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Venice of the North - St Petersburg

a travel blog by rickandsuejohnson

Have you noticed how many places lay claim to the title of Venice of the North? Birmingham has pretentions as has Bruges - but St Petersburg? Having visited Venice earlier in the year and having wanted to visit St Petersburg for some time; now was the right time to go when we could properly compare the two.
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Getting ready

Shrewsbury, United Kingdom

Preparing for our trip has been the most complex, time consuming and exhausting of anything we have done before. We could, of course have opted for a package tour but as you will all know, this isn't our style. So it has all been done manually. We had to arrange for our hotel before we could apply for visas, which need confirmation of the dates you have accomodation arranged, accompanying the applications. The applications themselves are not the most friendly forms to complete, nor are they inexpensive. The detail required is a bit frightening - like what is the name and address of your previous two employers and to whom did you report. Bearing in mind that I was with ASL for 29 years, I am not sure how relevant my details with ICI are!

We got a Russian phrase book to be able to at least deal with some of the pleasantries and make an effort. I had expected it to be less than straightforward as the Cyrillic alphabet is different to ours but I hadn't expected how much. There are 4 letters that correlate and the rest are quite new or just sound quite different. Russian C is an 's' sound, P is an 'r', B is a 'v' etc.; getting your head around it is difficult when you don't suffer from senior moments! However, we are making progress slowly.

Being locked in to school dates for taking holiday means that we are going rather later than we would like and the weather promises to be around what you might expect for a UK January or February - pretty cold. So we have prepared ourselves to take plenty of layers and shall be wearing our thermals! Our particular thanks to Ollie for reminding us that it would be a good idea to take our hats, scarves and gloves, together with spares in case one lot got wet (I knew that time spent travelling would be worthwhile). We have put in quite a lot of time researching where to go in the hope of avoiding too much wasted time, but we shall not actually make decisions until we are on the ground and can take account of the situation there.

I am sure that we are in for a marvellous experience; IT permitting, I hope you will be able to join us there. Da sveedaneeya

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 20, 2009 from Shrewsbury, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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Churches, bridges and men in tights.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Saturday 24th October
Up at 5 and left the cottage at 6. Surprisingly heavy traffic, light rain but reached T2 for 7:15. Although we had checked in online, KLM have made the mistake of leaving the airport check in robots at the entry to the queues for the baggage drop, so people that hadn't already checked in were obstructing the flow of pre-booked boarding card holders. Once at the baggage drop, though all was very swift. The usually dreary queueing to get through security was remarkably swift and the whole operation very efficiently completed. We found a restaurant and ordered our full English; although we had to wait a bit, when it arrived it was very good but we had to get on with it as by then our flight was starting to board. Fortunately, our gate wasn't far away and we were in the lounge in good time.

We were waiting on the apron for a few minutes as some woman took it into her head to go to the loo as soon as she boarded and we couldn't do the safety demo in her absence which meant in turn that we couldn't start taxiing. Memories of Bangkok sprang to mind! She was duly prised out and off we went, arriving in Amsterdam about 15 minutes late. I was a little concerned about the connection but I needn't have been. The departure gate for our flight to St Petersburg was only a couple of gates further down the pod and had its own security checks, so we were in good time for our flight.

We arrived in St Petersburg, having completed our immigration and customs declarations while on board; I am sure that the lovely lady customs official smirked as she looked at my passport photo – clearly thinking that it didn't bear much resemblance! We went through the red channel but were told that for what we had, we should proceed through the green – fair enough; at least we had volunteered the information and been officially told we didn't need to bother.

Out in the main concourse we found our taxi driver and he helped us with our bags to his car; I had a feeling we were in for an interesting ride as it was a Nissan V6. This proved to be the case and he swiftly carved a way though the traffic into the heart of St Petersburg while making various arrangements on his mobile phone, clamped firmly to his right ear. Of course, being an automatic with power steering (and probably autopilot too) his right hand was strictly speaking not needed although once or twice, I would quite have liked all his brain power being devoted to managing the traffic. I am aware of fairly normal speed limits (60kph in town) being expected in town but it was quite clear that this expectation was not shared by the majority of drivers. We had evidence of a certain disparity of expectation when we came upon a disagreement that had occurred between two drivers now being mediated by police.

Once at the hotel, we checked in and tried to get some cash out of each of the two ATMs in the hotel; the bellhop who accompanied us to the tills went for help but was assured that occasionally the machines ran out of cash – not to worry, our card would not have been debited. We couldn't help being a little concerned – not only had we entered two lots of cash without any return but we were still without any Russian rubles. We couldn't pay for anything in cash.

After depositing our bags and settling in, we went for a walk and stopped off at the first hotel asking to use their ATM fortunately this time it worked! We had a nice walk in the fresh air (4°C) around the block past the St Isaac's Cathedral, up to Nevsky Prospekt, getting a glimpse of the Hermitage all lit up, down Admiralty and much surprised to see a fountain playing before heading back to the hotel.

We decided to eat in the first night. I had Borscht followed by stroganoff, which was truly excellent while Sue had pickled vegetables followed by Salmon en croute with hard boiled egg, which was also very good. Drinks appear to be quite expensive unless you go for local stuff – local wine is about £8 a bottle while others start at around £20 per bottle!! Beer, at the hotel is not cheap either with the local ale at around £4 per pint. Anyway the wine we had was quite good fruity stuff with a bit of punch and some character, unpretentious, rustic and very drinkable.

Having taken our watches forward an hour for Amsterdam and two more for St Petersburg, we had to turn them back an hour before bed as daylight saving comes to an end here as well as at home.

Sunday 25th October
The room being very warm didn't help with a good nights sleep but managed enough. Up reasonably early and had a continental breakfast in the hotel. Once out made our way to Nevsky Prospekt then across to get a good view of the Hermitage. We retraced our steps back to Nevsky Prospekt and towards the Griboedova Canal, just before which was Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. There was a service on and the choir produced the most extraordinarily beautiful sound which seemed to go over the heads in every sense of the many people who were visiting visiting, thronging the cathedral. Most people were obviously believers making the sign of the cross several times before solemnly bowing. Leaving aside the level of bling that would make the most insensitive of wags blush, you had to admire the craftsmanship at work and the sheer decorative impact. Llewellyn Bowen eat your heart out!! The other thing that struck us is that churches here have discovered how to heat themselves, which is different to back home.

We followed the Griboedeva Canal to Sennaya Ploshchad, passing some lovely footbridges on the way. The Bank Bridge is the narrowest and rather charming, flanked by 4 griffins. The Lion Bridge is surprisingly flanked by 4 lions. Depending on your point of view, Sennaya Ploshchad is lively or rather seedy. We didn't spend much time there as it seemed a bit lively, carrying on along the canal until we reached St Nicholas Cathedral. It is undergoing considerable restoration at the moment, being covered in fabric. The bits that you can see look as though Wedgewood had a hand in its design with white reliefs against a blue background. The massive golden globes on top are very eastern. Inside once again, nice and warm and full of iconography.

On leaving we decided it was time for lunch and made our way to Christopher Columbus restaurant, where it is kitted out as a ship inside. We had a splendid meal of thick chicken and turnip soup followed by Pork loin with sauteed potato wedges.

Before returning to the hotel, we had a look in Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa

for 13, where Tchaikovski died, 17 where Gogol lived and 23 where Dostoyevski lived; then crossed the road to the hotel. After a rest, we went to the Mariinski for a performance of Swan Lake.

I am a complete philistine when it comes to ballet; I just don't get why blokes equipped on their lower half with simply a codpiece and spray-on tights (so that you don't have to work out who is who, white for the goodies and black for the baddies); who walk with their toes stuck to the floor then prance about as though they have been stung by a bee while showing a degree of cleavage that a builder wouldn't dream of, should appear so fascinating. Having said that , you have to admire the stamina, athletic prowess, control and sheer physical strength of all the dancers; the leading lady was very tall and stick thin but she must have weighed 8.5 stones and the blokes were lifting her with no apparent effort at all. Very impressive. The leading man appeared to be a bit simple; he was given a loaded crossbow and started prancing around with it; I suppose I should credit him with working out which is the sharp end but I was always taught not to wave a loaded weapon about. Continuity had a bad evening too; in a solo dance with music provided by a trumpet solo the dancer was waving a stringless lute about – I couldn't work out where that was coming from. Another thing I didn't get was after every dance, the dancers would stop and milk applause and after each act, larger and larger bouquets were delivered to the leading players. The final bouquet for the leading lady required two men to bring it on, so I imagine it must have been about 17 stones. The applause after the final curtain went on for some time I have often wondered the etymology of the expression 'clapped out' – now I know! The theatre oozes a sense of history with every fibre of its existence and is so intimate that you can't help but be involved. The royal box is suitably aloof and appropriate filled with the power of the future; a number of Chinese. The stage is absolutely huge, necessary for some of the routines but not intimidating. Despite the lack of apparent appreciation, I did enjoy the spectacle and would not have missed it for the world; Sue thoroughly enjoyed it.

We clocked up 8.13 Kilometres today!

Monday 26th October
Had a better night having worked out how the air conditioning works – you switch off the fan, turn off the radiator and open the window for half an hour. This cooled the room enough for it to be comfortable to sleep in! We were not in too much of a hurry to go out as it had been raining steadily for some hours and no immediate likelihood of stopping.

But up reasonably early and down to breakfast at 9:30. We had a very good, healthy breakfast that left us replete and ready to face the day – and we needed to be. We got ready for the day with full waterproofs and sallied forth – to find that the rain had just about stopped. We found the siege plaque in Nevski Prospekt and I don't know why we found it so unremarkable bearing in mind its message – 'citizens, this side of the street is more dangerous during an artillery bombardment' was simply a reminder put up during the siege of Leningrad during the 2nd World war. We made for the Church built on spilled blood, erected on the spot Alexander II was murdered in 1881. It had apparently been allowed to fall into disrepair but has been restored in the last 20 years or so. They have certainly done a good job; both interior and exterior are simply stunning and at least to western eyes so unusual architecturally and vibrant.

Having filled our eyes and minds there we walked across the Field of Mars, where we saw the eternal flame burning brightly before crossing over the Neva by Trinity Bridge and turning right to walk along the waterfront to see Peter The Great's Hut (which was closed, but we hope to see it tomorrow), guarded by the Manchurian Lions, then on to the Cruiser Aurora which fired the signal that started the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. The Aurora is now a museum but we decided instead to go on to the Peter & Paul Fortress and look around there. The fortress was the first set of buildings in the Tsar's new capital and although originally designed for defence against the Swedes, was never used for that purpose – instead it served as a prison and torture chamber and had several notable people incarcerated within its walls; the Tsar's own rebellious son Alexei! Dostoyevski and Trotsky were among other notable inmates.

The Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral is in the centre of the fortress and is yet another exquisitely beautiful building, inside and out. The interior decoration is much more restrained and at least to my eye, rather more beautiful than many of the other blingy interiors we have seen.

Our legs were beginning to feel the effects of the distance we had travelled by now but we steeled ourselves for the walk back to the hotel past the Rostral Columns on Vasilevskiy Island. While peering along the vast width of the Neva at this point we noticed a huge streeeeetch limo pull up and a bride and groom got out. Immediately afterwards, a bus pulled up with a load of guests who piled out. Quite a number were holding glasses of bubbly.

Photos were to be taken around the column and a couple of white doves released by the couple. Everyone was in a good mood, fuelled by quite a number of bottles of bubbly that someone had thoughtfully provided. It was a privilege to be a bystander at this and I managed to capture the release of the doves. We wish them every happiness. Onward and across the Dvortsovy Bridge back to the mainland, through the Admiralty Gardens and to our hotel. An exhausting an exhilarating day.

10.24 kilometres today.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 26, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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The Hermitage no self-respecting hermit would contemplate

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Tuesday 27th October
Up and out fairly early to see the bronze horseman near to St Isaac's Cathedral, then on through Admiralty Gardens to be at the Hermitage shortly after opening.

After a short queue to get in, another to get our tickets and a final one to deposit our coats and bags (which is obligatory), we started on our journey – and what a journey. The initial impressions as you go up the Grand staircase are of opulence. Built as a museum rather than a palace, you might have expected rather more utilitarianism. But you would be underestimating the desire to make a statement. It seems that the creators of St Petersburg, Russia's new capital, wanted to at least match the ostentation of the best courts of Europe – which really meant France. There are shades of Versailles all over the Hermitage and we later discovered, Peterhof. The complex is huge and very disorientating and the maps supplied are less than very helpful in allowing you to get your bearings, particularly starting the tour at the top of the grand staircase with no view of the Neva. Most of the rooms have numbers over the doors, which helps considerably, once you have worked this out. But there are still occasions when a route you had planned is blocked at some point and you have to re-orientate and replan. With many rooms, you just have to keep a track of where you are because you have no external view that gives you a point of reference. Once you have the hang of it though, wandering the building is quite wonderful. However, it would be easy to spend several days here and not see everything, so you need to decide what is important to you before your go and then plan your route accordingly.

We had decided to see how time went but not to try to see any of the paintings, concentrating on the architecture and decoration of the main rooms. We paid 200 rubles to be allowed to photograph inside and it was refreshing to be able take as many as we wanted in most of the rooms. It was forbidden in a few and it was not always well signed that this was the case, which meant I had a tap on my shoulder at one point!

We took a break after a few hours to go down to the Cafe area to relieve ourselves and to have some refreshment. The water we had was quite pricey but what was described as pizza was very reasonable. Looking like a slim pasty with cheese on top, this was warmed through before being given you. It was delicious, filled with a meat mixture and a pastry outer somewhere between bread and pastry. Thus replenished we set about completing the tour we had planned. The space available can't do it justice but the highlights were the exquisite St George's Hall, the Peacock clock and Pavilion Hall, the Malachite Room, the Gold room (a masterpiece of OTT), the Raphael loggias, the small throne room, and of course, the sumptuous diamond room which was in a strongroom (by guided tour only) and contained fabulous ornaments and jewel encrusted items.

We were in there for about 6 hours and could have spent many more.

After getting back to the hotel and having a short rest, we decided to go to a restaurant listed as being nearby for dinner. It took us some time to discover that it is in the middle of a re-development! We then walked around for a little while, trying to find a suitable alternative. It took some time and we ended up at a place called Literary Cafe, from where Alexander Pushkin left for his fateful duel. The meal was both good and reasonable, so honour was satisfied, as far as I was concerned.

12 kilometres today! 4 looking for dinner!

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 28, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
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The City and beyond

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Wednesday 28th October
Today was the first of our out of town tours. Our lady guide seemed a little businesslike and in trying to make small talk, I discovered that there were some no-go and sensitive areas. I guess after many years of having to be careful about what you said and to whom, old habits die hard. However, after a while she was more informal and we discovered that she did have a sense of humour. Peterhof was left in ruins after the German siege of Leningrad and there was some debate about what, if anything should be done about it. In the end, restoration was decided upon and is still ongoing. In fact only the outside gardens and fabric of the house, together with much of the ground floor has been completed. It was a cold and misty morning, giving an eeriness to everything. We were not allowed to take any photographs inside the building, which was a pity as we were given a lightening tour, with very little chance to absorb very much. We bought a book on the place before leaving so that we do have something to recall and despite some lovely photographs, was not unduly expensive On the way back we stopped at a souvenir shop where the guide had clearly got an arrangement. Despite being slightly upset about being railroaded, it was quite low key and we took advantage of the opportunity to get some bits and pieces to take home. Getting back at about 3pm allowed us to go back over the Trinity Bridge and visit Peter the Great's hut. I didn't take any pictures as it cost 200 rubles – the same as for the Hermitage where I could take many more. The hut is the original 3 roomed wood building in which Peter spent 6 years while his new city was being built. It has many of his personal belongings and is a wonderful set of artifacts to be able to see. It was preserved by the simple expedient of building a stone house around it so now you can wander around the inside of the stone house and see into the wooden one. You get a tremendous sense of the history of it all.

We returned to the hotel via the Spilled Blood Cathedral, looking for a suitable place for our evening meal. We found a place called КАМЗЛОТ – Camelot. Inside it was decorated as you may expect from its name with mediaeval theme, including Arthur on his throne at the end of the restaurant. The menu had levels of meals with the more expensive being 'Royal' , less expensive 'Knight' and so on. The strangeness of a British folk tale in the middle of St Petersburg, having a place done out as a mediaeval banqueting hall in a city which was only started in 1703 made it stranger still. But the meal was excellent and very reasonable too.

10 kilometres today

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 29, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
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From the plushness of Puskin to the heights of St Isaac's and shopping at Gostinyy Dvor

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Thursday 29th October
Up reasonably early again, to be breakfasted and ready for our trip to Pushkin by 10. We have discovered that by taking the 'dietary breakfast' option, we get a huge breakfast; a glass of orange juice, a coffee, yoghurt, a good portion of muesli, a large fresh fruit salad and a triple decker cheese sandwich, we can take the sandwich with us and have it for lunch!

A pretty cold, grey day with the wind whipping occasional tiny flurries of sleet against any exposed skin, rasping it with an icy touch. We had asked our guide yesterday if she had many other visits booked for the week and she was non-committal.

We were therefore slightly surprised to have her taking us to Pushkin (I am still not clear if the name has reverted to Tsarscoe Selo) and the Catherine Palace. We were anticipating another whirlwind tour but either the crowds were less stressful to her or she was more interested in the palace but Irena took more time to show us around and gave us more information about the palace than she had done with Peterhof. The town had been occupied by German forces during the siege of Leningrad and had totally destroyed the palace; the pictures of the place immediately after the war were incredibly sad and it was amazing at what had been done to restore the Palace. It is still ongoing and the Alexander palace is still not open as it undergoes restoration. The German nation has a proud reputation of appreciation of the arts; it is incredibly sad that the local commander, even in a war situation saw fit to destroy rather than to retain. Mind you in a war situation, rape and pillage to the benefit of the winning combatant is always going to be attractive; only the parts that were not to be transported back to Germany were destroyed. The Amber room was carefully dismantled and removed and despite extensive searches after the war, has never been found; presumably it now languishes in a Nazi vault in Geneva or in South America or possibly quietly in someone's private collection. The rest of the palace was stripped, shelled and set alight. I don't know what reparation was made by the German government after the war but somehow, I doubt if it was enough to meet the cost of the work carried out to repair the sheer vandalism. As we came out of the palace, we wandered over to the statue of Pushkin, a graduate of the academy set up by Catherine, next door to the palace. By this time we were seeing the first flakes of snow and as they brushed exposed skin, borne on a brisk breeze, it was like being brushed by a chilled feather.

We wanted to get a souvenir guide book to the palace but Irena counselled against this and said she knew a bookshop where we could get something. We were slightly galled at being taken to another souvenir shop on our return to St Petersburg, plied with coffee and liquers again and then being tailed around the shop by an anxious salesgirl, describing why we should buy anything we were unwise enough to stop at.

We bought a nice book that contained some information on the Catherine Palace, together with some lovely pictures. We had hoped that our change would contain some 100 ruble notes, to help with our tipping but there was little between a 50 and 500 ruble notes. We asked if they would change the 500 note for smaller amounts but were told 'nyet'! We therefore had to give a higher amount of tip than we would have liked which left a slightly unpleasant taste after what had been an interesting visit.

After getting back to the hotel and having a quick bite of lunch, we were off again. This time to St Isaac's cathedral. We got tickets to go up to the dome as well as look around inside.

The 350 steps up to the dome go up a circular staircase in one corner of the cathedral, through a tiny doorway which was a little difficult to negotiate with a daybag, then up an exposed fire escape for the last 30 feet or so to the dome itself. By the time we had reached this point, we were pretty exhausted and needed to get our breath back, as well as get some feeling back into the muscles. Neither of us is good at heights and it was a little nerve wracking up the final climb – but what a view!! The city is built on what had been marshland and so is quite flat. Peter the great had ordered that no buildings were to be taller then the churches so as not to spoil his view of the city. As a result, from the dome of St Isaac's, the city is spread out before you without much obstruction. It was bitterly cold and very breezy on the exposed side of the dome and I had to hold on to my hat to avoid loosing it. Thoughtfully, the planners had arranged that there was one way up and the way down was on the diametrically opposite corner, so there were no problems with meeting on staircases. The planners had also thoughtfully made similar arrangements with the Cathedral entry and exit; however, they clearly hadn't thought that anyone may want to do both on the same day as both entries were on one side and both exits the other, meaning that you had to walk half way round the cathedral to complete the tour.

Inside the cathedral was incredible; capable of holding 5000, it is a huge space and once again, very richly finished with the most exquisite artwork. The front doors are huge wooden doors covered with cast iron and weighing 2 tons. I have enough of a problem fitting doors at home that weigh very little, I couldn't contemplate the problems of fitting anything so vast and heavy. It was notable that yet again, the cathedral was nice and warm after the icy blasts we had endured on the dome.

Venturing out again, we made for St Nicholas's Cathedral and the Mariinski Theatre for a walk back up the Griboedova Canal to Gostinyy Dvor, a huge covered shopping complex with small boutiquey stores along its aisles.

Sue had been looking for a suitable Martrushka and it duly revealed itself here. Crossing the road, we went into another covered arcade more along the lines of Burlington Arcade, where we got some sweets to take home.

By now we were feeling somewhat tired and as it was approaching 6, we decided to try and find somewhere for dinner on the way back to the hotel, walking down Nevskiy Prospekt.

We found a super place rejoicing in the name 'Бухарин' pronounced, I think Boozhareen. This place is tucked away in a semi-basement and inside is decorated as a log cabin. Sue chose Borscht and I chose a green cabbage soup. Both were full of meat and a meal in themselves, we also had garlic bread which was the nicest bread we have had in our stay. Our main course was a pork loin steak shashlik cooked on a barbeque. This was an absolute delight although it was very highly salted and we found ourselves drinking a lot of water later. Refreshed and with batteries recharged, we managed to persuade our aching limbs to carry us back to the hotel.

8 kilometres today

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 31, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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Last day in Saint P, a sub zero sunny day and a hidden jewel

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Friday 30th October
A slightly more leisurely start to the day with nothing vital to do and the prospect of a long day ahead. As we opened the curtains we saw a truly glorious sunny day outside. After breakfast, we packed our bags and took them downstairs to be stored until our taxi at 3:30. One of the visits we had low on our list was the Stieglitz museum; taking its name from Baron Aleksandr Stieglitz, a wealthy industrialist who started an art collection to aid the education of local students in 1876, the museum contains an eclectic display of glassware, ceramics, masonry and metalwork, including locks and keys from the Middle Ages. According to the guidebook, this is one of St Petersburg's hidden treasures, off the usual tourist beat, so we had to visit it. As this was the first sunny day since our arrival, we wanted to be able to see the Hermitage in the sunshine, so we plotted a route that would take us past the palace, up to the Church on spilled blood and across a couple of lovely canal bridges (one of which has a little statue of a bird half way down the side) to the Stieglitz.

The guide book said it would be difficult to find. Well the building isn't – it is huge, but its primary function now is teaching art and design and after WWII, it became a training centre for craftsmen, providing the gilders, carvers, masons etc needed for the restoration of the churches, palaces and museums. Finding the entrance to the museum is rather different as it is not signposted and the directions in the guidebook were useless as it has obviously been changed. We went into no 13 to ask about the entrance and were guided to a locked gate which was unlocked just for us. We were met by a lady who took us to the cash desk and given our tickets for entry and for photography. Our tour started on the ground floor; never mind the collection, the building itself was very richly decorated – stunningly so. Parts of it are in need of restoration and undoubtedly, this will be part of the training of the artisans to be. On the ground floor are the collections of ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture and so on. On completion of this we were guided to the route to the first floor. The grand exhibition hall is a wonderful space under a glass roof. The great marble staircase is great although it too is in need of a little tlc. The hall is surrounded by monumental masonry, presumably from buildings all over Europe and is a reminder that even hard stone is not impervious to the effects of age. While we were wandering around the upper floor, it was clear that this was very much a part of the school, with young students going about their tasks and a professor with the obligatory long white locks swept back from his forehead holding forth to a student about the way in which some statuary emphasised the form and majesty of the gods. It was a fitting end to our visit to St Petersburg and as described, quite a treasure.

Leaving the museum, we went to have our sandwiches in the park by the church on spilled blood. Despite - or probably because - it was a sunny day with no cloud cover, it was bitterly cold. We were well wrapped up but 5 minutes without our gloves on while we ate our sandwiches was enough to freeze the fingertips uncomfortably. Refreshed we went around the open market that has stalls every day outside the church for some last-minute bargains. Then back to the hotel to wait for the taxi to the airport and to warm through again.

At the airport, there is a strange security system in place, with an x-ray of all baggage and body scan at the entrance, before you even check in. Then the normal process of checking in and handbaggage x-rays and body scan before reaching the departure lounge. I managed to leave a case at the initial check and after frantic counting of the baggage managed to ask to be allowed to go back and collect it, put it through the system and pick it up at the other end. Going through the second machine after check in, I set off the alarm and it was only on the third attempt, after removing my watch, that I was cleared. This is the first time the watch has caused problems and the scanner didn't pick up Sue's, so obviously it has something against the Japanese. Anyway, once through, the security guard wanted to do a full body search and patted me all over before letting me go. Flying today is certainly not a stress-free experience. The trip back was largely uneventful and after a bit of a layover in Amsterdam, arrived back in Manchester on time. We got home at about 11:30 but our body clocks were telling us it was 2:30 in the morning and time for bed!

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on November 5, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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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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