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Reflections

Saint Petersburg, Russia


Before going anywhere it is a good principle to research the area and what to see. Guide books are good for this of course but we found in addition an excellent website with lots of good ideas, pictures, a virtual tour and information – www.saint-petersburg.com

Getting to Saint-Petersburg in the first place required a leap of faith;you had to book your accommodation first (checking that they have 'visa support', which effectively means that they provide documentation to confirm that you are invited to Russia and have a place to stay). Once you have the two items of confirmation that are required you apply for a visa. The form that you fill out is very bureaucratic and complex to complete; we found that the Russian Embassy website less helpful than a couple of others in giving guidance as to how to complete the form. It is worth spending some time researching other websites to give you additional information on how to complete various parts of the form.

While on the flight to St P, migration forms are handed out and declaration forms too, if needed. It is worth researching these for guidance on how to to complete them; we took copy examples to help us complete the forms on the flight. The site above is a good source. We read that if you didn't declare something on the way in, it could be confiscated on the way out, so we declared laptop, mobile phones etc and went through the red channel (appropriate really). However, the customs officer said we didn't need to declare these and should proceed through the green channel!

When I was first out on the road in sales, my first lesson from an old hand was – the most important thing is to find out where the toilets are on the patch and then the telephones. It was good advice then and although the mobile phone has arrived recently, the first part remains invaluable in any new environment. Saint-Petersburg does not have large numbers of public conveniences and cafes and hotels may be a bit sniffy about you walking in from the street just for the loo. It is worthwhile learning to recognise ТУАЛЕТ – 'too-alyet' – to be able to recognise when there are any, though usually there is also a 'WC' sign if less prominent. All the public toilets we discovered charged for entry; usually about 20 rubles (80p). We discovered toilets at:
South of gardens of Saint Nicholas Cathedral
At the end of the square opposite the Mariinski Theatre
On main road west of Church on Spilled Blood (movable)
In Gardens North of St Isaac's Cathedral
Outside Hermitage (moveable) and several inside
Ladies in particular (though it would also apply to men) might like to note that toilet paper is required to be placed in a bin beside the toilet rather than in the pan in public toilets.

We gathered that tipping taxis and restaurants is common and when we asked the concierge if the private tours that we had arranged through and paid the hotel for whether a tip would be expected as well we were told that if we liked the service we could pay a tip but if not, we were not obliged. In other words – yes a tip is expected. We never did work out what exactly was expected though at one restaurant, it showed a 10% gratuity would be expected, so roughly what you may pay on the continent.

Food in the Hermitage Cafe is good value but you must have cash to pay for it – cards are not accepted.

Supermarkets or grocery shops in the city centre we found hard to spot. It was easier once we worked out that they are often in basement or semi-basement positions like the one underneath the building next door to our hotel. It was a useful and cheap place to get water and supplies for the day and was open from about 8 in the morning till late at night.

We don't often stay in hotels and rarely in 4 star when we do, so it may be commonplace anyway but the hotels we saw near ours all appeared to have a very active conciergerie who will make any arrangements that you require, booking restaurants, shows, taxis or tours, which certainly makes life a lot easier when you can't speak much of the language. Their rates, at least at our hotel appeared to be competitive, although it has to be acknowledged that we didn't do any more than a quick comparison and concluded that they weren't far off the mark. It should be borne in mind that there appear to be different rates for Russians and foreigners for a number of things like theatre and palace visits. In the case of Peterhof, you apparently can't get in as an unaccompanied non-Russian until 4pm, with closing at 5pm.

In a number of the palaces, overcoats and large bags have to be left in a cloakroom by the entrance and while most will allow photography in most places, you need pay for a photography ticket (often 200 rubles (ca £4)) and pay attention to any signs as sometimes, despite the photography ticket a single room will be forbidden to any photography.

Saint-Petersburg apparently used to be one of the crime centres of Russia in the 1990's. While this has apparently largely evaporated and there was no obvious evidence of any to us, it was notable that there are significant numbers of security guards at hotels and public buildings. There were also higher levels of obvious policing than we would normally expect in a city centre.

Being a relatively young city I guess that it grew as a planned development rather than the more haphazard way many older places grew. Being intended from the outset as the Capital would also account for wider main streets. Nevsky Prospekt, the Oxford Street equivalent has 3 lanes in each direction and traffic flows very quickly most of the time; I reckon it was not uncommon for vehicles to be doing 50 or 60 mph. However, we noticed that it seemed a very pedestrian friendly place with pedestrian crossings respected, unlike Paris, where you become a target. We mentioned this to Irena and she chucked and said that this is a very recent innovation as the law was only passed 2 weeks before! Irena also said that traffic was unpredictable and the city was prone to gridlock for no obvious reason at all; we experienced this first hand on our return from Peterhof at 2pm on a Wednesday.

It was interesting to note that cars constructed up to about 2000 are fairly modest affairs. Most of the newer vehicles are big cars usually with big engines. The current fashion appears to be the Chelsea tractor; a large engined (often pseudo) 4x4 with huge numbers of these pounding the streets. I suppose these are necessary items to get to their dacha at weekends. I wonder how they managed before?

We also noticed that Russian bureaucracy doesn't run to leaving signs in roadworks to warn motorists of raised ironwork – it is pretty self-evident or to pedestrians to warn them not to trip over the uneven surface. There were no signs warning of an uneven paving slabs on footpaths or even cordoned off areas awaiting treatment. Pretty refreshing really being required to use intelligence instead of being nannied all the time. Either the average Russian is more intelligent than us or the state thinks that people should use their common sense and faculties to keep themselves safe – a very dangerous concept that could seriously reduce bureaucratic jobs if it caught on here.

Talking of health and safety, the huge downpipes from all buildings are needed to cope with the huge amount of water, snow and ice that comes down during the melt. Most roofs had a V-shaped strip to channel melt as it slipped down the roof and very many appeared to have a fence along the roof too, to prevent a ton of snow falling on passers by. The benefit of the V strip is that it kept water well away from the edge of the roof and so reduced the amount of icicles that form there. We were told that sadly, there are a couple of fatal accidents each year as a result of falling icicles, usually children.

Venice of the North? Venice was founded around 800 AD, although some of the other islands in the lagoon were colonised from around 600 AD. It became a republic in around 1200 and grew rich in the next 500 years, based on successful merchants monopolising the eastern Mediterranean trade routes and becoming a city state and independent nation. It had become somewhat overblown by the time Napoleon marched in, determined to cut the decadent fat cat down to size. Venice capitulated rather than fight for its continued independence. Napoleon started the city's 150 year decline into oblivion. The faded former elegance was what appealed to the romantics and they in turn probably unwittingly kick started its slow renaissance. The ongoing work to turn back the clock is at once worthy and probably Canutish. To walk through the city is to sense the layers of history permeating its core. The canals have carried all the trade on which the city was based for over a millennium and still do. Venice without its canals would not be Venice.

Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by an absolute monarch initially to provide a defence against Sweden and by 1712, it was made the capital of Russia by which time the threat had largely dissipated. The city was built by conscripted serfs from all over Russia and by Swedish prisoners of war, who all died in vast numbers, many of them from falling masonry apparently. This being where the court was, all the noble families built residences to reflect their status and wealth. The royal family itself appears to have had some problems with staying put and each built their own particular palace to reflect their own style, so there are no fewer than 6 in the area. When under threat by a warring army, the city did not capitulate and paid a huge penalty for it. The courage and determination of the residents is a lesson to all. There is an energy and dynamism in the city now that promises well for the future. The canals appear largely tranquil except for the huge number of tourist trips and provide a pleasant scenery and a convenient way to drain the land. The canals serve to divide up the city into areas but have little or no effect on traffic which flows considerably faster. Like the Italians, Russian drivers have a foot down mentality, even in built up areas, but in Saint Petersburg, they have free rein. Saint Petersburg would be diminished without its canals but it would still be Saint Petersburg.

So, Venice was built over a millennium on trade by a republic. Saint Petersburg was built over 200 years at the whim of an autocratic, if far sighted monarch and by his wealthy court. Both are sites of extraordinary architectural and cultural significance and both have problems with flooding. I think Venice is unique, so is Saint Petersburg. There is little they have in common other than a lot of water and a lot of glorious architecture. If I had to vote for a Venice of the North, it would be Bruges, with which it has more in common.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on November 14, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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