Sometimes called the Venice of the North, St Petersburg’s grandeur is overlaid with the utilitarianism of the communist era. It’s home to some famously exquisite palaces, the world-renowned Marinsky Ballet and The Hermitage, the biggest art museum in the world. Possibly the only advantage of the Zupta nuclear power deal is that South Africans were the only passengers who didn’t need visas for Russia.
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This is a city that has survived extraordinarily traumatic times. Olga, our guide, heard her own grandmother describe the 900-day Nazi siege of St Petersburg, when over one million people starved to death. She took us to the spectacular Peterhof Palace (‘the Russian Versailles). The display of wealth is so brazen that the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution (one hundred years ago last month!) are plain to see. I preferred the elegant winter palace, now part of the enormous Hermitage art museum. With just under three million artworks, it would take you 11 years to see everything. The busloads of tourists take selfies with the artworks in a ‘me just chillin’ with my Rembrandt’ kind of way.
To get a look-in you need to sharpen your elbows, but it is truly thrilling to see paintings you’ve read about your whole life right there in front of you. The magnificent Church on the Spilled Blood is literally built on the spilled blood of Tsar Alexander II, bulging into the street to incorporate the stained patch of pavement where he died. The Peter and Paul Cathedral houses the graves of almost all the Romanovs, including the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who supposedly escaped the family murder. Over the years, several women have claimed to be Anastasia, but alas, they were all fibbing: her DNA was positively identified in 2007.
The drama of these stories is what I loved about Russia: it’s a beautiful, wild, contradictory, tragic, grand and slightly bonkers place. We managed to navigate our way around the Underground, one of the deepest in the world. We were looking for the Elisseeff Emporium on Nevsky Prospekt. The building is gorgeous, but it was the array of cakes, nougats, chocolates, cheeses, vodka, and, of course, smoked salmon and caviar that really took our breath away – not least because of the blistering prices! Remembering the mountains of smoked salmon that awaited us on board – and that we were sailing that evening – we hurried back home.
NEED TO KNOW
Prices in supermarkets are quite comparable to SA, but as soon as you go upmarket, be prepared to bleed from the eyeballs. The exchange rate, ruble to rand, is about 4:1.
If you have no trouble sleeping, plan your trip around the famous White Nights, around 10 June to 2 July, when the sun hardly sets at all. Get a guide, at least for the first two days or so. Take the hydrofoil to Peterhof; it’s superfast and a lot of fun. Seating is not reserved, so you’ll need to be pretty nippy to get a window seat.
If you’re going to the Hermitage, you MUST buy your tickets in advance, and stick to the time – it’s so full that entrance is staggered. If they say you need to be there at 2pm, be there at 2pm – otherwise they won’t let you in, ticket or not.
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