One of the main drivers for doing our Baltic rally was to sail into Russia and in particular to St Petersburg.
Our arrival and entrance into Russia did not disappoint. Multiple uniformed officials with oversized peaked caps, sniffer dogs, and copious paperwork and stamping. The Jetsons style hydrofoils ploughing back and forth at breakneck speed between St Petersburg and the Peterhof summer palace. And the warships, submarine and other naval vessels that put on a parade, and accompanied us into Kronstadt. Quite superb.
Immediately before entering our marina, there is a large suspension bridge, with a 22m clearance – and disappeared and oddly placed buoys. We made it through, but 6 other boats on the rally managed to ground themselves at this point. Doh!
We took advantage of the incredibly cheap (about 60 pence) number 7 trolley bus outside the marina gates that ran into town and down the main shopping street – Nevsky Prospect – the equivalent of Oxford Street in London.
In fact, there was a lot about St Petersburg that reminded us of London. The large square with column in the centre in front of the Winter Palace/Hermitage, had the feel of Trafalgar Square. The bridges across the river, including one built by Mr Eiffel, had a similar rhythm to those across the Thames. Many of the buildings built over the last 300 odd years, have brother and sister buildings in all the major capitals across Europe. So there was an odd sense of familiarity about the place.
And then there was the Russian twist to it. The onion domes, the gold plating. The over the top interiors of the Hermitage and the summer palace – all copies or pastiches – a sort of nouveau rich meets mid 70s Elton John style of decoration. You really had to be into Baroque to enjoy it. War damage meant that most of the summer palace was a complete reconstruction – and parts of it felt almost as flimsy as a stage set. Perhaps that’s why there were fearsome women guarding the roped off areas in every room – keeping you out or ushering you through – just in case you accidentally knocked a wall over!
Oh the crowds! Not as bad as Tallin in the city itself, but in the main tourist destinations like the Hermitage and the summer palace, it was unbearable. Even the guides complained about the number of Chinese now overwhelming the place. Apparently it’s due to the Chinese that photos are now allowed to be taken in the royal palaces. So that’s something to thank them for, I suppose.
Away from the guided tour to the Hermitage – the best bits being the Rembrandt collection and the modern art gallery housed in a separate building (with fab air conditioning) – we got more of a sense for the real St Petersburg and its people on two tours we booked via AirBnB Experiences.
Our first was an introduction to the best of the metro (subway/tube) stations. This might sound strange, but the stations are a great reflection of the art and political situation at the time each station or line was built. There is some fabulous art, sculptures and mosaics, not to mention chandeliers and columns, underground. Check out the oldest line, the red one – obvs – if you want a quick introduction.
Our guide was Irina, a qualified tour guide, who fed up of the impersonal nature of taking cruise tours round, opted to introduce this tour herself. We certainly learnt a lot about St Petersburg, the metro, and the habits of the locals. We ended our tour with a visit to one of a few donut houses left over from the Soviet era.
Our second was about a 9 km bike tour around the centre We wish we’d done this when we first arrived, instead of on our last day – as we were introduced to areas and places we would never have found on our own and would have liked to return to spend more time. It was slightly hair-raising at times, as there is only one cycle lane in the whole of St Petersburg, the rest is pavements and traffic dodging!
The bohemian courtyard, with a maze of coffee shops, clothing, jewellery, food outlets – all owned and run by young people – who for a peppercorn rent could run their own business in old buildings that the state no longer had a use for. Achingly hip, and lovely and warm too – I could have spent my days there too with my mac and my tea!
The other was an area deep in a warren of back yards and courtyards, where the locals had decided to create their own gaudi-esque mosaic sculptures and murals. Intriguing. Although it was at this point, when I asked why there was so little natural entrepreneurship – Scandinavia is awash with small boutiques and artisanal crafters from bread, to beer etc, in direct and close comparison. They are clearly influenced by western social media, with their faux (or possibly not so!) gangster chic – big blacked out top of the range cars, moll and thug outfits. But the blossoming of creativity and entrepreneurship hasn’t quite yet made it. Our guide said he would explain later, as 2 guys looking like security guards started to take a little bit too much interest in what we were doing.
So it was that our guide pointed out how in the soviet era everything had become homogenised and industrialised. No longer a baker on the corner, but a large factory churning out all the bread. Those skills and way of being were lost. Hence why the donut places we had visited earlier in the day were so significant. A little bit of entrepreneurship and craft that had survived, a sweet reminder of what had been and could be again perhaps?