St. Petersburg touring tips and notes: June 11-17, 2007

June 20, 2007

We arrived in Saint Petersburg the afternoon before Russia Day, the national holiday, June 12, a Tuesday in 2007. The government had decreed that the previous Saturday would be a work day and that Sunday through Tuesday would be a three-day holiday. (What a good idea for the new French government faced with millions of French people making the bridge to mid-week holidays.) We also arrived just after the annual Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, which had closed streets, raised hotel prices etc. We were not actually inconvenienced, but it would normally be better to arrive after June 12 and the Forum; this would also put one more into the White Nights Festival. Our friends, Pat and Karl, arrived later the same day, although their luggage came the next morning.

The weather was excellent, with cool mornings and warm afternoons and evenings. I went out in the mornings wearing a light jacket and ended up in shirtsleeves, although Friday was quite cool all day. There were a few rain showers and one short violent thunderstorm. (These are not easily predicted as the weather blows in from the Gulf of Finland.) It was still quite bright out at midnight and the cafés were full then. We had been warned about mosquitoes, but never saw one.  

Saint Petersburg seems like a very “young” city since the older generation tends to stay in its neighborhoods. The main sidewalks are usually very busy, but not before 9:00 am.  Of course one needs to read guidebooks before arriving and to use one constantly during the stay. We particularly liked the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Saint Petersburg and also used the National Geographic guidebook, which had just been published. I’ll try not to duplicate guidebook material here. 

Hotels can arrange a guide for you if you have not arranged one in advance. Listening to some English speaking guides, when we happened to be next to them, gave me the impression that their knowledge, efficiency and English skills vary widely. We were very happy with Alexey who arranged our visit for the first evening and the next two days. He took us on a driving tour from 9 to after 11 the first evening when the traffic was light and it was still daylight; this gave us an overall impression and let us see some outlying spots, such as Smolny. The next day our tour was entirely on foot in the old part of town and in The Hermitage; we learned much from Alexey’s vast knowledge. The following day we took a van with Alexey to Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlosk. After that we were familiar enough with how things worked to be on our own. 

Saint Petersburg is a very horizontal, spread out city. From shortly after its founding by Peter the Great, the construction was of huge palaces with courtyards, gardens, stables etc. Ministries, military buildings, parade grounds, churches, monasteries and millionaires’ palaces followed. There were parks, canals and broad avenues. This explains why the heavy Nazi shelling and bombing did not do more damage in the center. It also means that it is not an easy walking-around city like Paris, London or Rome. Only Berlin, of the great European cities, seems more stretched out. There is a lot of new construction and renovation going on. The demand for expensive apartments near the center will propel the conversion of many more old buildings. UNESCO and others are condemning Gazprom’s plan to build a 400 meter high building, but it seemed to me that the site is well removed from the center and that some ten to fifteen story buildings recently erected to the northeast have already marred that part of the skyline. Some of the debate is about Gazprom’s rejection of the first, more ethereal, glass design, but the main argument is about the great height. 

Be sure to have plenty of roubles when you are touring. One is constantly paying for entry tickets to sites. Foreigners pay much more than those with a Russian ID card: ie, 350 rr vs 100 rr at The Hermitage; 300 rr vs 50 at St. Isaac’s. The exchange rate at the bank in our hotel was quite good.  

Transport:

We rode the subway once. Because of the canals and the river, it is very deep, served by long escalators. To enter, at a booth one buys a 14 rr token for the turnstile.  We were told that here are some very impressive Stalinist stations, but the two central ones we saw were utilitarian. I think the subway is more for longer journeys to the residential suburbs than for tourists. We rode buses and trams several times. They are easy for tourists as a friendly conductor comes up to you to collect the 14 rr fare after you get on. You can see a lot if you have a seat, but not if you are standing. They move along quite rapidly; one needs to follow where you are on a street map to get off at the right place. We took taxis several times; they can be called by restaurants. If the situation is one of high demand, outside the opera, for example, you can expect to pay a high price, but it is fixed in advance. The drivers speak basic English. 

We were caught in one big traffic jam while trying to get on the road out of town toward Pushkin and Pavlosk. Heavy traffic is apparently quite frequent, but we had no trouble to and from the airport because we arrived on a holiday and left on a Sunday.  

The airport is a real third-world experience. It wasn’t so noticeable on our arrival as that is simpler and no planes had come in just before ours. On departure we had to stand in a line to slog our suitcases through X-ray and inspection; then, in a dirty, crowded departure area, to find the counter assigned to Air France for the confused check-in process. The passport control line was slow. Beyond that it was better, although the toilets were not pleasant. Finally, there was a line for security just before the boarding gate. One doesn’t need roubles at the airport; the shops beyond passport control are all priced in €uros.  

Museums:

There are many museums in Saint Petersburg so you need to choose carefully. My choice was to go to the Hermitage three times for two-hour spans, plus once to the Russian Museum. I was happy with that. Linda also went to the Museum of Musical Life in the Shermetov Palace, which she liked a lot. Pat and Karl enjoyed the State Museum of Russian Political History and the Dostoyevsky Museum.  

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The lines can be long at the Hermitage for tickets. On our first visit Alexey was able to buy tickets for us. The second time I only waited five minutes at 11:00, but Linda, arriving at noon, saw such long lines she came back later. The third time we had our hotel send someone to buy tickets for us; we picked them up from the concierge at noon. The fourth time Linda went on Sunday at 10:45. She got a ticket readily, but the tour groups at what seemed to be the sole entry point were crushing. Linda later discovered a little-used ticket booth and entry at the back left corner of the museum lobby. Tickets are good for one entry only on the day they are issued. It seems to be possible to buy tickets in advance on the internet or to become a Friend of the Hermitage, but it is unclear to me how that is done. The Hermitage is not only one of the world’s great comprehensive art museums. It is several of the most important Imperial palaces with their lavish décor intact. So one is visiting both at the same time. 

Palaces:

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There are also many palaces to see. There were enormous crowds at Tsarskoye Selo, and at Peterhof, but not at Pavlosk, where we arrived a little after noon. akb.jpg

The interior of the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo is fabulous and not to be missed; we returned for lunch at The Admiralty Restaurant in its gardens. The palace at Pavlosk is also very elegant.  

We took the excellent hydrofoil boat to Peterhof at 10:00 the next day and went right away to the enchanting little Mon Plaisir pavillion, but, on Alexey’s advice, we skipped the interior of the big palace as he said it would not add to what we had seen at the other two and would not justify the wait.ake.jpg akd.jpg

So we wandered around the gardens and stopped for coffee and ice cream in a little outdoor café before taking the 12:40 hydrofoil back to town. 

Churches:

One also has to be selective about which churches to visit. Two are musts: the Cathedral of St Peter and St. Paul, in the original fortress, where the Romanovs are buried; and St. Isaacs, much the largest, which the Soviets crudely converted into a museum. There were about twenty tour groups inside when I went so I don’t see how it could be reconverted to religious use. The nearby Kazan Cathedral is actively used as an important church. We were fortunate in coming upon a well-attended Saturday morning service at Vladimir Cathedral while we were walking to the Kuznechny Market. We also stopped at the Synagogue on the way back from Tsarskoye Selo. It has been beautifully restored thanks to Lily Safra. There was a religious concert in progress. 

Spectacles:

Unfortunately the circus was setting up for the annual visit of the Moscow Circus and the regular troupe was gone. There were no major concerts at the Philharmonic, which is right across the street from our hotel. We were urged to go to the new production of Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinksy, but we prefer opera to ballet and so went to the two operas which were on while we were there. Eugene Onegin was sung in Russian with English surtitles and Madama Butterfly was sung in Italian with Russian surtitles. The singers were all Russian; the two lead sopranos were excellent. The orchestra was not large but it produced a rich, lush sound, particularly for the Tchaikovsky.  The productions were not lavish but worked well. Butterfly was a new, modern production with striking visual effects. The casts are not announced much in advance. If one is particular about having Valery Gergiev as conductor, it is best to go during the last part of June when the White Nights Festival is in full swing.   I had bought our opera tickets on the Mariinsky website on the day they became available, which had been announced in advance. I think we were the best-placed foreigners in the theatre, fifth row on the aisle. The crowd was quite varied, with many Russians of all ages taking photos, waving at friends, gossiping etc before the curtain, but being quite still as soon as the overture started. Russians pay only a small fraction of what we pay and so it is really popular entertainment. One advantage of being on the aisle was that one could be near the front of the line at the Ladies Room, the bar or the café during the intermissions, which are quite long. As the operas started at 7:00, we didn’t have a real evening meal. The café upstairs at the Mariinsky is open beforehand and one can buy open-faced sandwiches and drinks there.  

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