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September/October 2005 | Sparkling St. Petersburg

September/October 2005 | Sparkling St. Petersburg

Russia’s most European city still conjures up thoughts of regal czars, gilded palaces, corruption, and expensive fur. So what are you waiting for?

St. Petersburg is relatively young compared with most European cities. Founded in 1703, this former swampland was turned into a glorious port by Peter the Great, a questionable bisexual who knew six languages and took an interest not only in building the most European city in Russia but in learning shipbuilding and shoemaking, and bringing the best decorative arts to his country.

Now, after celebrating its 300th anniversary two years ago, St. Petersburg is reliving its halcyon days. Soviet communism is becoming a distant memory (the iron curtain was scrapped nearly 15 years ago), and $64 billion was spent for the restoration of palaces, churches, and other historic buildings, making this a prime time to see the elegant, canal filled city. Clubs, bars, and restaurants have been flourishing to appease the new young elite who are taking over the city. You can forget borscht and take your pick of sushi, fois gras, and of course, Russian caviar.

With all of this growth you would think the gays were right up in the mix. But as my chic young guide Maria told me, after living under Communist rule for so long people have a hard time opening up to new ideas. Therefore gay rights are barely mentioned. The young people are very open-minded, but the people in power can hardly countenance the thought of same-sex marriage. The gay clubs are full but sparse, and while you should certainly support them, be sure to cocktail at the plethora of high-design straight boites as well.

St. Petersburg is a mecca of art and architecture. To see it all thoroughly, a private guide is the best way to go, especially if you don't speak Russian and you don't want to get ripped off and wait in Disney-like lines. Maria, my guide, was perfect—and she came with a car and driver to escort me through the city and off into the countryside. Another bonus is that a private guide can walk you to the front of the line and get you in past the throngs of tourists.

No matter how you tour the city, be sure not to miss top sights such as the Church of Spilled Blood, which was built on the spot where the beloved Czar Alexander II was murdered on March 1, 1881. The mosaic-filled interior is breathtaking, but wearing the plastic booties, which are required to preserve the floors, is a bit awkward. The baroque masterpiece Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul (where all the czars are buried), is another must-see, as is the Stieglitz Museum (for decorative arts) and the Cathedral of St. Isaac, which is the world's fourth largest cathedral. Finally, take lots of time for the overwhelming Hermitage, which occupies not only the Baroque Winter Palace but several other huge buildings as well. It was built to house Catherine the Great's vast art collection, and the interiors are just as impressive as the art. Don't miss the museum's Atlantes entrance, which is supported by 10, 16-foot tall granite studs.

The best time to go is early summer so you can experience the famed “white nights,” when the sun never sets, only hovers on the horizon. A week would allow you to spend equal amounts of time in the city and the country. The Hermitage could easily take one full day, and the many palaces (including Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo, and Pavlovsk's palace) that dot the countryside, with their gardens that can put Versailles to shame, are de rigueur.

Sadly, the shopping is not all that great. The best is found in palace gift shops where you can buy beautiful crystal, amber, and Faberge-like eggs. Whatever you do, do not buy fur from a street vendor. These furs are notorious for having fleas. Ask your guide to take you to a proper furrier.

On your final day in the city (or every day for that matter), don't forget your 5 o'clock cocktail of vodka with a side of caviar. Shoot your vodka in one fell swoop like the Russians do, because, as Maria said, “We drink for the result and not the process!”

ESSENTIALS

ACCOMODATIONS
(Dial 011 before all international numbers) The Astoria Hotel (Bolshaya Morskaya ul 39, 7-812-210-575) is one of the most historic and elegant hotels in the city. A cozy and less expensive choice is 5th Corner Hotel (Zagorodny Pr. 1, 800-7553080). With only 13 rooms, this is an intimate and well-kept hotel in the center of town. One of the few hotels that touts its gay friendliness is the Antares Hotel (147-36 Nevsky Ave., 7-812-277-1835), which is on the main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospect in the middle of it all.

RESTAURANTS
Café D’Or (Nevsky Ave., 44, 7-812-449-9462) is located in the most upscale shopping center in the city. Try one of its eccentric but delicious entrees, like fois gras served on a dried pear topped with a single piece of caramel popcorn. I promise I didn't make that up. Ginza (Aptekarsky Ave., 16) is the place to see the Russian jet set feast on high-end Japanese food. When touring the palaces in the countryside you must eat at Podvorye (16 Filtrovskoye, Phone: 7-812-466-8544) to enjoy the Russian treat of quail and chicken Kiev. Eat outside. Even if it is cold, the waiters will bring you a wool blanket to wrap up in (not with them, unfortunately).

NIGHTLIFE
Sinners, or Greshinki (Griboedov Channel, #28/1, 7-812-318-4291), is a three-story club with hot go-go boys and the occasional drag show. Don’t be discouraged if the door is closed—just knock and smile into the peephole. Mono (4, Kolomenskaya) is a great little gay bar for a quick drink. Cabaret (34 Dekabristov ulitsa, entrance No. 3, 7-812-114-5056) is the last of the three gay bars to hit up. Be sure to catch an amusing drag show. Onegin (Sadovaya ul. 11) is where the Russian fashionistas sip and twirl. The interior design is well worth the trip.

GETTING THERE
Note: All Americans traveling to Russia must have a visa. Visa to Russia will send you support documents and recommend a consulate or embassy near you. There are no direct flights to St. Petersburg, but Aeroflot and Delta both have flights to Moscow with a transfer to St. Petersburg. Also, British Airways has flights to London with a transfer to St. Petersburg. Lufthansa has many flight options as well.

HIRING A PRIVATE GUIDE
To book Maria or her mother, Elena, send an e-mail to: olga_koshutskaya@inbox.ru. The company they work for, Travel Russia, has a standard price of $100 per day and $10 per hour for the driver. Visit Travel to Russia for a list of other private guides.

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