Saturday, November 28, 2009

Russia - Day 7

Today I woke up at an impossibly early time, and tossed and turned in bed until I could bear it no longer. I started early for the meeting with the tour to Novgorod, under a crisp night sky. I got there at 7:30, just as a light rain set in. I waited patiently until short before 8 am, and then puzzled at the fact that other tourists were nowhere to be seen. I attempted to ask one of the ladies in the kiosk where I had booked the excursion, but she shrugged and uttered a stream of incomprehensible Russian pointing to another (closed) kiosk and the place where the bus was expected to appear. So I waited somemore with a sinking feeling that I had been had. Finally the kiosk I had been referred to opened at 8:30 so I could try to find out about my excursion.
Another stream of Russian, where I seemed to detect the info that the tour had been canceled for lack of people, and an offer for an alternative tour to Vyborg. OK, so Vyborg it is, although I had no idea where that was.

We drove out of Peter (that is what we Russians call St. Petersburg) into a landscape of rolling hills covered with aspens, in between which there were small hamlets with ancient but very large wooden houses, as well as others with modern "dachas" (Russian for countryhouse) of a modern vintage. It took me a while to realize I was driving over the Fennoscandian Precambrian shield, heading for Finland!

We never made it across the border, but Vyborg is as close as you can get to Finland without leaving Russia. It was first established by the Swedes in the middle ages, at a time when Sweden had control over Finland (their language are very different, so very likely Sweden had annexed Finland before the 12th century), then Peter the Great conquered it, then Finland became independent and took it over, then Russia stepped onto Finnish territory, then the Finns got it back, and finally it became a permanent part of Russia after World War II.

The end result is an Medieval city with strong influences from both Finland and Russia. For example, all tourist signs are in both Russian and Finnish). The city sits in a small bay, in the innermost corner of the Baltic Sea (or the Gulf of Finland), and has been a very important trading port since antiquity. There is a water castle, of course, to defend the entrance to the small bay, which now houses a historical museum.

The visit was pervaded with a constant cold rain, but that didn't stop our plucky guide (who spoke uninterruptedly for the two hours it took us to get there) and her brave group of tourists to go splashing through the town. I was very glad for my Gortex jacket all along! A friendly young man figured out I was in lala land with respect to the perorations of the guide, so he very kindly translated the main points (including the instructions on when and where we were to meet for the trip back!).

We also stopped at a park called Mon Repos (My Rest), where the local prince had his time off. A very pretty natural park with lots of small fake Greek temples and kiosks overlooking the complex shoreline. It was while I was at one of these kiosks that it came to me: I was looking at a glaciated landscape over the Fennoscandian shield. The small hills were rochee moutonnes, stripped of their cover by the continental glaciers, and the complex shoreline was a fjord developed on the field of rochee moutonnes. I have never felt so close to the Ice age!

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