Postcard from St. Petersburg
From Chris Meltesen, New York, NY
“Last year good friends from Hamburg, Germany, suggested we all take a trip to St. Petersburg together. We arranged for guides, one of whom was with us the entire trip. In late March, we met up at the Hotel Astoria, in St. Petersburg, over afternoon tea and kicked off five terrific days of seeing the city and surroundings.
On our first evening, we went for a simple Russian dinner at 1913, a local restaurant near the Mariinsky Theatre, where we had borscht (of course). Afterward we took a nocturnal ride around St. Petersburg, and the grandeur of the European-style palaces and the occasional unusual piece of Russian architecture, along with the canals and rivers, made an unforgettable impression.
The main city attraction is, of course, the State Hermitage Museum. We spent a whole day there and never quite settled whether the grand buildings or the art were the more remarkable. One room contained the elaborate peacock clock from the 18th century, made of gold birds that moved, sung and chimed when the clock was wound. A maintenance worker was testing it, and we joined a group of school children who were as captivated as we were by the various animals in motion (one thing you see a lot of in Russian museums is extraordinarily well-behaved groups of kids). We also visited the Russian Museum, which displays everything from Russian icons to Soviet realist paintings, housed in yet another palace. In some ways, we were more impressed by this museum than by the Hermitage, as we discovered a world of fascinating 19th- and 20th-century Russian artists we were not familiar with before our visit.
We were told to take a day trip to Novgorod, a beautifully preserved medieval city. It’s a three hour-drive from St. Petersburg but well-worth it, because you end up seeing an entirely different Russia from that of the city: parts of the road leading there are lined with lovely, small wooden houses (spending a winter in them must be something!), and the old churches and monasteries of the walled city were mesmerizing.
Back in St. Petersburg, a special treat was two evenings of dance at the Mariinsky Theatre. We saw the classic story ballet La Bayadère, which showed off the strength and training of the company—everyone should see the Mariinsky corps de ballet perform the Kingdom of the Shades scene once in a lifetime—and the second night was a program of multiple Balanchine ballets. It was fascinating to see the company perform both types of choreography. Although all the dancers were wonderful, the highlight was Diana Vishneva, the company’s prima ballerina assoluta.
I can’t say enough about our guides, who seemed to know everything about the history of the country and the palaces we toured and had insights into each artist and painting we saw. They could even quote vast amounts of Russian poetry in multiple languages (the education there must be incredible). We had long talks about everything from the intricacies of trade routes in the 10th and 11th centuries to current affairs in Europe. Overall it was a great trip. We were very taken by St. Petersburg, Russia and the Russians. I can’t urge you enough to go.” Chris Meltesen, New York, NY
There are no direct flights to St. Petersburg from the United States, so you will have to fly via Moscow or a European gateway, like London, Frankfurt, Paris or Vienna. It is strongly suggested that you ask your hotel to send a car to pick you up from the airport.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Astoria, a Rocco Forte property and the city’s grand dame, is centrally located. Some rooms have views of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Doubles from $750 during the high season (May through July). (7) 812-494-5757; fax: (7) 812-494-5059; www.theastoriahotel.com.
What to See & Do
The Kirov Ballet performs at the Mariinsky Theatre this June and July. Tickets, which can be purchased on the Mariinsky Web site, range from around $25 to $150. Mariinsky Theatre:1 Teatralnaya Square; (7) 812-326-4141; www.mariinsky.ru/en.
Read a member postcard about a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg
Read about why Zaha Hadid finds Moscow to be one of the world’s most fascinating cities
Read a Q&A with St. Petersburg insider Greg Tepper
Read about academic Arrangements Abroad, a company specialized in travel to St. Petersburg