Sooo... We've hooked up with our tour group, and they seem great. Admittedly we've only had one night together, but after the initial (and inevitable) awkward few minutes everyone seems to be getting on famously. We're a mixed bunch, fifteen travellers from all over the world, with people from Malaysia, Israel, Norway, Canada, Oz and New Zealand with everybody else from the UK.
We met up at the Hotel Suvorov, the guest house of choice for Gap Adventures in St. Petersburg, and it's just this side of rinky-dink. The young lady at reception confirmed that the steely resolve that got the USSR through the Cold War is still alive and well, whilst the room serves as a reminder that Russia still flips off the EU and it's smoking ban on a regular basis. Super Kings-flavoured room aside, Kate and I did spend our first few hours in the room with phantom-itches, as a Trip Advisor review claimed the Suvorov was home to bed bugs, and once you've got that idea into your head you can't help but scratch. I leapt into action, with a method for bed bug removal that I'm thinking of patenting; this mostly involves blasting the little biters to oblivion with the searing heat of the hotel's 20W hairdryer then shaking the sheets a little to finish them off. That's the end of THAT chapter.
Anyways, we then met Laziz, our tour guide, who's from Uzbekistan and speaks an amazing SEVEN languages. I'd later argue with him that Uzbek and Farsi don't really count as languages, but that was later, and over vodka, so he didn't take offence. After some cringe-worthy introductions, the best being Charlie's - she joined late as she'd fallen over walking out of the airport arrivals lounge and hospitalised herself - we all went for a traditional Russian dinner at, appropriately enough, the Russian Cafe. It made a massive difference to have two Russian speakers, and dinner was great. I had 'Monastery Stew' - described as 'meat served in pot' - which was rich and filling so thanks to whichever animal went into it. The food was made even better by the free vodka that came with every portion, and it really helped break the ice.
We finished the night in a very unexpected manner. I'd assumed that with it being our first night, we'd all get an early night to hit the city like committed tourists. But we ended up finding a Russian rock bar and spending the night with the locals until around 2AM. The music was eclectic - the DJ actually found a way to segue neatly between Cyprus Hill's Insane in the Membrane and The Smiths' This Charming Man - but the young Russian rockers seemed happy and friendly. So friendly in fact that the girls found themselves encircled by steely eyed Daniel Craig-a-likes as we were leaving. The bar was pleasingly smoky, taking me right back to my early days of uni, and forcing me to have an early morning shower before getting into my bed. Just as an aside, smoking is amazingly cheap here - 20 cigarettes are slightly more than a pound - and so it seems like most Russians have taken to it like bears to baiting. Everybody smokes and it was like a window to the past to have smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants again.
We're off for Ukrainian food tonight, again as a group, so I can't wait for the taste sensation that is borsch - beetroot and cabbage soup for the uninitiated. Delightful.
Perhaps I can get them to serve it 'with meat in pot'...
P.S. Extra blog points to those that 'get' the title of this post. L.