Sunday, August 12, 2007

Spectacular Saint Petersburg

In many respects, I think St. Petersburg is the most spectacular city we have visited on this trip. It was not the most enjoyable. There were many others where we had a much better time.
But the sheer opulence of the churches, palaces, and galleries, combined with the overall layout of the city with its canals, river, and decorative buildings, was very impressive. You have to see the Church of the Spilt Blood. The interior contains 7,000 sq.m. of magnificent mosaics, and yet for years it was used to store potatoes and other goods.

We spent four nights: three on the ship, and one at the Hotel Saint Petersburg, a large Soviet-era property overlooking the river. Our room was noteworthy for its fire safety equipment. In addition to sprinklers and smoke alarms, we found a fire emergency kit with gas masks and other equipment. It was a bit unnerving.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great on what was essentially marshland. Peter had spent time in Amsterdam learning how to sail and build boats, and the plan incorporated a similar system of canals. He was also inspired by Paris, and hoped his city would one day compare favourably. It does.

On our first day, following a brief drive around the city, we were given a guided tour of the Hermitage. Although I had seen an exhibition of some of the works in Toronto, and the movie that is essentially a continuous tour of the gallery, I wasn’t prepared for its scale and opulence. There are over 3 million works, and it has been calculated that to see everything properly, you would need 12 years.

In the afternoon, we went to Peterhof, one of the summer palaces outside of the city. It is known for its very spectacular gardens and fountains that amazingly operate without any pumps. (I thought this would be a good idea for UniverCity, until I learned that it requires a system of reservoirs and locks to create the required pressure. We would have to take down all the buildings to have enough room.) We arrived by tour bus; but when you go, take the sputnik era looking hovercraft from the city centre.

The next day we visited Catherine's Palace in the nearby town of Pushkin. Parts of it are more spectacular and opulent than Versailles, and all the more remarkable since they had to be completely rebuilt following World War Two. The Amber Room is just that; a room 'wallpapered' with small pieces of amber. It’s fabulous.

We also spent an hour at a museum that housed, amongst other things, Peter's personal collection of curiosities. From all accounts, he was a truly remarkable man with very interesting hobbies. He liked to practice dentistry and some of the diseased teeth he extracted are on display. He was also interested in medicine and enjoyed attending autopsies. He was fascinated by birth defects, and collected specimens in jars. The display included row upon row of deformed Siamese twins.

Our evenings were most varied. The first night, we left the ship at 12:30 am on a tour bus to watch the drawbridges being raised about town. This has become a tourist attraction, not unlike driving around Vancouver looking at Christmas lights. Although instead of hot chocolate, we were served vodka and pretzels. The next evening, we took the only English language river cruise along the river, and up some of the canals. (SP is not yet really geared up for tourists, especially English speaking.)

Another evening was spent at the ballet, since I was feeling somewhat guilty about missing the Bolshoi in Moscow. While I am not a great fan of ballet, I wasn't as bored as the orchestra’s trumpet player who, with only a few notes to play, spent most of the evening talking to the other musicians around him.

That night, we returned to the ship by subway. SP has a very impressive system. While the stations aren't as attractive as those in Moscow, they are much deeper, generally 65 to 70 m below ground. (In a few instances, they are100 m down. That’s equivalent to a 35 storey apartment building.) It takes so long to get up and down that I managed to write a large portion of my next Vancouver Sun story on my Palm Pilot while riding the escalators.

There is also an extensive tram system. We were advised to avoid it, but did try it once. We got very lost, and traveling in the cars made us feel like we were back in the Soviet era. They could not have been more basic with dull, worn seats, and an equally dull and worn ticket seller. Every once in a while, the lady conductor stopped the train, and got off with a beaten up metal rod to switch the tracks.

At the same time, around the city, new apartment developments are being constructed that could be in any major North American city. There are also new shopping malls that could be on the outskirts of Toronto, with many of the same shops and no shortage of things to buy. In terms of cost, SP is now the 12th most expensive city in the world.

After four days we were both ready to leave. SP is one of the great cities of the world, but it was challenging to be a tourist. Few people speak English, and many Russians seemed cold and difficult, especially when compared to most of the people we have met on this trip. Just buying a subway ticket could be an unpleasant experience! Attendants certainly didn’t go out of their way to make us feel welcome. I read in a guide book that Russians tend not to smile since they regard people who smile a lot as idiots. Maybe that was our problem!

While we were ready to leave, we have already decided that we would like to come back in about 10 years. By this time, even more buildings will have been restored, and the tourist infrastructure will likely be vastly improved. But I recommend that you not wait that long.

Now as for the cruise, Sally and I are split on whether to recommend it or not. While it was not as enjoyable as other cruises taken on the Black Sea and Caribbean, there were many interesting and unexpected sites along the way. However, Sally had a serious problem with the food. Russian food makes Hungarian food seem light and healthy! She’s not sure our arteries will ever recover. We were both disappointed with the general lack of organization and amenities on the ship.

We've been told that Viking Cruises offers a similar itinerary with both Russian and International menus. That might be worth considering. There may also be better Russian ships than the Ivan Bunin. We just didn’t do the research nor have the flexibility on dates to consider other possibilities.

But notwithstanding the disappointments, this has been a very good two weeks, and I will never forget coasting along the river, past magnificent onion domed churches and abandoned old industrial plants, with a good supply of vodka and herring. Nor will I ever forget the rows of jars containing Peter’s collection of Siamese twin fetuses!


Karen Ahlstrom said...

I went to St. Petersburg for 3 months in 1997, and reading your blog brought back many memories. Thanks

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