BY ALLAN SEIDEN – It was in 1967 that I flew from New York to Luxembourg on a $169 round trip on Icelandic Air. I picked up a Bug at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, choosing a sunroof over a radio, despite the fact that it pushed the cost to $1,025, $25 over the high end of my budget.
After a lurching start as I belatedly familiarized myself with a standard transmission, I set out with a friend for a two-month-long drive in the Soviet Union. The trip had been planned and paid for in advance through the New York office of Inturist, the Soviet government-run agency, with vouchers awaiting our arrival at the assigned border crossing for everything from gasoline to campsites, meals to hotels and the services of a private guide when we were in cities like Moscow and Leningrad.
Fast-forward 42 years. It’s 2009 and I’m returning for the first time since ’67 with my daughter Martine, who is about the age I was when I last set foot here. The past 20 years have followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an end to the stifling impact of Soviet communism.
The transformation has been dramatic, the drab look of neglect of 1967 replaced by the exuberance of a city defined not only by its history, but by a cosmopolitan present rooted in what’s sensual and hip. For the women on the Nevsky Prospekt restored to vibrancy as the city’s commercial heart, it’s all about being stylish, the look matched by the clapping of three-inch stiletto heals impacting the sidewalk. For the stylish male, it’s upscale Italian fashion and shoes that end in elfishly long narrow toes. Plenty of good restaurants nearby, both Russian and other European and Asian styles: Dining well is another St. Petersburg tradition restored.
As planned by Peter the Great and added to his heirs, St. Petersburg is a city of monumental architecture. That includes palaces like the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, churches like St. Isaac’s with its soaring marble interior, the Kazan Cathedral (home to Our Lady of Kazan the much venerated icon), and the spectacular mosaic interior of the onion-domed Church of the Spilled Blood, and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, home to centuries of Romanoff rulers, including Nicholas II, the disgraced Czar restored to honor following the collapse of communist rule in 1990.
Whereas Moscow has a long history rooted in the Slavic past, St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great as Russia’s window on the West. All nobles were required to build palaces and live in Peter’s new royal capital. It is said that 25,000 men died in claiming this wetland, draining swamps and building the concentric canals that make St. Petersburg a wonderful city to explore on foot or by boat, with frequent departures for canal tours departing both the Nevsky Prospekt and the docks fronting the Winter Palace.
Today the Winter Palace, completed in 1732, replaced Peter’s far smaller Hermitage. The Palace overlooks for the Neva and the broad expanse of Palace Square. It was here that the anti-Czarist revolution would begin and is today a focal point for city life, with the start of the Nevsky Prospekt nearby.
The royal palaces are home to the Hermitage Museum, a treasure house where the wealth of the Czars is on display, along with amazing archeological finds, and a collection of European masters that is one of the best in the world, with rooms of impressionist masters like Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, whose Polynesian works are a feast for Hawaiian eyes. Most of these were confiscated from private collections at the onset of Soviet rule.
Although the palace was looted during the revolution of 1917, it has been magnificently restored, all gold leaf and malachite, grand staircases and frescoed ceilings. In short, it’s memorable, a place worthy of pilgrimage.
The same could be said of The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, an onion dome landmark completed in 1907 on the site of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, an event that provides the church with it’s name. The exterior, with its colorful Arabesque shapes reflected in the water of the adjacent canal, is only the beginning. One step inside and you’re truly transported: Every inch, from domed ceiling to walls, arched columns to window frames is part of a continuous flow of vibrantly beautiful mosaics. Badly damaged during the German siege of the city during World War II and left in disrepair during the communist era, the interior has been miraculously restored, a resurrection symbolic of the transformation evident in most parts of a city grown to include suburbs that extend city limits by many miles.
When to Visit
There’s a very definite window of opportunity generally defined by the White Nights, the months, starting in late May and running through early September, when lingering dusks never quite morph into night, not surprising when you consider that St. Petersburg is as far north as Juneau, Alaska. Even in summer, nights can be chilly. My late May visit saw daytime temps of 60-80, evenings in the 50s and lower.
It’s quite annoying to navigate your way to a Russian Visa, which will end up costing $300. It’s a deal breaker for some and makes it logical to plan to have enough time to justify the high cost, which the Russian government claims mirrors American requirement for Russian citizens. Unless you’re able to hand deliver your visa request it’s worth going to one of the numerous visa agencies that will handle the paperwork and facilitate getting it to you in a timely fashion. This may not be the Soviet Union, but it is still hobbled by a bureaucratic mindset that doesn’t take service seriously.
Where to Stay
The vicinity of St Isaac’s Cathedral provides a perfect base, within a 10- 15-minute walk of key attractions. Streets are quiet and the city’s core canals are nearby, with plenty of restaurants from budget to pricey ($40+ per person).
I stayed at the Northern Lights, a small, pleasant bed and breakfast perfectly situated one block from Nicholas Square, where a quiet room for two, with full breakfast, was just over $100/night. It’s a third floor walk up a grand staircase in a film noire setting, but once inside it’s modern and comfortable.
Astoria: An elegant 210-room hotel on Nicholas Square and adjacent to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A five star rating includes all expected amenities at rates likely to start at $250 a night and higher.
The city has an active restaurant and nightlife, with everything from traditional Russian fare to fusion cuisine, with discos and gay clubs heralding changes in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1967.
This is a city for walking. Getting from place to place is part of the pleasure of discovery St. P offers. The city is served by an efficient subway system that makes it easy to get to places outside the historic core like the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the adjacent cemeteries where creative luminaries like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are buried and enshrined, on lands once well outside of the city, now linked to the historic core by middle class neighborhood with a hint of the Soviet past.
NOT TO BE MISSED Give yourself a week, if possible, just to begin to take in St. Petersburg’s many attractions.
Not only did the various rulers amass collections of every sort, from jewels to paintings, sculpture to objets d’art, but their collections were enhanced when the communist government nationalized some of the nation’s largest private collections of 19th-century art. This is as good as it gets. Gold and Diamond tours take you past dazzling displays of gold masks and objects excavated from ancient graves and displays of imperial jewelry, aglitter with the brilliance of 10,000 diamonds.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
One of the great interiors in the world, alive with dazzling mosaics.
This Italianate palace, with its elaborate fountains and surrounding gardens was completed in 1725 by Peter the Great as a retreat from the pressures of the city, designed to outdo Versailles, the gold standard of imperial excess. Hydrofoils and slower ferries depart the Winter Palace embankment of the Neva for the 45-minute trip. The palace is open, but even more impressive are the dozens of fountains and the hundreds of acres of flowerbeds and forested parks.
The neoclassic Kazan Cathedral faces the Nevsky Prospekt with a lawn that draws densely packed sunbathers. After long, hard winters, St. Petersburg revels in summer warmth. Transformed into a museum of atheism during the communist era, it has been largely restored, containing the tomb of Alexander Nevsky, the saint and superhero of old Russia and a venerated icon of the Holy Mother of God that draws the kisses and prayers of believers.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Cross the Neva on the bridge front the Winter Palace and you’re there. Highlight is the Cathedral of Peter and Paul; with the Romanoff tombs invite interesting browsing. Other portions of the fortress, including the cells where political prisoners were held, are also open.
Home to one of Russia’s wealthiest families, it was here that Rasputin, a mad monk with overwhelming influence on the Czar and Czarina, would be killed by Prince Felix Yusupov. A tour reveals the lifestyle of privilege with a very human side. Concerts are held here. English language tours are offered on request,
Classical music and ballet are on the menu in St. P. Check to find out what special events are happening that tap into St. P.’s cultural sophistication.
What to Buy
There are numerous shops on the Nevsky Prospekt featuring lacquerware, jewelry, nesting dolls (the biggest with 30 layers), high fashion, and Orthodox icons are the likeliest things to catch your eye. There’s an interesting street market adjacent to the Church of the Spilled Blood. The rule is to bargain, although the finer shops along the Nevsky Prospekt do not negotiate.
All major credit cards are accepted. When exchanging dollars for rubles be attentive to rates, which can vary considerably.
© Allan Seiden, 2011