"Take some strong shoes, there is a lot of walking in St Petersburg."
I told Natalia before we set out. Public transport (metro, buses and
trams) is very good on the city and the centre is very compact, but you
still end up doing an awful lot of walking, particularly if you like
shopping in places like the Nevsky Prospect (=avenue), the main
shopping street, below.
St. Petersburg, like Venice, is a city of
canals and islands, so there are many bridges, and a good way to see
the sights is by canal. The Anichov Most (=bridge) with its four
horses is a major land mark on the Nevsky Prospect, and we seemed to
spend a lot of time around it, one way and another. It is also the
base for the English-language canal tours.
One of the first things we did was to acquire a Russian SIM-card for my
mobile phone so we could call and be called by our Russian friends
without running up enormous bills. A lot of the messages tended to be
like "I'll meet you at the Anichov Most
Walking through St. Petersburg reminds me of walking across a
university campus. The majority of the residents seem to be under 30,
with a bias towards the female gender, who seem to have a preference
for shorts, short skirts and plunge necklines. Maybe it's just the hot
weather, but oh to be 30 again!
I was always fascinated by the
"Meteor" class hydrofoil ferries and wanted to get a ride on one, so
had planned for a boat trip to the Peterhof gardens ("The Russian
Versailles") but it was not to be. Natalia had not slept the night
before our early-morning flight and so she slept most of the first
day. I had to settle for a close-up view of one "in flight" later from
canal tour boat.
She nearly disrupted another of
my plans, I had booked tickets for the Mariinsky Ballet. About an hour
before we were due to leave, as we were getting ready, she said she was
nipping out to get a sandwich. An hour later she had not reappeared
and I started to get worried, and I found she'd left her phone on her
bed. Around the time the performance was due to start, she finally
turned up back at the hotel. She had taken a wrong turning
a few hundred metres away and got lost. She couldn't
even remember the name of the hotel, and with the help of various
citizens and a traffic policeman, spent about two hours walking around
(in her high heeled shoes bought especially for the evening), looking
for it. She had a fine crop of blisters,
but a taxi got us to the theatre in time for the interval, and we
enjoyed the rest of the ballet.
Of course getting home meant more
walking, and this time I took a wrong turn and made the walk to the
metro twice as far as it should have been. By way of compensation I
found one solution to our ongoing problem of
finding vegetarian food, a chain of baked-potato fast food outlets. No
English menus or English-speaking staff like in the tourist
restaurants, but by now I could remember
enough Russian to order and pay for a baked potato with cheese and a
Sprite successfully in that language. She had walked most of the way
barefoot, and now demanded a piggyback ride from the café across
Sennaya Square to the metro, which attracted some attention and
catcalls from the crowds. She also got a complimentary cup of tea
from a group of bus drivers taking a break. There are so many nice
people in Russia!
We stayed in a small B&B hotel on Petrograd Island, close to the
Troitskiy (=Trinity) Bridge and within walking distance of the
Hermitage and main
tourist sights. The rooms were basic but clean, everything worked (in
contrast to my last visit to St.P in 1992), the staff were friendly,
helpful and most could manage sufficient English. It would have been
perfect except that the local Metro station was closed for renovation,
and the nearest one was about a 1km walk. Russian city buildings tend
to be built as four-storey quadrangles enclosing a yard, this was no
exception, so the view from our large modern double-glazed window was
less than salubrious
In St Petersburg, when you are
not walking, you are queueing. There are no longer queues for bread
and potatoes as there were in Communist times, but you can still
practice this traditional Russian pastime at the Hermitage. We were
to avoid the weekend crowds, and the place is closed on Mondays, so
Tuesday it was, and we queued in the sun for two and half hours. After
an hour or so we were close to entering the quadrangle, with the queue
stretching out behind us across the square (note the dome of St Isaac's
Cathedral behind us, more about that later) and felt near to the end,
but once through the arch we found there was as much queue again inside
let anyone tell you Russia is cold: even as far north as St Petersburg
in the summer it is often warmer than London, and we had clear skies
for most of our visit.
We had sunshine for most of our
stay, but it did rain on us as we walked back from the Hermitage to the
hotel. We had almost reached the Trinity Bridge when it started. I
spotted a French-style Bistro in a nearby basement and pointed it out
to Natalia, who wasn't keen until I showed here an extensive omelette
menu. So to the tunes of Jaques Brel and a rather lackadaisical
service, out of the now torrential rain, we watched kids playing on
jetskis in the rain on the Neva, and despite a menu that seemed to be
more off than on, ate what was probably the best meal of the whole
trip. By the time we left the rain had almost stopped. Natalia even
finished everything, which was probably a first.
One more box to tick when visiting St. Petersburg is the Raising of the
Bridges. During the summer, when the rivers are not frozen, the main
town bridges lift from about 1:30am every night for about 4 hours to
allow shipping to pass along the River Neva. This has always been a
spectacular sight, nowadays the bridges are all illuminated and a
flotilla of tourist vessels cruises up the river following the
sequential openings upstream from the gulf of Finland. Our own Trinity
bridge that connects Petrograd Island to the mainland puts on a quite a
light show even when it isn't opening.
>From our vantage point on the Trinity Bridge, we had a good view of
two centre sections of the Dvortsovtyy Bridge raising. The blue thing
in the water is one of several illuminated tour boats.
Then the tour boats came cruising by as the
mainland end of our Trinity bridge lifted, and we were cut off from the
world for the next
four hours. Turning to look upstream we could see the Liteynyy bridge
open in the same style a few minutes later.
Every night some citizens get caught on the wrong side of the bridge
and have to spend most of the night. Sometimes more than accident,
"Sorry I didn't come home from the office last night darling, late
meeting and I missed the bridges." In fact a couple of bridges do
close briefly halfway through the "navigation period" to allow such
prisoners to escape.
I said I'd talk more about St Isaac's cathedral.
You can climb the 200-odd step spiral staircase up to the dome and look
out over the city. As they say, not an exercise for the faint
hearted. Especially when you get to the top and find another 50 steps
up what is little more than an inclined steel catwalk from the stairway
tower to the dome itself. Strangely I did not feel disturbed by the height there,
but when I looked through the windows into the cathedral dome
itself and realised how far it was to the cathedral floor there was a
definite twinge of vertigo.
The view is said to be especially remarkable during the "White Nights"
around two weeks either side of the summer solstice, when it never goes
fully dark. We were too late for that, but even in August, it was
still twilight at midnight.
Natalia was suffering from Internet
withdrawal. On the first day we got introduced to a couple with a home
computer, and they gave her half an hour on-line. One afternoon we had
a meal in a restaurant where they had a laptop on the counter for
customer use, so she got a quick fix there. There is an internet café
in the Hermitage, another half hour online. On the way home, there
were internet cafes in the airports, and she finally satisfied her
eBuddy craving with an 'unlimited' session in the airside café at
Prague airport - the session comes free with eye-wateringly expensive