St. Petersburg, Russia: Window to the West


BY JOHN HENDERSON
For Away.com

The raven-haired goddess in the elaborate red headdress and strategically cut outfit danced and gyrated surprisingly well on her five-inch gold pumps. Two children in angel outfits riding a confetti-covered camel provided a nice contrast, but I had no idea why a giant bunny rabbit was waving to the crowd from the back of a bicycle taxi.

It was a pleasingly warm day in May and as I looked down at the miles-long parade from my second-floor apartment rental, I swore I had stumbled onto Carnival. But this wasn’t Bourbon Street. It was Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s version of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

I turned to my friend Olga Zavyalova, an English teacher who grew up in Siberia under communism and now lives in St. Petersburg under capitalism. I told her I didn’t think Catholicism was that big in Russia. Turns out, this annual parade has nothing to do with Carnival, the Catholics’ pre-Lent, let-your-hair-down ho-down.

“It’s just to have fun,” she told me. “It’s nothing special.”

I had returned to St. Petersburg to peel back another layer of culture from a country that seems to develop a new identity faster than a snake grows a new skin. It has been 16 years since the USSR stopped being a four-letter word and rampant free enterprise leaped from the grave of communism.

Since then, St. Petersburg has become one of the new guiding lights of European travel. I first visited the city two years ago after a trip to Moscow and the differences between the two metropolises made a journey to Russia seem like visiting two countries. And today that impression still stands—Moscow has lit its many bridges and its famed GUM department store now sells Cartier instead of stale bread. But the capital remains dark, foreboding. The Kremlin still towers over the city, a stark reminder of how gray Russian life once was.

St. Petersburg, sprawled along a delta on the Gulf of Finland, is lit up like a birthday cake, symbolic of a population that always seems to be celebrating something. The lights from the churches and museums dance off the water that surrounds the city. On Nevsky, well-heeled, beautifully dressed beauties pass by on the bustling sidewalk cafes and in rollicking nightclubs. Beautiful meals await in restaurants, cuisines that range from French to Mexican to Russian kitsch, where a waitress served me wearing a traditional 19th-century Russian blouse—and a mini-skirt.

No, folks, this is not your mother’s Russia. This is not your father’s Leningrad.


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I tell people interested in Russia that they should visit Moscow to learn what communism was like and visit St. Petersburg to learn why communism occurred. And in the latter city the only place to start is the Winter Palace. The former imperial home to the czars dominates Dvortsovaya Place, the massive square in the heart of St. Petersburg’s historical district.

I’ve seen the Winter Palace in winter and in summer, and during a steady snowfall its bright-white exterior trimmed in lime green and gold always makes you think Peter the Great will stroll past at any minute. But in the summer, the palace explodes in light. Today it is home to the Hermitage art collection and, as museum buildings go, the Winter Palace is more beautiful than the Louvre, more grandiose than the Uffizi.

Here you see the true heart of Russian history. St. Petersburg has been the nation’s capital twice. The first time came in 1712 when Peter worked peasants to death, through disease and exhaustion, to build the city. After a brief detour to Moscow in 1730, the capital returned 300 miles north 11 years later and flourished under the czars as a cosmopolitan capital. Vladimir Lenin ordered it returned to Moscow in 1917.

Inside the palace, you won’t just see three million pieces of art, ranging from ancient Rome to Egypt, from Michelangelo to Rembrandt. You’ll see how the czars lived. You pass elaborately ordained ballrooms, a Gothic-style library and throne room, a Moorish dining room… It quickly becomes clear that the czars spared no expense—on themselves.

To see how the czars played, I decided to take a 30-minute ferry ride to Petrodvorets, one of a half dozen summer palaces ringing the city. Walking across the street from the Winter Palace to the ferry dock, I immediately advanced three centuries from the museum’s antiquity. Russian rock music played over a loud speaker as a Russian teen in a punk rock haircut rode a skateboard.

At Petrodvorets, however, there are no 21st-century trappings—unless you count the larcenous 30 rubles ($1.25) charged for the public toilet. Petrodvorets, known as the “Russian Versailles,” makes the French version look like a log cabin in the wilderness. This sprawling butter yellow estate is adorned with blinding-white columns and windows. The long approach from the dock is lined with beautifully decorated fountains, ending in the Grand Cascade, a collection of 140 fountains allegedly engineered by Peter the Great himself.

Today the Grand Palace is a massive museum positioned next to Monplaisir, a relatively smaller mansion that was always Peter’s favorite little villa. The grounds also feature three man-made lakes, a lush, huge garden behind the Grand Palace and one building used only for dining.

Not bad digs for one family.

As I toured the grounds, I couldn’t help recalling Dostoevsky, a local who chronicled the massive poverty during that time. Noticing that it’s about a $5 cab ride from the Grand Palace to the dining hall, I could see why angry populists blew up Alexander II in 1881. The Russian Revolution would begin 24 years later.

Later, I asked Olga if today’s Russian has any of that revolutionary spirit left.

“Russians are the most patient people in the world,” she said. “You can do anything to them and they won’t complain. They don’t rebel anymore.”
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Maybe they excel at patience because they like their life fine. Keep in mind, however, democracy is not being celebrated across all of Russia’s 11 time zones. Without state support, villages are disappearing. I know crime is up—I foiled two lame attempts to rob me in the subway on the same day. I met one broke Moscow mother who wished communism would return so her 18-year-old son could have the same free college education she had.

However, in St. Petersburg modern Russian life is vibrant. In 2003 the St. Petersburg Tricentenary celebration brought in millions for restoration and refurbishing, making the city, lifelong residents told me, the prettiest it has ever been. The multi-colored onion domes of the Church of the Resurrection, on the spot where they whacked Alex II, looks as if they were painted yesterday. The lush parks dotting the city could pass for fairways at Augusta.

Prime minister Valdimir Putin, a native Petersburger, loves bringing visiting dignitaries up north to show off his hometown.

I know they eat well. St. Petersburg is beginning to match Moscow as one of Europe’s most underrated restaurant cities, way beyond borscht and potatoes. Locals are no longer standing in line for bread and fruit. Instead, they’re waiting for a table at places like Chekhov.

While the restaurant takes its reference to the famed 19th-century writer to schlocky—menus in the form of old books, the waitresses in period garb—the cuisine is thoroughly inspired. All recipes are taken from Chekhov’s time, and I could see how his writing would be inspired by my meal of baked pork ribs with stewed sauerkraut, baked potato, and roast apple in honey in spicy tomato sauce. Combined with a seasonal salad of smoked venison, duck, ham, potatoes, and mushrooms in country style sauce, washed down with cherry vodka, it was the best meal I’ve had all year.

However, it may have been matched a few nights later. Na Zdorovye (“For your health,” in Russian, and the di rigeur here when hoisting a vodka) specializes in classic Russian dishes. Everything in the place says Old Russia, from the bust of Lenin to the gray, Soviet-style lemonade machine. A mural of pre-revolutionary Russia in winter looks like Vermont with Cossack hats. A guitarist roamed the restaurant playing old Russian love songs. The mosaic of bright colors made it seem as if I was eating inside a kaleidoscope.

The waitress in the modest lace top and mini-skirt served me velikorusski, a tantalizing combination of veal filled with cherries along with mashed potatoes and fruit in a cherry sauce. Hard to believe that 60 years ago during the Leningrad Blockade, people here survived the Nazis by eating pets, belts, and rats.

Sure, I ate this well in Moscow. But Moscow is different. It’s Milan to St. Petersburg’s Rome. It’s New York to St. Petersburg’s Los Angeles. Moscow is fast. It’s busy. Petersburgers I met know the salaries are 50 percent higher in Moscow but they aren’t so concerned.

Dmitry Shmarov gave me a tour of his Nokian Tyres factory, a plant so clean I could have eaten pulmeni off the floor. He visits Moscow often and I asked him the difference. In Moscow, he said, people are into making money. In St. Petersburg, they are rich in life itself. After centuries of sleeping in sadness, Petersburgers don’t mind simply sleeping in. They’re not rushing to catch up with the rest of the world; its setting its own pace.

“If you’re a business manager and you wait for a train and your boss comes from Moscow at 8 a.m., the boss says, ‘Let’s go for a café,'” he said. “‘Where? Cafes open at 9.’ ‘Why?’ No one knows.

“‘It’s St. Petersburg!'”
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The following airlines fly into St. Petersburg: Aeroflot, Air France, British Airways, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, and Scandinavia Airlines. Also, about ten domestic flights a day go from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The 50-minute one-way flight is about $100. Better yet, if you’re visiting both cities, take the five-hour train ride. It’s half the price, is comfortable, and you get to see some of the countryside untouched by democracy. It’s fascinating in its gray industrialization.

St. Petersburg has terrific public transportation. Its subway system doesn’t have museum-worthy artwork at every station as Moscow’s, but it’s fast and only costs around 40 cents. However, the station names are in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet that looks like an altered version of Greek. Always carry a subway map and match the lettering of your desired station with the station names posted (and sometimes hidden) on the stations’ walls.

Russia hasn’t yet discovered the profitability of budget hotels so expect to pay high for mid-range hotels. Anything listed as a one-star in Russia is usually uninhabitable. A good, cultural choice is the Pushka Inn (Nab Reki Moyki 14; +7.812.312.0913; http://www.pushkainn.ru,), on a quiet stretch of the scenic Moyka Canal that snakes through the historic center. It’s down the street from the historic sites and a one-minute walk from the Winter Palace. Rates range from $100 in low season to $145 in high for a single, and $160 and $250 for a standard double. Also, its bar/restaurant next door is a gathering place for locals who drink excellent Russian vodka, gossip, and flirt until the wee hours.

For a high-end experience, try the Taleon Club (Nab Reki Moyki; +7.812.315.7645; http://www.eliseevpalacehotel.com). The 18th-century Eliseev Palace has been converted into a five-star hotel with a baroque-style casino and spa. Its restaurant, while attracting too many tourists to its famous brunch, was voted the city’s best restaurant in 1999. With room rates ranging from $580 to $2,300, it better be.

For a real Russian experience that’s even cheaper, rent an apartment. Go through Nevsky prostor agency (+7.812.325.3838; http://www.spb-estate.com/eng). Price is per apartment and not per person. In the center and historical districts, expect to pay $70 to $150 a night for mid-range one- to two-room apartment, $1,000 to $2,000 per month. Three- to four-room apartment run $100 to $250 a night, $1,500 to $3,000 per month.
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This story appeared in Away.com in 2007. Here’s the link: http://away.com/features/st-petersburg-russia-1.html

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