Catching up with a few notes on our time in Saint Petersburg. First we saw some beautiful things at the Hermitage, Catherine’s Summer Palace in Pushkin, churches, and the architecture around the city. We had some great food at really reasonable prices. We had a comfortable stay at the Crowne Plaza on Likovsky Prospekt. And the weather cooperated. However it was all dampened somewhat by the pickpocket attempt.
Our arrival – we arrived on the Red Arrow train from Moscow at 08:00 to the Stalin welcoming music at the platform (apparently they played this music whenever Stalin pulled in so it’s traditional now). The train was cool, restored to its Stalin era glory. However sleep was elusive. We had departed Moscow at 23:55. We knew the bed routine from our six nights aboard the trans Siberian so we stowed our gear and got our bunks ready. We laid down to sleep shortly after the train pulled out. However the car connections were Stalinesque and the cars jerked constantly throughout the night. We also had something rattling in our compartment. It seemed to be around one of the bunk latches on Kathy’s side. I looked and looked multiple times but couldn’t find it. I wrapped towels around it. I pushed and pulled everything near the noise source but nothing helped. I gave up and slept a few minutes here and there but not enough to not be exhausted the next morning. We ate our Stalin breakfast – rice pudding and coffee. We had arrived in SP.
Our stay – getting in so early we expected to just drop our bags at the hotel and be on our own until we could check in. However the desk clerk had a room ready for us, an upgrade on the top floor with a view of the city. What a relief. We had some coffee from the Nespresso machine in our room, unpacked, freshened up, and headed out for what turned out to be a good day. We walked down Nevsky Prospekt, stopping at a cafe for coffee and pastry. It was nice walking in the sunshine but a little chilly in the shade especially with the wind.
We headed to the Hermitage to get oriented for a visit the next day. It’s huge so we wanted to make sure we knew where we had to be (we had purchased tickets online and there’s a separate entrance for those). Then we walked around some of the churches and parks in the area and stopped for lunch at a restaurant along Nevsky Prospekt, Mama Na Dache, that we had passed earlier and looked interesting (they had khachapuri on the menu). Turned out to be a great meal – excellent dark beer, khachapuri, chicken skillet, chicken Kiev, and salad for around $30. We liked it so much that a few days later when we were in the area we ate there again!
The Hermitage the next day was amazing and overwhelming. We got audio guides and marveled at the rooms – white with gold everything. The art collection was equally impressive – with the expected crowds around Leonardo da Vinci. We split up after our audio tour with Kathy exploring the ancient art (to get her ancient Egypt fix) and me heading off to the Administration building for the Impressionists (my art sweet spot). All in all an incredible experience. Afterwards while waiting for Kathy at the designated meeting place, I ran into our Dutch acquaintances from Moscow. They were walking down the street so I accosted them with enticements for souvenirs but Frits was quite good at totally ignoring me. We had a good laugh. It was good seeing them all again. I was targeted by pickpockets on Nevsky Prospekt on the way back to the hotel (you can read about that in a separate post).
Next day we headed out to Pushkin for Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. Getting there was an experience. We took a city bus from our hotel to another bus stop where we caught a regional bus out to Pushkin. Buses are one of the most difficult means of public transport when you don’t speak the language because of the stops and not knowing exactly where to get off. Google maps helps along with paying attention and trying to get the driver to let you know when to exit (fortunately for us on this trip a Russian woman understood and got us off at the right stop). The bus ride from there was fine (though the bus itself was a bit rickety) and a person on the bus let us know when to get off for Catherine’s place. Beautiful setting, approaching along the garden, with golden domes. The ticket situation was tricky. We had read people were allowed in only in batches every 15 minutes. We purchased ticket vouchers online but we still had to queue up along with everyone else. The wait wasn’t too bad, about 25 minutes. But inside the ticket area was pretty chaotic. Four or five ticket windows are for general admission and one is for internet tickets. We weren’t aware of that and of course there’s no signage to indicate it or anyone to ask so Kathy waited in one of the lines while I walked around to try to figure it out. The guard directed me to a ticket window but it was the wrong one however I found the right one. Unfortunately there was a sign up that the attendant would be back in 15 minutes. So I waited and got our tickets. We had noticed a desk for audio guides right inside the turnstile so we entered and asked there for two guides in English. They told me I had to purchase a ticket for the devices back in the lobby. So the guard reluctantly let me out and I went back to the internet desk (which apparently is also the audio guide booth) where she told me I had to wait in the general line to purchase a voucher then get back to her. The general lines were packed and I was getting a little frustrated so I passed on the audio guides. Back at the turnstile a new attendant was on duty and refused to let me back into the palace. However with Kathy on the inside I was able to convince her I wasn’t trying to sneak in and she (reluctantly) let me re-enter. The palace was every bit as beautiful as the Hermitage. But the main attraction was the Amber Room. Not quite what we expected but absolutely stunning. Definitely worth the hassle of getting there.
Dinner and ballet that evening. L Brik restaurant for a great meal and a taxi ride to the Hermitage theater for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Just being able to attend an event in the theater was a treat, especially something like Swan Lake (though this version had the happy ending). There was a classical quartet playing in the lobby before the ballet which was cool. Once inside it was open seating so we got to choose where to sit. The theater is small and there aren’t any bad seats so we sat in the back where we could stretch out and stand up if we wanted. Met two gentlemen from New Hampshire who were spending three weeks in the area. It was pleasant out so we walked back to our hotel (about 20 minutes) afterwards. Really nice evening.
Next morning breakfast and train to Helsinki. We departed from a different station than we had arrived at from Moscow so we used Uber. I think the cost was about $2, about the same as public transportation would have cost us. The station has a separate entrance for the Allegro to Helsinki so we found that, went through security, and hung out in the tiny waiting room until departure.