May 2007

Latitude Adjustment: 72 Hours in St. Petersburg

Author: Kate Keep

Our ship, the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, made a three-day stop in St. Petersburg. Since my husband, Russ, and I like to explore on our own, we invested the required $185 apiece for personal Russian visas. Without a personal visa, you are limited to sightseeing with organized groups. I had prepared an extensive list of museums and other sights I knew we would particularly enjoy.

The morning of the first day
We were welcomed to the pier by a brass band playing American standards and patriotic songs with a slightly foreign twist. We walked about 100 yards up the dock and found a taxi. Naturally, the first item on my list was the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, where one of the largest art collections in the world is housed. However, while walking along Nevsky Prospect toward the Hermitage, we saw a Byzantine church along a canal (one of many which run through the city—that’s why St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the North). We followed the canal to the Church of our Savior on the Spilt Blood. With seven minarets (many gilded, others brightly painted), the church is as colorful outside as it is inside (floor to ceiling mosaics depicting various scenes from the Old and New Testament). I crossed one item off my list, and while looking at my map, realized we were very close to the Russian Museum (also on my list), so we decided to go there next. Because the exhibits there were so interesting, we ended up spending the whole afternoon and then had to run to get the last bus back to the ship.

The morning of the second day
Over breakfast, Russ spied the Artillery and Arms Museum on the list and voted to go there first. It turned out to be a fascinating collection of displays, telling the story of various Russian wars (and wars tell a lot about a country’s history). When we’d absorbed it all, we decided to exit through the back door to walk through the garden behind the museum then find somewhere to lunch before going to the Hermitage. However, the walk through the garden led to a walk through a somber park containing an eternal flame, dedicated to Russia’s millions of fallen soldiers. From there we could see across the Neva River to the Fortress of Peter and Paul. Since that was one of the places on the list, we walked across the bridge to the entrance of the Fortress.

The Hermitage Museum

It was a pretty long hike, and since it was noon, we looked for somewhere to get lunch. We followed tiny signs within the Fortress to the restaurant. Although none of the staff spoke English, the menu was partially translated, and I just had to try the local specialty called “Pig in the Garden.” We waited at the damask-covered table in flickering candlelight in a beautiful dining room for thirty minutes for our entrées. Might as well have a glass of wine while waiting, right? The pig in the garden turned out to be something (I don’t even want to know what was wrapped around the gherkin pickle inside.) wrapped in puff pastry and looking just like a pig sleeping on its side (complete with a curlicue tail and droopy ears). Next to the pig was a little stack of firewood made from perfectly-cut zucchini pieces. A stile made of carrot sticks over a stream wandering across the platter completed the tableau. Incredible! I forget what Russ had to eat—it sure didn’t compare to the pig!

The rest of the afternoon was filled with touring the Fortress and a cruise on the Neva River, ending up in a canal which led back to Nevsky Prospect.

I had purchased tickets on the Internet for the ballet performance at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater that night and was carrying dressy shoes and earrings to make the proper appearance. Russ wears a blue blazer just about everywhere we travel, so all he had to do was add a tie. I held my breath as I pushed my printed confirmation through the box office window. The lady looked at it for a few minutes (during which time I became sure I had been a fool to think I could sit at my desk on Hilton Head Island and purchase tickets for the ballet in St. Petersburg). Then she turned to her computer, made a few entries, smiled and pushed back tickets for the very seats, in the very box I had paid for!

We had 45 minutes to kill, so we walked across the street to a popular Irish pub (What was that doing there?) for a cocktail until the curtain went up. We enjoyed a wonderful performance of Spartacus, choreographed by Oleg Vinogradov, the renowned artistic director of the Kirov Company. Even though it was 11 p.m. when the performance was over, we had no trouble getting a taxi (a new BMW sedan) to take us back to the ship during the remaining daylight.

Did you notice that at this point we still hadn’t gotten to the Hermitage?

The morning of the third (and last!) day
We had purchased a shore excursion to Peterhof, the Summer Palace. The palace was impressively beautiful, especially considering it had required a lot of repair work after suffering extensive damage during the three-year siege of St. Petersburg by Hitler’s doomed troops. I thought the Russian guide showed great diplomacy when she said it was not clear whether German cannons had done the damage or whether it had been done by their own cannons with their return fire. The palace and furnishings were magnificent, but we were even more impressed with the 172 gilded fountains throughout the grounds, all gravity fed. Some shoot water over 30 feet into the air!

As we rode the water taxi back to St. Petersburg, I told Russ we were going to have to come up with some evasive line about the Hermitage as our fellow passengers were sure to be marveling at all they had seen there. We couldn’t admit we hadn’t even gotten there!

The water taxi deposited us at the dock right below the Hermitage at about 1:30 p.m. We looked up at the imposing building and agreed it was now or never.

The Fountains at Peterhof

To make a long story short, we had to sneak into the Hermitage, because there were about 400 people in the line at the ticket booth and we knew we would never make it before the ship sailed late that afternoon. (Next time you see me ask about how to sneak into the Hermitage.) Because we had entered illegally, we didn’t have a floor plan; and the place is HUGE! We had to look like we knew what we were doing when guards eyed us suspiciously because we were by ourselves and not part of a regulatory group being shepherded around. Oh, did I mention that since our arrival the papers were full of the recent discoveries of widespread theft of Hermitage art by its staff and that the place was under high security? We’re lucky I’m not writing of the morning of the fourth day at the gulag archipelago.

In three hours we covered all five floors and even had plenty of time with the collection of Impressionist art I would not leave without seeing. Then it was a mad dash to the meeting place for the last bus back to the ship. The driver hadn’t gotten out of first gear before he saw us in the rear-view mirror and stopped for us to catch up and jump on.

I still have my list of things to do in St. Petersburg, and you can count the number of things we got done—a small percentage of the items on the list. We hope to go back. The people in St. Petersburg were very friendly; it’s a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with a fascinating history and will probably continue to play a role in future world events. If you haven’t been there, go. If you have, go back and see what you missed!

Kate Keep is a travel consultant with Valerie Wilson Travel.

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