Travel Europe: A bit of a palaver in St Petersburg

For a taste of real Russia, escape the tourists and stay with a family - if you can manage to find them.
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The Independent Culture
RUSSIA IS not a country which welcomes independent travellers. It makes this clear from the moment you apply for your visa. You are supposed to tell the authorities exactly where you intend to stay and what you intend to do before they will let you in. Yet one of the great joys of travel is the unexpected.

Or so I told myself when I signed up for the only method I could find of retaining a reasonable amount of independence - a week staying with an ordinary Russian family. No guides, no itinerary to keep to and a chance to find out what was down the back streets as well as what was in the palaces.

At St Petersburg airport, I got through immigration and customs in record speed and my luggage arrived like a dream. In no time at all I reached the lobby where I was to meet my contact, Yuri. And there he was, holding a sign with "Mr Brown" on it. He took my bag, placed it in the boot and off we drove.

The first clue that something was not quite right was the size of the car. My budget does not normally run to stretched limousines, but I was new to the country and, for all I knew, the strength of the pound was enough to finance an ageing limo.

The mobile phone rang when we were two miles down the road. Wrong Mr Brown. Wrong Yuri. Wrong about the cost of living in St Petersburg. Back at the airport, there was no sign of my host. Telephoning proved next to impossible, it was getting late and the temperature outside was falling.

Negotiating with taxi drivers in my stumbling Russian revealed two things. There are cheap hotels to be had near one of the railway stations - but the drivers wanted $30 to take me there. I took the bus instead and got off, with everyone else, at a large metro station.

I queued for my underground ticket and handed over a small note. The woman behind the counter shouted and waved me away. I persisted but to no result. Other passengers pushed past me. I queued at another window and once again a stream of untranslatable abuse come at me. I refused to move, and the passenger behind me shouted something at the cashier, handed her a note, and I was given a token to let me through.

Down in the metro a lot of looking at maps and studying the system got me on to the right train easily enough. The problem was that the Russian underground does not have the names of the stations on the walls. The sole indication of where you are is a disembodied voice muttering the name of the station you are at and the name of the next station. Somehow, I managed to change trains, get off at the right station and track down a cheap hotel.

It was cheap, at least by Russian standards. My definition of a budget hotel comes in significantly below pounds 10 per night. The hotel I arrived at wanted $50 (pounds 30) per night in advance. I agreed to pay up and was guided upstairs.

The cost, however, included a phone in my room - and I got through to the right Yuri straight away. The right Yuri was all apologies. Because of a mix-up, he had been waiting at the airport two days ago. He gave me an address, a whole series of clues to help me find it, and advised me to ask the concierge for my money back.

"My friend has invited me to stay," I explained to her and, to my astonishment, I got the majority of my money back.

My real hosts, it transpired, were a wonderfully friendly family and I spent the rest of the evening being force-fed wild mushroom soup and apologies.

But why bother? Why should a traveller want to go through all the uncertainty and the effort when it would have been so much simpler to settle for an organised tour and do the sights of St Petersburg in comfort?

Two days later I got my answer and my reward for all the effort. Like a lot of people, I knew that there was a palace outside St Petersburg called Petrodvorets which is usually described as the Russian equivalent of Versailles. I had seen pictures of the graceful building, its magnificent grounds and a staircase of fountains crowded with people.

At 9am, with six inches of snow on the ground and a clear blue sky, I had the place to myself. Exploring the grounds in silence was magical. The gold of the cupolas, the white of the snow, the blue of the sky, the green of the fir trees. I lingered in the sun and enjoyed the crisp, clean air and contrasting colours. As I looked out over the frozen Baltic, I heard the first tour group arrive.

"Now remember, group, I want everyone back here by 12 at the latest."

Andrew Brown organised his holiday through Irene Slatter at Russlang, 5/6 Fenwick Terrace, Neville's Cross, Durham DH1 4JJ (0191-386 9578). Half-board accommodation with families costs pounds 120 per week. Flights (non- stop on BA or Aeroflot, or indirect on Finnair or Lufthansa) cost around pounds 300.