Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bullet train to Saint Petersburg

Since December 2010 there has been a high speed train from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg. This TGV (train de grand vitesse) is called Allegro, and it has proven even more hugely popular than was expected. The trip only takes three and a half hours (3:36'), and the scheduling is excellent. The first train leaves at 5.12 am in Helsinki.

In 2011 Russians declared that they have had enough of turning back time and decided to stay in the daylight saving time (DST) all year long. This is understandable, because there are more time zones in Russia than anywhere else - sixteen.

Thus, while there is only a time difference of one hour in principle, the current winter time difference between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg is two hours. Which is why it is already 10.48 local time when the train arrives in St. Petersburg.

On the Allegro train, before crossing the border to Russia, it is possible to change currency to rubles at the best price, better than Forex. There is no wireless network on the train, and an internet widget functions only on the Finnish leg of the journey.

The last train leaves St. Petersburg at 20.25 and arrives in Helsinki 22.01. Very nice: after a full day in St. Petersburg you can still spend a full night in Helsinki.

I have been invited by The Finnish Institute in St. Petersburg to give a lecture to the opening of an exhibition of Finnish silent films called The Fatal Look, beautifully curated and produced by Mr. Kai Vase of KAVA (National Audiovisual Archive / Finland).

I was prepared that there would be an audience of five, maybe one or two of them Russians. But the auditorium was full, and almost all were Russians. There is currently a vivid interest in Finland in Saint Petersburg, and even the popularity of studying the Finnish language is growing. The audience is intelligent and knowledgeable, and there are many questions and interviews. It would have been too late to catch the evening train after the lecture, and the Institute, foreseeing this, has arranged me a hotel in the same block.

We are in the center, at Bolshaya Konyushennaya, within a walking distance of many of the city's attractions. I have a big lunch in the relaxed atmosphere of the Barcelona Tapas Bar (quick, good quality, a lot to eat, good value for money) and dinner at the elegant Arka Restaurant, both on the Bolshaya Konyushennaya. Next morning I have a full Russian style breakfast at my hotel, the Nevsky Hotel Grand. The wireless network at the hotel is perfect.

I dedicate the second day to a visit to the Hermitage. It is quite close, but I manage to do the "flanirovat po Nevskomu" - be a flaneur on the Nevsky Prospekt - on my way there. It's a perfect day for the Hermitage - gray and thawy and slushy outdoors. St. Petersburg drivers are no gentlemen even on the Nevsky Prospekt. It would be a good idea to wear gumshoes on days like this. After the closing time of the Hermitage I have time for a quick salmon salad at the attractive Grand Café Literaturnoe whose emblem is the image of Pushkin. The Pushkin Museum, situated in his final apartment, is nearby on the embankment of the river Moika. I like the music selections in the cafés and restaurants I visited. No junk playlists here.

The taxi takes me to the evening traffic jam and across the Litenyy Most (Litenyy Bridge) to the Finland Station. I'm thinking about Edmund Wilson's classic book To the Finland Station. The station is still there, the name remains the same, and more than 20 years after the fall of the wall there is still a Ploshad Lenina (Lenin Square) around the railway station.

It's 40 years since I last visited the city, then called Leningrad. I participated in a conducted tour, affordable for a poor student. Now, thanks to the Allegro bullet train, the trip to Saint Petersburg is faster than to our summer place at Saimaa. The temptation is great to make a next visit soon.

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