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Visiting St. Petersburg in style

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We arrived in St. Petersburg just before midnight and took a short cab ride to our hotel on the Fontanka, the left branch of the Neva River that flows through the centre of St. Petersburg.  Our hotel, the Asteria, lay across from a row of turn-of-the-century buildings. We were about a kilometre from the city center on Nevsky Prospekt and, at the end of Nevsky, is the famed Hermitage Museum, daunting for its size and for the difficulties of viewing its holdings.

Next morning, a Sunday, we ventured out toward Nevsky. And within a half a block, we stumbled upon a ballet theatre. We tried to get tickets for the evening performance of Swan Lake, but the theatre was closed. We walked along the Fontanka about half a kilometre and turned right. (We realized later there is a short cut to Nevsky.) After a short walk, we found a ticket kiosk.

Procuring tickets for Swan Lake for the following evening was an adventure. The friendly lady in the kiosk wrote prices on a small square of paper and, with my five words of Russian and our smiling gestures, we finalized the purchase — at $48 a seat in the third row. It turned out the tickets were right behind the conductor, and his body in motion was entirely blocking our view.  Spotting some empty seats along the row, we moved. Why we weren’t sold these seats in the first place, I’ll never know. The ballet was beautiful and what better place to see it than in the ballet capital of the world!

Russia is full of illogical frustrations, but don’t take them to heart. Here’s another: the next morning we decided to see the Hermitage — guideless and guileless. We asked the hotel clerk how to get there on foot and we promptly set off on the long walk. (She didn ’t tell us about the short cut). As we neared the immense Hermitage, it was eerily quiet. After circling the entire group of buildings, we finally found someone who told us the Hermitage was closed on Mondays. Back at the hotel, I asked the same clerk why she had sent us to the Hermitage on a Monday. “You asked for directions,” she said, “not whether it was open.” Ah, the intricacies of the post-Soviet Russian mind.

That day we strolled around Nevsky and took an hour-long bus tour around the city ($25). Irwin bought a beautiful sweater in a huge department store that used to be called GUM. It ’s now a myriad of boutiques, that run on two levels around one square city block, its front  on Nevsky .

It takes time and patience to get used to the immensity of the city. At almost every turn, there is a museum or palace to visit. Unfortunately it was raining and cold that day . We walked by the Church of Spilled Blood and on to the souvenir market, where prices are about 50% higher than in most stores! Although the church had an incredibly breathtaking fa çade, its pricey entrance fee and the name itself didn’t attract us inside.

That evening, as we waited outside our ballet theatre, we met two American women, one of whom lived in Moscow. They were discussing their packed day with their tour guide. She had taken them to the Hermitage! Could she be our answer? One of the young women happily called the guide on her cell phone and, wonder of wonders, the next morning sitting in our lobby waiting for us was Maria Luneva, former professor of Russian History, ready to show us her St. Petersburg. Maria is beautiful, charming, incredibly knowledgeable, efficient, and speaks marvellous English.

We were off to visit the world famous Hermitage Museum. Maria shepherded us through the hordes of waiting tourists to see the highlights of the larger and smaller palaces of Catherine the Great. We viewed a da Vinci, two Raphaels, and a few rooms of Impressionists along the way. Although I paint and love art, there’s only so much I can remember and appreciate, and for some reason, this whirlwind tour of the Hermitage left me exhausted. What I do remember most is Maria telling us that only 10% of Catherine ’s collection is ever shown at one time. This time we saw a room full of cameos. The Hermitage is all about superlatives and I couldn ’t imagine going it alone.

As Maria was securing our entrance tickets to the Hermitage that morning, she introduced us to a young woman who worked in the gift shop. She happened to be one of the corps de ballet in Giselle, being performed that evening at the tiny but splendid Hermitage Theatre. She also happened to be from Quebec City and had moved to St. Petersburg to study ballet. She was fluent in English, and, according to Maria, she spoke beautiful Russian. We decided right then that we would be in the audience that night, even though it would be our second night of ballet in St. Petersburg and the tickets were $100 each. We invited Maria and looked forward to a beautiful evening. The theatre is exquisite, as was the experience of seeing our young and talented Quebecer. We had never seen Giselle and we loved it. The performance was accompanied by the State Symphonic Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

At 228 years old, The Hermitage Theatre is the oldest theatre building in St. Petersburg and seats only 100 people. Its first season opened in 1785, but performances ceased after the death of Catherine II in 1796. Only in 1989 was the theatre restored and opened again.

The next day we were off to the fortress on the island, which was the heart of ancient St. Petersburg. Maria took me to a marvellous indoor souvenir department store, where prices were very low and the service excellent. After driving Irwin to a nearby Internet caf é, Maria sat on the balcony sipping coffee and waited for me to fill my basket.

We lunched the first day with Maria at a pierogi place, sampling various kinds from meat to herring, tuna and cabbage. These were baked in large squares and cut into pieces. I confided in Maria that what I most loved about Cuba, our winter destination, was visiting people in their homes in Havana. I certainly wasn ’t asking but she responded with a surprise invitation to lunch at her gorgeous apartment on our last day in town. Maria and her husband purchased their sumptuous turn-of-the-century penthouse in 1990. It is the same building that Shostakovich lived in and there is a bust of him in the courtyard. The apartment was beautiful and Maria was a wonderful hostess.

On the way, we stopped at a new shop that was offering free liquor to the first 100 or so customers. We walked out with two bottles of local liqueur and made our way to a neighbourhood pastry shop where we picked out goodies for dessert. I may not remember everything I saw at the Hermitage, but I do remember every detail of that visit to Maria ’s apartment.

St. Petersburg was the only city in which we visited ORT this. To remind you, ORT is the worldwide educational organization that we visited in several places last year. It turns out that ORT is right off Nevsky and only a block or two from our hotel. Bringing greetings from Montreal ORT, we were invited to tour the computer school.

I would highly recommend that you book an organized tour of St. Petersburg if you go. Alone, it can be a challenge. Maria Luneva can be reached by email at: or call: +7-812-232-9725 (cell) or +7-812-921-2530 (in Russia).

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