Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in FairLady, July 2016
Ensconced in a homestay apartment with unlimited access to vodka (advertised as such, but not true, strictly speaking) and a view over the Griboyedova Canal in St Petersburg I couldn’t be happier.
Sipping on my first vodka whilst still catching my breath after more than 90 steps – you have been warned – I looked around at the antique decor, the mishmash of utensils in the cosy kitchen, the wall tapestries and velvet curtains and I knew I had found an accommodation gem.
St Petersburg is the Cape Town of Russia whereas Moscow resembles Johannesburg. As far as cost and laidback atmosphere go, St Petersburg offers a myriad of museums, palaces and castles; if you plan carefully you could eat well and it’s affordable, and – provided it’s in the historic heart of the city – you can walk around before and after midnight without even a glance over your shoulder.
Standing on the Palace Square outside the turquoise and white baroque Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage, one’s mind wanders to “Bloody Sunday” that took place in January 1905 when soldiers of the tsar’s Imperial Guard fired on a peaceful crowd and killed about 100 people, and injured many more.
Nowadays Peter and Catherine the Great impersonators lure tourists with deep pockets to go for a trot in a carriage or to have a photo taken with them in costume.
I entered the Hermitage – don’t go early as the queues appear to be endless; rather go late morning as our landlord advised us – with grandiose ideas of using a map to guide me to the must-sees: paintings by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo, Matisse and Picasso as well as the Malachite Hall, the Egyptian mummies, and the splendid gilt stucco ceilings in the galleries and halls.
But, right at the onset – soon after ascending the lavish cream and gold Jordan staircase – I lost the battle reading the map. My advice would be to wander around; inevitably agape. Nyet, this modus operandi won’t work for you if you have a particular interest in a certain art genre. Do bear in mind that apparently you would have to spend 70 years in order to have a brief look at each exhibition in the Hermitage.
The Hermitage started off as the private museum of Catherine the Great. In a letter she wrote: “Although I am all alone, I have a whole labyrinth of rooms… and all of them filled with luxuries. Only mice and myself feast our eyes on it.”
From the Winter Palace it’s a few blocks – in spring and autumn you will see brides in full regalia posing for wedding photographs along the way – to Church on Spilled Blood or Saviour on Blood as it is also known. The exquisite multi-domed exterior and the 7500 square meters of incredibly detailed mosaics on the inside will touch your heart and stir your soul. The church site marks the exact spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, hence the gruesome name.
A stone’s throw from here is Jamie’s Italian (www.jamieoliver.com/italian/russia/restaurants/st-petersburg/), a relaxing restaurant with a vaulted ceiling where most wines are offered by the glass. Getting into the Russian spirit of things we shouted ‘Ypa!’ as we drank a toast to our trip with crisp white house wine whilst enjoying creamy four cheese risotto with pomegranate molasses.
Arriving by hydrofoil at Peterhof (www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/), a former country residence of the Russian monarchs, you are greeted by the Grand Cascade made up of seventeen steps, 39 gilded statues and 64 fountain jets. At the top of the cascade is a group of lovely sculptures, Tritons Blowing into Sea Shells.
The main palace rooms (http://www.peterhof-express.com/about_peterhof/great_palace/) are elaborately decorated. It’s hard to choose a favourite between the Hall of Muses with its intricate parquet floor, the mirrored Light Gallery or Dance Hall, the Throne Room with red velvet throne, the Japanese Room with wooden panels decorated by Russian icon-painters or the White Dining Room with tiled ceramic stoves in each corner.
Save some pennies and return by local bus (marshrutka).
Nevsky Prospekt is the shopping soul of St Petersburg. Nicholas I issued a decree forbidding the erection of any building taller than the Winter Palace. As a result much attention was paid to facades.
Gvostiny Dvor (Nevsky Prospekt 35) is a department store dating from the eighteenth century. It’s divided into upmarket stalls selling anything from overpriced souvenirs to cameras, from dainty tea pots to fur coats. It retains a bit of a Soviet feel although this has not been the intention.
The glass dome on the roof of Dom Knigi (Nevsky Prospekt 28; www.petersburg4u.com/house-of-books)can be seen from a distance. This House of Books is housed in the former Singer Sewing Machine building, one of the most beautiful on Nevsky. Stationery addicts beware – you will find loads inside to feed your obsession.
Natura Siberia (www.naturasiberica.ru/en/shop/) sells organic high-quality products for hair, body and facial care with Siberian herbs and plants as ingredients for a song.
Restaurants in St Petersburg do not come cheap though it’s not nearly as expensive as Moscow. If you choose wisely – and shelve the idea of gorging on caviar – there will be no need to empty your bank account. Many restaurants have a two or three course business lunch menu that is generally good value for money.
At Kuznechny Market (www.hubpages.com/travel/Food-Market-in-St-Petersburg-Russia) – supplier to several of the city’s top restaurants – the babushkas were not nearly as friendly as blogs lead us to believe and there was no waving fruit on sticks to taste. Yet this is the one place where caviar is reasonably priced, even for South Africans, and where I became a convert to pickled salted tomatoes and Korean kimchi, a fermented side dish made of vegetables.
Yeliseev (take a virtual tour: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBem-up4lts) with its stained glass windows, floral cornices and centre-stage grand piano has moving window displays of Pinocchio-elephants, bakers and jelly makers that beckon you inside. At the end of the 19th century various sorts of tea, coffee and cereals, butter, cheese, sausages, rum, truffles and anchovies were traded here. Nowadays the macaroons are as big as tea cups; marzipan fruit are life-sized and a glass of Russian sparkling wine is prohibitively expensive.
At Biblioteka Café (Nevsky Prospekt 20; www.inyourpocket.com/st-petersburg/Biblioteka_126409v) we vowed – over a few glasses of red wine – to return to this cultural capital of Russia whilst we tried to better our pronunciation of Za vashe zdorovie (say zah VAH-she zda-ROH-vye), the correct way to toast someone, and not Na zdorovie, as so many erroneously believe.
Whilst in St Petersburg