Having emerged from a long, dark winter, Phil Ascough finds St Petersburg is in the mood for a little celebration.
The first time you ride the escalator on the Saint Petersburg Metro you realise instantly that it’s quite a long way down. So for the second trip, you time it.
Two minutes and 50 seconds. It’s the water that is the problem for the Metro. The rivers and canals that are among the city’s main attractions on the surface forced engineers to dig ever deeper when they constructed an underground transport system which has considerable merits of its own.
Many of the stations are considered works of art, worthy of a visit in their own right and the perfect tourist attraction for a rainy day. Not that we saw many of those.
From late May until into July, Petersburgians celebrate the White Nights, a festival of art and culture which keeps the city abuzz into the small hours as reward for having endured a long, dark, icebound winter.
Even on a cloudy day the dusk will linger. As we descended into Pulkovo Airport the watch said after midnight but was contradicted by the sun, still up way past its bedtime in the distance.
And five of the six days that followed were sun-soaked, with clear skies the colour of the immaculate uniforms worn by the passport control officers, temperatures touching 25 degrees, banishing memories of the heavy coat dumped in the corner of the hotel room on arrival from Manchester.
So a few travel notes. You can get to quite a few places direct from Saint Petersburg, which means you have decent options from the UK with one change. In and out from Manchester via Helsinki was favourite – until the people booking our conference trip cancelled it and sent us instead to Munich, and a wait of more than five hours.
Plenty of time to peruse some peculiar features none of us had seen at other airports we’d visited. Not least the “napcabs”, where you slot in your credit card, punch in the number and gain access to a petite, private box which provides perfect peace for sleeping or working. And smoking rooms, sponsored by the big tobacco brands.
Glass walls allow you to study the endangered species, observe the various smoking stances and styles, ponder whether you might be witnessing a control group in a medical experiment and conclude that the extractor fan must be pretty powerful or no one would see a thing after about five minutes.
No such mod-cons at Pulkovo, which provided early confirmation that for every historic and architectural treasure in Saint Petersburg there are several slabs of concrete, all straight lines and sharp angles, masquerading as apartment blocks, ferry terminals and the airport with its Costa Coffee and TGI Fridays.
Try as you might to take a fresh view, banish preconceptions and stereotypes, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that here is a fantastic city which could be even better but which remains chained down by the lingering bureaucracy of the Soviet era.
Take the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya, a beast of a hotel with 1,200 rooms where at 2am, with two staff on the reception desk and six guests ahead of you in the queue it still took an hour to check in and cost a “documentation fee” of 200 roubles – between £4.50 and £5.70 depending on where you collected your currency – to have your passport photocopied.
It has four stars, but then so did the humourless woman at passport control – two on each shoulder of that sky blue uniform.
At the end of the trip, six separate queues lay in wait from arriving at Pulkovo to jetting home via Copenhagen.
Most of the things a tourist would want to buy are expensive, save for the bus and Metro tickets, and navigating the city takes the skills of a Cold War code-cracker, with prolific Cyrillic signage and a tourism department apparently eager to cling to the finest espionage traditions of keeping their maps top secret.
But don’t let any of this put you off – just get on a guided tour, do a bit more homework or make sure you book a hotel in the right part of the city.
The Russian government is committed to improving the country’s infrastructure, but the work will be phased around the requirements of – and the revenue from – next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 2018 FIFA World Cup and any other big sporting events they are able to entice.
But the attractions which make the city so alluring for tourists are, in the main, easily accessible, save perhaps for the 200–plus steps to the walkway which allows spectacular views from the dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral.
The State Hermitage Museum is a stroll away, so too the Bronze Horseman and the Admiralty. Kazan Cathedral and the Church of Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood are a little further, but easily reached by a walk along Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg’s impressive, cosmopolitan main shopping street.
Coach tours are one way to see everything. Boat trips are better, weaving between the cruise ships and retired military vessels moored on the River Neva, revealing a striking new perspective on the city’s waterfront heritage before darting inland, along the canals of this “Venice of the north.”
Walk it, ride it, sail it, and take your time because when it’s the White Nights festival, this city never sleeps.
Most flights to Saint Petersburg from the UK will require one stop en route, meaning between 90 minutes and two hours for each leg of the journey, and anything from two hours on the ground in between – or possibly nearer six hours if you opt for Munich.
However you travel don’t forget your visa, because you won’t get far without it. If you’re making your own arrangements go to ru.vfsglobal.co.uk. The cost of the various elements will add up to around £100.
Visa can take just over a week to arrive, but it is a good idea to allow a month or more.