met from the US that I find to be a rare case. I met him at my hostel and I consider his story random and impressive as he went to the last WC in Brazil but didn´t see a game just took in the experience of it, then planned to go to Russia for this WC whether his US Team made it or not (most fans wouldn´t go if their team is not there). He planned the trip so well he even learned Russian (not an easy language nor is common in the US for someone to learn a language besides the native let alone one few speak in the US), watched all football matches over the past 4 years leading up to the WC, would stay the whole WC and went to the same first game as myself.
I did the Hermitage Museum and some wandering with a new friend from Morocco who was in my room, I did an evening canal tour (in Russian, oops), checked out the Fan Fest for real this time, then witnessed the best thing ever with my Moroccan friend at 1 am – what they call ¨White Nights¨. Call us crazy leaving at 1 am to walk across the city where no one seemed to be…but turns out after a block there were actually tons of people in the park at this hour, and then 1 block before reaching our destination even more people appeared to watch the same crazy ¨White Nights¨. Who knew this was so popular…all these people showed up at :30 am to watch the draw bridges open for ships to go through. HA HA I was skeptical being from Seattle where draw bridges are common but this was amazing. The river was lined with people and just as we crossed the last cross walk the bridge went up, we had arrived just in time! We joined the fascinating crowd to witness draw bridges lit up. LOL I just laughed and I still laugh about it but Not Only were there tons of people but 100s of boats were also waiting on the water to go through because this was now a tourist thing to do and well besides the bridges the sky starts to turn bright again….Eventually big ships did come through…so it was not all touristy…but this is what White Nights entail….a never really dark day paired with a charming bridge opening up and tons of tourists! Loved it, soooo glad we went!
My last day I was going to go to the Peterhoff Gardens and Castle but I just wanted to do my own thing and that was run, oddly not in the city but take a metro to an island and run. Why I didn´t just run through the lovely city exploring? I guess I really wanted to see where the locals go to run. I did run to a metro stop a bit further out and almost decided that was plenty because the legs were tired already but then again I ran without stretching 1 week after a marathon, so I stretched and hopped on the metro to run on an island right next to where the Stadium was and even paid to enter (like 50 cents). Found that odd that I had to pay but whatever. I managed to make it 1 whole loop around this awesome forested island with plenty of trails, views and even little places to eat. It was relaxing with no cars but instead runners, walkers, kayakers and forest just inside the city. In the end I spent most of the day there because when I finished my run I crossed to another island where the Stadium is and became amused but the rides at the amusement park. A rocket that lifted off and spun you around, unique and calling my attention, I had to try it! It was different, good views from above but nothing great, so I paid for another ride…this time a roller coaster that looked fun…and omg, turns out to be one of the best I have been on in a long time. I ate lunch there then quickly returned to the hostel only to pack, grab some gifts, dinner (or late lunch, who knows, days are long) for later and catch the bus. This is the second year with a trip to Europe where my last day is spent at an amusement park….reoccurring theme here I guess…humm
Bus ride from St. Petersburg to Tallinn was about 8 hours and the best part was the border crossing where 2 castles are found. I was so excited about this that I tried to snap a photo after passing immigration, much to my dismay our Russian driver went nuts on me and almost attacked me, I was like wtf because I was not the last passenger and I was taking a photo of a castle, like calm down….any who…over it but soooo weird. It was the only time I saw any Russian aggressiveness and I was definitely not happy about it; happy he didn´t touch or hit me.
The night ended in Tallinn with some last minute old city wandering, packing again and eating some wild boar (bear was also an option but I couldn´t get up the courage to support that one…) in the main square with a final local beer to conclude my trip as the flight out was early am with many stops along the way (loved the stops though because Tallinn´s airport is awesome and so is Helsinki´s then Paris I can´t complain….just imagine the food I came back with from all those lovely stops on the way back!)