Home of the Tsars and the Arts

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Russian Federation  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I am so glad we headed west, visiting Siberia and then Moscow, before arriving in St. Petersburg. Siberia would have seemed dreadful after this, and I can see why banishment there from this artistic capital would be unbearable - even without the old Soviet labor camps.

This purpose built capital city for the Russian Tsars is new by European standards, but at just a few hundred years-old is an incredibly well preserved jewel with one grand, opulent, or historical building after another. The canals here are wide and beautiful, and our internal clocks are drifting further off as there is almost no night here at this time of year.

The Tsar's Winter Palace on the banks of the Neva river now houses some of the collections of the Hermitage, one of the world's great museums. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the theft of artifacts from many of Russia's state museums for financial gain, and even the Hermitage has sadly fallen victim. There are dozens of open investigations into major missing works of art. Despite this, the depth of the collection is impressive and five massive buildings are needed display and store the collection.

Both Gailen and Stirling did an admirable job here, putting in a solid six hours of museum time on their feet without getting bored. We haven't subjected them to a museum collection of this size before, and the results were really quite good. Tip for visitors: if you pre-book over the Internet a few days ahead, you get to skip an hour-plus long admission queue snaking out into Palace Square, walk into the exit, and go to the head of the line with a receptionist escort. This was well worth it!

The variety we sampled at the Hermitage was excellent with highlights including Norse hordes, ancient Egypt, European antiquities, prehistoric man, Asiatic indigenous tribes, seventeenth and eighteenth century sculpture, French painting, Dutch painting, Italian painting, and a collection of Byzantine relics. Of particular enjoyment was that our admission included a photo permit, so I was able to roam to collections with camera in hand. The most curious aspect of the displays had to be the Roman and Greek antiquities, where in some cases different parts of recovered statuary were combined to make a full figure that comprised parts from greatly varied centuries. Apparently being whole was more important than being historically accurate!

The high arts traditions in St. Petersburg are world recognized throughout the world. The music school where Tchaikovsky and others studied is still in operation. There are a many beautiful historic theatres and ballets here, including the legendary ballet company at the Mariinsky Theatre (better known in the west as the Kirov ballet). There are so many performances here, than when I decided we should take our children to see a performance of Swan Lake, we had to choose WHICH Swan Lake since there were two companies performing... on a Monday night! Add to this a third Tchaikovsky ballet being performed that night, and you begin to get the picture of arts in St. Petersburg.

We picked up some great seats overlooking the stage in a private stall at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, built in the lovely tradition of one floor of seating surrounded by many floors of stalls rising vertically. This is my favorite design for theatres, as it gives such an awe-inspiring appearance to the open atrium and the performance space. The lead performers were astonishing, and the emotional impact of the piece really came through - Stirling was visibly upset when the when the White Swan was whisked away at the end of the second act. Some of the dancers appeared less coordinated, but I still feel glad that our children were able to enjoy a ballet of great merit in this lovely setting.

The arts scene here isn't just limited to the high arts. If we'd been able to stay and extra day, our favorite American-Ukrainian-Gypsy-Punk band Gogol Bordello was playing here the day we left (as far we know they are they are one of a kind!).

According to the local paper, St. Petersburg is regularly rocked by Russian Mafia assassination of important figures. The editorial piece we read indicated that police appeal for calm following such cases by stating that these are professionals! They only get their intended target, and innocents are not harmed. Not overly comforting to my ears, but I suppose that this is better than having a bunch of sloppy hitmen running amok in the city.

Taxes in St. Petersburg contribute somewhat to the arts, and only Russians or Russian residents are entitled to purchase the discounted tickets here. The way the system is set up, they only offer a full-price ticket for foreigners so expect to pay more if you attend performances here. Even if you do pickup a discounted ticket somewhere, a theatre may charge you an upgrade before being admitted. That being said, we had good luck obtaining seats the day of a sold out show by walking into our theatre of choice shortly after the box office opened just after lunch. Seats are not cheap for foreigners, but it did cost less this way than by using any of the agencies that help tourists secure seats.

St. Petersburg belongs in another time zone, but is pegged to official Moscow time. This throws it off a bit in late summer - it was only dark from about 1:30-4:00 AM. Last month, the city had the famous "White Nights" period, when there is no darkness in the city and people stay up drinking and socializing overnight while bridges on the Neva open and close. These drawbridges are vital links in this city of canals and islands, so they are only raised in the middle of night from around 1:00-4:00 AM to permit tall ships to pass in or out of the city.

St. Petersburg has the deepest metro system in the world, averaging below 200 feet. As a result, some of the longest escalator rides in the world are here - great fun for kids. Some of these escalators take several minutes to return you to the surface world, and I rather liked this although I must admit that we barely used the metro at all. In a city as beautiful and interesting as St. Petersburg, you want to walk everywhere and time spent speeding under the city seems a terrible shame.

The lack of nighttime suited me just fine, and this was my last chance to make dozens of rail reservations needed before we reached Europe. Normally I would have all this done by now, but I was barely able to pull all of our Asian arrangements together and handle travel hiccups up to this point. The last third of journey existed only on paper with no reservations and we were just 24 hours from reaching the European Union. My efforts to self-book and to email rail reservations specialists were fruitless, so it was time for Skype to the rescue. I configured the Skype voice-over-IP service on my laptop earlier in the month, and by staying up all night on a VOIP call with a reservations specialist in the U.S. I was able to complete nearly all of the rail reservations we will need and have them couriered ahead to meet us in Finland.

For those interested in traveling on European Rail passes, note that your pass pays your fare but many of the major rail routes still require a separate seat reservation. If this isn't your thing, you can leisurely cruise from place to place on slower local trains without need of reservation.

It is taking us some serious time to cross this so-called small world, but it really is a small world... as we were reminded the morning of our departure. As we dashed out of our hostel to make our early morning train, we opened the door and ran right into our American and Norwegian friends from our Chinese train into Mongolia. They too had gone on to Russia and eventually to St. Petersburg, arriving just in time to catch up with us face to face - albeit over a week and several thousand miles later!

A delightful two night stay in St. Petersburg for all of us, during which I stayed up with the sun and had a grand total of three hours of sleep. Very happy to have seen so much here, accomplished so much here, and slept so much on the train out to Helsinki, Finland. St. Petersburg is a special city where you can easily spends weeks exploring without boredom, and is a spot we will want to return to.

- Demian
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