Spending time in St. Petersburg

By Marvin Herman
This article appears on page 18 of the March 2016 issue.
A view of Malaya Konyushennaya Street, a pleasant pedestrian way located off Nevsky Prospekt.

My wife, Judy, and I have been fascinated with the imperial city of St. Petersburg, Russia, ever since getting a brief taste following a Russian river cruise several years ago. We found a transatlantic cruise leaving from St. Petersburg in fall 2015 and arriving in New York City and immediately thought, with this exciting mode of transportation home, it would be a perfect time to revisit the city. And so began our journey.
Getting there
We soon discovered that visiting Russia as an independent traveler can be challenging. A tourist visa is absolutely necessary, and, including all the miscellaneous fees, it can cost upward of $600. There is also a somewhat daunting questionnaire to be completed regarding such personal information as past travel destinations, education, work history, ethnicity, etc.
With no Russian consulate in Chicago, where we probably could have completed the application process on our own and much more economically, we used CIBT Visas (Atlanta, GA; 866/665-9771, cibtvisas.com), who ran the process through the consulate in Seattle.
It should be noted that there is a much-less-expensive visa available to cruise-ship passengers who only leave the ship with their guide and don’t stay in Russia for more than two days.
Carrying official 6-month Russian visas, we boarded a United flight in Chicago and, including a short stopover in Munich, we arrived at Pulkovo International Airport in St. Petersburg about 14 hours later. This is a beautiful, modern airport rivaling many others in major cities throughout the world.
Knowing how tired we would be, we prearranged for transport to our hotel for $55. Many cabs were available, any of which probably would have delivered us safely to our hotel for much less, but, being extremely jet lagged, we didn’t want to deal with changing money and finding local transportation. It was wonderful to see a driver waiting for us.
We did look for an ATM in the airport, but none had the Cirrus logo that told us our card would be functional. (After leaving Russia we visited eight other countries, and none presented this problem for us.)
We were able to freely use our credit card throughout our stay in St. Petersburg. We also were able to visit a nearby bank (there seemed to be one on every corner) to change US dollars into Russian rubles for a fee of about 8%, which, considering the favorability of the exchange rate (currently, $1:RUB78), was quite agreeable. English was spoken at the bank, and the transaction was easily accomplished.

Elegant accommodations

Our hotel, the Golden Triangle Hotel (22-24 Nevsky Prospekt; gold triangle.ru), was located on a tree-lined street just off the main avenue. Though small, the hotel was perfectly located in the tourist district but felt like it was miles away.
The hotel began on the third floor of a former palace, where the age of elegance seemed to be alive and well in the lovely original staircase. However, we opted to use the ancient, original, 3-person elevator.

Monument to Alexander III, father of Nicholas, the last czar of Russia, which stands in front of the Marble Palace.

Our room was spacious, with large windows, attractive furnishings and luxurious bedding, giving us the feeling that we had truly returned to the age of the czars. We had a double bed with a feather duvet, a separate tub and shower, a large flat-screen TV, free Wi-Fi and a substantial buffet breakfast each day, with everything from the “full English” to salmon, cooked beets, black bread and Bellini — all for about $120 per night, including VAT.
Olga, the manager, along with all the other front-desk personnel, spoke perfect English and was quite happy to help with directions or meal recommendations. Afternoon tea was also provided.

Exploring the city

On our first afternoon, armed with about 6,500 rubles ($84), we found a small supermarket a few blocks from our hotel. It was bustling with customers and made us feel like we were part of the city. We bought a few basic provisions as well as several bottles of Siberian vodka to bring home as souvenirs.
The area, several blocks off the main tourist area, was as clean and felt as safe as any large city in the US (and probably was a lot safer than many).
The following day we walked down Nevsky Prospekt to Fontanka Canal for a boat tour (phone +7921 989 47 22, anglotourismo.com) on a series of canals and the Neva River. Narrated in English, it was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the city and see some of its wonderful architecture.
The cost was 1,000 rubles, or about $13, each. The tour lasted 1½ hours and showed us the layout of this city.
Begun in 1702 by Peter the Great, the city was meant to be an imperial city filled with palaces, parks and canals. It was laid out in a half circle, transcribed on the banks of the Bolshaya and Neva rivers.
Three main spokes radiate out, with Nevsky Prospekt being the center spoke. The capstone is the pairing of the Admiralty and the Hermitage. Knowing this makes the city very easy to navigate.
The boat tour was picked up simply by walking down Nevsky Prospekt to the ticket booth along the Fontanka River near the Anichkov Bridge. Several boats waited there along with local guides, mainly college students working for tips and describing their lovely city to visitors.
After the short cruise, we walked up Nevsky Prospekt and stumbled across the famous Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall. Built in 1902, this spectacular Art Nouveau building would be right at home in Belle Époque Vienna.
Filled with cakes and pastries fit for the tables of the czars, the complex featured seating on red velvet banquettes and black wrought-iron furniture as elegant waiters waltzed by with cups of aromatic coffee, herbal teas and pastries.
This was one of those little treasures you find only when wandering on your own.

Getting a taste

During our travels, Judy and I usually splurge by stopping for a drink at the most prestigious and expensive hotel in the city. On this day we visited the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe’s bar, located just off the lobby of this ornate, fully restored palace hotel. There, I enjoyed a concoction called the “Raskolnikov” ($12), named for the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” It included fresh ginger, lime juice, sugar syrup and kvass, a Slavic beverage made from fermented rye bread, all served in a pewter jug with a sprig of rosemary.

Cadets gather at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of St. Petersburg, for the firing of a cannon from the battlement at noon.

With the early afternoon so dedicated to food and drink, we returned to our hotel for a short nap. In the evening, we wandered around our neighborhood and happened upon Bagatelle Grand Café (1 Bolchaya Konjushenaya; cafebagatelle.spb.ru), where, for about 1,000 rubles, we enjoyed beef Stroganoff, Baltika beer and fresh rye bread, with the songs of Leonard Cohen playing in the background.
Arising early the next day, we walked the few blocks to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a classic, onion-domed Orthodox church. Although we enjoyed the beautiful building, we were equally as interested in the souvenir stands behind the church and made purchases from the large selection of nesting matryoshka dolls.
Our next stop was Mikhailovsky Garden, near The Russian Museum. We enjoyed ambling along the garden paths in this cool and peaceful place.

Notable sights

Crossing the bridge over the Moika River and continuing along the Field of Mars, originally a training ground for troop inspection by the czars, we came to the Marble Palace, given by Catherine the Great to one of her lovers. We then crossed over the Neva River on the Troitsky Bridge to the small island where the Peter and Paul Fortress stands.
The area was crowded with Russian tourists and school groups. It was fun watching the Russian children learning their country’s history from their teachers on the actual site where it played out centuries ago.
Just before noon, we heard the music of a military band of more than 100 cadets. There was a huge crowd of onlookers, most with cell-phone cameras pointed toward a cannon mounted on one of the walls high atop the fortress.

The Winter Palace, a baroque building on the bank of the Neva River that served as a residence of the Romanovs

At the stroke of noon, the cannon fired and the band commenced to play the Russian national anthem, all to the patriotic joy of the crowd.
The next day we returned to The Russian Museum complex and located the Museum of Ethnography (eng.ethnomuseum.ru), which pre­sents the history of the various ethnic groups that make up the people of Russia. The museum’s building was particularly beautiful, with its large hall decorated with friezes and Corinthian pillars.

The people

Wandering back to Nevsky Prospekt, we came upon a protest rally in a small square next to the Food Hall. The protest was against foreign interference in the ongoing issues between Ukraine and ethnic Russians residing in that country who wish to separate and become aligned with Russia.
With the United States targeted by the protest as being an agent of interference, I was compelled to photograph a relevant poster. A protester approached and, in English, explained his point of view. He introduced us to a young man named Dmytri, active in the separatist movement.
We spent the next couple of hours discussing the relationship of our respective countries since the overthrow of the czar, embarking on a diplomatic encounter under the sunny skies of St. Petersburg.
That night, we had dinner at Kat­yusha (9 Malaya Konyushennaya), a moderately priced restaurant just off Nevsky and quite near our hotel. Our dinner there, along with the good service from waitresses in traditional peasant dress, made for a nice conclusion to the day.
We enjoyed our visit in St. Petersburg and wished we’d given ourselves even more time there. We chose to not revisit major sites that we’d seen previously, but we could have happily spent many more days investigating the local neighborhoods.
The people we met were warm and friendly, and our independent travel allowed us to interact with them much more than if we had taken a group tour.
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