The morning of our second day in St. Petersburg took us far out of the central city along the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland to the Summer Palace built by Peter, which is often called Peterhof. The drive gave us a glimpse of how locals live today. We passed by two massive apartment complexes. The first was from the Brezhnev era during the 1960s and 1970s and were are among the least expensive places to live in the city. They were apparently poorly constructed, noisy and un-repairable. The second was built by a Chinese construction company. These newer buildings were popular and featured a space age shopping mall.
At the end of the forty-five minute drive from the city we reached the town of Peterhof, which was where the servants of Peter’s summer palace lived. A short drive in the woods leads to the Upper Gardens of the Palace where we first saw the golden domes of the Palace Church. Photos are not allowed in the Palace and the docents keep visitors moving rapidly through the ornate rooms, mainly decorated by later Romanovs than Peter who had a plainer taste. The most popular feature of the palace are the fountains and the lower gardens that lead to the gulf. At 11am with a musical fanfare the fountains are turned on and the display of water and gold come to life.
From the palace looking down the fountains is the Grand Canal which leads to the sea and was how many dignitaries arrived at the palace in centuries past. Now low bridges over the canal prevent navigation, but allow the throngs of tourists to enjoy the woods and gardens. Smaller coastal palaces and fountains dot the wooded park.
On the drive back to the city center we saw the locals sunbathing in parks. The temperature was mid-seventies, but for gloomy St. Petersburg it was a balmy day. (These are the Brezhnev era apartments mentioned above.)
Instead of riding all the way back to Nevsky Prospect in our van, we took the Metro. St. Petersburg is renowned for the beauty of it’s Metro stations. Though conceived prior to World War II the first line opened in 1955. Each station has a unique design. Many have ornate chandeliers and columns, but my favorites had simpler designs.
Walking up from the depths of the Metro (due to the swamps of the city, this is the deepest subway in the world) we exited onto Nevsky Prospect, the wide boulevard that is central to St. Petersburg commerce and society. I found it brutally urban and chaotic, much like areas of New York City. But the walk was broken up with views of canals (or rivers), churches and parks.
One of the visual highlights of our trip was Yeliseevsky’s Delicatessen which offered colorful food, mostly candies, in an Art Deco setting with a jazz combo playing from a balcony. Prices at present in Russia are very low, so while this shop likely was very expensive for Russians, it was reasonable for us.
Time was short and we were unable to see a few interesting attractions along the way including the Russian Museum and the varied churches which served the international community which was invited by Peter the Great to inhabit his new capital.
And our guide Alexandra took us to a lovely Russian restaurant – Katyusha – where I had excellent warm borscht and fish stuffed pasta garnished with caviar. Everyone found the food and service excellent and the prices reasonable.
In our quick walk from the restaurant to the waiting van we went into the Kazan Cathedral, the second largest church in the city. Driving back was saw all the construction that is underway (I suspect slowly due to the economic downturn in Russia) on Vasilevsky Island. This is the largest of the city’s many islands and where the largest ships dock. A massive suspension bridge, which will significantly ease traffic in the dense city, is being built along with many high-rise apartments. Modern St. Petersburg is growing and hopeful.