Monday, February 11, 2013

No Crowds in Russia

Comrades, you will not find crowds in St Petersburg in February 

Prices at good hotels are low(er). Top restaurants have too many tables. There’s no wait at the Hermitage or the Russian Museum although you must fight off hoards of school children. There’s no wait at the Church of the Spilled Blood and no spilled blood either. You can kiss the icon of Our Lady of Kazan without a queue. All great reasons to pitch-up in winter, but here’s the best reason of all. The Russia of our imagination, the Russia of  Dr Zhivago and Anna Karinina and War and Peace, of tsars, of revolutions and of sieges, is always set in the depth of winter. So if you are looking for the Russia of your imagination, go in winter when it is never crowded.

Where to Stay?

For our short stay, we chose the Hotel Astoria on St Isaac’s Square as much for its history as its reputation for luxury and service. This is the hotel chosen by Hitler to celebrate the fall of Leningrad (the invitations were printed without a date) and where the American journalist John Reed stayed with Louise Bryant while writing “10 Days that Shook the World” about the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a Rocco Forte property now and while not much of the original décor or atmosphere remains, it is a stylish, very comfortable hotel in a fantastic location. The staff went out of their way to accommodate us even if we did not always communicate perfectly with the concierges (there were many) who seemed young for the job and sometimes a bit out of their depth.

Being the low season, Astoria had a ‘3 nights for the price of 2’ offer that included a terrific breakfast that made this 5-star property just within our budget. Beware, however, wifi is not included and it is expensive. We do recommend the hotel’s car service to and from the airport. For the price of a black cab from Heathrow to central London, we were picked up in a lovely car by a charming driver who told us fascinating stories en route that we considered a real enhancement of our visit.

Where to Eat

Since we ate enormous breakfasts, we skipped lunch saving our stomachs and pocket books for dinner. The reputation of St Petersburg restaurants catering to tourist is not great but we found some places that we liked a lot and by drinking vodka instead of wine we found the prices OK too. Our favorites were:

Restoran ( 2 Tamozhenny per. Tel 812 327-8979)
Gently modern in both décor and cuisine, we had a very nice dinner for about $60 a head. Jeff enjoyed the elk medallions and we drank lots of excellent vodka.

The Russian Vodka Room ( 4 Konnogvardeysky Bulvar Tel 812 5706420)
We loved this place and not just because of the astonishing variety of vodka served. In addition to the restaurant, there is a wonderful small Vodka museum. Service was good as was the food. Frequented by tourist and locals alike.

Sadko (2 Ulitsa Glinki, 812 920-8228)
A few steps away from the famous Mariinsky theatre, this is a great pre or post dinner option. Serving all the traditional Russian menu items in an attractive setting with good service.

Café in the Singer Building
Great for tea in the afternoon with a superb view over the Kazan Cathedral. Expensive but worth it and the Singer Building is amazing. All I could think was “All this just for sewing machines.” In the old days they had girls actually sewing on machines in the large picture windows.

What to Do

It’s a museum. It’s a marathon. It’s a palace. It’s crazy! Someone once said that if you looked at every single object in the collection, it would take you 7 years to tour the place. I believe it. My suggestion is to buy the 2 day ticket online to avoid waiting in line and spend most of the first day trying to get to grips with the place using the 2nd day as a kind of mopping up operation after you have gone back to you hotel and digested what you managed to see and what you missed. The only disappointment for us was the fact that the rooms containing the 19th and 20th century French paintings including Monet, van Gogh and Cezanne that were ‘liberated’ by the Red Army from German collections were closed but there were tons of works by these artists and more on the third floor.

Also a palace, I really loved this museum. The scale is more human than the Hermitage and what is on offer is a terrific survey of Russian art and culture laid out chronologically. There’s a nice gift shop too.

This is such a exquisite theatre that you don’t really need to see a performance of anything to be blissfully happy. We saw Swan Lake that delighted me no end. The problem with the Mariinsky that it is full of tourists who aren’t necessarily fans of the art they are watching or hearing but never mind, it is a very special place and an evening I’ll never forget. Be sure to order tickets on-line before you go and be sure the performance is set in the old theatre not the new concert hall.

The Churches

Start with the Church of the Spilled Blood. 24 years to build and 27 years to restore, it’s iconic so go see it. For the wow factor, go see St Isaacs that was converted after the Revolution to a Museum of anti-Religion and is now a museum of itself. For a glimpse of that old time religion, head for the Kazan Cathedral and watch folks lining up to kiss icons.

And just walk around, through the parks, along the rivers and canals, over the bridges and down the Nevsky Prospekt. Like Paris, St Petersburg is a feast for the eyes and just about anything in the historic heart is easy to reach by foot. Just make sure you have warm and sturdy boots with excellent traction.

And so the next time you watch Nicholas and Alexandra, or Dr Zhivago or my favorite, Reds, and you regret having missed such a remarkable and fascinating, albeit difficult period in Russia’s history, you can still travel back in time and catch a glimpse by visiting St Petersburg in winter. And in case you were wondering, the contemporary city is pretty wonderful too.


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