"They don't seem to have 'Ra Ra Rasputin' available for karaoke, which I guess isn't a surprise given he was poisoned, shot and thrown in a river less than a mile away"
|England 0-1 Belgium. Kaliningrad Stadium.|
Any other time of the year, a standard tourist visa to enter the country weighs in at £108.40. It's even more expensive should you want to visit the exclave of Kaliningrad as it's position on the Baltic Sea, separated from the rest of Russia by the Baltic States, means that you technically have to leave and then re-enter the country to get there. To do that, you need a "double entry visa" at the cost of £151.40. What does President Putin think we are, made of money?
With a Fan ID however, available to anybody who wants to visit Russia for the World Cup, no visa fee is necessary and you can travel anywhere in Russia. Given that I'd always wanted to visit Saint Petersburg but could never justify paying over 100 notes to do so, this was fantastic news. When the draw was made and threw up England v Belgium in Kaliningrad, it became even better. A few days in Saint Petersburg followed by a few days in the home of the Baltic Fleet? Sign me up.
|Luckily, I had left my firearm behind ahead of the|
overnight train to Saint Petersburg
This one was particularly brutal, setting off from Nizhny at 1.58pm local time on Monday and arriving in Saint Petersburg at 12.05pm on Tuesday, a mere 22 hours and seven minute journey that cost a ridiculously low £46.29 for a bed in an open carriage. Boris Johnson and the rest of the government may be busy slating the Russians, but Chris Grayling should get his incompetent posterior out to Russia as soon as possible to see how a railway should be run.
|The luxurious carriage for the 22 hour train trip|
to Saint Petersburg
The journey itself was your typical overnight trip, people sharing food and drinks and stories with each other as if they were old friends as opposed to recently acquainted folk who had been thrown together in a train carriage with no air conditioning as the temperature topped 30 degrees.
|Beer and the rolling Russian countryside|
I put this lack of watching Russia down to the poor mobile signal, and then we talked about England's chances and how well they had played against Panama, after which I showed him some photos on my phone of the previous day in Nizhny Novgorod. It was only when he got up to alight from the train and pulled out a white stick that I realised he was in fact blind. Needless to say, asking a blind man why he wasn't watching something and then showing him photos wasn't my finest moment.
I'd just about managed to remove my foot from my mouth when his replacement rocked up, an older Russian man complete with his family of older teenagers in tow. He didn't speak a word of English but had pretty good German, so we were able to strike up some form of conversation in the mother tongue of the Fatherland. Soon, he was sharing some home made bread item packed with onions with me and the rest of his clan. The trolley women came along, sold us all a beer and then the ticket collector came along and told us no drinking on the train. You can have that one actually Mr Grayling, you don't get that on Southern.
|UNESCO World Heritage Site Saint Petersburg|
|The Winter Palace, home of the Russian monarchy and now the|
|The Neva River|
|Stunning Saint Petersburg|
|Argentinian fans were out in force ahead of their|
game with Nigeria
|Pervert for me, please|
|A pop up outside bar for Argentina v Nigeria|
|And "a few quiet drinks" turns into some significant partying with the |
Argies and the Nigerians
We read lots about how Russian elections are rigged and while there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin has had his opposition bumped off or barred from standing against him on spurious terms, if this karaoke bar taught us anything other than not to sing about homeless drunks who bought down the royal family, it is that he would win a fair election regardless of who stood against him.
|Greatest t-shirt ever? And only £8|
|The party continues|
|Saint Petersburg, where the sun never goes down - literally. This was|
taken at 4am in the morning on the way back to the hotel
The other noticeable thing about Saint Petersburg other than her size and beauty is that the sun never sets - quite literally. This can make it an absolute nightmare when it comes to time keeping, as rolling out of a bar into bright sunshine at 4am in the morning can attest to. The people of the city never seem to sleep either, my hour-and-a-half walk home taking in restaurants still open with people sat outside eating dinner despite it being the same time that the average milkman starts his rounds.
This sunlight and every-restaurant-being-open situation allowed for a 7am kebab breakfast on the way back to the hotel and a few hours sleep before the flight to Kaliningrad. Saint Petersburg had instantly charted into the top five cities I've ever been, but the Kaliningrad was a completely different kettle of fish. As soon as you entered the city, which foreigners were banned from until the fall of the Soviet Union, it is a very different feel. This is hardly surprising given that until the end of World War II it had belonged to Germany. The area was given to the victorious Russian's, the ethnic population were largely shipped out and lots of Soviet's moved in.
|Stuffed bear at Saint Petersburg airport,|
as you do...
|Glad to be here, amber region|
It's pre-Russian past gives it a very Germanic feel. Plenty of the street and building names are still in German - we were staying in the Fredrich Hotel for example. The architecture is very German and even the culture, with our dinner on arrival and breakfast the following morning consisting of German cheese and sausages and German beer. You don't feel as if you are in Russia in Kaliningrad - rather than photos of Putin everywhere, it's all about Peter the Great. There is even a gay bar, "the best pub in Kaliningrad" according to one local. As an added bonus, the sun also sets, leaving no excuse for being in a pub until 4am in the morning. Shame.
|Just a bowl of cheese for dinner for me|
|The greatest pub in the world - a big portrait of|
Lenin on the wall
|"Wear an authentic army hat and hold an authentic army|
shell while you enjoy your 90p pint"
We left the bunker once to visit a couple of bars down by the beautiful riverside but returned within an hour such was the bunkers brilliance and it was from here that we undertook the 20 minute walk to Kaliningrad Stadium, high-fiving and posing for pictures with locals along the way.
The ground is located on an island outside the city centre on wasteland, with quite literally nothing around it. One of the big problems with building new stadiums specifically for World Cup's is what becomes of them afterwards, and that certainly looks to be the case here.
|Kaliningrad Stadium, build in the middle of nowhere|
|This place will unfortunately have just 4,000 rattling around in|
it next season
Two tiered all the way around, we were located in the lower tier behind the goal with a brilliant view of the action. Not that you needed one as with Belgium and England already qualified for the knockout stages, both sides sent out weakened teams and the result was a turgid game won 1-0 by Adnan Januzaj's strike.
|Lots more England in Kaliningrad for this one|
|England Reserves v Belgium Reserves - not what we had in mind|
when forking out £80 a ticket
Perhaps us England fans are still scarred by Roy Hodgson changing his team to rest players against Slovakia in Euro 2016, only to see us knocked out in the next round by Iceland, but it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. Still, if Harry Kane ends up lifting the World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in two weeks, nobody will care nor remember that we had to watch the stiffs play out a dull encounter in a dead rubber.
After the game, just like in Nizhny it felt like the whole city had come out to party with the football fans in town. Bars were packed, people were singing and smiling and you'd never have guessed that we were in the very same place from where Russia could probably kick off World War III with their Baltic Fleet. Presumably, those commanding that fleet don't drink the local vodka. It's strong, I'll say that much.
|The border with the EU - hide your Novichok|
|A painful experience, crossing back into Poland -|
especially when you're wearing a Soviet hat in 30 degrees because it won't
fit in your bag
|The sole Polish flag after their elimination from the World Cup|
We had a few hours in Gdansk to have a brief look at the old town and take some photos of the sole Polish flag the locals hadn't torn down in disgust at their own disappointing showing in the tournament before another flight to Warsaw and then homeward bound to Heathrow.
Southern Rail, clearly wanting to impress having heard so many good things about my Russian train experience, put on quite the welcoming party by cancelling a load of trains out of Victoria and that meant an eventual return home at 2.30am - just the 22 hours after setting off from the hotel in Kaliningrad. What was it about this trip and ridiculous journeys?
And that bought the curtain down on my World Cup adventure - for now, at least. Will there be a part three of McCarthy's Football Travels in Russia? I've got a ticket to the final, conditional on the Three Lions making it. Over to you, England...
England: Jordan Pickford, Phil Jones, John Stones (Maguire), Gary Cahill, Trent Alexander-Arnold (Danny Welbeck), Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph, Danny Rose, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy.
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois, Leander Dendoncker, Dedryck Boyata, Thomas Vermalen (Vincent Kompany), Nacer Chadli, Youri Tielemans, Mousa Dembele, Thorgan Hazard, Adnan Januzaj 1 (Dries Mertens), Marouane Fellani, Michy Batshuayi.