St. Petersburg, Russia - 2011

The Paranoid Abroad, Gahan Wilson, 1972

The American Tourist's view of Eastern Europe,
from the wonderful
"The Paranoid Abroad"
by Gahan Wilson.

(Click any image to see it full size)

St. Petersburg is a clash. It is the magnificently designed set of islands reclaimed from the Neva River, set with jewels of buildings, spires and monuments, set among the many bridges and canals. Broad boulevards and open squares dot the landscape. The whole city lights up at night, not garishly, but accenting the classic grace of this achievement. On the other hand, traffic is impossibly dense, cars are filthy clunkers (our airport cab boiled over all the way in and the driver twice had to pull over and buy water and antifreeze before we could rejoin the gridlock). The beautiful buildings are grimy affairs, the entire facades shedding stucco and graying with dirt. A few years ago St, Petersburg hosted the G20 meeting and the central government ordered a complete makeover. So everything got a fresh coat of colorful paint, and emergency repairs were appled throughout. But they haven't kept it up and to a certain extent, it's crumbling hollywood set. To its credit, the central government is finally doing real restoration work, and nearly half the most famous buildings are behind scaffolding and netting. Too bad for us, but great news for St. Petersburg. Still, private buildings all over are crumbling, and it's a shame. St. Petersburg deserves better.

Some observations: Russians love books. The main shopping street, Nevskiy Prospekt, has not just one but a number of large, thriving, multistorey booksellers, and they are packed with shoppers, 9-24. We ate at one, the Singer Center, an Art Nouveau gem overlooking a canal and the dramtatic Kazan Cathedral.Down the canal is the most famous St. Petersburg landmark, the onion spired Church of the Spilled Blood. Going the other way along the canal, we came upon a footbridge guarded by two golden lions. The resulting photo captures about as much of the highlights of the city as one photo can.

Russians also love their sweets, so there was no problem finding pastries (among the candies) and breads from stores, cafes, and carts. We even picked up a map (happened to be the best one), the Sweets Map, listing 27 stores in the association of sweets shops just in the retail district.

Neva River bank by full moon. Photo by David Wineberg Fortress of Peter and Paul at sunset, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by David Wineberg Lions & Church of Spilled Blood, St-Petersburg, Russia. Photo by David Wineberg
Banks of the Neva River Fortress of Peter & Paul at sunset Lions & Spilled Blood

We also ate at Le Menu, a delightful vegetarian place at Dobrolobova 1, right behind the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was the way to taste all the Russian classics we couldm without the fatty meats they love. So we had kasha with mushrooms and carrots, pea and bean soup, mushroom blinis, and the best poppy seed cake ever. And after all the help our waitress was, attempting to translate and explain, she refused to accept a tip. I knew she would do that, so I pressed it into her hand and folded it over. When was the last time that happened to you?

We spent hours at the Hermitage, a giant, Louvre-like museum on the Neva. The building itself is gorgeous, and many of the salons outshine the artwork in them. On the other hand, we've never seen such classic stupidity as in the Impressionists wing. Here you have a room of Picassos, one of Monet, three of Matisse - and the paintings are behind glass. Not non-glare, non-reflective glass, but orindary window pane glass, so you see yourself in the painting, along with the window behind you and the fluorescent bulb along the ceiling. We've never seen anything like it.

Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by David Wineberg Gold room, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by David Wineberg Singer Cafe, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by David Wineberg
Hermitage Museum Hermitage Gold Room Singer Cafe, Kazan Cathedral outside

One of the problems in Russia is trust. We were delighted with the service at a travel agency I found online. I sent them money to buy train tickets that cannot be purchased online, and they went and picked them up and held them for us for months. Run by three really knowledgeable, helpful women, Palytra has a brilliant website with a series of photographs showing the front of the building they're in, the actual entrance in the back, their front door and the office inside. That plus the map with the path to take from the Metro station across the traffic circle not only gave me confidence they weren't another scam, but provided a flawless way for us to walk straight in and upstairs and find them without a false step. If you need tickets for anything to or in Russia, Palytra is the dependable, quality choice.

The Paranoid Abroad, by Gahan Wilson, 1972

Riga     Home     Helsinki