St. Petersburg: A City Frozen in Time

« Blog posts

Posted by Dan Webster on July 18, 2018, 6 a.m.

I passed on purchasing the Putin candy bar.

It was tempting. Not only did the garishly decorated confection deliver the promise of chocolate, it looked bigger than your average Cadbury’s bar. And its cover boasted a heroic likeness of our favorite Russian autocrat, fondling – of all things – a puppy.

But, as I say, I passed. Instead, I photographed it, choosing – for once – a simple pleasure over one that smacked of irony.

Putin candy bar

The opportunity for me to inject more money into the Russian economy came during a two-day stop on the cruise my wife and I took around the Baltic Sea. Souvenir-hunting was big on the agenda of the guided tour that shepherded us around the historical Russian city of St. Petersburg.

We’d opted for the tour because neither my wife nor I speak more than a word or two of the language – spasiba (thanks) and pozhaluysta (you’re welcome) being exceptions – and because our guide, Olga, spoke perfect English.

My wife had made the arrangements online through Berlin-based SPB Tours (spb-tours.com). At $700 for the two of us, the cost was a tad high, and this was in addition to what we’d already paid the cruise line (sorry about the college fund, grandkids). But the tour fee included Russian visas, which saved us $300 right away.

The tour also provided van service to and from the cruise ship terminal, plus ready access to a number of the major tourist sites, lunch both days (perogies!), two different river rides and plenty of time to take photos, ask questions and buy (or not buy) souvenirs.

We weren’t disappointed, either by the tour company or by the city.

Founded in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great, modern-day St. Petersburg is a metropolis of more than 5 million residents. Its architecture is an eclectic blend of what the Corinthia Hotel website calls “a marvelous kaleidoscope of construction, ranging from Baroque-style buildings to Soviet architecture, Neoclassical structures to Style Moderne.”

Lonely Planet is far more succinct, referring to it as “a city frozen in time.” Being no expert in architectural terminology, I will defer to Lonely Planet.

Speaking of time, travel brochures will tell you that the ideal period to visit St. Petersburg is between May and July. The city sits at nearly 60 degrees latitude (by contrast, Anchorage sits at just over 61 degrees latitude), which means that during its “White Nights” period the sky is light nearly 24 hours a day.

We were there during the second week of July. So, yeah, the days were long. And thanks to our guide, the no-nonsense Olga, they were action-packed.

Here are the highlights:

St. Petersburg Metro

Our tour started with a trek through the city’s subway system, which is said to serve 2 million passengers daily, making it one of the world’s busiest metros. At some 86 meters below ground, it’s also one of the world’s deepest.

A quick anecdote: My wife likes to say that it’s not that stereotypes are never true; they’re just not always true. So what’s a Russian stereotype? For those of us who lived through the Cold War, it’s that Russians don’t smile. Well, as we descended the Metro escalator, we must have seen 1,000 people coming in the opposite direction. And not one of them was smiling. So … that’s one stereotype that’s true, at least sometimes.

Besides offering us a glimpse of ordinary Russian life, though, the Metro proved to be a virtual art museum. As one reviewer on TripAdvisor wrote, “Magnificent chandeliers, ceilings and columns of mosaics and artwork adorn the platforms within this Metro’s stations and there is no graffiti anywhere.”

Peter and Paul’s Fortress and Cathedral
The fortress itself dates to 1703 and was the city’s original fortified center. Built between 1712 and 1733, the facility’s cathedral – with its iconic bell tower – holds claim as the city’s oldest landmark. Among the remains of many Russian leaders, the cathedral cradles the tomb of Catherine the Great.

The Amber Room
Speaking of Catherine the Great, another Catherine – Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great – is the namesake of the Catherine Palace. Just one of dozens of palaces across the city, many of which have been restored to their former greatness, the Catherine Palace hosts what is famously known as the Amber Room.

Which is exactly that: a room made (almost) completely of amber. The fact that the room is a re-creation of the original – which was lost during World War II – makes it no less an impressive sight.

Peterhof Park and Gardens

Peterhof Park and Gardens
Often referred to “the Russian Versailles,” the imperial palace of Peter the Great is arguably grander than the French version. If nothing else, the system of fountains called the Grand Cascade is an engineering phenomenon – as was our hydrofoil ride to the place, which was a thrill I would have paid for all by itself.

The State Hermitage Museum
Boasting an estimated 3 million items in its collection, the Hermitage is impossible to experience in a single day – or even a week. One travel site estimates that if you spent one minute looking at each piece, it would take you all of 11 years to see everything.

Yet during our necessarily brief visit we saw enough paintings and furniture and clothing and clocks and other untold riches to help me understand a bit of history. To wit: I finally began to understand why there’d been a Russian Revolution.

Yusupov Palace
I was most interested in this stop because it is where Rasputin was murdered. Rasputin, if you’ll recall, was the mad monk who some say bewitched Czar Nicholas II and his family. The cool part? They tell the story using life-size wax dummies.

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
Built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, this intriguingly named church survived the reform-minded Bolsheviks. It was closed for decades and reopened only in 1997.

And, finally …

Mechta Molokhovets
Our vodka-fueled dinner, which was not part of our guided tour, occurred when one of my wife’s former law students who works in St. Petersburg met us for dinner at a smallish restaurant (six tables only), which Fodor’s Travel describes as a “refined restaurant with prerevolutionary flair (that) has a tantalizing menu based on a famous 19th-century cookbook.”

I trust Fodor’s because, actually, I can’t recall what we ate at Mechta Molokhovets. Some caviar, I think. To be truthful, after the third round of vodka, I lost track of what we were being served. But I’m pretty sure I liked it because my wife has photos of me smiling. Big time.

Unlike, I have to say, those people on the metro.