Recently, we spent 72 hours enjoying the sights and scenes of St Petersburg, Russia. We didn’t really know what to expect. Images derived from the TV show, “The Americans”, of KGB-types following us around and large pictures of Putin everywhere came to mind … but neither proved true. Instead we found a cosmopolitan city, alive with charm and idiosyncrasies.
The city was a delight. And although 72 hours is quite rushed to absorb such a culture-rich environment, we tried our best. At its core, St. Petersburg is a very European city with rivers and canals, wide avenues lined with traditional six-story buildings and many churches, although these churches are topped with Russian Orthodox “onions” rather than steeples.
On the “beaten track”, we enjoyed the visual feast of the Hermitage, floor after floor, building after building. This museum had more riches and abundance of art than anyplace we have visited: twenty-six Rembrandts, two daVincis (out of the 20 still in existence), numerous works by Monet, Gauguin, Degas, and many other luminaries. The art ranged from Ancient Egypt to 1920’s Russia in hundreds of galleries in various buildings. The older art was in the Romanov palaces that line the Neva. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works were in the General Staff Building across Palace Square, which has been renovated brilliantly. (We saw much of this newer collection in Amsterdam in 2012 while the General Staff building was under renovation, but it is so special and unexpected at the Hermitage that it was worth seeing again.)
Everything about the Hermitage is enormous, including the plaza outside.
We snapped our obligatory picture at the Church on Spilled Blood.
We traveled within the city by subway, which was easy to navigate and very clean. Because bedrock is quite deep here, the escalators from the surface to the platforms were quite long, leaving ample time for passengers to send text messages, read their Kindles or turn around and have a conversation with their companions.
Giselle at the Mariinsky Ballet was terrific. The first act featured more pantomime than we are accustomed to at the SF Ballet; the second act had some brilliant technical dancing.
The ballet crowd was a mix of tourists and well-heeled locals. Some tourists donned sneakers and jeans, while most locals wore formal attire. We overheard one suit-and-tie attired cruise passenger proclaim: “They lied. They said jeans were not allowed!”
Only In St Petersburg
We wandered through the backstreets of Vasilyevsky Island and came across this surreal sight.
It seemed like a scene right out of Dali. But, later we saw that some entrepreneurs created a riding ring for children in an area that was once the courtyard of an elegant home.
One horse looked like she needed a bang trim.
In the enormous Palace Square, a mine troupe was joyously wrapping up their street performance.
And, instead of following us around, this red army soldier was carrying reams of paper back to the office!
This street musician was playing a saw, delighting his audience.
It’s a St Pete tradition for a bride and groom to pose at several locations around the city on their wedding day. We saw several couples. One bride was crying.
And one couple posed on a destroyer in front of a large gun.
St Pete is modern and lively. Instead of old rickety Soviet-style cars, we saw Mercedes, Land Rovers, BMWs, KIAs, and many other international brands. The young St Petersburg gals were dressed to the nines, and wore a lot of makeup. Lip plumper seemed especially popular. Locals even enjoyed sun bathing on the shores of the Neva river at the St Peter and Paul Fortress. (Not everyone thought it was chilly.)
The only images of Putin we saw were on matryoshka nesting dolls, in one set encasing the line of Soviet leaders and on the other, alongside Trump with a series of American leaders on the smaller dolls.
We didn’t know anyone previous to this trip who had visited St Pete on their own without a visa; our trip went off without a hitch. The 72-hour no-visa rule is designed for cruise ship passengers, but it also applies to travelers on the ferry from Helsinki. We traveled on roundtrip tickets on the Anastasia (Moby St Petersburg line). It was a large, smooth boat with staterooms and cafes, and an all-night gaming lounge.
As we boarded the boat, we received a pile of bar-coded coupons, which acted as our boarding passes allowed entry our room and permitted us to dine.
We took a shuttle (run by the boat line) to our hotel on Vasilyevsky Island. Most of the other 100-or-so no-visa visitors were on tours, and were shepherded from location to location by flag-carrying guides
Our boutique hotel was delightful and provided very fast Internet. (Hopefully it was secure, as spent some time online commenting on Business Plans for our African Business School client. We made sure not to conduct any financial transactions while we were online.) The hotel even had a sense of humor, as illustrated by the door tags.
There are definitely trade-offs with this method of travel. A Russian visa costs at least $350 per person, and takes a while to obtain. But, with a visa, you can stay more time in St Pete and see more cities, including Moscow. With the visa-free visit on the ferry, you spend an additional four hours on the ship (after landing in St Pete and before departing the city), since you cannot spend a moment beyond 72 hours on the ground. In our case, the ship was quite sunny and hot, but we coped.
Even though our journey back from St Petersburg – Helsinki – Tallinn (and then on to a bus from Tallinn – Riga) took around 30 hours, it was worth it. The crew onboard told us that the satellite wifi was unreliable, so we enjoyed the chance to unplug, read, and binge on downloaded Netflix.
Spasibo, (thanks) St Pete! Do svidaniya (bye!) until next time.