Feature Travel Archive 2

Russia: St. Petersburg

A Visit to the Venice of the North

By Arin Pereira

When the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, decided to build his new capital city and European port, he chose a harsh, swampy, desolate part of his country as its site. Saint Petersburg would be located on a series of small islands on the Baltic coast. Slowly, the decades of serf labor, imported architects and materials would combine with the attentions of a transplanted nobility, the whimsies of rulers, and vast sums of money to create this majestic city. When the city was done, its hundreds of bridges, golden domes, grand palaces, yellow, pale green, light blue, and dark red buildings transformed the original site. It became known as the 'Babylon of the Snows,' the 'Venice of the North.'

I arrived in St. Petersburg from Moscow in December, at night. Many travelers prefer the romance of the midnight train, which pulls into Moscow Station at 8:30 a.m. and costs about $65 for a first class sleeping compartment. But I decided to take a painless 40 minute Aeroflot flight ($100) in order to save time. 

My Russian guide, Eugenia, met me at the airport with a large smile, easy laugh, and perfect English. The 20 minute car ride into the city took me through the outskirts of town and past the stark Leningrad Memorial, built in commemoration of the Nazi siege. The population suffered horribly from 1941- 44, but never capitulated. In fact, St. Petersburg has never been occupied by an invading force, unless you consider the Communist government, responsible for changing the city's name to Leningrad. (Leningrad became St. Petersburg again in 1991.)

I stayed at the Nevsky Palace Hotel, located in the center of town on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous boulevard. The five star Nevsky Palace is luxurious and cozy. My large, tasteful room ($340) overlooked a quiet square and was, importantly, exceptionally well heated. Cold or not -- and it was never unbearable -- it is hard to imagine a city more beautiful than St. Petersburg in the snow. Although it was 9:00 p.m. when I set down my bags, I felt the urge to take a walk and headed northwest on Nevsky Prospekt, toward the Neva River. I passed the magnificent deep red Beloselsky Belozersky Palace, great carved column Atlases holding up its facade, and crossed the Anichkov bridge whose four famous horse sculptures rear their magnificent heads over the Fontanka canal. Over another canal and I came to the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, with its massive, sweeping semi circular colonnade, directly across the street from the globe topped, art nouveau Dom Knigi building, once the Singer sewing machine factory. One more canal and I spotted an enormous, oddly angled, carved archway looming in the snow. I went through what turned out to be the Main Staff Building and suddenly found myself in Palace Square, the Winter Palace stretched out long, low, and sea green before me. The sight was awesome and so heavy with history I had to gasp, the air crystallizing around me.

I would visit the palace later, on a tour of its museum, the State Hermitage, so I circled its facade and finally came to the Neva. The hoarfrost was magical in the moonlight as I slid -- literally -- across the river's south bank, frozen solid in minus 20 degree weather. Twinkling lights from the palace gleamed on the ice, and across the river I could just make out the soaring spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress, dull gold against the night. My daylight experiences began 12 hours later. Guide and agenda had been arranged by Destination Services Russia (DSR), a joint Swedish Russian travel management group based in St. Petersburg. DSR can arrange just about any kind of travel in Russia, from corporate extravaganzas to solo excursions to the countryside; from troika rides to flights in jet fighter planes. They are a creative, dynamic group with seemingly endless contacts all over the world. In Russia it is a good idea to hire a guide unless you speak or understand Russian; the country is not particularly English friendly, though St. Petersburg, cosmopolitan as it is, is probably more so than most Russian cities.

We started at St. Isaac's Cathedral, designed by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand. The lavish St. Isaac's is topped with a dome of pure gold, an interior decorated in 43 types of stone and marble, and a vast array of magnificent paintings, bas reliefs and mosaics. Great columns of lapis lazuli and malachite sentinel its iconostasis, or central wall of icons, and gold hung heavy on every corner. I was reeling from its opulence. Continuing in the lavish vein, we went for lunch at the Senat Bar, a trendy restaurant located in the famous Senate building on Glernaya Ulitsa. Its vaulted ceilings, painted frescoes, and mosaic floors were charming and cozy, while its Italian modern furniture and cross European cuisine, although fine, did not seem very 'Russian' to me. Likewise the prices, which were rather 'New York;' simple lunch running about $30 per person. The Northern light began to fade early, at about 3:30, cutting the day quite short. But that night was New Year's Eve, and I was going to a ball. The annual Tsar's New Year's Ball was a tradition in St. Petersburg until the Revolution. In 1994, the first revival ball took place, co sponsored by DSR and Potel & Chabot, a French catering firm reputed to have been the Tsars' favorite.

This year's Tsar's Ball was held at the Tauride Palace, an 18th century building given by Catherine the Great to one of her favorites, Prince Potemkin. It is famous as the house of the first Russian Duma, or parliament. Potel & Chabot provided the decoration -- an exquisite blend of ingenious luxe and clever detail such as a sprayed gold centerpiece worked with carnations and red berries. Tickets, which include all food, beverages, and entertainment, cost about $350. All night transportation is also included. A bus picked up guests from the hotel, and we entered a large reception hall lined on two sides by long bars and tables of caviar hor d'oeuvres. In the middle of the room, a huge ice sculpture in the shape of an Orthodox cathedral ran with vodka released through low slung spigots. It was getting crowded when suddenly music sounded, and a curtain at the far end of the room spread wide to reveal a small, elevated stage in the center of a dining room laced with large round tables. Onstage, costumed soloists from the Maryinsky (Kirov in the Communist era) Theater were dancing classical ballet as an orchestra accompanied guests to their seats. Throughout the evening, a series of classical and modern ballets, scenes from operas, and folkloric dances would be performed. I would see many of the actual dancers later when I twice visited the Maryinsky, first for the very Russian Mussorgsky opera, 'The Lady from Pskov,' then for the swashbuckling ballet, 'Don Quixote.' (Theater tickets are still a terrific bargain. If you buy them from a kiosk or the box office, they range from $2- 6. One night, espying it empty and making a dash for it, I managed to sit front and center in the Tsar's box.)

The dinner began with a luscious crab pastry, followed by great gobs of exquisite caviar with blinis and cream. A wild salmon came next, followed by veal with chanterelles. Each course was served in a special manner. The almond macaroon dessert, for example, arrived on underlit glass platters in a procession of waitresses dressed like Saint Lucia. Excellent vodka, wines and champagne flowed ceaselessly. After dinner, the dancing began and lasted until dawn. I spoke to a number of guests, mostly American and French, who had come to St. Petersburg expressly for the ball and were planning to stay but a couple of days. 

'We came last year, and we will come next year,' gloated one Frenchman in the company of his wife, daughter, and son in law. 'It is always different, but it is always magic.'

At midnight, we rushed to palatial windows to watch fireworks released in the gardene, illuminating the frosted trees and embroidering the snow with light. The whole experience was dreamlike.

The next day, most of the city closed down for the holiday. New Year's Eve has always been a great celebration in Russia, but it became even more important after the Revolution, when religious holidays were no longer publicly sanctioned. It also served as a kind of replacement Christmas, with gifts exchanged. (The Orthodox Christmas is also celebrated, taking place about a week later.) The Alexander Nevsky Monastery was open, however, and I was delighted to discover its neo classical Cathedral of the Trinity in full service. Inside, scores of mainly women were standing in near darkness, oil lamps casting a peculiar colored glow, and incense heavy in the close air. The chorus was singing, and beeswax candles were burning low on small altars. The Cathedral of the Trinity is very unusual in Russia because it is decorated with full blown post Renaissance oil paintings in lieu of traditional icons. The remains of Alexander Nevsky, Russian hero and saint, lie near the iconostasis in a massive silver sarcophagus.

Outside, the snow looked dazzling against the deep red Baroque buildings surrounding the monastery. I visited its two famous graveyards: the Lazarus, where Imperial favorites are buried, and the Tikhvin, known as the Cemetery of the Masters of Arts, where the gravestones of many Russian composers, writers, artists, and actors are ranged by profession. Many of their gravestones are strange and beautiful: Rimsky Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky are particularly interesting.

Keeping with the theme, we next drove to Zayachy Island, at the junction of the Malaya (small) Neva and Bolshaya (big) Neva, where the Peter and Paul Fortress is located. Six bastions and thick sloping walls surround the fortress. Inside, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul houses the sarcophagi of most Russian rulers since Peter the Great. Plans to inter the remains of Nicholas II, his murdered family and servants in the cathedral, scheduled for early this year, have been delayed. The most beautiful tombs, carved from green Altai jasper and red rhodonite from the Urals, are those of the murdered Tsar Alexander II and his wife. The saddest is a slab in the floor near the entrance belonging to Alexei, the son of Peter the Great, reputedly tortured to death by his father for conspiracy in a treasonous plot. Once considered the Bastille of Russia, the fortress has held a number of distinguished prisoners, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It also contains the massive Arsenal and Artillery Museum, arrayed with various tanks and guns like perverse topiaries, and the Mint, where one morning the temperature dropped to 86 degrees, turning its entire tin based coinage to white powder.

Few museums in the world rival the Hermitage, where I went the next day. Created in the spirit of Enlightenment by Catherine the Great to house the Imperial collection, the museum originally occupied the Small Hermitage, then the Large Hermitage, and eventually the entire Winter Palace. The collection contains more than three million pieces in 353 rooms. It would take an estimated six days a week for nine years to spend one minute in front of each piece displayed in the 10 kilometers of rooms, halls, and corridors. During my four hours there, I saw the 'Hidden Treasures' exhibit of mostly confiscated impressionist paintings 'lost' since World War II. It seems that Stalin did not appreciate the period so the collection was hidden in the basement of the palace. Simply displayed on rolling walls, it is an astounding group of masterpieces. 

Other highlights of the museum include its Baroque state rooms, such as the astounding Malachite Room dressed entirely in the deep green stone; Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Boticelli, Picasso, and Matisse paintings; and the ancient Egyptian collection. I especially enjoyed the collection of Scythian, Greek, and early Siberian gold.

In need of refreshment after such enervating sensory stimulation, we headed down Prospekt to the cozy cafe Nevsky 40, a former Imperial bakery still decorated with original Chinese silk hangings and carved walls. A coffee and pastry there costs about $6.00 and comes with post Soviet hospitality, just slightly begrudging. 

Afterward, we continued down the Moika, one of the larger inlets leading southwest from the Winter Palace, and stopped at the Yussopov Palace, famous as the site where Rasputin was finally done in. The Yussopov family was the richest in Russia by the turn of the century, and this palace, one of four they owned in St. Petersburg, was largely preserved after their sudden flight from the oncoming Revolution. A guided tour is necessary (about $15) as is the wearing of felt overshoes, enforced in most Russian palaces to protect precious parquet floors. Called 'Tapochki,' they are floppy bits of mismatched stuff tied on with frayed string or elastic, awaiting visitors in large dirty bins near entry halls. Actually walking in them is very difficult; it is much easier to glide.

The Yussopov palace is full of the kind of splendors that bring the Revolution into sharp focus. Among its scores of rooms are a smoking room decorated entirely in Middle Eastern tile, with fountains running and dark jewel tones glittering; the game room where a amplifying acoustic alcove at one end of the billiard table was installed for laughs; and the library, paneled floor to ceiling in carved mahogany. The most interesting part of the palace, however, is the cellar bachelor apartment that belonged to Prince Felix Yussopov. In a recreated scene replete with creepy wax figures of Felix and Rasputin, the rooms have been arranged the way they presumably were on the night of the prolonged murder. Low vaulted ceilings, plush banquettes and carpets give the place a den of iniquity feel. Felix stands in uniform, holding a gun while Rasputin sits at a table set with fake almond cakes looking spooked. The guides love to sit you down there and recount the infamous tale in sinister tones. It is quite an experience.

Before I left for Russia, I had been warned that the country is dangerous and the people unfriendly, even unhelpful. I found neither to be the case in St. Petersburg. Although it is true that the Russian people maintain a certain reserve, and there was a definite language barrier between us, I found them interesting and interested, and never felt hostility or witnessed aggression. The parliamentary elections had just taken place and, although the Communist Party won a majority of seats, the number of reformists seats actually increased. The authorities I spoke with agreed that the population, though somewhat disillusioned and struggling with severe economic problems, is on the path to democracy. St. Petersburg was built as 18th century Russia's 'window on the West,' but perhaps it has evolved into a 20th century 'door to the East,' a re opened entrance to understanding Russia, both now and then.

Getting There

I flew Finnair to Moscow and from St. Petersburg, stopping in Helsinki. The flight was smooth and comfortable with good food and friendly service. Roundtrip airfare in December is approximately $850 plus taxes. Finnair offers a special rate at the Helsinki Inter Continental Hotel: You can spend 1- 3 nights for $85 per person (single rate) or $100 per couple, per night. It's a very civilized way to head home, and Helsinki is full of its own charms. For information, contact Finnair at (800) 950 5000.

The Nevsky Palace is a Marco Polo Hotel, an Austrian Russian joint venture. It offers all the amenities expected of its five stars, including four restaurants, a pub, sauna, fitness room, and conference center. Room rates run from about $240 for a single room, to $1100 for a two bedroom suite. Special rates are offered during New Years week. For more information, contact the Nevsky Palace by telephone 7 812/850 1500 or fax 7 812/850 1501. DSR can create and organize any sort of travel experience in Russia, from the most exclusive to the simplest. In addition, the Tsar's Ball is already planned for next year. For more information, contact DSR by telephone 7 812/273 1353 or fax 7 812/273 4532.