Let St. Petersburg Sink In – St. Petersburg, Russia

Let St. Petersburg Sink In

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg in the afternoon
St. Petersburg in the afternoon
Venice is sinking and so is St. Petersburg, but as long as this beautiful Russian city is still afloat, it’s worth visiting. For nine months I have been living in a large Soviet-style apartment building in the suburbs of Moscow, where I teach English. In May I finally got some time off and took the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg. When I arrived I wondered if I’d gotten on the wrong train and ended up in Western Europe, but then I saw that all the signs were still in Russian. St. Petersburg does not feel like Russia, but like a movie set with European architecture, palaces and canals. At the end of “Nevsky Prospect,” Nikolai Gogol writes, “Nevsky Prospect deceives at all hours of the day, but the worst time of all is at night… when the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light.” Perhaps the devil is at work in this enchanting city, but his magic creates the perfect escape for any tourist and allows one to leave reality and sink into another world.

It’s difficult to find a street in St. Petersburg that isn’t breathtaking, so if the weather is nice just walking around the city makes an excellent excursion. Start with the cemeteries at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery where you will find the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and other artists. From there just stroll down Nevsky Prospect and you will see Kazan Cathedral, The Church on Spilled Blood, and other architectural splendors and tons of shops.

If you’re looking for something more gruesome, hop over to the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography on Vasilevsky Island. The building shares its colors with the Hermitage but its contents are much more bizarre. This was St. Petersburg’s first museum opened by Peter the Great. The tsar wanted to eradicate superstitious beliefs concerning different phenomena like Siamese twins and other birth defects, so he collected specimens from all over the world and created the Kunstcamera: a museum where the Russian people could look at deformed fetuses in jars. The Kunstcamera today is a replication of the original which was lost in a fire, but it is equally as disturbing. Some jars contain different body parts covered in lace and ribbon. Scientists “wrapped” the body parts so they would be less disturbing to visitors.

A few blocks down from the Kunstcamera is Menshikov palace, where Peter and his friend Menshikov held a “dwarf wedding.” Peter was not only fond of mutant fetuses but also of dwarfs, who made up a part of his entourage. One day, Peter and Menshikov were looking for a laugh so they staged a dwarf wedding and found amusement in watching the little people eat, drink and be merry. Students get in free, and in each room there is information in English describing the more important features.

Of the few quintessential Russian foods, the “bliny” is a must. It’s a cross between a pancake and a crepe and you can get them filled with anything from caviar to chocolate. In St. Petersburg there’s an adorable orange chain called “Chaynay Loshka” or “The Teaspoon.” It’s a fast food bliny restaurant with all-orange decor and it’s cheap and delicious. You can choose toppings for your bliny too: butter with caviar, sour cream with apples or potatoes and mushrooms. They also serve the classic Russian salads: an assortment of meat and/or vegetables smothered in mayonnaise. And of course, the meal is not complete without a pot of tea, served in cute porcelain cups. The average price is 150 rubles ($5). There are two locations on Nevsky Prospect, one on either end.

For a more upscale evening out have dinner at “Russky Kitsch” on Vasilevsky Island. It’s tsarist Russia meets communism meets pop culture; murals on the ceiling depict communist leaders mingling with American pop icons and the menus are embedded in the works of Lenin. Besides the outrageous atmosphere the food is good and the service is excellent: a rare occurrence in Russia. Expect to pay 500-1,000 rubles per person ($20-$40).

If you are trying to kill time before your midnight train to Moscow, the coffee shop “Idealnaya Chashka” is located on Nevsky, just a block down from the Moscow railway station. The coffee is yummy and they have English language newspapers; the toilet, however, has seen better days.

Sleep Cheap, one of the many hostels in St. Petersburg, is worth considering if you’re traveling on a budget. There are two rooms with eight beds in each: ideal for someone who is traveling alone and doesn’t need a private room. The best things about Sleep Cheap: it’s only a 15 minute walk to Nevsky Prospect, the rooms and toilets are clean, the beds are comfortable and the staff speaks English. The worst things about Sleep Cheap: it’s not that cheap, about $25 a night, and the “breakfast included” includes only cereal and tea. Also, if you want to leave your luggage there for a day after you’ve checked out there’s a 200 ruble fee, which seems exorbitant after paying $25 a night.


The Church on Spilled Blood
The Church on Spilled Blood
In St. Petersburg there are a variety of ways to amuse yourself at night, but it’s important to be careful and to distinguish between what is fun and what is dangerous. For example, I spent one spring evening at the Jimmy Hendrix Blues Club drinking wine, writing in my journal and listening to covers of 50s and 60s rock. It’s a cozy bar and that night there weren’t many people there so I got a whole table to myself. At the table next to mine there were a group of middle aged Russians, three men and one woman. They were drinking and having a good time, but one of the men kept staring over at me, intrigued by my non-Russian script. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and demanded to know what I was writing. At first he spoke in Russian, and I explained that my deplorable Russian skills were preventing me from understanding. His English wasn’t much better but we managed a conversation. I told him I was just writing in a journal. He asked if they were my impressions of Russia and I told him they were. The club was closing and he insisted I go with them for a drink somewhere else so they could contribute to my “impressions.” I was hesitant at first, but it was still early and if I didn’t go I’d have to go back to the hostel and go to bed, plus there was another woman with them. So I agreed and followed them outside, but all of a sudden they were jumping into a car. Apparently they wanted to drive to the next bar. This made me nervous; walking with them was one thing but getting into a car, where I would have no control over where we were going seemed risky. I shook my head and explained that I couldn’t come and that I had to go back to my hostel. As I was walking away I heard the man, who had first spoken to me, tell his friends that I was afraid. And it’s true, I was scared and embarrassed and upset that I had spoiled my evening. I found a coffee shop, where I pouted until I was ready to return to my hostel. But in the end, I knew I had done the right thing. Going to a bar with them would have been fun but getting into a car was never an option.

If you are at all interested in ballet you can’t leave St. Petersburg without visiting the Mariinsky Theater. The best way to buy tickets is to go to the ticket office or “kassa” in the theater. There may also be people standing outside the theater with extra tickets for sale. It’s worth spending more, because if you buy a cheap ticket you’ll be on the far right or far left of the balcony and won’t be able to see half the stage. The Mariinsky is closing for renovations January 2007, but performances will be held at a new theater next door.

If you don’t speak Russian, trying to buy train tickets in Russia can be a nightmare. You can dodge this obstacle by getting your tickets through a travel agent, but if you’re adventurous and don’t want to pay extra fees it is possible to obtain tickets on your own. If you’re in Moscow you can take an eight hour train ride overnight and wake up in St. Petersburg. Tickets can be bought in the grand government building located opposite Komsomolskaya metro station. When you exit the metro, just keep walking straight and you’ll run right into it. Once you are in the building, go all the way down the corridor, which ends in a big room with several ticket windows. Before you get in line at one of the windows look for signs that say “pereriv” followed by a time, for example, 13:00-14:00. This sign means the window will close between 1 and 2 o’clock; even if you’re next in line and you’ve been waiting for an hour. Choose a window whose break time won’t add to the challenge of buying your ticket. Write down the dates and times on a piece of paper–remember to use the 24 hour clock! Have back-up dates and times ready, as well as a Russian-English pocket dictionary.

Menshikov Palace
Menshikov Palace
With your date and time also specify what class of ticket you want. There’s first class, which must be for rich people who are afraid of flying, second class or “kupay,” and third class or “platzcart.” The difference between kupay and platzcart is that in kupay you have a private little room with four beds and a door that locks. Platzcart is more like a dormitory and the whole wagon can walk past your bed and so forth. If you’re traveling alone platzcart may be the better option because you’re in an open wagon full of strangers rather than locked in a private room with three drunk, rowdy men. A round-trip ticket to St. Petersburg in platzcart is about $30 and in kupay about $50, but prices are always changing.

If you travel platzcart you will need to rent sheets once you are on the train. Either the ticket collector will ask you for the money (about 50 rubles) or a line will form at the end of the wagon. In the morning you can also purchase tea and a breakfast bar. It won’t be a comfortable night, but an interesting one.