After five lovely days, we bid dasvidaniya to our family in Moscow and hopped a high-speed train (4 hours instead of 11, often overnight) north, so far north, I never realized how far north, to Saint Petersburg, to catch the end of White Nights. The Festival of White Nights happens every summer from June to mid-July, when it is light nearly 24 hours a day. Never dark. All day all the time. No reason to sleep ever. I’d wanted to check this out for years. Saint Petersburg is also said to be the cultural capital of Russia, the city people prefer over Moscow, and the more European of the two, thanks to its Venice-like canals, castles and old palaces and architecture that looks more European than Soviet, and so many places that cater to tourism. Because there are So. Many. Tourists. Maybe it’s because it was July, when Russia’s weather is usually best; maybe it’s because many people speak English and a bevy of other languages, which is not the case in Moscow; maybe it’s because of the aforementioned White Nights. But it was such a shock after coming from the capitol, which yes had its tourists but nowhere in the numbers of St Petersburg. At least not that we saw. However Moscow’s weather was perfect — sunny and hot during the day, warm with a little cool breeze at night. And wonderful as that was, I’d always pictured Russia cold and gray and icy and damp, the kind of weather that screamed out for one to wear a fur hat. We got to Saint Petersburg and it was cold and and gray and rainy and damp and I would have killed for a fur hat. And so it was finally there, in Saint Petersburg, that it felt like Russia. We were told the weather is always always alway iffy, and indeed it rained almost every day we were there. Hotels keep shoe-warmers for guests — plug them into the wall and put one in each shoe, and in a few hours your shoes are dried out and warm to boot when you put them back on. We used them constantly. The sky was completely bright by 2:30am or so, but nights seemed to get dark around 11, UNTIL WE FINALLY HAD A SUNNY DAY. The day was gorgeous and hot and clear, and that night I understood what White Nights was all about. The sky never got dark. Midnight, 1am, 2am, 3am — nada. There was no more sun after around 11, but instead the sky was a mess of beautiful blues and yellows and reds, like a sunset that never quite finished, with patches of clear blue sky underneath. We took advantage of every minute of daylight, and so did everyone else. People were walking around the streets at 3am like it was 2 in the afternoon. That was the first night we went to see the drawbridges. The enormous Neva River runs through the city, which is then connected by bridges for cars and pedestrians. In the summer, the big giant enormous ships are permitted to pass through the river from 1-5am, and the riverfront turns into a party. People bring beer and coffee and wine and stay for hours to watch the drawbridges raise and ships sail. We watched them open and close two different nights, and it was gorgeous each time. We also did the tourist things: the Hermitage Museum (saw some da Vincis but was really more interested in the enormous building that was once a royal palace), the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood (similar to St. Basil’s in Moscow, but to me this one is more beautiful), Peter & Paul Fortress, and a bevy of other churches. Saint Isaac with its 600 steps up to a gorgeous view. A museum/playland of Soviet-era arcade games, of which we couldn’t read the instructions because Russian but most were easy enough to understand: aim, shoot. We also played ice hockey foosball with a Russian couple — we won the first game and I yelled out, “It’s like Miracle on Ice all over again!” which no one understood because the couple didn’t speak English and Anthony doesn’t speak Denise, and then we played 2 out of 3 and they destroyed us. We shook hands and I muttered something about helping US-Russian relations, and this time my husband just rolled his eyes at me. We went to the famous Mariinsky Theatre and saw the Astana Ballet — this was one of my favorite things we did in Russia. Ate at an amazing Georgian restaurant, my first time having Georgian food and wine, and yes it is rich and heavy but it so good. Hachapurri, which is basically cheese inside of bread, could be my last meal and I’d be okay with that. And we found a great bar on the top floor of the Kempinski hotel, with a sweet view of the city and a bartender that knew his business. We asked him for vodka, telling him bartenders in Russia haven’t been especially keen on it when we’ve asked (we ordered a martini at one place and got Martini & Rossi on the rocks). He said vodka isn’t such a thing anymore, more of a stereotype — who knew? Maybe it’s the younger generation trying to change the impression the rest of the world has of Russia? — and instead introduced us to a bevy of other spirits. Our favorite was one that smelled like bread. In the Russian cyrillic alphabet it looks like Ponyrap, which is nowhere near the name (picture of the bottle is below), and he used it in the world’s best Manhattan, in an amazing old-fashioned and then just plain up. It was a Tuesday night and we were the only ones in this gorgeous bar, so we settled in with our new bartender friend, ordered some caviar that came with the works (THAT is not a stereotype, thank you God) and took in the view.
Also we stayed at a hostel called Soul Kitchen. The name alone makes me smile. I’m still not a hostel person, though on this extended trip I have come around to staying in them if we can get a private room and if the online reviews are fab (I’m still me, regardless of on what continent we may currently reside). If all hostels were like Soul Kitchen, I’d stay there every time. Our last night in Saint Petersburg we went out with people from the place, thanks to Leo and Alina, who work there, and took us to a slew of different bars. It was so fun, and we ended the night at an EDM club. EDM is huge here (for my parents: EDM = Electronic Dance Music. Hi!! Love you!!) We got home around 5:30am, slept a couple of hours then said goodbye to our new friends and took the train back to Moscow, where we said hello and adios to our wonderful family there one last time and got ready for our epic Trans-Siberian train journey. Photos from our time in Saint Petersburg are below.
PS: For the record, while I loved the people we met in Saint Pete, I prefer Moscow. It’s the one place we’ve been on this trip so far in which I feel we didn’t spend enough time. Which means it’s time to plan our return…
Where we stayed in Saint Petersburg:
Soul Kitchen Hostel (we LOVED this place – one of our favorite places to stay ever)
Where we ate & drank that we really liked:
Bellevue, top of Kempinsky Hotel (the view alone is worth the drink)