From Russia with love: diary of a school trip (part two)

5th June 2015 at 15:00
Harry with the group's pilot
Three A-level students from a specialist school for visual impairment are visiting St Petersburg to learn about Russian history and culture. The students, from the WESC Foundation in Exeter, are accompanied by their teacher Julian Davey and their carer Huw Hennessy, who will be blogging throughout the trip. In this second instalment, Hennessy describes the group’s first impressions of the city.

Here we are at last: St Petersburg, historic catalyst of the Russian Revolution.

Harry has never flown before, nor even been abroad, so he is buzzing with nervous excitement on the morning we travel. George is stressed about the tight security measures and Tom is understandably anxious about how airport staff will treat him in his wheelchair.

So we feel like VIPs – or Russian oligarchs – when we are whisked to the front of the queue at check-in and the boarding gate. Harry even celebrates his first flight by charming the pilot into posing for a photo with him.

After a smooth flight, we touch down in St Petersburg and soon hit the streets.

Our hotel is in Ligovsky Prospekt, in the heart of the city. The road we are staying on has a scruffy elegance, but the architecture gets grander as we head closer to the centre. The buildings have sculptured facades and wrought iron railings, while Russian flags fly over official-looking establishments.

The local people are similarly elegant. They are slim and trendy, though most seem to fit the stereotype of not smiling much.

Navigating the city's metro is not easy. There are very few lifts for Tom's wheelchair and the escalators are impossibly fast and steep. Stern guards keep watch at the foot of each one as station staff manhandle Tom up and down his own private escalator “lane”, gesticulating loudly for yours truly to stand clear as Tom eventually shoots off the end.

However, once we are on the crowded train, locals stand up to give us their seats – unsmiling, but considerate.

We venture a little way along Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s monumental thoroughfare, stopping at the Kazan Cathedral along the way. Here, history teacher Julian gives us a graphic account of the dramatic stand­off that took place between Rasputin and the mayor of Petrograd (former name of St Petersburg), and the ensuing popular uprising that erupted across the city.

History lesson over for the day, we cross the Griboyedov canal via the pretty Bank Bridge to see the magnificent Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, with its colourful onion domes.

Dazzled by all this architectural splendour, we head to the nearby Gapikus restaurant to recover. We try local specialities including stroganoff and salmon steaks, all nicely washed down with some quite palatable Russian wheat beer.

When I ask Tom, George and Harry how they feel about the welcome they have received so far in Russia, their most repeated word is "helpful". This is a pleasant surprise, given the negative stories we often hear in the press at home.

Tomorrow is a big day for us. We start with an official visit to the Constantin Grot School, the oldest and first school for the blind in Russia. We are hoping to learn a lot about how visual impairment is treated here and maybe even to set up a relationship with the school for the future.

As for how we get there and back, via metro or otherwise, that could turn out to be another adventure. Poka!

Pictured: Harry with the group's pilot.

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