From Russia with love
A good start is flight and hotel, which is easy enough, but it turns out you need a visa to go to Russia. I have never had to apply for a visa before, so this was all a bit new.
The first problem was that I nearly got caught out by one of the many visa companies, with convincing names, that are just companies that will get your visa for you. My understanding is that these companies are useful in some cases - like when you need visas to cross a number of countries as they will quite literally walk the visa application embassy to embassy and sort it all. However, for a simple Russian visa they add nothing. The big hassle is the visa application, which has to be on-line. They cannot do that for you, and once done you can post or hand deliver to the visa processing centre in London. There really is no added benefit paying a visa company to do it for that.
But the application is hassle. It is a lot of paperwork and took me all afternoon for myself and Sandra just for the form. It was especially difficult for a pedant such as myself as the questions were not entirely clear. Like "List all educational establishments you attended except high school" - err - so include primary school? What of the week I spent on a course in Edinburgh? I ended up being pragmatic and just listing Brum Uni. But they wanted all organisations I have ever supported or been a member of - I left blank but I have been in Brum Students uni and many other minor "organisations". They say that errors or omissions could be a break of Russian law, so not nice. They even asked for all countries visited in last 10 years with dates, FFS. I had to go through my photos to tell and I am pretty sure I missed the odd day trip to Amsterdam to install kit in a data centre. I tried my best.
I was nearly thwarted as the web site did say company directors working from home and self employed has to submit bank statements but the paperwork had a comma after "directors" so affected me! I realised (and they confirmed when I handed in, in London) that company directors need bank statements for 3 months to show a certain balance. That nearly screwed me as I run my main account at £0 with a big overdraft limit and a small shell script to shuffle stuff from mortgage account as needed (which is very negative until I pay it off). I was half expecting to have to resign as director for a few days while applying for a visa so I could correctly and honestly say not a director. Thankfully I have a joint account that was in credit. Even so I had to print and get bank to stamp it as authentic so more wasted time. What gets me here is that any one-man-band could resign for a few days to game the form, so why do they ask? They ask loads of crap which either they can (a) verify independently (so why ask), or (b) cannot (so why trust the answers). It is a total waste of time. Anyway, next time, it should be simpler. You end up with a single visit visa. I had to get the hotel to send an invitation to Russia to support the visa application, which they did with no problem (but were geared up for fax not email, but coped).
The flight was surprisingly short - with head wind it was well under 3 hours, but they faffed about on the tarmac at Terminal 5 in Heathrow for nearly an hour. Not amused. This was BA who are one of the airlines doing direct each day to/from St.Petersburg.
Business class was OK - a rather odd arrangement of two people in three seats each side, to give more room, and better service (just). A short enough flight not to matter.
It was amusing at baggage drop - I am impressed we can do iPhone boarding passes now, and they are so common, but the boarding pass for Russia had to be on paper so that someone can check the visa and use highlighter on the paper boarding pass to show it was checked!
On landing, I was shocked at the passport control, which was nearly an hour. I know getting in to UK can be bad, and so can places like Vegas, but this was crazy. We saw relatively short queues, but each person was well over a minute, maybe two. They typed loads in to some terminal, printed stuff, stamped stuff, and put some printed card in my passport. No machine reading of passport. What was odd is that everyone else with their Russia passports were taking just as long to get in. Once we got through the baggage conveyor had finished and bags were stacked up by the wall.
Russians like their stamps!
The hotel had, as booked, sent a car, and Sandra made the driver wait while she got a costa coffee. It was a somewhat amusing process as she pointed to syrup because she did not know the Russian word for cinnamon. It then took nearly an hour to get in to the centre of St.Petersburg as the traffic was mental.
At this point it is worth pointing out that I went slightly over the top here. I wanted to make this a special romantic weekend, and as it was just my wife and I, and only a weekend, I booked a suite. Well, not just a suite, but the Ambassador Suite, at the Astoria Hotel, St.Petersburg. I did not go for the Presidential Suite as even I could not justify that, but still, the hotel were falling over backwards to help. Lynda was great. She was trying to pre-empt anything we could think of, even arranging for extended stay on last day to match when we left for our flight (at no extra cost). When we suggested eating at a restaurant at the next door hotel she personally walked us there via some back passage and introduced us and got us a 50% discount (was a nice meal).
I have never booked a suite before. It is not cheap, and was a key part of the cost of the holiday. I am not sure if actually "worth it" but it was damn impressive. The hotel did manage a couple of silly errors but they were sorted quickly with massive apologies. The room was lovely - double size, with sitting room and bedroom and huge bathroom and shower, and hall and even a second toilet! You could live there (well, no, I could not afford that!).
We get the impression that she thought we were some real high rollers, so much so that I did not have to dress in anything but M&S jeans and a shit, you know - that rich?!?!
If ever you can afford something like this, I would suggest it is worth trying at least once. The only downside I can think is that every hotel you stay in afterwards will seem cheap, and affording this every time is not viable.
The Astoria is clearly a very nice hotel and has had loads of famous people stay. Highly recommended.
It always seems the way - by the last day you finally get the hang of stuff, find that cafe that is just right and the restaurant you finally understand the menu and know what you like - you finally find that one taxi driver who speaks English and tells you all the sights you meant to go to three days before. But still, we got some souvenirs and managed to get home.
What I did not know, and had not even thought of, is that people nick lenses! I really had not considered it. I always make sure I have a good hold of my camera by the strap. I know the straps are good (some oiks tried to nick one in Gloucester once). But the idea someone would just detach the lens had not occurred to me. Apparently it is common, especially in Russia.
So, on the way back to hotel we popped in to MacDonald's and got a diet coke - a queue that is packed, and my camera on my back, well attached by the straps. Sit down and WTF - no lens. I could not believe it!
I seriously have never even thought of that, let alone had one stolen like that. Sandra was near me and saw nothing. I took a picture on the way in, so know it was not before McD's. It was in the queue. Most expensive McD's ever.
So, back to hotel, talk to Lynda, and it was almost funny! She was falling over herself to help, and apologise for our visit to Russia being so marred. Giving me coffee and cakes while she arranged for hotel car to take me to the police station with an interpreter to report the theft. Turns out easier said than done - the police were really not interested as I did not witness the theft. WTF? To be honest I am really glad I do not have to rely on these people to investigate this (even though McD's had cameras) as they did not care. It took some persuasion by my interpreter to get them to simply give a letter confirming I reported it. She was happy to translate and give a written (stamped, obviously) report from the hotel, Now to chase insurance company.
The airport was a tad odd - very simple security to get in to airport. Then more at the gate. Did not need the couple of hours we usually would allow. Passport control was almost as slow leaving, but the queue was almost non-existent (thankfully). I got a migraine which was a bugger as I could not read the signs or departures board, but all was well and we got home. They actually have a business lounge. I assume the airport code of LED is Leningrad. Thanks to Виктория for the driver home (OK, she is Victoria normally, I am just getting the hang of this Russian alphabet).
It was a nice holiday. If ever we go to St.Petersburg again I will stay at the Astoria. I can just imagine how the will cope with myself and Sandra in the Tsar suite with the family in normal rooms. It would almost be worth it to see their faces. I will hold my lens though...