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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Saint-Petersburg: Night Owls & Harley-Davidson Devotees

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Monday, 21 September 2015 | Views [360]

Freddie Mercury Rock Pub on Nevsky

Freddie Mercury Rock Pub on Nevsky

Not too long after arriving in St Petersburg I found myself taking a stroll down the street in the central part of the city that everyone gravitates towards, Nevsky Prospekt. It was late in the evening and for a while I was under the impression that this city of exquisite palaces & cathedrals had maybe been hijacked by a 'Mad Max' film production company. As I walked down Nevsky street my auditory nerves alerted me to the proximity of gangs of bikies tearing up and down Nevsky at frightening speeds. Some bikies were "burning rubber", doing wheel stands and fishtailing their machines, generally it seemed playing games of chicken with tardy pedestrians - with not a police car in sight! I just couldn't figure out what was happening, all that commotion. It was well after midnight when I walked back down Nevsky, sidestepping the strip club spruikers on the way to Uprising Square. In the vast square old ladies passively and quietly sit in the hope of selling their bunches of flowers, and young men are busy stencilling ad messages on the square pavement (certainly a cheaper form of advertising than paying for billboard space). As I walked I wondered if this was normally how it was like in St Petersburg, decibel-exploding motor bikes assailing the eardrums of the general population into the wee hours of the night.

A couple of days later, back on the same street in daylight this time, I noticed a huge banner, "St Petersburg Harley Days" just near peaceful Ostrovsky Square. I had my answer to the mystery. Bikies has descended on St Petersburg from all over the globe (Germany, France, Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, the US, etc, St Petersburg's own "Night Riders" included). The Harley-Davidson event was in a cordoned-off area with heavy security at each of the entry points, but it seemed that Joe (and Joanna) Public weren't being kept out so, I ambled through the gate without being challenged to produce my HD Club bona fides. it was a big commercial operation inside the perimeter, lots of activity, people walking all over the joint. Lots of folks dressed in black, no shortage of tattoos and beards of course. There were special Harley-Davidson machines on display and promotional girls with black-and-white checkered flags which they'd occasionally wave around rather superfluously given there was no actually racing going on. Along each side of the compound a long row of souvenir stalls selling mainly specialised motor bike-related items. Organised entertainment was aplenty, displays of bike stunt-riding and a rock band was warming up in the bandstand when I was there.

The Harley Days festival in the city is now apparently an annual event for international bikies, OK its not just for bikies ... for (Harley-Davidson) motorcycle enthusiasts of all shapes and kinds. From time to time bands of these enthusiasts would rev up their motors and ride en masse in a head-turning procession along Nevsky Pr. In all some 3,000 motorbike riders were said to have attended the Saint Petersburg festival during the first couple of weeks in August ... it certainly seemed like it was that many on the ground to my ears! And the bike riders and Harley-Davidson aficionados clearly enjoyed themselves, that was for sure, so much so that plans were set in place for next August's St Petersburg HD event before this one finished.

Most tourists venture down to Palace Square during the day to visit the Hermitage/Winter Palace and marvel at the treasures within its doors. But the Square at night is well worth a bit of a 'butcher's' also. The lit-up Hermitage looks spectacular after nightfall (in August this means after about 10pm!) as does the divinely majestic Carlo Rossi-designed arch of the General Staff Building adjacent to it. The massive square is relatively deserted after dark. There are still people leisurely strolling past the landmark of the towering Alexander Monument, but at night Dvorets Ploshchad becomes very much the domain of skateboarders, Russian youths move in to make full use of its flat open spaces. Warning: it is not necessarily a quiet place to hover around in after dark as motor bike riders (maybe it's the Harley-Davidson mob again) take advantage of less city traffic around to regularly tear round the very broad circumference of the Square late into the evening.

Despite the evocation power of the majestic arch (designed by yet another Italian architect in the service of the Romanovs) and the formidable edifice shaped like an archer's bow, the General Staff Building (GSB) is destined to always remain in the shadow, figuratively rather than literally, of the Winter Palace/Hermitage which it shares the Palace Square with (its nondescript name doesn't help in keeping it in the forefront of tourists' minds either). The simplicity and elegance of GSB's clear, straight lines makes a wonderful contrast with the more ornate and intricate Winter Palace, and GSB's nearness to the iconic Palace ensures that it will be always be in the public eye. The magnificence of Rossi's monumental arch is one of the city's architectural gems ... don't miss the classical sculpture on top of the arch celebrating the military triumph over Napoleon.

Dinner options in St Petersburg are numerous and varied. On the recommendation of some fellow travellers we went one night to Moskva Ana Nevskom, at the western end of the vast Uprising Square. Located on the top floor (Lev. 6) of Nevsky shopping centre just off the main road, Moskva is a large, tastefully decorated indoor restaurant (part of the Ginza Project chain) with an L-shaped outdoors section commanding great views of Saint-Peterburg. The menu was both large (printed on A3 sized paper) and extensive (Russian, Italian, Japanese, etc, too much choice really). We went with the Russian dishes, trying the Dorado Grill, the trout burgers and the Stroganoff after knish and pelmeni (potato and meat dumplings respectively) as starters, washed down with wine and a Baltica pivo or two. The waitress assigned to our table (Julia) was very attentive and helpful, sweetly apologising several times for the deficiencies of her English! The food was good if a little pricey after you added on the mandatory pectopaH sales tax, but we still left Julia an appreciative tip. The quality of the food was good but the Moskva's main selling point is the magnificent panoramic view. The restaurant even provides a telescope for those wanting to take a closer look round between different courses. We were right on the outside edge in the corner which was certainly position A for views, though later on we realised how exposed our position was when the wind picked up and it got a lot cooler (about dessert time). Looking around at the other tables we took a leaf from the local patrons' books and wasted no time in reaching for the complimentary blankets which were very welcome.

Tags: city tour

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