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Who knows why he’s winking?!

St-Petersburg

IT’S BEEN LABELED “The Venice of the North,” “The Window on the West,” “Russia’s Crown Jewel,” “The Cradle of the Revolution.” These attempts to sum up St. Petersburg in a few words only scratch the surface, focusing on its history and its look, and can’t fully convey the energy pulsating from the spires and waterways, crumbling facades, and torn-up roads. St. Petersburg, like Russia as a whole, is hurtling forward like a jet-propelled gorilla in zero gravity.

It is this strange energy that gives St. Petersburg its special allure. There are many reasons to visit St. Petersburg, a city filled with cultural, historical, and architectural treasures, and the people are hospitable and generous, often going to incredible lengths to make visitors feel welcome. But added to this is a certain dynamic that can only be found in a country firmly in the grip of a drastic and fundamental overhaul. Change isn’t just in the air; it’s on the walls, on people’s faces, in their attitudes, and up their noses. St. Petersburg combines the excitement of Saigon, Johannesburg, and Tangiers with a setting reminiscent of Venice, Paris, and Amsterdam. There are few places on the planet as interesting and complex as this.

There are of course some minor infrastructural difficulties involved in travelling to St. Petersburg. This is to be expected in a country where for years tourism was the domain of a single state-run tourist monopoly that specialized in herding people from sight to sight, making sure they understood the proper ideological meaning of every one of them. Fortunately the monopoly went out with the ideology and the effects of several years of market competition in the tourist industry are indeed palpable.

Still, Rome was not built in a day, and it wasn’t built in Russia, so you’ll need to brace yourself for poor service, delays, disorganization, mysterious cancellations, and frustrating and pointless bureaucratic procedures. There are two ways to react to this: you can wig out and make things even more difficult for yourself and everyone around you, or you can accept it as part of the Russia Experience.

A positive attitude goes a long way here. If you find your tour bus has been hijacked to Bucharest, your beef stroganoff overcooked by about three weeks, or your visit to the Kirov Ballet cancelled and replaced by a recital of the Smolensk Bird-Watchers’ Society Kazoo Band look on it as a character building experience.


 
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