- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, is easy for sightseeing and enjoyment. The major must-sees are concentrated in the central city — the Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Yusapov Palace — excepting the royal summer palaces an hour or less from the city.

The best hotels, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, department stores and shopping boutiques are also in the center, as are many museums, churches and residences built by nobles who came from Moscow at the request of Peter the Great. Many of these buildings are now occupied by educational and cultural entities.

Here are the highlights of the major must-sees:

HERMITAGE

The Hermitage, arguably second only to the Louvre in Paris in importance, began life in a small building erected next to the Winter Palace to house Catherine the Great’s art collection and has expanded to nearly fill all the palace buildings. The invaluable collection contains more than 3 million sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and artifacts and more than 1 million coins and medals. Just a small fraction of the items are on view at any one time.

Works by French impressionists and Rembrandt and Scythian gold objects draw the greatest attention. Works from the permanent collection are displayed in numbered rooms on three floors and are listed by country of origin and date, allowing viewers to choose their preferences and go directly to them. Temporary exhibitions are also mounted from time to time.

The formerly separated buildings of the palace have been opened, allowing visitors to see the incredibly sumptuous state reception rooms where Peter the Great and his succeeding line of Romanov rulers conducted their diplomatic and political business and entertained as many as several thousand guests a night at festive balls. Beginning with Catherine the Great, the original occupant, czars and czarinas improved the marble, malachite and carved stucco rooms, adding more lavish furnishings and decorations. The grandeur of the floors, walls and ceilings of each of these enormous rooms is breathtaking. Each is illuminated by crystal and gilt chandeliers, many with 100 candles, now electrified.

PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS

The Peter and Paul Fortress, with its golden spire and gilt dome, watches over the city from a large island across from the Winter Palace. Within the cathedral, Peter and Catherine — the Greats — and subsequent rulers are buried in tombs beneath identifying sarcophagi.

The last of Russia’s ruling royal family, Nicholas II and Alexandra, and three of their five children, all executed by the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, are buried in a small chapel near the cathedral entrance. The mint and a museum in the former prison building are also on the island.

ST. ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL

St. Isaac’s, the former imperial Russian Orthodox cathedral, is a massive structure built on its own square behind the Admiralty. It can hold 10,000 people. A colonnade of pillars and statuary rising on the roof and capped by a gilded dome, the third largest in Europe, can be seen from far out in the Bay of Finland.

The impressive interior is decorated with 14 kinds of marble, malachite, lapis lazuli, gilded stucco, icons, frescoes, mosaics and paintings. It is now a museum.

YUSAPOV PALACE

The palace of the rich and important Yusapov family, close to St. Isaac’s, is famed as the place where Rasputin was killed. Two rooms peopled with wax figures in the basement depict scenes of that fateful night.

The palace was built for entertaining, with two ballrooms and an exquisite jewel box of a theater. All rooms are magnificently decorated and beautifully restored.

PETERHOF

Peter the Great wanted to rival France’s Versailles, and he achieved his goal. Located beside the Bay of Finland, his spectacular white-and-gold palace sits majestically above the water, fronting cascades of water falling over blue-and-yellow ceramic steps to the bay below. Gilded statues and bas-reliefs within the cascades spurt water from about 140 jets.

Fountains proliferate throughout the extensive gardens on the property, many of them surprising. They operate from June to October.

The stairway to the second-floor state rooms is patterned after the Winter Palace and flanked by gilded statues. Glittering and glorious rooms run the entire length of the structure, with the ball-, throne and picture rooms, libraries and other chambers magnificently decorated and furnished with appropriate appurtenances. In the dining room, where 250 guests could be served, the table is set with priceless 18th-century china, silver and glassware.

CATHERINE PALACE

The Catherine Palace in the royal village of Tsarskoe Selo was built by Peter’s daughter Elisabeth to honor her mother, Catherine I, Peter’s second wife. It was a favorite of Catherine the Great, who remodeled it extensively and spent most of every summer there.

CHINESE PALACE

A short distance from Peterhof, Catherine the Great commissioned a small palace, which she called “Her Majesty’s private dacha,” for her personal retreat. It is reached by narrow country roads, contrasting with the sweeping entrances to the main palaces. Untouched during World War II, it remains in its original state. The exterior is of deceptively simple baroque style; the rococo-period interior exudes wealth, accented by its owner’s passionate tastes.

Each room is a gem and totally different. The beautiful parquet floors, made with artists’ designs of flowers, plants, leaves and wreaths, incorporate nine woods. In the Buglework Room, the walls are completely covered by panels of gold and silver threads embroidered with silver bugle beads and depicting peacocks, pheasants and other birds.

The Chinese study and great hall are decorated with superb Oriental art, artifacts and furnishings.

USEFUL INFORMATION

Though neglected after the Bolshevik Revolution and renamed Leningrad, St. Petersburg has been recouping its sophisticated cultural heritage. New restaurants, cafes, coffee bars and shopping malls have opened, reflecting an improved economy and renewed interest by tourists.

Anniversary activities triggered fluctuating prices, which reached their peak during the summer, making it difficult to quote exact rates. The two best hotels, the Astoria and the GrandEuropee, cost about $400 to $500 per night. The Astoria’s adjunct, the Angleterre, and the SAS Radisson Royal are somewhat less expensive. The mammoth Soviet-era Moskva on the outskirts of the city is without charm but is clean and reasonable.

Restaurants in the best hotels are excellent but pricey. The Adamant, Backstage, Kavkaz Bar and Senat Bar are moderately priced and also are recommended. Each palace has an attractive dining area serving good food at reasonable prices. Many are open late enough for a light dinner.

Russia requires a visa for entrance. In Washington, call the Russian Embassy, 202/298-5755 for advice.

St. Petersburg’s water has never been safe to drink. Use bottled water — even to brush your teeth.

Public transportation is efficient and cheap: Electric trolley and subwaye fares are 25 cents. The descent to the subway, built under the Neva River, is the steepest in the world, three minutes long. Stations are filled with marble, glass and granite statuary and columns, making them worth a look.

Taxis are fairly reasonable, but you must negotiate the fare before getting in. Beware of metered taxis when entering, for fares are calculated by seconds.

U.S. currency and credit cards are welcome at most upscale locations, but tips must be in rubles.

As in many big cities, extra care should be taken with valuables because of pickpockets.

Palaces and museums have gift shops that are well-stocked with quality merchandise.

See the city during winter with special hotel package

There are no direct flights from Washington to St. Petersburg. British Airways flies nonstop from Washington Dulles and Baltimore Washington international airports to London and then nonstop from London to St. Petersburg.

Air France does the same through Paris, and Lufthansa flies from Dulles to St. Petersburg via Frankfurt.

The Astoria is a five-star hotel with excellent accommodations in a perfect location on St. Isaac’s Square and within walking distance of much of central St. Petersburg. The hotel, opened in 1912, is now owned by Sir Rocco Forte and has been completely done over; it’s up to the best of Western standards, and service is excellent. The Astoria has a special package for the anniversary year, which it is continuing into 2004; included is a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hermitage.

A plaque on the elevator lists the famous people who have stayed there, including the President Bushes, father and son. John Reed (“Ten Days That Shook the World”) was staying there when the Bolsheviks seized power.

Next door to the Astoria is its sister hotel, the Angleterre. It’s not quite as elegant as the Astoria, but it has many of the same amenities, albeit with slightly smaller rooms. (It was in the Angelterre that Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, briefly Isadora Duncan’s husband, hanged himself in 1925 after writing in blood on the wall, “To die is not new — but neither is it new to be alive.”

Both hotels offer a White Days package for enjoying St. Petersburg in the winter. Each has a good restaurant serving Russian and Western dishes. Both also have good conference facilities, and the Angleterre has an attractive theater.

Hotel Astoria, 39, Bolshaya Morskaya. St. Petersburg 190000, Russia; phone 7-812-313-57-57; fax, 7-812-313-50-59; e-mail, [email protected]; mailing address: PO Box 111, FIN-53501, Lappeenranta, Finland

Hotel Angleterre, same address as the Astoria; phone 7-812-313-56-56; fax 7- 812-313-51-25. For information on White Nights specials in both hotels, go to the Web site www.roccofortehotels.com.

The Hermitage Restaurant, located across the Palace Square from the museum, is a fascinating mix of ornate Russian decor with hip, trendy modern architecture and design. The restaurant is in a basement and is divided into a number of small rooms, each with an individual atmosphere. It’s fun, and the food is excellent; 8 Dvortsovaya Pl., St. Petersburg; 7-812-314-47-72; [email protected]

The Stray Dog, a re-creation of a restaurant that was well-known from 1912 to 1915 as an art cabaret, has reopened in the same location as a restaurant and as a locale for musical performances and rotating exhibits. The food is Russian — not outstanding, but good — and it’s fun. The restaurant is full of sculptures of dogs of all kinds; 5 Iskusstv. Square (across from the Russian Museum), St. Petersburg 191011; 7- 812-315-77-64; fax , 812-315-60-68; e-mail, [email protected]

The Mariinsky Theater will stage an international ballet festival from March 5 to 14, with dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, the Opera de Paris and the Royal Ballet Covent Garden. A premiere of three ballets by William Forsythe is on the program as well as classical and modern ballets.

For the second year this winter, an ice bar-palace near the Fortress of Peter and Paul will have ice sculptures, tables and chairs made of ice and even glass made of ice. Sandwiches and drinks will be served.

<Pieces of amber make up the wall panels of the reconstructed Amber Room, the original of which was carted off by the Germans during World War II. The room is in a place in the village of Pushkin.


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