Friday, 2 September 2011

St Petersburg - What's in a name?

St Petersburg (1703) - Petrograd (1914) - Leningrad (1924) - St Petersburg (1991)
Customs and immigration on board the train from Vilnius to St Petersburg were very simple and easy going although the carriage attendants (provodnitsas) sudden appearance, throwing open the door at 1am and shouting 'passports/permits' in Russian was a bit disconcerting.
Took the metro to the hotel rather than a taxi, as consistent advice was that station taxis are gang operated and the least you can expect is serious overcharging. It was easy enough and so much more pleasant then the London tube - more spacious, more trains althought still pretty crowded.
The Kempinski hotel, Moika 22 has a great position on the Moika river, opposite the Hermitage (Winter Palace) and near the start of Russia's most famous street - Nevsky Prospekt. Its an old aristocratic mansion, totally remodelled inside but retaining original fireplaces in the front bars and the old wine cellar has become a wine bar. The rooftop restaurant and terraces have one of the best 360 city views including the Winter Palace. Its run by Irishman Liam Madden but everyone else is Russian. It has impeccable style but without any stuffiness; very international but with plenty of Russian character.
St Petersburg has a long revolutionary history as 100 years before the 1917 revolution there was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the monarchy, and again in 1910. The 'Decemberists' that were not shot or executed were transported to Siberia - some of the earliest trans-Siberian travellers! St Petersburg was Russia's capital city until 1918 when the 'new order' decided it was too elitist and moved the capital to Moscow.
It was built by Peter the Great to rival the best of Europe and today its still a grand and stylish city. Home of Pushkin, Tugenev, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky the city features in many classic Russian novels - note: must re-read Crime and Punishment. It's also Russia's thriving western seaport into the Baltic and this played a pivotal role in WWII.
The Nevsky Prospekt has been one of my must visit places for years but its become an eight lane manic traffic throughfare so is not the pleasure it must have once been. Nevertheless the side streets make up for this with lots of restaurants, coffee bars and of course the universal littering of misrable looking burger joints. There are 42 islands and more than 300 bridges in the city centre so its no surprise that it gets tagged the 'Venice of the North', but in truth that should be 'Venice with Traffic'! A canal trip is on every visitors itinerary and its not just tourist trade it really does give a different perspective to the city. There are plenty of public tour boats but the Kempinski's small private boat, with a genuine historian, was in a league of its own.

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