Dear people, readers, welcome again to another Sunday Spotlight. Last week I took you to a hot and dusty place, Lahore, so this week it’s time to contrast that with a place a bit more chilly, a bit more romantic, and a bit more, well, grand.
If you haven’t been to Russia, well, you should! Yes, visas are a hassle and you might not agree with their politics at times, but honestly, it’s such a worthwhile, different sort of place to go to! And St Petersburg is a city full of history, amazing buildings, art, culture and more!
I’ve been twice. Along with Egypt and Iceland, Russia was right up there in my top three of places I originally wanted to see on my first big trip in 1999. What a time I had – arriving at the airport, I was approached to change money by some random guy and I refused, preferring to use the official exchange booth (little did I know), he pronounced me an idiot to all within earshot! I braved a bus into town, and found my way to the very sterile hostel full of Americans telling everyone else that they were Canadians, they even had Canadian flags! The toilets were a source of fascination, the bowls appeared to be backwards! I knew I was in a different place!
I went to a concert for a couple of bucks. It was brilliant! I visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery – where I would return in 2007. A beautiful little spot, over a river, quiet church – my first orthodox church where I wondered where all the seats were (not a common fixture in Russian Orthodox churches), the silence was broken by haunting bells…
I even went out all night twice. Goodness me, I couldn’t do that today! Waiting in line to get into one of the best night clubs in town, a little drunk already with some guys from the hostel, we were told in no uncertain terms ‘Yankee, go home!’ by another guy who’d had a bit much to drink already too. The vodka – so smooth and drinkable. The beer – so cheap and alcoholic! I will never forget the 17% alcoholic beer ‘Baltika’. A surprisingly good drop, sold on the side of the road by people with carts! For true!
One of the most recognisable monuments in St Petersburg is the Church of the Spilled Blood (actually, it has several names). It’s beautiful ornate, with amazing spires and bright colours. It’s again, something from another world. The streets are so wide and grand, and even with the cold air nice to walk along. But you don’t have to, the subway system is excellent! Cheap, and comes every minute or two. Really! Yes, navigating can be tricky because of the Cyrillic Alphabet. But if you’re going, you’re going to have to get used to it. The stations are far below ground in disused bomb shelters I believe. Some have chandeliers, this is a feature of many of the Soviet subway systems.
The buildings all seem to be about the same height. I don’t recall any real skyscrapers, but the buildings along the avenues seemed to all be around seven stories in height, all quite historical, it lent such atmosphere to the place that’s hard to describe.
It is a really big city, I came in in 2007 by bus from Estonia and had no idea where in the city I was. The bus stop was still a fair way into town but the streets were still the same. Further out there might be taller apartment buildings, but the style and atmosphere is quite consistent throughout this amazing city.
Walking along the Neva River in central St Petersburg is great, and if you follow it it does break into a harbour. Along the Neva too is the Hermitage, the Winter Palace where the Tsars used to live. Inside and out, it’s un-frickin-believable. All the treasures you could hope to see inside a museum, times a thousand. Or more maybe.
The façade that is synonymous with the city faces out to Palace Square, where so much of Russian history has taken place. It’s massive, with the Alexander Column standing proudly in the centre. It really makes you feel how big Russia is. It opens out onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of the city. It’s a long walk in either direction, and sometimes it’s hard to see what’s in the buildings, but there’s plenty of restaurants, fashion and more for the visitor and local alike.
Walk far enough and you’ll get to another impressive square, where the Moscovsky train station sits in one corner and trolley buses trundle every which way. This is where, logically enough, one catches the train to Moscow. When compared to little ol’ Australia, Russia is a true giant, and St Petersburg lets you know in every way possible. Yes, it’s not so cheap these days. 1999 beer was less than a dollar and food was very cheap too.
I think, if you stick to one of the hostels (there were only two in 1999, now there’s more) and do a little self-catering, I reckon you can still keep it to less than $60 a day, maybe under $50, but the Hermitage is very expensive for non-Russians. And really, it’s the main thing you want to see when you’re there.
St Petersburg, it’s more than just another city I rave about. It really is one of the world’s great cities.