By Marian Betancourt
I had long wanted to visit this fabled city by the sea built by Peter the Great in 1703 to open Russia to the West. Inspired by the country’s great novelists and poets and Robert Massie’s splendid biographies of Peter and Catherine and the Romanovs, I was determined to get there someday. My chance finally came this summer, but no sooner was my travel booked, when the crisis in Ukraine occurred. I kept my fingers crossed and sighed with relief when I learned my tour was still a “go.”
St. Petersburg tourism officials acknowledge that the crisis has caused a drop of about 15 percent in American tourists, a group this city appreciates because we spend more than others. Tourism is the leading industry in this city and there are so many large tour groups following a guide with a raised paper flag or umbrella, huge crowds at museums, and massive traffic jams on the roads, it was almost as if I hadn’t left New York. But this was definitely not New York. There are no skyscrapers here, just palaces, lots of them.
Everything you want to see is housed in a palace and most were built on the embankments or the city’s many rivers and canals. Palaces are pastel colored, I am told, because this creates a “sunny” aspect to counter the long dark winters. Over the span of Russia’s 20th century history many of these palaces were turned into war rooms, hospitals and offices for Soviet bureaucrats, but in recent years they are being restored to their imperial glory. Best of all, you can actually stay in a palace.
Lion Palace is a majestic yellow building with white colonnades and stone lions guarding the entry. It was built in 1820 by Prince Alexey Lobanov-Rostovsky, a diplomat, writer, and art collector close to Czar Alexander I, who wanted something built on the unsightly empty triangular plot of land next to the magnificent gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The Lion Palace served as an apartment building for royalty until the revolution in 1917 when it became the Ministry of War. Today it is a gracious Four Seasons hotel with 177 elegant rooms and suites and a multi-lingual staff including a Michelin-star chef.
The nearby Hermitage and adjoining Winter Palace is a complex much like Russia itself, so enormous and spread out that it would take a lifetime to see it all. I most enjoyed the room full of Rembrandt’s including Return of the Prodigal Son, one of his last and most emotional paintings. A large collection of Impressionists includes Gaughin’s earliest paintings from Tahiti. My only disappointment was that the large Matisse collection was temporarily unavailable.
Shuvalov Palace, built on the Fontanka River embankment at the end of the 18th century, is now the exquisite Fabrege Museum. The Link of Times Cultural Historical Foundation, established in 2004 with the mission of repatriating Petersburg’s lost cultural valuables, bought back all the unique Fabrege Easter eggs that had been amassed by American businessman Malcolm Forbes, and brought them home to the city where the artist Peter Carl Faberge (1846-1920), lived and designed the eggs for the last two Czars. Looking at the beauty of these oval treasures made with diamonds, pearls, agate, and gold, it’s easy to understand Forbes’ interest. Fabrege jewelry collections are also exhibited and the palace itself is a big attraction with its red-carpeted grand white marble staircase.
Yusupov Palace on the Moika River embankment was the center of intrigue before the fall of the last Czar. Wax figures stage the plot to murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic whose influence over Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandria, angered the nobility, who thought that influence was ruining the country. You can feel the plot thickening as Felix Yusupov who was married to the Czar’s only niece, and his fellow accomplices set the stage in the wine cellar with a table set with petit fours laced with cyanide as well as poisoned wine. Rasputin accepted the invitation to the party but did he eat the cake or drink the wine? You can tour with an English-speaking guide to find out what happened and who dunnit!
Catherine’s Palace, an enormous sky blue complex in the suburb of Tsarskoe Selo, was built by Peter’s daughter Elizabeth to honor her mother (the first Catherine and Peter’s true love) in 1752. Catherine the Great later expanded the collections of art and furnishings. The room once used for celebrations is about the size of the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal. A team of servants would march in at dusk and light 700 candles simultaneously. (Trying to imagine this feat boggles the mind.)
Elizabeth created the famous Amber room to display the panels given to her father by Wilhelm I of Prussia. During World War II the Nazi’s took all the amber tiles down and they were never found until 2002, when a few pieces were discovered in Potsdam. A recreation of the room began 1979 with Germany donating some of the funds. Students come here to learn the technique of working with amber, and the gift shops have an amazing array of amber jewelry.
With its intersecting rivers and canals, Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North but rather than gondolas, modern hydrofoils speed you to Peterhof and other palaces on the outskirts. You can sit comfortably and watch TV and have a drink, but do go on deck and watch the colors of sea, sky, and clouds create a constantly moving tableau over this low-lying landscape. I yearned for some paint and canvas to capture what a camera just could not do. A major portion of the city’s tourists arrive by sea and the city has just completed one of the largest and most modern cruise ship terminals in the world.
Peterhof was Peter’s summer place, his version of Versailles, which he began building in 1714. This inventive Czar created a system that did not require the pumps needed at Versailles. Instead, water comes in directly from the Gulf of Finland through scores of fountains and water jets. It is the only place in the world where the sea is part of the park. And it is a stunning park. Peter also had a sense of humor so visitors on Fountain Road, might without warning be sprayed by hidden water jets. Today visiting kids have fun trying to outguess the spray from those jets. There is also a lovely restaurant here, The Standard, where you can enjoy lunch.
PALATIAL WINING AND DINING
Russians know a thing or two about vodka and the Russian Vodka Museum, while not in a palace exactly, is part of Tavrichesky Palace complex, an 1801 building that once housed the Czar’s horse guards and their steeds. This is a fascinating exhibit of objects, photos and life-sized models, but the labels are all in Russian so you need to arrange for an English-speaking guide. (Go for the vodka tasting, too.) I learned the quality of the water is the most important element in making good vodka, with water from Siberia being the best. Always drink vodka neat (so much for my martinis) from a shot glass with a short stem, which makes it easier to toss back. Follow the shot with a bit of food, such as duck fat on black bread, a piece of pickled herring, or a sour pickle (to lessen the effect of the alcohol).
In the same building is the Stroganoff Steakhouse, which calls itself a Russian American steakhouse because the owners consider the United States the motherland of steak. Chef Maxim Shalavin toured American steakhouses to perfect his craft. Until the recent sanctions, the restaurant bought their beef from us, but now rely on Argentina and Australia.
This is a warm and welcoming place to enjoy a first course of a the traditional zakuski, a selection of cold appetizers served family style, including pickled herring, caviar, and Russian Salad of diced vegetables, pickles, chicken, egg, and mayonnaise. Special from the grill is the 16 oz New York steak and there’s even New York cheesecake for dessert.
Podvorye, a restaurant in the suburbs near Catherine’s Palace, is like a country dacha with a brown bear (not real) greeting you inside. While it is obviously meant to attract tourists, the traditional Russian food is authentic and quite unforgettable, especially the pelmeni, those delicious little meat dumplings served in a bowl of warm beef broth with sour cream on the side. Sour cream is a staple here and it wasn’t until I visited the open air Kuznechniy market in the center of Petersburg that I became aware of the many kinds of sour cream. Vendors from the countryside sell their fresh products here. My favorite was a woman I call the pickle lady who offered samples of pickled wild garlic, carrots, cabbage, and many things I never thought of as pickled.
Before we left the Lion Palace, Chef Andrea Accordi prepared a special Russian dinner for us that included borsch served in a bowl carved from a round loaf of borodinsky, a dark rye sourdough bread, pan fried pike perch from nearby Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake, served with dill flower, apple, and chanterelle mushrooms, and much more.
I enjoyed one last breakfast of blini with red caviar and sour cream. I rather liked living in a palace and enjoying the friendliness of Petersburgers so I plan to return. There is so much more to see, the many historic cathedrals, and haunts of Dostoevsky and Pushkin. Alexander Pushkin, in his famous 1833 poem, The Bronze Horseman, included some lines about my temporary palace:
New-built, high up in Peter’s Square
A corner mansion then ascended;
And where its lofty perron ended
Two sentry lions stood at guard like living things,
And kept their ward with paw uplifted
P.S. The Bronze Horseman itself, in the park opposite Lion Palace, attracts many tourists and you will often find one of the city’s many Peter the Great re-enactors here. There are as many Peters here as there are Ben Franklins in Philadelphia.
If You Go
Cruises passengers are guaranteed a 72-hour visa-free entry. Arriving any other way, however, you need a visa, which you can apply for once you have booked a hotel. The hotel receipt serves as your “invitation” to travel to Petersburg. You can complete an application online at www.russianembassy.org/page/general-visa-information, bring it along with your hotel receipt to the Russian Embassy (or affiliated agency) in your city.
St. Petersburg City Tourist Information Bureau, www.visit-petersburg.ru
The Lion Palace Four Seasons Hotel, www.fourseasons.com/stpetersburg