Leaving Moscow in the rain, we took a five hour
train ride to St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, in the far
northwestern part of Russia not too far from Finland. The train
covered a distance of about 450 miles and it went neither up nor
down a hill, nor was there a curve in the tracks. This part of
Russia seems as flat as the Netherlands. When we got there, it was
about 90įF and not a cloud in the sky well into the evening. St.
Petersburg is a tropical paradise.
Okay, tropical paradise is a little strong but we
were lucky enough to experience unusually warm and sunny weather.
August is the rainiest month here but not for us. So far, so good.
St. Petersburg is sometimes called the Venice of the North because
of all the rivers and canals. The city is built on what were more
than a hundred islands. There are 56 rivers and canals running
through it that can be traversed by 342 bridges. Many of these are
drawbridges and because of all the shipping, there is a schedule
during the overnight hours of when they are all open. Generally,
youíre in deep pucky if youíre on the wrong side between 2 a.m. and
5 a.m. because the only option then is to swim. Being so far north,
St. Petersburg experiences what are called "white nights" around the
summer solstice when it never really gets dark and people come out
to see all the drawbridges in the open position.
Our tour guide, a different one from Moscow, met
us at the train and took us by van to our hotel which took about ten
minutes. She told us that in the morning when we returned to the
same area to begin our tour that the same trip would take more than
an hour. She didnít exaggerate.
Once again, the hotel took our passports in order
to register us with the police, always a very welcoming feeling.
Because it was already close to 10 p.m., we would be unable to
retrieve them until morning. Having already gone through this
routine, we were prepared with bottled water. That way we didnít
have to leave the hotel but could still brush our teeth without fear
of dysentery. Our tour guide told us it didnít matter, though,
because we shouldnít carry our passports due to the likelihood of
being pickpocketed. This is unheard of: not carrying a passport in a
foreign country, especially Russia, especially after our tour guide
in Moscow was so adamant that we do carry it. A city guide,
the St. Petersburg In Your Pocket, said "the police here generally
look for any excuse to fine you." When I asked what would happen if
were stopped by the police for some minor infraction, a distinct
possibility, she told me to show them the card from the hotel which
contained our room key and showed the room number. But to laugh! I
was supposed to believe a Russian cop would care about this stupid
card that didnít even have our names on it. Not a chance. In the
morning, I went to retrieve our passports but was told they would
only release them to the tour guide. When she arrived, I told her I
was not at all comfortable without my passport and I was not
concerned about pickpockets, because, since
keep it in a place that, if stolen, I have bigger problems than a
lost passport. Grudgingly, she went to get the passports. She was
gone for half and hour. Lynn went to see what was going on. The
hotel had lost all the passports for everyone in our group.
Wonderful. Because we were in the company of the tour guide for most
of the day, it wasnít a major concern and by the time we returned,
our lost passports had been found.
We visited the
Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace with works by Da Vinci,
Raphael, Rodin, and even that Dutch guy Rembrandt whose first name,
for some reason, I can never remember. Our tour guide suggested that
we might suffer from cultural overload because of all that was
there. She was right but the place was
This city knows how to build cathedrals but the
Soviets didnít seem to appreciate any of them.
St. Isaacís Cathedral was built between 1818 and 1858. The
Soviets made it into a museum to atheism and today itís still a
museum. The gold dome was painted gray during
World War II, the Great Patriotic War, to make the target more
difficult for the Nazis to see from the air. Still, the building is
pock-marked from damage done in that period. In front of the
cathedral is a monument to Tsar Nicholas I. The statue of him on a
horse faces the cathedral while the horseís hind end faces the
palace that Nick had built for his daughter, Maria. Maria, spoiled
babe that she was, wouldnít move in because she was insulted that
she had to look at the horseís
patootie from her front door.
Nearby is the
and convent. This place was built when Peter the Greatís
daughter Elizabeth was prohibited from taking the throne and she
decided to become a nun. No ordinary convent for her. However, a
coup changed things and Elizabeth was permitted to take the thrown
at which point she abandoned the nun business for the throne. My
favorite, though, is the
Church on Spilled Blood
which has the onion domes similar to St. Basilís in Moscow. The
spilled blood referred to here belonged to Tsar Alexander II and the
spillage occurred in March 1881 when, on the fourth attempt, he was
assassinated. This church never functioned as a church; it was only
a monument to the fallen tsar. During the revolution the
building was ransacked and badly damaged. It was used as a
warehouse for vegetables. After the war, it was upgraded to a
warehouse for an opera company in the area. In 1970 renovations were
started on the inside which were completed in 1997 and today it is a
Museum of Mosaic.
We took a short drive to the
Palace in Pushkin, about 15 miles from St. Petersburg. This is
Catherine I who was evidently not as great as Catherine the Great.
The palace was commissioned by Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of
Catherine I who named it for her mother. The place is almost a
thousand feet wide. One room was more beautiful as the next, artwork
was everywhere, and all the gardens were exquisitely maintained. The
Nazis were pretty successful in junking even this place (hereís a before and after of the grand staircase and a
representing the whole building) but today youíd never
know it. We could have spent to the whole day exploring all the
gardens because they was so extensive.
Across the street from our hotel was a memorial
Siege of Leningrad. Between 1941 and 1944 for about 900 days,
the Nazis continuously bombarded the city because Hitler said there
was no reason for its existence. In a city of three million people,
more than one million died, not just from the bombs, but also from
starvation, infections, and stress. Food was rationed to about 14
ounces per day for workers, half that for non-workers and kids.
After a while, those amounts were cut by almost 40%. Art and other
treasures were looted from museums. But somehow these people
persisted. Hitler scheduled a victory party at the
Astoria Hotel and invitations were printed. The party never happened
and Hitler never took over Leningrad.
Lynn and I clearly liked St. Petersburg more than
Moscow. It was more visually appealing and people with whom we came
into contact were not nearly so gruff and abrasive. But St.
Petersburg is also not real high on the warm and fuzzy meter. One of
the guide books that we frequently use says that "if something
doesnít suit your liking, change your liking." I subscribe to this
almost completely. Rooms are generally smaller in Europe and food
can be different from what one might expect. So get over
it. But, for instance, itís hard to accept rationing of toilet
paper. We found a public toilet that required you to get your toilet
paper before entering the
stall. Heaven help you if you
underestimate. Itís hard to get over that. The previously mentioned
"St. Petersburg In Your Pocket" guide, in addition to warning us
about the police, also said, "Avoid attracting unwanted attention by
not speaking loudly in your mother tongue, or walking the streets if
you have been drinking. If you are of African, Arab, or Asian
descent, exercise caution, particularly at night." Iím not so naÔve
as to believe that crime doesnít happen everywhere and almost
everyone knows that there are places in any city where one should
venture only if one is looking for trouble. But a blanket warning to
not speak in a foreign language or to exercise special care just
because one may be non-white seems to speak volumes for a
Then there is the casual, almost humorous
treatment of local corruption. Unlike other places, Russia is very
strict about its currency and only rubles are accepted everywhere.
Except where they accept U.S. dollars or euros. Why? Street vendors
do it illegally and risk a fine if anyone cares about a small guy
and the big stores have paid someone off. St. Petersburg, similar to
Den Haag, has lots of trolleys that have their own lanes on the city
streets. In many cases these lanes are physically separated from the
lanes for cars by a barrier of some sort. These dedicated lanes are
so that trolleys can move even when the automobile traffic in
hopelessly stalled. Occasionally we would see a car in trolley
lanes. Upon asking, our guide said they were either risking a stiff
fine or had bribed the local police. Another time there was a police
siren behind us while the traffic was backed up. People moved out of
the way to let the police pass. The cop was escorting another car, a
very small one with two passengers who didnít seem to be Putin or
any other dignitary. Our guide said that one can buy a police escort
to get through the traffic. I know that corruption exists
everywhere, but I found its blatant display and casual acceptance
offensive to say the least. On the other hand, maybe they deserve
credit for being so honest about their dishonesty.
All in all, Iím really glad we visited Russia but
I have no desire to return.
See all my pictures of St. Petersburg.
See videos from St. Petersburg.