Friday, June 19, 2020

St. Petersburg: to Russia with love in a city of palaces, art, history

St. Petersburg's architecture reflects its glory days as a city in Imperial Russia. The Hermitage Museum is home to one of
the world's great art collections and the building itself is worthy of a leisurely stroll to inspect its many graceful nuances. 

Bruce Keller and Christene Meyers explore St. Petersburg,
in a trip taken just before Covid curtailed travel.

Editor's Note: Most foreign tourists visit St. Petersburg by ship, and while cruising is temporarily on hold, officials tell us it's returning soon. The cruise industry is spending billions outfitting ships with state-of-the-art protective air filtering systems in each stateroom plus many more "Covid-proofing" features. Bookings are being taken for winter of 2020 and into 2021 and 2022. So grab the brochures, get on the internet for your favorite cruise line and plan a trip. Here's our report from our recent visit just before the world -- and travel -- changed.
Churches, palaces and museums greet the eye at nearly
every corner of St. Petersburg. 


STROLLING PAST the famous if intimidating Hermitage, that row of impressive museums, the tourist is dazzled. How does one tackle the entire complex, if only in a couple of days, the average stay. We've returned four times to do it justice.
The myriad state rooms of the Winter Palace are known worldwide as the Hermitage.  Regarded as an international museum, it boasts one of the world's most varied and impressive art collections.
Lovely canals and baroque residences mark St. Petersburg, concepts borrowed
 from the French and other Europeans during Peter the Great's visits.
The mark of Peter the Great is everywhere in St. Petersburg. The traveling monarch created a grand port city, inspired by the architecture he enjoyed in his travels through Europe. He created Russia's "Window to the West" beginning in 1703 when he erected the first fortress on the River Neva.
Neo-classical facades, domed cathedrals and baroque residences were built along the city's canals.  Peter favored the long, straight boulevards he'd walked in Paris. He loved its vast spaces and gardens and created his dazzling Winter Palace from 1754 to 1762, bringing the concept of "stately grandeur" from France to over 600 rooms.
THE CITY is a great one for sight seeing. Its lovely canals were also the inspiration of Peter, who hired Dutch engineers to drain the marshland and cut the neat design that we know today.
Tourism is coming back to St. Petersburg, and this guide
is ready. Here, she ushers a group into a palace.
We spent time outside the museum, enjoying art-filled galleries, admiring Peter's brilliant architecture as we explored. Our stroll along the Nevsky Prospekt included a stop for coffee at a charming cafe, and a subway trip. The city's colorful, art-filled metro, or off-street railway, came into its present design in 1955.  But the idea dates to 1820 when the Russian Empire commissioned engineer Torganov to design a tunnel under the Neva.
We visited the crowded Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, whose grisly name belies its graceful lines and intricate facade and interior.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
offers an ornate interior. 
It was built to honor tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was assassinated at the site, thus its moniker. This trip, our ship stayed two nights, so we had nearly three days, time for a day trip to the summer palace of Peter, named after himself: Peterhof Palace and Garden. Once again, he showed his love of Paris, modeling the place after after France's Versailles.
 The canals of St. Petersburg are fun to explore.
One can take a tour or rent a small boat.

We stopped for a picnic in the park there, designed to give families a place to escape their crowded homes. Our guide told us that even today it is not uncommon for as many as 10 to 13 people to share a single bathroom so the parks provide a haven and space for relaxing.
THE HERMITAGE demands at least two days of a traveler's time -- as we found on our last too-short visit. For like the Louvre and Prado, it spans many centuries and periods.
A strangely proportioned Peter the Great.
Highlights range from a unique collection of seventh-century BC Scythian gold to some of Picasso’s great Blue Period paintings.
We were impressed by the number of Rembrandts, and many paintings by Titian, Giorgione and Leonardo. Don't miss Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture of a crouching boy, and what many consider the best collection of English art in  Europe – including Gainsborough’s "Woman in Blue."
 The museum is also rich in my favorite Impressionist period, along with post-Impressionist and modernist paintings, including works by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin,

Time for a Matryoska doll or two before catching the ship. 

This Russian soldier
offers a faint smile.
and Matisse.
There are Faberge Easter eggs, too, and if you want a larger Faberge hit, a separate museum showcases art crafted by Carl Fabergé.
If you're lucky enough to sail out at night, enjoy the beautiful lights of the city.
MUSEUMS ARE  not St. Petersburg's only enticement. You'll want to stop by the busy Square of the Arts, or "Ploshchad Isskustv,"  and Peter and Paul Fortress, where you'll find an interesting sculpture of Peter the Great. Its small head, massive torso and oversized legs invite critiquing. Still, it's a striking work of the founder of the fortress and the city, a man who loved his country and convinced the people to reform. Sculptor Mikhail Shemyakin defends his art, saying it is based on the death-mask and wax figure of Peter kept in the Hermitage. It resides in front of the main guardhouse of the fortress, a reminder of Russia's pre-Communist days.
 Matryoshka dolls, from
Cookie's first visit, 1979.
WE FELT safe in this city of romantic ambiance, bridges and imperial spirit. Its love of theater, ballet and opera is attractive.
We also noticed less loitering and more smiles than on earlier visits -- probably because the people seemed more welcoming. Still, we were warned about crime and pickpocketing.
Alcoholism continues to be a problem. And the country's young people -- not unlike those in Europe or the U.S.-- don't want to pursue the hard-working options their forebears tackled.

This week, on June 16, dentists, museums, sporting events and accounting, legal, consulting, and advertising firms opened; restaurants began to offer outdoor seating to guests. On June 23, restaurants, cafes, gyms, libraries, saunas, swimming pools, day care, playgrounds, social welfare offices, and sports facilities will reopen in Russia. Masks and distancing are being practiced. If you stick strictly with ship's tours, you don't need a visa. For more, including independent travel visa requirements:
Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg boasts grand rooms and antique furnishings,
and is the place where mystic Rasputin spent his last evening.
UP NEXT:  Remember the tales of Rasputin? Yes, he was a real guy and elegant Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg is where he was murdered. The Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man befriended the family of Emperor Nicholas II, Russia's last monarch. He was invited to dinner and poisoned in the bright, yellow three-story 18th century building on the Moika River, downtown St. Petersburg. Construction on the Neo-classical palace began in the 1770s; we'll take you there 250 years later. Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a fresh look at travel, the arts, nature, family and more:


  1. Baltimore Baltic FansJune 20, 2020 at 7:30 AM

    Fun piece on a beautiful place. Interesting detail about the people, too.

  2. Pensacola Globe TrottersJune 21, 2020 at 8:52 AM

    Such a grand city. You and I were there first when it was still Leningrad. Wonderful piece. Thank you for beautiful photos.

  3. What fun that you were there before all hell broke lose and curtailed travel for us all. We cancelled a cruise booked for this month, and it would have included a St. Petersburg stop. Thanks for giving us an armchair look. We hope to make it yet.

  4. Another joyful piece, with your usual flair and detail. Keller's fine photos always support the copy you write. Great teamwork. We love St. Petersburg, too, and are not usually museum people. But the Hermitage. Wow.