More on Saint Petersburg

October 3 2004

As we lifted off from Pulkovo airport, the passenger next to me did not look well.  About fifteen minutes into flight, he collapsed in the aisle on his way to the lavatory.  He seems to be doing OK now.  The BA cabin crew did a very good job of managing the situation, and even have continued the meal service as scheduled.  Good job to them (and clearly the most unusual way I've ended up with a whole row of seats all to myself).  
The Russians started new security procedures on 1 October -- x-ray and metal detectors just to enter the terminal and again at the gate.  Shoes must be x-rayed at the gate, and random additional searches are conducted (I was selected for this process, which wasn't quite so intrusive as the equivalent State-side).  Still, Pulkovo-2 was a pleasant enough experience, with a nice lounge (thank you oneworld) and duty free shop.

I walked around St. Petersburg for a few hours after dinner last night and again today.  The compact city centre is a trove of wonderful architecture and sights.  Between yesterday and today, I visited two churches (and a third, sort of), the Peter & Paul Fortress, Peter the Great's log cabin, the Summer Garden, the Field of Mars, the Hermitage, and saw many of the other best-known sights.
The guide I hired from Travel in Russia yesterday was very good.  She knew incredible amounts of detail about the places we saw, especially the art and history of the Hermitage/Winter Palace.  Her English was perfect, and she was flexible (to a point) about exploring what I wanted to see, rater than sticking to some kind of pre-arranged formula.  I'd recommend them and work with them again.  The strongest message I'd have is that, when it can be afforded, hiring a private guide can make a world of difference in visiting a challenging city.  I paid US$15/hour for her service and we walked almost the whole day.  Adding a private car would have been another US$10+ per hour, but unnecessary in my mind given what we saw.  I have nothing against those who participate in group tours on big coaches, but whilst saving cost, sacrifices for the personal touch and customized experience.
In reviewing a souvenir book purchased earlier today, and watching out the windows during the ride to the airport, it's clear that I barely scratched the surface of Saint Petersburg.  So many different rulers and events have shaped its 300-year history -- Tsars, artists, Soviets, and the current era -- that I suspect it would take four or five days to visit the most interesting places (along with the top sites in the suburbs, such as the highly-recommended Peterhof).  There is a lot more I'd want to see on a future visit -- more churches, palaces, and exploring some of the communist history.  For the most part, my guide yesterday turned a blind eye to "the Soviet period"; the only downside of the tour.  But having been there, I can at least correlate places seen to what I can read in history books.
The other aspect I've completely missed on this visit is cultural.  I didn't see a ballet, a choral concert, or even visit many shops.  At least I did some people watching while out touring and walking.  What I noticed is that Saint Petersburg has many many younger people (18-25); none of them are overweight; and the women like to dress well, even on weekends.  The Russian high-heel shoe/boot industry seems to be safe for a long time to come.

I can't help but reflect again on how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity even to just take in a sampling of Saint Petersburg.  Russia is still challenging to visit -- the visa process is complicated, the language barrier is high, and visitors are (unfortunately) seen as being mainly good for separating from their money.  As experienced a traveller as I am, I found myself more than occasionally intimidated by these challenges.  I am well aware that I should never expect someone in a foreign land to speak English, but it does put a bit of a damper on the ability to have a true Russian experience.  Still, I highly recommend visiting Russia.  Utilizing the tourist infrastructure that is in place will make such a vacation enjoyable, rewarding, and enriching.

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