We arrived on the high speed train from Helsinki mid-afternoon. The train, which began running less than six months ago, takes a little over three hours. It is comfortable, does not require a change at the border (except for this new track, I believe that all Russian trains still run on a narrower gauge track), and all customs are handled while the train is moving. It stops in St. Petersburg at Finland Station, one of several in the city. It was here that we met our guide, an attractive young woman (she is 25 years old), which concerned me because I had expected someone with more maturity and experience. Tour guides in Russia are well trained, and Dasha was no exception. She had absorbed a lot of information, but there was nothing of herself in her tours, and she is not Jewish, which turned out for me to be a problem in what was supposed to be a Jewish oriented tour.
But I digress. Finland Station is most remembered in history as the station at which Lenin disembarked when he returned on a sealed train (financed by the German government, with whom Russia was at war in World War I, in the hope that a victorious Lenin would abandon the fight, which he did) from exile in Switzerland to lead the Bolshevik revolution. As it turns out, the locomotive which powered Lenin’s train is on exhibit at the station, and there is a statue of Lenin (still there) giving a speech to the workers on his arrival. Unfortunately, we and our baggage were shepherded onto a van and whisked away without our being able to see either. It would have given us good context for our introduction to the city.
Because none of us had eaten on the train (meal service very similar to Amtrak’s east coast trains), we told Dasha we would like to stop and pick up something for lunch. She suggested a “pie shop” called Shtolle, which turns out to be one of a chain of such shops, serving meat, vegetable, and sweet “empanadas”, which were very good, very quick, and very inexpensive. The restaurant itself, set in what we would call an English basement level, was designed to look like an older Russian restaurant, although in fact it had not been open that long.
From Shtolle, we started our real tour, crossing the Neva, and going to Vasilyevsky Island and then to the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. It was Sunday afternoon, the weather was crisp, altogether a perfect day for touring. We weren’t the only ones roaming around this part of the city, however; everyone seemed to be doing it. Not only were the sidewalks, the river beaches and the tourist sites jammed with pedestrians, but the traffic was abominable. Dasha told us that the traffic was quite unusual, particularly for a weekend afternoon, and in fact, we did not run into this type of traffic through the rest of our tour, but my assumption was that St. Petersburg traffic was going to be a killer, similarly to what we found a few years ago in Istanbul.
We moved bumper to bumper, as we saw fishing in the Neva, sunbathing on river beaches, and more than anything else wedding parties. Dasha told us that it was the practice in St. Petersburg that, when you got married, you visited with your wedding party a number of particular historic sites in the city, the bride in her wedding dress. This may be so, because we saw wedding parties like this throughout our stay. I don’t know how traditional this practice is, or how long it has gone on, but it seems clear to me that the beneficiaries (and, who knows, perhaps the inventors) of this practice are the wedding photographers who directed to the shows, and the bride, groom, and their friends and families were directed first to do this, and then to do that.
We saw the old, red lighthouses, no longer in use, the Naval Museum (formerly the Bourse), the moored “Aurora” (which fired the first shot starting the October revolution, which was purposely sunk by the Russians to keep it from German hands during the siege of Leningrad, and which is now a museum. We passed the two buildings containing the collections of oddities started by Peter the Great (the Kunstkammer), and the collection of 1.3 million stuffed or mounted animal species (the Zoological Museum), and wound up at the island Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul.
There are many things to see within the walls of the fortress, stretching back to the very start of the construction of St. Petersburg in the early 18th century. Unfortunately, because of the press of time, we were able to see very little, spending virtually all of our time in the cathedral. Not that the cathedral is unimportant. To the contrary, this very un-Russian, baroque structure, with its 400 foot bell tower and its yellow plastered exterior, is attractive and, for Russia, architecturally unique. More important, the cathedral is the home of the tombs of all but two of the Romanov tsars and their families. Want to see Peter the Great, his daughter Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, the Alexanders and the Nicholases? They are all here. Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov dynasty, and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinberg in 1918, were moved to a side chapel in the cathedral in 1998, after research affirmed that the tsar, his wife, and all of their children, were indeed murdered and their remains identified through DNA testing. Fan of the Romanovs or not, their resting place and their individual monuments (they are actually buried below the church, and their large rectangular tomb-like monuments are only monuments and not where their bodies are), this is a very impressive place.
Time passed quickly, and we had to fight the traffic to our hotel, so we left the Neva islands and headed to our temporary homes. Crossing the river, we had our first real view of the Hermitage, as well as being able to see St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest in the city, and the Church of Spilled Blood, a very Russian structure, with colorful onion shaped bulbs, sitting on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
Our group was divided between two hotels, a long block apart, the Astoria and the Petropalace. We convened as the sun was setting, and selected a restaurant called “The Fish House” for supper. A walk from the hotel, in a typical St. Petersburg building, the restaurant is attractive and upscale. We were the only large party, and the restaurant itself was more empty than full. The menu looked more extensive than it turned out to be, the waiter (who was probably management) seemed clear as to what we should order, and what we should avoid, leading us to wonder whether he was honest in his suggestions, or leading us to buy what he most of in his kitchen. We’ll never know the answer to that, and I would say that our food was acceptable, but not exceptional, and that, combined with price, service and the general atmosphere of the place, we would not be returning.
All in all, we were happy with the first half day of our six day stay in St. Petersburg and looked forward to seeing and learning and eating more.