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Admiralty and Isaac Cathedral from the Neva


City Portrait: St. Petersburg, Russia

We visited Petersburg at the end of June 2003 for seven days.


We flew to Petersburg with Pulkovo Airlines, a fragment of the old Soviet Aeroflot. They have ancient Tupolev airplanes. This was certainly the most pitiful airplane I have ever boarded. We were using a tour operator, Dertour, because the Kafkaesque Russian bureaucracy makes it nearly impossible to line up a flight, a hotel, the visa, and the required invitation all at the same time. 2003 was an especially difficult year because it marks the 300th anniversary of the city, and many major attractions were newly renovated and reopened.

Dertour bussed us to our hotel, the Ochtinskaja on the other side of the Neva river opposite from the Smolny cathedral. The location isn't great (it's on the wrong side of the Neva, and the Neva bridges are open between 2 and 5 o'clock), and the hotel shows its Soviet heritage despite recent renovation, but it's still a good deal. Service in all but the three top-end hotels is not up to western standards. We paid 615 Euro for one week, plus 35 Euro for the visa, including the two-hour flight from Berlin.

The Russian currency is the rouble. Roubles are available from any ATM, using a standard EC banking card. You can't import or export roubles. Prices are about half of what you would expect in a western city, except that public transportation is very cheap (7 roubles for the metro are 35 cents; long-distance buses for 20 roubles or 55 cents). All payment is in roubles.

Standard GSM cell phones including SMS work, there are four networks to choose from. Data service is a problem though. Getting around town with the metro, streetcars, and buses is easy and convenient, except that stations are not properly labeled. Knowing Russian helps, but memorizing the cyrillic alphabet and its pronunciation goes a long way because so many words are borrowed from German, French, or English. If you transliterate PECTOPAH, for example, you get restoran, close enough to restaurant.

There seems to be a culture of rudeness that is slow to overcome. When you come into a Russian shop, with only one of several employees nearby, you can almost see the thoughts zipping through her head in a span of mere minutes. "Oh no", she thinks, "one of those, what where they called again? Right, customers. There was a required reaction... click, whirr... Finish what I am doing and then silently glare at them without too much disdain on my face." New western-style places are much friendlier, but may charge exaggerrated prices. Other people on the street are always happy to help, but many speak only Russian, and younger people perhaps a few words of German or English. Remember one word: spassiba, stressing the i, means thanks.

We also bought bottled water from a nearby 24-hour grocery store. Tap water is polluted and carries nasty diseases, and bottled water must be used even for brushing teeth.


After our arrival, we had most of the afternoon left, so we took a shuttle to the Nevsky Prospect. This 4-km boulevard is the main axis of downtown Petersburg. The most interesting part is between the Fontanka canal and the Neve; both pictures below were taken there. It's very wide, but most of the width is taken up by eight lanes of thundering traffic. Uninterrupted rows of beautiful centuries-old buildings line the sides. At the northern end is the Dvortsovaya Ploshchad square, bordered by the Admiralty and the famous Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage (more about the Hermitage later.) Since all museums were closed at the late hour, we crossed the Neva at the back of the Winter Palace, and walked back to the hotel on the other side. When the walk turned out to be longer than expected, we hitched a ride with a friendly Russian driver, who got us back to our hotel in his BMW at barely subsonic speeds.

Nevsky Prospekt 1 Nevsky Prospekt 2

Onion domes of Khram Voskresenya Khristova

Traffic in Petersburg is vicious. People don't pay much attention to lanes or even trolley tracks, despite all efforts by the police, who have the right to shoot at your car if you don't obey their signals. There are very few cyclists here, and drivers will honk at pedestrians but will not stop. Pedestrians retaliate by crossing streets at red lights in large groups, hoping that drivers won't plow into them. The noise is deafening, especially streetcars. Streetcars are very convenient for getting around, but they are very slow because cars frequently block the tracks, and the tracks are completely worn out in many places. We have seen 10cm+ gaps, unwelded ends that don't quite meet and dip up and down when a streetcar runs over them, and completely mangled switches.

We went shortly after the summer solstice, which means that the sun was still shining at 23:20, with a wonderful soft light and a deep blue sky. It never got completely dark, and dawn is around 4:30. The sun sets and dawns in the west. However, in the winter, there are just a few hours of light, and the sun doesn't go far above the horizon. Even though this was the end of June, we had three overcast days with light drizzle too.

The next day we covered the area north of Nevsky Prospect. The Engineering Palace is an imposing but not especially interesting building. Behind it begins the Summer Garden, formerly reserved for the aristocracy but now open for an admission of 35 cents. It's a fairly small and open wooded park, with 89 marble statues, a cafe serving bad junk food, and Petersburg's first palace, a small two-story house built for Tsar Peter. We also passed through the Mars Field, watching one freshly married couple after another passing by the eternal flame in the center.

From here you can already see the multicolored and golden onion-shaped domes of the Khram Voskresenya Khristova church, now a mosaic museum. The picture on the right shows its domes. It is entirely covered with intricate mosaics inside. Tourists must follow roped-off paths packed with tourist groups. Here, like in most other museums, admission is charged plus a separate photography fee. Since tour groups always buy photography permissions, it's sometimes possible to hide in the center of a group and take all the pictures you want, although some places give you a brightly colored tag that must be attached to the camera. The outside view from alongside the canal that connects the church with Nevsky Prospect is impressive. We also visited the Kazanskaya Sobor church on Nevsky prospect, which looks oddly misproportioned with its massive curved arcades, but it's not nearly as impressive.

The following day started cloudy, so we went to the Hermitage, one of the great European museums. We arrived around 11:30 to avoid the opening crowds, and to our surprise got in after waiting in line for only a few minutes. Until 17:00, when the Hermitage closes, we went through its gorgeous rooms. I was interested more in the rooms of the palaces that make up the Hermitage than the works of art displayed. I'll skip the exhibitions, there are better resources than this page. Unfortunately most explanations in the Hermitage and other museums are in Russian only. The pictures below were taken in the hermitage:

Hermitage room 1 Hermitage room 2 Hermitage room 3

After a light dinner it was still early, so we took a random metro train to its terminal station, and arrived in a different world - endless desolate rows of highrise apartment buildings, dirty roads, no trees, old women trying to sell two or three shirts they were holding in their hands. The center picture below was taken there.

As much as Petersburg downtown has reached western levels of commercialism and sophistication, this does not reach the suburbs. we went back quickly. Petersburg is built on a swamp, and the metro runs really deep underground. There are endless high-speed escalators running down to the train level, shown in the left picture below, with a guard at each end sitting in tiny cabins. They protect Russia by preventing tourists from taking pictures, if they see one. The trains are loud and bumpy, but fast and efficient.

metro escalator desolate suburb Raketa boat

We started late the next morning. We saw the Smolny Cathedral with its different hues of blue paint, ranging from fading flakes to a brightness that hurts the eye. The efforts to finish renovations by 2003, for the 300-year anniversary of Petersburg, have not quite reached Smolny cathedral. A little to the east, in front of the secret service building, they still have a statue of Felix Zherzinsky, the founder of Lenin's cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. Normally reminders of the Soviet Union in general and anything around Stalin's time have been eliminated very carefully. A little further west, closer to the Summer Garden, we discovered a pleasant little grid of streets with cafes and restaurants.

The Nevsky Monastery at the south-east end of the Nevsky Prospekt is basically a waste of time. They have two large churchyards with lots of dead guys, including various A-list names like Tchaikowsky. The Saint Lavra church itself is a dark cavern with various and sundry icons and shrines. This is an operating orthodox church; I even saw a priest with flowing black robes and a Santa Claus beard. The Metropolite of the Russian Orthodox church (the head of the church) is here; judging by his picture it may well be him I saw. They also run a priest school here.

Isaac cathedral interior Amber Room in Catherine's Palace

We also went to the Isaac Cathedral, a huge baroque orgy in gold, marble, and malachite, and a gold-covered dome that stands above the roofs of Petersburg. The teaser picture at the top of this page shows the Neva waterfront with the golden dome of the Isaac Cathedral, and the picture to the left shows a detail of the interior. You can climb the 262 steps to the top of the dome, and get a nice view of downtown Petersburg including the Winter Palace and the Admiralty.

We then went walking around the southwest of the Admiralty, like the completely overrated Dutch quarter, which is basically a collection of inaccessible dilapidated warehouses. The scenery in this part of town seems more authentic than the shining gilded Nevsky Prospekt and other tourist watering holes. Still beautiful old buildings, but they haven't seen fresh paint for half a century. Courtyards here range from gray and depressing to ruins where the sky shows through empty windows.

The next day we started early and took the Raketa boat (there is a picture of one above, right) from the Winter Palace to Peterhof. The Raketa is a fast winged boat that runs across the Baltic to various nearby destinations. Peterhof is the summer palace of the tsars, and is known for its large park with all kinds of fountains. the palace itself has the usual collection of eclectic interiors, including two unusual moorish rooms, and the usual gold-encrusted staircase. Peterhof is interesting also because not all rooms are done in the overdone baroque style. Lines range from enormous to nonexistent within an hour, so we spent some time in the park first.

The following day was dedicated to one of the highlights of every Petersburg visit, the village Tsarskoje Selo, a.k.a. Pushkin, where the tsars had their summer residence. Since it's hard to get tickets, we joined our tour group to get in. Dertour was very helpful and managed to accomodate our last-minute request; tour groups must normally register the exact size of a group ahead of time. One of us, who came late, managed to get in anyway with a distressed look on his face claiming to have lost his group. Catherine Palace in Tsarskoje Selo

The main attraction of Tsarskoje Selo is Catherine's Palace, shown in the center, and inside of it the Amber Room. The Amber Room consists of a room paneled entirely in intricate artwork built from yellow and red amber, as in the picture above right.

The original amber panels were a gift of the Prussian king Frederick, copied to cover the larger room, evacuated and presumed lost in Kaliningrad during the second world war (lots of people are still searching), and rebuilt by Russian artists who worked from the original designs and tiny surviving fragments to rebuild the Amber Room from scratch. It took them 25 years, until 2003, a few weeks before we saw it. This is the absolute highlight of the palace.

After returning to Petersburg by bus and metro, I wandered aimlessly through the Petrograd quarter, starting at the metro station of the same name. This an old, busy, and often scenic business and residential district, with hardly any tourists around. I ended up at the Peter and Paul fortress, which was unexpectedly open despite the late hour. I did a quick tour, but compared to what we had seen before, it wasn't very impressive so I got out rather quickly.

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