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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Saint-Petersburg: Nevsky by Foot, Neva by Boat

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Saturday, 19 September 2015 | Views [520]

Dom Knigi

Dom Knigi

You can't really experience all that St Petersburg has to offer without spending time on Nevsky Prospekt ... its essential - and unavoidable! Dissecting the city from east to west for some 4.5km, Nevsky Pr is home to St Petersburg's shopping precinct, restaurants and nightlife. On our first morning we left our hotel in Ligovsky Pr and walked up to the vast Vosstaniya (or Uprising) Square where Nevsky begins. At all times, or so it seems, there is a constant stream of people up and down Nevsky, shopping, wining and dining, sightseeing. On one side of Uprising Square stands Vosstaniya Metro station. On first glance I thought it was a church, but as railway stations go it is one monumentally impressive building, a stunning but simple pavilion with a sandstone coloured circular colonnade at the top.

There are a number of attractive Art Nouveau buildings on Nevsky. One that garners a lot of interest and visitors is Yeliseev's Emporium, a food hall selling fine caviar, vodka & other overpriced Russian gourmet foods. Not as grand or opulent as its Moscow namesake (Yeliseev's gastronom) which some have compared to London's Harrods, a claim by any reckoning that is something of an over-stretch! St Petersburg Yeliseev's in itself is quite a spectacle, from its whimsical window display with little comical figurines to its aesthetically pleasing interior. It's not exactly a place for delicatessen bargain buys but it's really worth going in if only for a look at the beautiful decor. On a searingly hot summer's morning we sat under the 'shade' of its giant centrally-positioned indoor palm sipping a raspberry lemonade & admired the balustrades & ceiling designs. I was amused by the two old men mannikins in the gold leaf balcony on the back wall who reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the audience hecklers from the "The Muppets" TV show.

Continuing down Nevsky we soon reached the first of the waterways that gives St Petersburg its famous epithet, "Venice of the North", Fontanky kanals (the Fountain canal).The bridge on Nevsky Pr that crosses the canal is called Anichkov Most. On each corner is the famous horse sculpture, the "Horse Tamers". Here, you'll find the ever-present boat trip touters, locals of all ages who all day energetically spruik boat trips to the public. Even late at night they were still hard at it on the bridge - and at the other canals further along Nevsky, Griboedova and Moika. Many spruikers used a hand-held mike to loudly announce (in Russian) the trips offered by competing boat companies. I wondered about the effectiveness of this method of soliciting for business. Because of all the noise generated by the crowds of people and the normal, heavy motor traffic on Nevsky, I doubted if anyone could make out anything much of what the touts were saying. Whilst here we confirmed our booking for a boat tour for later in the day. Many of the boat trips start from near Anichkov Bridge, although some commence from Neva Embankment (there are many, many options for canal and river tours available in St Petersburg!). 

A little bit past Anichkov Most is Ostrovskogo Square which is as much about peace & tranquility as Anichkov is abuzz with activity.  A large monument of Catherine the Great watches over the park and garden. The reform-minded, German-born empress is depicted atop a globe with some of the great men of letters & politicians of her day. This pleasant park on Nevsky Pr is a welcome refuge for visitors, a place to "take five" away from the hustle & bustle of the main street. In the tree-lined square I noticed an oddly dressed couple in 18th century period costumes leisurely strolling around the park. Observing them I discovered that they were 'performers' touting for tourism business, offering themselves up to visitors to have their photo taken with them at a price. Before leaving the Federation I had learnt that this was a feature common to Russian tourism, at most tourist hotspots (Peterhof, Catherine Palace, Red Square, etc) similarly over-dressed 'aristocratic' couples would pop out of the woodwork at the first sight of a tourist! Heading back past Catherine II's park we passed the street artists' quarter where a number of artists sketched portraits for passers-by (oddly the portraitists were all males, all middle-aged or older, just as they had been in Old Arbat in Moscow!). Just along from the park is Gostiny Dvor, St Petersburg's oldest shopping mall and not 'tiny' at all. Gostiny Dvor is all neoclassical elegance on the outside but inside it is rather old-fashioned in its presentation and layout. A handy place still to pop into as it has a free of charge WC.

One of the more unassuming but interesting little streets running off Nevsky that I took a fancy to is Malaya Sadovaya Ul. On either side of the mall is a bronze cat (one of each sex) perched high on the wall. when walking down the plaza the idea is to toss a coin at either cat and try to land in on the ledge. The reward for succeeding - guaranteed good luck to the thrower! This is another instance of the potency of Russian shibboleths akin to what I saw in Moscow with the superstitious mania for rubbing the knee of a sculptured bronze figure for luck as you sprint past! The rest of the pedestrian-only street contains other interesting features including a sculpture of a photographer and his dog, a kugel ball fountain which looks like a rum ball sitting on the end of a slice of cake (quite appropriate I think for a street replete with cafés selling sugary tortes and pastries). Malaya Sadovaya's inviting benches, street lamps and overall relaxed ambience makes it a favourite haunt of young St Petersburgians - especially at night.

Further along Nevsky, near Griboedova canal, we came to another wonderful old Art Nouveau building, Dom Knigi (the House of Books). It's a very large bookshop, good for a browse (there are even some books here that are not printed in Cyrillic script!) and it's another handy place to use the toilet on the top floor gratis. By the real reason to stop here is the Singer Cafe ... no, not a cafe where you sip coffee or hot chocolate whilst a soloist or some enthusiastic amateur entertains you with a ballad or two, but a reference to the building's "needle and stitch-work" past. Before the bookworms moved in, Dom Knigi was in fact Singer (or Zinger) House, headquarters of the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer Cafe is a bit of an icon on Nevsky Pr and we ended up having a light lunch at the cafe before resuming our walking tour of Nevsky Prospekt & its environs. The cafe had a relaxed, casual air, with staff that were attentive and polite with a good grasp of English. I had salmon pelmeni and a lemonade, more than sufficient to recharge my batteries for more foot-slogging. The upstairs section of this cafe is known for its great views of the panoramic Kazansky Cathedral (directly opposite on the other side of Nevsky) through its supersized square windows.

After taking in a few more of the highlights of Nevsky Pr we backtracked to Anichkov Most for our boat trip. As the boat wound its way up Fontanka canal, criss-crossing the other canals and eventually turning into Moiky, an on-board commentary in Russian was played through a loud speaker. Fortunately though for us we had our English language guide Valentina sitting with us so we got the translated version face-to-face, essential if we were to get some idea of the different buildings & bridges (very many bridges!) that we were passIng. Our boat was a flat top type, the importance of which was illustrated when we passed under bridges as low as 2.4m or  2.5m!), standing up was not recommended - for reasons of personal health preservation! One of the attendants was standing up on the boat as we were about to pass under one of the lowest bridges. He didn't appear to be aware of its approach but at the last moment he nonchalantly ducked his head to avoid get it taken off!  It unnerved us at the time but it was pretty clear that he knew all along what he was doing and was in fact just 'showboating' to impress the punters on board. From the canals we entered the wide and free-flowing waters of the Neva River where we got a good view of the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress. Seeing St Petersburg from the water on the Fontanka, Moiky and Gribeodova canals was a really important (and time-saving) way of getting good views of many of the city's best buildings. By the time we had returned to Nevsky Prospekt after the two hour cruise we'd had enough of sightseeing for the day and were ready to return to Ligovsky Prospekt and make plans for dinner. 



Tags: city tour

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