Russia Not Easy For Tourists, But Worth The Trip
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Nearly two decades after breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia still has tough visa requirements, and not much is easy for visitors. Our correspondent David Greene says it's worth the journey, but Russia takes some time to absorb, and he sent us this postcard from St. Petersburg.
DAVID GREENE: You may remember when bands like The Scorpions building up fascination with our Cold War enemy. The Scorpions explored Moscow in 1989 and sang about the Moscow River, the Moskva, and about Russia's famous amusement park.
(Soundbite of music)
THE SCORPIONS (Music Group): (Singing) I follow the Moskva and down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change.
GREENE: A lot hasn't changed. Those sites, and of course picturesque Red Square, are all still here. And it's still daunting to visit. A Russian visa application will make you want to tear your hair out. And in Moscow, like most of Russia, you'll hear very little English.
Things are somewhat different up north, in the more European city of St. Petersburg. There are English-speaking boat tours of the city's Amsterdam-like canals.
Unidentified Woman: Right in front of you, there is one of the most widely known bridges of the city, the Anyshka(ph) Bridge.
Mr. SEAN DABEL (Attorney): I didn't think it was going to be very good.
GREENE: Thirty-two year old Sean Dabel is a lawyer from San Francisco. He is loving St. Petersburg, just not the torture of getting here. To get visas, he and his friends had to obtain formal invitation letters.
Mr. DABEL: And then you get here, and you have to register and tell them you're here. It's like, of course you're here. Didn't they notice that at the airport?
GREENE: Getting around St. Petersburg, he said, much easier than his experience in Moscow.
Mr. DABEL: They weren't making any, you know, semblance of trying to make it easy for tourists. Like, you could either show up and try to figure your way out or not. But I wasn't being spoon-fed as much as St. Petersburg in some ways.
GREENE: And Russia is doing some spoon-feeding. They've loosened the visa rules in a few places, the major one St. Petersburg, if you come by cruise ship or ferry. Then you can stay 72 hours, as long as you never leave the side of your official tour guide.
Mr. TED GRIEVE (ph): I'm happy with what we've done here, yes.
GREENE: Ted Grieve is from Brisbane, Australia.
So you can't leave the group, so to speak?
Mr. GRIEVE: We cannot leave the group.
GREENE: And has that been limiting at all, or...
Mr. GRIEVE: It has been limiting in that sense.
GREENE: He's loved what he's seen: the renowned Hermitage museum, Catherine the Great's palace. But for a friendly Australian, the welcome has been a bit of a shock.
Mr. GRIEVE: It's just that I wish that the officials would smile, and they don't. When you come through immigration, very stoney-faced. The people sitting in the Hermitage who are giving you the directions and that sort of stuff, very stoney-faced.
GREENE: And sadly, that's a common complaint from so many tourists who are here briefly. This is a culture where it takes some time to feel the warmth. Heres just one example from the Hermitage Museum. Those cruise ship passengers with just an hour to see the Rembrandt and Matisse paintings miss the charm behind the official mask.
Ms. MARIA KHALTUNEN (Hermitage Museum): (Speaking foreign language).
GREENE: The tour schedule does not include the cats. Yes, one of the world's premier museums has cats wandering the courtyards. Maria Khaltunen works in the museum director's office, and she is the self-proclaimed cat press secretary.
The animals have been allowed in the palace that houses this museum since the 18th century. Russians have always loved their cats.
Ms. KHALTUNEN: It was daughter of Peter the Great who ordered to bring them.
GREENE: And they have an added benefit. They intimidate rodents. The cats are still free to roam everywhere but the galleries.
Ms. KHALTUNEN: That's why we have. Maybe in Louvre, there was not official tradition to have these kind of animals. But we have.
GREENE: It can be pain to get to Russia. And it can feel unwelcoming at first. But there are little charms and a certain poetry to be discovered. It might just take more than 72 hours.
(Soundbite of meow)
GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, St. Petersburg.