My guide book tells me that the Tsar Peter the Great wanted a city that was like the great European cities, and not like a Russian city. Thus, Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703. And from appearances, he seems to have achieved his objective. Saint Petersburg looks more like Paris, or Venice, or London, than having any resemblance to Moscow or other Russian cities.
The city is flat, so walking is easy, and the footpaths appeared to be well made and well kept in the places we walked.
We toured the State Hermitage Museum, comprised of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Large Old Hermitage. In total, an enormous space, with a wide range collection from Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Roman, and European art and sculpture, and furnishings up to almost the present time. I don’t think it is known for any treasures like a Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo, but you could wander for ages and find much of general interest there.
The next day we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, located on an island across the Neva River from the city. It includes the usual military buildings, a prison and a cathedral where many of Russia’s royalty, including the Romanovs who were killed in Yekaterinburg in 1918, are now buried.
On the walk back to the hotel, we discovered a ‘shop’ on Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, called the Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall. ‘Shop’ is hardly the word for it – it’s a cross (on a smaller scale) between the food halls in Harrods, Galleries Lafayette, Fauchon, Hediard and a Laduree tea and coffee shop. It was founded in 1902, languished during the Soviet period, and was refurbished, expanded and reopened in 2012. We thought the service was good and the prices were reasonable. I was going to say that I thought the average Russian would be shocked by its luxury, but having seen the displays of wealth shown by some in Russia, the masses would probably not blink an eye at it. The shop has a grand piano with an autoplay mechanism – very nice, but the western Christmas carols and Auld Lang Syne being played were just a bit out of season. What would the Soviet rulers think of it?
On our third day, we travelled 25km south from Saint Petersburg to visit the Catherine Palace at Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo. This was something of a feat for us, because we had to master both the underground Metro railway and the local minibus services (in both directions!) to get there and back again. Despite my lack of Russian language skills and semi-understanding of the Cyrillic characters, we managed to find the correct Metro stations (if you ask me, some of the different station names are barely distinguishable from others!) and we travelled there and back for about $4 each, compared to quoted tour prices of $100+ per person. We also had more fun, being probably the happiest-looking people on the Metro, by far. We played the smiling face game frequently, and it wasn’t hard to win.
So Saint Petersburg is where the Tsar succeeded and failed. He created a European city, but the Russians have taken it over. Glum faces, rudeness and indifference rule!
On our last day in Saint Petersburg, we again faced the Metro and minibus systems to get to the airport. No worries so far. We made our way from the minibus to the airport building, which was equipped just inside the door with baggage X-ray equipment and metal detectors, and prepared to do the usual. A helpful guard informed us this was the Arrivals Building and we needed to go some hundreds of metres back the other way. A simple sign on the building in Russian or English might have helped, but no signs of any type were to be seen on either the Arrivals or Departures buildings.
I suppose it should have been apparent to us! The Departures Building was far more chaotic, with queues to join the queues. We used our Qantas Silver status to join a priority Air Berlin check-in queue, much to the distress of a horde of elderly Germans who were without priority in the priority line! (I know it sounds unbelievable – Germans in a queue in Russia, and were able to jump the queue! Woo hoo!!).
We queued multiple times, and had our Boarding Passes inspected and stamped multiple times. We fronted up to Comrade Olga Stalin at Passport Control, then went through another X-ray and scanner process, then had a full-body frisk by another male comrade. One guy (neither of us) who said his belt would not be a problem learned the hard way that it was going to be a problem. He may still be there arguing his case…. It’s hard to get in to Russia, it’s even harder to get out.
Eventually, we boarded the plane, and then we took off. After a while, we watched as the flight map showed that we were finally above Poland, and hence safely out of the Russian Federation.
In our three weeks, we saw more of Russia than most tourists would see, we probably saw more of Russia than most Russians would ever see, and we saw more of Russia than we ever want to see again. It wasn’t all bad, but it fell a long way short of a pass mark for me.