Thursday, February 18, 2010

Russia for the Winter Holidays

Wanderlust must run in our family. My cousin, Boyd, and his partner, Tom, love exploring the world as much as I do. Their trips are often the most interesting topics of conversation at our reunions. Luckily, this time I didn't have to wait until I see them in March to hear about their trip to Russia. Here's their report.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
By Boyd Oliver
Photos by Tom Forlenza

Why would anyone choose to go to Russia in December?  This trip was planned with the ultimate destination of Austria to spend Christmas and New Year's with friends.  Then the notion of going as far as my partner and I could reasonably get en route with our frequent flier miles sparked the plan to go to St. Petersburg (Yes, Russia, not Florida!)   

St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia with 4.5 million people, is considered the Venice of the North because of the Neva River and the many canals spanned by graceful bridges. Although the water was frozen when we were there, this city is still impressive--even in winter.

So, after deciding on the city, the next questions were where to stay and what to do, aside from the obvious visit to the Hermitage?  We decided to book a Marriott since that can be done on-line without pre-payment or a deposit.   Thus, we ended up at the Baltic Renaissance. 

It turned out to be quite nice, and the staff were equally nice and helpful.  The only tip about staying here is, as with most European hotels, book with breakfast included if you like the buffet spreads offered because the a la carte price is exorbitant.   It is probably only fair to note, however, that the hotel restaurant, while a bit pricey, was excellent with the best borscht we had during the trip. 

We found, through our guide, a cozy local restaurant, the Teplo near our hotel, that was open for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.  The staff there were also exceptionally friendly and loved speaking to us in English. 
Nevsky Prospekt
We didn’t have any problems with language as long as we were in tourist-frequented places.  Otherwise, we were fortunate to have our own personal guide. 

It may seem extravagant to hire a guide, but actually it really wasn’t, all things considered.  We thought language might be a problem, and it might have been, at least a bit, had we not had  Niko with us much of the time.   Plus we saw things and places that otherwise we may have missed.  And, another added benefit was that Niko drove us around town many times in his car (named Boris), plus he provided an airport pick up and drop off. 
Church of the Spilled Blood
Niko and Boris took us for a comprehensive tour of the Hermitage, which houses one of the world's largest collections of art, including a significant collection of Rembrandt paintings; Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main, constantly busy, shopping street where all the major shops are located (But visit the side-street-stores for bargains such as wool socks for a dollar a pair.); Kazan Cathedral, one of the few active churches remaining in the city since the others were transformed into museums during the Communist era; the Church of the Spilled Blood, a museum famous for its thousands of mosaics; and Basil’s Island. 

One of my favorite buildings on our tour was the art deco Singer Sewing Machine Building, not because of its history necessarily, but because of its chic coffee bar.  But it is expensive, so skip a stop there if you are on a strict budget. 
                                   Singer Building
On another day, we took a trip to the Catherine Palace. When you visit the many palaces, now museums, it is not hard at all to understand why the peasants revolted against the nobility who lived in unbelievable opulence. Evidently the Nazis reveled in the luxury of the palace, too, and were hoping to live there themselves during the war. When they realized they weren’t going to take permanent possession of this palace, they attempted to burn it down.

The palace survived the fire and remains impressive, but the Amber Room is even more interesting because of its complicated history. The golden, jewel-encrusted room was originally given to Peter the Great in 1716, as a symbol of the peace between Russia and Prussia, but it was dismantled and crated by the Nazis who sent the gorgeous panels to Germany where it was reassembled at Koningsberg's castle museum. When the end of the war loomed, the Germans, fearing they might lose this treasure, again dismantled the panels which subsequently disappeared. The new Amber Room, begun in 1979, was finished in 2003 in time for the 300-year anniversary of St. Petersburg.

Smolney Cathedral, originally built as part of a convent for Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth, and now used as a
concert hall.
One of the other highlights of our trip was a troika ride. Sort of.  A troika is a sleigh pulled by three horses; it's a delightful way to see the city for only $25. Although it was snowing at the time, there wasn’t enough on the ground for a troika, so we had to settle for a horse drawn carriage ride.  Since it was pretty frigid weather, it seemed authentic enough.       

Again, we felt our guide saved us money. If we had taken taxis all over the city, it would have been quite a few rubles and much more expensive. We know this is true since we were “taken for a ride,” in more ways than one, one evening by a taxi driver who justified the excessive charge because he had a nice car! Niko caters mainly to a gay clientele, but would gladly accept other clients, and we highly recommend him.                 .

As for the weather,  don’t worry about that too much.  It wasn’t much different than here in the Northeast USA, so just wear warm layers because many of the places we visited were quite warm, if not hot, by our tastes.  

Although most people, perhaps, would not consider winter to be the best time to visit Russia, we found it ideal for a couple reasons. We encountered no crowds, and the people we met had plenty of time to interact with us and tell us about their country. But, perhaps the best reason was that this stunningly beautiful city, with its long winter nights, is lit with thousands of lights in December. We traveled along streets and bridges that might be colored red and yellow on one block and blue on the next. St. Petersburg becomes a true winter wonderland of ancient buildings and broad boulevards lit by splashes of playful color that not only cheer the inhabitants but enchant the visitor. Would we visit Russia again in the winter time? You bet we would!

Practicalities -
Our luggage was delayed three days (spanning Christmas) en route from St. Petersburg to Vienna.  We were reimbursed for the few clothing items we needed to buy, because we had purchased extra travel insurance.  The insurance required us to first file a claim with the carrier and be denied.  We could have expedited things greatly if we had done that while abroad (Had we read the policy first!).  
Our guide, Niko, suggested we could save a great deal of money on our next visit if we rent an apartment. They are considerably less expensive than hotels.  Two sources are VRBO and
See this Smithsonian article for more information and photos of the Amber Room.

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