St Petersburg at Warp Speed

12 Aug

We appear to have placated the travel gods with our prostration before the altar of British bureaucracy (see previous blog). Never again will we take the luxury of a functioning passport for granted. 

Apart from minor palpitations caused by our British Airways captain’s announcement ten minutes before landing at Helsinki, “Ladies and gentlemen we apologise for the inconvenience, however due to Heathrow Terminal 3 baggage handlers’ delays approximately 50 per cent of you will not get your checked baggage tonight”, the St Petersburg adventure has been an unqualified success. Thankfully the pilot overstated the situation. Most passengers collected their bags. Ours were among the last to come off the conveyor belt. Hallelujah!

I’ll return to describing Helsinki after our return visit post St Petersburg. For now my head is swimming with images from two intense days immersed in that city’s man-made beauty. In Florence The Stendhal Syndrome was coined to describe tourists overcome with the beauty of Florentine art and architecture. Similar swooning must occur frequently in St Petersburg, especially in high summer.

 After our abortive attempt to visit Russia three years ago I vowed to find an easier way to get there. The convoluted and expensive tourist visa application process that must be done via the Russian embassy in Australia puts people off.

Enter the visa-free package offered by The St Peter Line Company to nationals of many countries. Book a return passage with a St Peter Line ship (the ticket includes a hop on hop off city bus tour) and you receive automatic permission to stay in Russia up to 72 hours. The only catch is that any onshore hotel accommodation or other tours must be booked through St Peter Line. For us it was perfect. I booked online a budget en-suite cabin on the Princess Maria from Helsinki leaving at 7pm arriving in St Petersburg at 8:30am next morning. This would be the first of five sea passages this trip. If there is a way to go by water it is always our first preference. 

    
    
    
    
    
    
 
I had also booked two day tours with a personal guide, Julia, who met us inside the terminal and walked us to our handsome driver, Vitaly and his spotless minivan. Vitaly’s sporting knick knacks and masculine bling were nicely counterbalanced by panda seat covers. We were whisked away for our four-hour city tour immediately. At no stage in our visit did we have to wait for entrance tickets to be bought, all had been arranged beforehand. Money is a miraculous thing! 

    
 
Julia is a highly experienced St Petersburg born and bred guide with an English vocabulary at least as extensive as ours. She provided historical and present day context and answered our questions fulsomely. As Julia has lived through both the pre-perestroika and perestroika period she speaks with authority of the pros and cons of the different eras. We were intrigued to learn from Julia that the good citizens of St Petersburg are considered laidback to the point of slowness, especially compared to quick talking Muscovites. We were told not to expect fast service in restaurants and bars. Not a problem for us, we are on holiday.

After seeing most of the main city landmarks, enough to make our eyes pop with wonderment, we were dropped at our four-star hotel, the Sokos Vasilievsky, for a restorative nap before walking out again for dinner. For no apparent reason the charming male receptionist decided to upgrade us to a grand suite with free minibar, bath robes etc etc.. By now we were already half in love with St Petersburg. 

    
    
    
 Love locks find their way all over the world.
  
  Church of The Saviour of the Spilt Blood.  
    
    
    
    
    
    
 Sth Korean middle aged female tourists have a particular travel style that combines maximum sun protection with comfort and photographic gadgetry. They look completely gauche and pose a hazard to others. There I had my say!
  
    
    
    
    
 Original heating duct still in use. 
 The epitome of perseverance, French architect Auuguste de Montferrand, who saw the redesign and rebuild of St Isaac’s Cathedral through to completion forty years later.
  
    
    
 I stopped counting wedding couples after the first six.
  
   
This couple married in St Nicholas’ church and released two white doves before strolling off to the campanile. 

    
  Their car.  
    
 The main synagogue. 

    
    
 Stu said our suite’s decor reminded him of a brothel , ‘Not that I’ve ever been in one!’, he quickly added. Very comfortable. 

 Beetroot risotto in the hotel restaurant was delicious. 

    
 Obligatory selfie en route to dinner.

We’d driven past The Four Seasons Hotel earlier and navigated our way back there on foot. A tried and true strategy for locating a good restaurant is to ask the concierge of any Four Seasons Hotel for a recommendation then have them make a booking for you. By the time they realise you aren’t a hotel guest you are friends already and they make the call willingly. The concierge booked us into a panoramic rooftop terrace restaurant, Mansarda, with views over St Isaac’s cupola. Interestingly most cocktails on the drinks list were only twice the price of an espresso (about 3.50 euro at current exchange rate). Two and half cocktails later sunset over the River Neva was looking rosy indeed.

   

    
 Fennel Carpaccio to die for. Tasted like spring. 
   
 
Walking back to the hotel we listed the things central St Petersburg doesn’t have (a useful exercise when evaluating a city). It doesn’t have dog droppings on pavements. Pets are banished to the suburbs. It doesn’t have litter, street sex workers or beggars. Bicycles and scooters are few in number as they can only be used for five months of the year. What it does have are accomplished pickpockets. Warning signs are plastered around Peterhof Palace grounds. Julia told us she’s had two iphones stolen and even at The Hermitage today she discovered her handbag zipper open. Happily nothing was missing. 

This morning, after cherry picking our way through a sumptuous breakfast buffet – Russian bubbles for hair of the dog anyone?- Julia and Vitaly collected us promptly at 10am. One hour later we were deposited at Peter The Great’s summer state residence, Peterhof Palace. Room after room of sumptuous decor, art treasures and chandeliers plus gilded statuary in the fountains impressed us more than Versailles. Photos are not allowed inside, sorry.        

  

  

  

  

  

  

 Summer fun only, running through a fountain that switches on randomly. 

  

 125 hectares of green space. 

  Yep, another one, but where’s the groom?

 Eve.

 After a spinach pancake lunch with Julia (Russia doesn’t do vegan fast food) Vitaly whizzed us back into the city for a lightning fast tour of the highlights of the Hermitage, mostly Catherine The Great’s collections in The Winter Palace.

One of the unwritten rules for tour groups in Russia is that if your guided tour comprises four or fewer people you may jump to the head of the queue with the tacit approval of museum staff and other tour guides. This was especially useful at The Hermitage as we bypassed an entire cruise ship load of day trippers at the main entrance and then again many times in the course of our two hours there. Had we been on our own we would have seen very little and known even less.                

I was uncomfortable seeing the beautiful parquet flooring trodden on carelessly by the hordes. At least at Peterhof they had us wear plastic over slippers.    

Precious Sevres cloisonné chest.    

The famous English-built mechanical Peacock Clock.  

Two of 25 Rembrandts. Astonishing wealth is housed in The Hermitage.  
   
  

    
  Masses of Falconet sculptures.  
 And a whole room of old British masters including Gainsborough’s Woman in Blue.

   
    
    
    
 The formidable woman responsible for kick starting the collection, Catherine The Great. 

   
Beautifully restored tapestries. 

  This is a canvas painting cut out and pasted on the wall.  
  Stuart’s favourite, the Malachite Room.  
    
    
 The end of the tour and Julia was a fresh as when she began that morning. Me less so.

Vitaly had us at the ferry terminal by 5:30pm for our 7pm departure to Helsinki aboard Princess Anastasia.  We were both ready for a shower and short lie down!

    
    
    
 Stuart and I have just finished another good Italian dinner watching the sun sink into the Baltic Sea. We’ve agreed this quick visit to St Petersburg has whet our appetite for more. The city warrants a return visit during winter. Julia has advised us to come in November for the best chance to see the city under a blanket of snow. She added that we can’t count on snow though as for the past few years St Petersburg hasn’t had much snow even though temperatures have been down to minus thirty degrees celsius. Alternatively during the last half of January, domestic and foreign tourist numbers are at their lowest and one can stroll the streets without being poked by tourists wielding selfie sticks. We calculate European winter 2017 might be a good time to don serious winter wear and tackle St Petersburg once more. 
    
   
We rather like the Russian heraldry. This was our hotel’s crest. I’m thinking of creating a coat of arms for the Tickle Elliott’s of Gypsy Hill. Kangaroos, unicorns and dancing shoes with crossed skis perhaps? Do svidaniya!

One Response to “St Petersburg at Warp Speed”

  1. Heather August 12, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

    Absolutely fascinating Sharon and we feel we are travelling with you through your blogs.

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