It has been both sheer laziness and finals that have been the cause of this long overdue overview of my trip to St Petersburg and what better way to ingratiate myself back into blogging than a guide to one of the worlds most beautiful cities? It is mostly what has not changed about St Petersburg that makes it worth a visit. Founded in 1703 and built in a hurry, baroque rules supreme. Peter the Great is largely responsible for the city’s stunning architecture, its palaces and the canals cut through to mitigate regular flooding. For a man who murdered his own son (probably), he gets a fairly good press. Some of his edicts were odd: it was against the law to have a long beard. Some have left a valuable legacy: all the nobles had to build a palace in his new city. All these laws were enacted to create a European capital that would rival Paris
St Petersburg is one of those places that everyone longs to visit but I really can’t stress the importance of timing and organisation enough to all of those thinking about going. Firstly timing – Whilst of course it’s lovely to see the city all glittery and Narnia-esque, it get cold, and I mean burning extremeties cold. Whilst this seems obvious, I don’t think I could have prepared myself for the reality and even my Polish roots couldn’t hack it without an emergency trip to Zara to purchase a deeply unfashionable ankle length puffa. You are really going to want to walk around constantly to fully appreciate it’s beauty so visiting in November to February is probably a little bold even for the hardcore travellers amongst us. I’d go from March onwards when there is still enough snow to feel authentic but mild enough to explore painlessly. Secondly and most importantly is organisation – Do your research before you go especially if your Russian is poor or non existant. Quite honestly I found the erm..’hospitality’ to be a little brusque so it really is in your interest to plan an itinerary and keep your whits about you to prevent yourself from being taken for a ride.
Take a tour of the Yusopov Palace. At least as spectacular in its way as the Hermitage but on a smaller scale. The rooms are gorgeous in their richness and variety. Hire the Walkman tour tape and do not try to get past the guides without the felt slippers provided in the cloakroom. Highlights are the perfect miniature theatre and the Moorish room, incredible in its floor to ceiling decoration and marble, sunken bath. The building leans: pidgin English and sign language elicited the explanation that Nazi bombs hit the garden during the Siege of Leningrad. After your tour, walk down to Cafe Idiot for a cup of tea and their incredible fried cheese break bar snacks.
Spend a day at the Hermitage, Some visitors to St Petersburg do nothing else. With 2.8 million exhibits, including a vast collection of early Picassos, rooms full of Matisses, Gauguins, da Vincis, Botticellis and Rembrandts, this is small wonder. Even if the art does not do it for you, the palace ought to. Approach on foot from one of the prospekts that radiate from Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Palace Square) to enjoy the full impact of the green and white facade. The state rooms are triple-take beautiful in their opulence. Even the floors are masterpieces.
ST SAVIOUR ON THE BLOOD CATHEDRAL
Admire the architectural confectionery of St Saviour on the Blood which owes its gruesome name to its location. Tsar Alexander II was fatally shot here, and his son commissioned a cathedral on the precise spot. Russian in its onion domes and jewelled exterior, it was regarded by nineteenth-century sophisticates as a retrograde eyesore in their baroque, European city. Now it is a wonderful showpiece, as ornate inside as out, with every pillar mosaic-tiled to within an inch of collapse. Approach from Nevsky Prospekt for the long view and from the Neva river for the eye-shock experience.
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Russian dolls: well, you have to, don’t you? Do not distrust the souvenir stalls by the main attractions. Particularly canal-side at St Saviour on the Blood where I found really well-made and diverse Matrioshka dolls. Haggling is acceptable if you stay reasonable – Russians are not mugs and they know that if you can afford 230 roubles (£5.40, about half the average weekly wage) to spend 20 minutes inside a church, you can afford three times that for a memento of your stay.
Fur hats can be found at Red Front, Gostiniy Dvor market, Nevsky Prospekt, above the metro station. The ones with the ear flaps are for men. Rabbit is cheapest, fox middle range and mink starts at about 5,000 roubles (£117) for the ladies. If you want a souvenir rather than something to wear, pay 400 roubles (£9.30) at the St Saviour market where you might also want to try on a space helmet. Or not.
Buy vodka anywhere but from the men who offer it on the street. That will be meths. Most stores are in basements here, giving the experience a pleasing, if ridiculously subversive feel. Choose a decent bottle for about $4 (£2.80) or get the premium stuff at twice that. Duty-free at the airport is relaxed. ‘It is supposed to be one litre,’ said the assistant. ‘Two litres, OK. Three litres, maybe. More than that, there’s a problem.’ You would be forgiven for treating it like water. They do.
UDELNAYA FLEA MARKET
Take the Metro to this vast market on the edge of the city but don’t go expecting to find genuine Soviet memorabilia. This has all long gone by now and anything trying to be fobbed off as such will be fake. I was genuinely perplexed by some of the things for sale like dirty socks and naked children’s dolls. There are a few interesting stalls but most just offer a random collection of broken toys and radios. I did manage to find some beautiful postcards from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s which i’ll eventually frame but I was mostly just concerned with keeping warm and not slipping on the icy ground because honestly, no one is helping you out if you fall.
Buy tickets to the theatre. Take your pick: puppets, ballet, opera or stage. This is the home city of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky and the Kirov. The Mariinsky has a refreshing, bums-on-seats approach which means you are sure to catch a classic. The Astoria hotel (see Room for the Night) sponsors two arts festivals a year. The Second International Ballet Festival at the Mariinsky Theatre takes place from 9-18 March. Astoria packages include tickets for five or six nights, receptions with the stars and backstage tours. Performances will include Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire and a new interpretation of The Nutcracker. If you go to St Petersburg in August for ballet, you may be disappointed as the Kirov moves out to tour.
The Russian Vodka Rooms is part Russian restaurant, part vodka museum and the latter should be on your do to list if you fancy a bit of afternoon hoon. Pay £11 and you’ll get a museum pass, three shots of vodka and some snacks in their gorgeous gilded bar where you can admire (or not) giant bottles of vodka hidden in mock Faberge eggs or shaped like giant Uzi’s. The highlight was a shot of some Ukranian pine vodka as well as some of the interestingly shaped glass bottles. Try not to get offended when the gorgeous girls at reception give you attitude. It’s nothing personal.
TEPLO – Relaxed and cosy atmosphere with an incredibly friendly waitress who gave us a delicious cinammon pastry for free. Order the potato pancakes with smoked salmon and sour cream. So perfect i’m still dreaming about it.
MANSARDA – Very chi-chi but after a week without seeing a green vegetable I was desperate for a little broccoli and a Negroni. The view through the panoramic windows is incredible with the perfect view of the St Isaac Cathedral. iPad menus but surprisingly delicious food can be found here but save it for a treat because like most things in St Petersburg, it was hella pricey.
MAMALIGA – Ahhh memories of Georgian cuisine..Whilst it’s never something I crave, I’m always the kind of girl who’ll take down a good Khachupuri without a fuss. Mamaliga does Georgian very very well and unlike a lot of the restaurants in Tbilisi, I didn’t want to curl up in the foetal position after my shashlik. It’s part of the Ginza project (as are Mansarda and Terrassa) so you’re in safe hands with any of their restaurants.
TERRASSA – Another glass clad, top floor establishment with a menu like a Dostoyevsky novel with everything from sushi to Stroganoff on offer. After a few days of pilmeni and club sandwiches I would have been more than happy to eat lunch here every day. Good grilled meat and fish with vegetables and a great view over Nevsky Prospect.
GOGOL – I felt like I was dining in a pre Soviet dacha in this traditional Russian restaurant. The dim lighting and table bell evoking something straight out of a Chekov tale. Try the Siberian White Fish carpaccio and Novgorod mushrooms and wash it down with some white cherry vodka.
CANDIES – This ramshackle little cafe reminded me of something you’d find in Primrose Hill five years ago with its mismatched pastel coloured furniture, pop art and chalk board clad walls. I liked it here because they did extremely strong black coffee with cream and buckwheat porridge with jam so I often popped in for breakfast or an afternoon pick me up.
ZHELYABOVA 25 – For an almost forgotten taste of Soviet Leningrad among all the glamorous new restaurants and cafes, look no further than the famous doughnut shop once known by its address “Zhelyabova 25″, still at the same location but renamed Bolshaya Konushennaya. This small two-roomed cafe has been serving greasy and filling doughnuts (known locally as pyshky) to the proletariat for almost half a century, and is a real taste of nostalgia for the millions of Soviet-era visitors who flocked here in droves. Although there have been some superficial improvements to the décor, the high tables have been retained, the same crockery is used, the atmosphere is utilitarian Soviet, the prices are still very modest, but most importantly the recipes for crunchy doughnuts sprinkled with icing sugar and accompanied by milky coffee are the same.
HOTEL ASTORIA – Part of the Rocco Forte Collection, The Astoria balances the opulent Russian surroundings with the usual elegance you’d expect from this group. Very well located near St Isaacs Cathedral, the Hermitage and a short walk from Nevsky Prospect, I personally prefer it to the more famous Europa, which I found to be a little tacky. For those who want to go big but feel like something a little trendier, the brand new W Hotel is a more contemporary option. www.thehotelastoria.com
PUSKA INN – The Pushka Inn (a play on words – pushka means cannon, and the poet Pushkin used to live in the house next door) is a small and friendly boutique hotel on the Moika river, in one of the most picturesque areas of the city, just a few hundred metres from many of the most important museums and sites. The historic mansion exterior belies the contemporary feel of the rooms, that are luxurious but not fussy. The hotel restaurant is also worth a visit for their delicious honey beer and walnut porridge. www.pushka-inn.com
Don’t even think about…
Queueing or waiting politely. All tourists are equal, but some are more equal than others. They are the ones with the foreign passports who can afford to pay eight times what Russians are charged to see the churches and art museums. So ignore the Kassa ticket boxes and go straight up to the door. Never wait to let others pass. It can be no accident that ‘push’ and ‘shove’ sound like Russian words.
Visiting the Stroganov Palace. Sounds great in the guidebook and its green-and-white facade looks nice in the pictures but it is a grubby, tacky place that would struggle to trap a tourist if it was the last palace left standing in the city. Change your money there (the best rate we found) and then flee.
Metro, buses and trams. The metro is very deep (St Petersburg is built on a marsh) and the art deco escalators are the train world’s north face of the Eiger. It is also phenomenally busy, hot and tricky if you haven’t had time to master Cyrillic script but it is cheap, frequent and fast. Buses are either clapped out coaches or minibuses that look like Russia’s take on ‘white van men’ and have to be flagged down. Travel passes are a waste of time unless you are staying a long way from the centre. Walk everywhere. The soul of the city is only discovered by turning a street corner and catching an outrageously pretty church or peering beyond façades into shabby courtyards.
Side note: Can we appreciate how incredible my boyfriends apartment is? Yes, that is a tortoiseshell microwave.