Sun, May 30 (Day 6): Helsinki to St. Petersburg

This morning it’s an early departure for our journey into Russia, passing the timber center of Kotka. Then the forests of Karelia lead to the former city of the Tsars, St. Petersburg. This evening we will enjoy complimentary champagne with dinner. Later, maybe visit a theater for a Russian folklore show? (Scandinavian breakfast / Dinner)
Hotel: Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya

This day will mostly be spent on the bus. We are taking a Trafalgar guided tour from this point on. The italics text at the top of each page is from the travel brochure. While there will be changes to the printed itinerary, rest assured WE will not be enjoying champagne this evening. And the Russian folklore show is day-after-tomorrow night.
Linda and I are sitting in the first seat behind the driver of the bus (as you can see from this over-the-shoulder picture). What you cannot see (and count yourself fortunate) is the harrowing passing on this highway. That white line down the middle of the road is where the bus goes when it passes a slower truck or car. The slower vehicle moves a little to the right, while (we hope) the oncoming traffic does similar to our left, leaving room down the middle for our pass.
We stopped at a little place near the Finland-Russia border for refreshment and rest. This is the remnant of what the rest stop used to look like, before they built the new place. It looks like they don't take the time to fully tear down the previous stuff when they replace it, and we have seen such remnants at a number of stops. FYI, the border process is rather inefficient (three russian checkpoints), but they tell us it has improved greatly in recent years.
Sorry for the poor quality, but I had to snap this quickly as we passed by the first visible McDonalds in Russia. Given my previous career behind the grill, it is satisfying to see the golden arches have multiplied exceedingly in this land.
Our hotel is surrounded by a lot of buildings that were built for housing in the communist days, and they look rather drab, inside and out. Our guide grew up and was educated in St. Petersburg, but now lives in London. She says it has quickly morphed into a completely different country since those days, and she has watched the evolution as a tour guide for the last 25 years.
This is our hotel, the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya (I can pronounce the first two words). The picture does not do it justice, as it appears very new and modern. The dinner this evening was wonderful, surely prepared for visitors with western tastes.
This evening we went on a boat ride through the St. Petersburg canals. This is a shot of the group walking to the boat.
We're sitting on the upper deck chairs, looking out over the cabin top. You can see one of many bridges that this shallow boat passes. The water is high this season, so the boat only clears the bridge bottom by about 2 feet.
That leaves about 1 foot of clearance between our heads and the bridge bottom, when sitting down! If we stood up, this would be a very short vacation.
On the river, we get a good view of Peter and Paul's Fortress, where St. Petersburg began. We'll get a much closer look at the fortress and the church tomorrow. Originally built for protection, this fortress also served for many years as a prison for political enemies.
As we look along the banks, we see palace after palace. These were the magnificent residences where the aristocracy lived, generously provided by the other 99.99% of the russian population during the previous several centuries. We'll tour many of these buildings in the next few days; most are museums or serve public functions (e.g., university) now.
Here's a closer view of palace architecture. We're looking forward to going inside tomorrow.