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 st petersburg

8 jul
Floating on islands
along the banks of the Neva River, lined with canals that spread like veins through its center, St. Petersburg is defined by water. I went from feeling insignificant and anonymous in Moscow, to being enchanted and romanced by this smaller city. At the airport, with its outdated Leningrad signs, I asked a taxi driver how much to the city center and gasped at the outrageous reply. After he realized that I wasn’t going to take the taxi, the driver helped us find the bus that connected to the city metro system. The outskirts of the city already presented a different picture from the capital: flowered parks following an attractive boulevard, small churches with painted onion towers in the distance.

We scoured several blocks along Nevsky Prospekt, a major street, but could find no sign of our hotel, booked over the Internet. I reviewed the directions again and we spotted an unmarked oak door with a number pad, punched in the code, and hauled our bags up to the fourth floor with no elevator. It was pleasant and spacious upstairs but obviously being remodeled, a work in progress. The good news was that it was only a block from Palace Square or Dvortsovaya Ploschod. Workers there were busily setting up a stage, chairs and blockades in the enormous plaza for an evening event. We returned later to find that we were little more than a stone’s throw from a live Elton John concert! It was a musical surprise – we and hundreds of Russians spent hours gathered beyond the paying ticket holders and police barriers, dancing and singing in the rain.

There is a place where the islands converge. Boats cruise by on the Neva; strollers cross the bridges; newlyweds pose for photographs. A red lighthouse sits on a semicircular overlook. Fountains out in the river crossroads spew. People congregate in the spray. An aged wooden boat now serves as a restaurant. A walk around the waterways takes you over six bridges. During those white nights of July, we had to wait until midnight to appreciate the impact of the lighted attractions in the darkness, and were surprised by the techno music and corresponding changes in colors on the fountains at night.

Our plan was to selectively tour the magnificent Hermitage Museum, specifically targeting the Russian rooms and extensive European Impressionist collection. But it’s easy to get lost in that mazelike building so we saw a lot more than planned along the way, which was just as well because the Russian rooms were closed for exhibit changes. The extravagant Winter Palace rooms gave us a feel for the sumptuous life of Russian Czar families, each room a different color and style.

The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, so named because Czar Alexander II was assassinated on the site, is a brown, muted shadow of St. Basil’s in Moscow. The dark structure under bright gold and colorful onion towers lends it a mystery all its own, and the dramatic blue mosaic artwork within is stunning, holy faces nestled in the high towers. In the square by the church, a fun collection of street vendors sell religious icons, nested dolls and the ubiquitous fur hats, a staple in winter.

Peter and Paul Fortress sits on its own small island and holds the oldest buildings in the city. The Peter and Paul Cathedral church bells played like an organ symphony as we walked around the eastern bridge, closing the circle of bridges we had begun to walk the day before. Its golden bell tower is the city’s highest point, and inside are rows and rows of tombs of the Romanov czars of Russia. A separate entry ticket was required to climb up to the walkway along fortress wall; we timed our wall walk so we could see the cannon lit and blasted from the top at noon. A few hardy souls were on the beach below, and three young men dove for coins in the frigid river under the bridge.

We rode the metro to Alexander Nevsky Monastery at the far end of Nevsky Prospekt, strolled the grounds dotted with artists drawing and painting the picturesque complex, and walked back the length of the shopping district. At night, after a leisurely dinner, a glass of wine and shot of vodka, to my dismay, I was pickpocketed on Nevsky Prospekt.. No matter how careful I am when I travel, it’s easy to get a bit lax – I didn’t take my usual care to hide my wallet under other items in my backpack. I only lost about $20 in rubles and 5 euros, less than $30 in all. My credit cards and big bills were tucked away in a zippered pocket in the backpack. For the rest of the trip, I went back to using a money belt; it was a good lesson. That and the pair of pants I left hanging in the hotel closet meant I left a part of me in Sankt-Peterburg.

16/35

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