Wednesday, August 19, 2009

3 St, Petersburg, Russia

After a couple dozen somewhat ordinary plane and train rides so far this trip we had very romantic visions of our night train ride to St. Petersburg. We decided to splurge on first class tickets and were expecting something like the Orient Express with crisp linens, private cabin, and maybe even our own bathroom. The cramped bunk room we shared with a Russian mother and daughter didn't match that image, and when they dropped off our styrofoam boxes of chicken with rice gruel for dinner we realized that first class did not mean white glove service. First class....more like worst class. It was a long, though somewhat restful, night in that stuffy sleeper car and we were very glad to get to St. Petersburg.

We were delighted to find St. Petersburg a stark contrast to Moscow: cosmopolitan and very welcoming to visitors. Comparatively small, there is still plenty to do.

The Jewel of St. Petersburg is the amazing Hermitage museum. Not only is the art beyond impressive, but the setting in the original Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars adds something regal as you wander the hallways. One room filled with paintings will be right next to another filled with furniture and decor from its original days as a palace function room. The art collection itself is inherited from generations of acquistions by tsars and tsarinas. We saw Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Monet, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Picasso to name a few, and we mean a few. The Dutch art gallery alone was probably bigger than the entire MFA collection back home. There is apparently some sort of rivalry with the Louvre over which is the premier museum in the world, but for us, the Hermitage was absolutely the best museum we've ever been to. Not a doubt about whether the three hour line to get in is worth it.But St. Petersburg is no one-trick pony. The Museum of Political History is filled with very interesting, but very dense exhibits focusing on the beginning of the Soviet Era to present. There are helpful English translations plus very eager staff, too. We walked aboard the nearby Cruiser Aurora on the Neva River, now filled with Soviet memorabilia, whose blank shots fired in 1917 are reputed to have signaled the start of the Revolution.

And there is lots of pre-Soviet history to see as well. Peter the Great's cabin that was built for him as he directed the beginning construction of St. Petersburg in the early 18th century is on display. The cabin is the city's very first building and is now housed inside another protective building and therefore in immaculate condition. Thankfully, Peter had the forethought (and maybe a little bit of ego) to preserve it for future generations when it was only a few years old. Not far is the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress that hosts a number of museums and historical buildings including the church in which the Romanov dynasty is all buried. The fortress itself is free to visit and open long hours beyond the ticketed museums inside; we thought it was really neat how locals and travelers alike would walk the paths and beach just to enjoy a nice early morning or late evening stroll.

When not hopping from site to site we found that the thriving thoroughfares of the city were a thrill to wander. The buildings colorfully adorn the city streets, the Neva River and numerous canals that run through it add character, and the sidewalks are bustling--unlike Moscow, with lots of cafes, shops and restaurants! We sampled the offerings while in town and particularly grew fond of a few local fast food favorites. Teremok is a blini chain that we relied on once or twice for a snack of cheese-filled pancake remarkably similar to crepes. Kartofka's specialty is a very popular baked potato with a dozen or so options for fixings. Their potato offerings also included a delicious concoction of steak wrapped in hash browns and smothered with cheese. But the absolute best find was super fresh, 30-cent donuts at Pyshki. They only sell donuts, and only one kind of donut, and we didn't see a single person eat less than four on their own.

Our first hotel in St. Petersburg was the Acme Hotel located one street over from the Hermitage. Not only was the location amazing, but our large, tasteful and well-lit room was the nicest we'd had in a long time. Patrick loved that is had stairs in it...even if there were only two. Even though we shared a bathroom (with only one other room) Acme felt very much like a boutique hotel. They even served breakfast to our room in the morning included in the $60 price tag. Unfortunately they only had availability for our first night; we were very sad to leave.

We thought that nothing could compare with Acme and dejectedly made our way to Hotel Nouvelle Europe. Located near the train station, about a 20-minute walk from the sites, it definitely felt like a step down. But the $63 room was fantastic--and the bed and sheets even more comfortable than at Acme. And while the included breakfast was not served to our room, the offerings were more extensive and served our favorite way: all you can eat. We again shared a bathroom but again with only one other room. Conclusion: we love St. Petersburg hotels and have two great options for places to stay on a return trip.

As it happens there is another reason we loved our St. Petersburg lodging. It had been three days without hot water in Moscow and we'd read that St. Petersburg shuts off their hot water city wide for three weeks during the summer (which possibly explains the shortage in Moscow). So Patrick was disappointed but not surprised to turn the tap all the way to the left for his first shower at Acme and get only icy coldness. But we were used to it by then, so he took his shower and full shave before Katrina got a turn. On a whim, she tried turning the faucet to the right, in the usually cold direction, and was delighted to be met with piping hot water! Patrick was fairly bitter realizing he took the coldest possible shower, but the discovery made for much more comfortable bathing throughout our time in St. Petersburg.There were a few things we learned about Russians during our weeklong stay. They love high heels, sushi, and mullets. That's right, mullets are making a huge comeback in Russia! Or perhaps they never left. What they don't love is change. We came to find there is nothing more distinctly and commonly shared among Russians than a hatred of change. Seemingly every time we paid for anything the cashier had some sort of issue with the amount of money we were trying to pay with. The two best examples are one bill that came to 68 rubles....we thought paying with a 100 note was totally acceptable but the cashier disagreed. After a minute or so of discussion via hand gestures she got us to give her 108 so she could give us back a round 40 rather than 32. Similarly a bill came to 125 but we only had 120 so we tried to pay with a 200 (which is equivalent to about $6). Rather than take the 200 and have to give us change the cashier begrudginly took the 120 instead.

We took another night train to get back to Moscow--this time traveling second class, which was nominally less fancy, but far more comfortable since our train was fairly empty and we had no other passengers in our sleeping cabin. We only had a matter of hours in Moscow before our departure, but we were fortunate enough to stumble across dancing seniors in a park and a Russian Christian rock group performing near the Metro. Then it was dasvidania, Russia!

View more pictures from St. Petersburg here.


  1. That's not first class. First class is a two bed cabin. There are three classes. Third class is a bed in an open-plan carriage, second class is a four-bed cabin, first class is a two bed cabin.

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