Why culture-loving, budget-conscious South Africans should rush to Russia
Sunday Times reader Grant Rogerson discovers that St Petersburg's boasts astounding sights, while the exchange rate favours the rand - bonus!
I am often surprised how so few ardent travellers consider St Petersburg, Russia, as a destination. One of the world's most beautiful cities, it has so much going for it: baroque churches, awesome museums, glorious waterways, exquisite parks, excellent eateries and, of course, some of the best ballet companies and orchestras in the world.
You do, of course, find those folk who glide in and out of St Petersburg on a Baltic cruise, spending a day or two here, but this only gives them a minute taste of its many treasures.
St Petersburg is easily reached daily and within a few hours from most cities in Europe and the Middle East and, having been twice, we found the best time to go is summer. June offers the chance to experience the magical White Nights.
For South Africans, it can be an affordable choice since the cost of living is lower than in SA and the exchange rate favours the rand.
CITY OF THE TSARS
Hotels and other places to stay (small B&Bs), ranging from two- to five-star establishments, are comfortable and tourist friendly, and can work out quite economically.
A hotel near the city centre is highly convenient. The subway system is comprehensive and an excellent mode of transport.
Most signage is in both English and Russian, whilst mini taxis and trains may be used to reach destinations outside the city.
Our first option was to board a boat at the Fontanka Embankment for a two-hour cruise along the Neva River and its many canals.
This gives one a good overview of the city's baroque and neoclassical environs and takes one into the land of the tsars along the way. These comfortable boats offer a hop-on, hop-off service, should you wish to spend a little extra time at any one point along the route.
We took advantage of this facility, spending some time in the city's magnificent Summer Garden, The Field of Mars and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood with its turrets, onion domes and spirals.
The trip also takes one past the famous Peter and Paul Fortress, the Winter Palace, the Russian Armoury Museum and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where the remains of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family are buried.
Set aside two full days for the Hermitage Museum, housed in the grand Winter Palace, to walk through the opulent and gracious galleries, the ballrooms and the sitting rooms of Russian royalty. With over three million exhibits, even two days won't be enough. A whole day can also be set aside for visiting the city's many cathedrals, each one more magnificent than the last.
For those who enjoy shopping and eating, the main thoroughfare through the city, Nevsky Prospect, is a dream.
Highlights include an 18th-century shopping mall, the famous Art Nouveau Bookhouse, the Russian National Library and the Elisseeff Emporium, a retail/entertainment complex with a famous food hall.
The environs of St Petersburg can be just as interesting as a visit to the city itself. We were spoilt for choice, but decided on the small town of Pushkin.
There, we spent many pleasant hours in the summer residence of the imperial family at Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar's Village).
The main attraction there is Catherine Palace, with its magnificent formal gardens. Not too far away is Pavlovsk Palace, well known for hosting "the waltz king" Johann Strauss during the summer months.
Close to the water and easily accessible by hydrofoil is Peterhof Palace which was based on a model of the Palace of Versailles near Paris. Its magnificent fountain park with golden statues will take your breath away.
The historic centre of Saint Petersburg and related group of monuments, cathedrals and palaces constitute a Unesco world heritage site and even its often-used poetic name, "Venice of the North", does not do it justice.
Without any doubt, Saint Petersburg deserves to be counted among the most prominent heritage cities in the world. Summer there is almost upon us. Go soon!
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