Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Travel Log 2016: St. Pete

One thing I love to do is travel. I love going to different places, seeing different landscapes, experiencing (on a superficial, touristy level) different cultures. Of course, that’s true for everyone, I would guess. At least, for most people I know.

And a huge advantage of living in Europe -- even on the far edge of it, as Helsinki is -- is that foreign travel is relatively easy. You don’t have to go far to arrive at some unfamiliar, enticing locale beyond your own borders. From here, the “rest of the world” seems close at hand, sometimes real close. For Helsinki, it’s a mere forty-miles -- to Estonia, just as one example. And Paris is only a three-hour flight. That’s about the same as flying from Atlanta to exotic...Boston. Don’t get me wrong, Boston is a fine place to visit, but c’mon, Paris!

(Okay, to be fair, three hours from Atlanta will also get you to Cancun, which is exotic, but I'm trying to make a point here.)

So, from Helsinki I’ve been lucky enough to make a few foreign trips almost every year, either for work or pleasure. Recently, it has to be said, there have not been so many of those as it the past, but still enough of them to keep my wanderlust mostly in check.

In 2016, we made two such excursions. Looking back, a few memorable moments stand out from both.

The first was a June trip to St. Petersburg, the original St. Petersburg. We went by boat, the M/S Princess Maria, because that way you can skip an especially annoying border formality that always hampers travel to Russia. Unlike Finland’s other neighbors, Russia makes visiting a bit more difficult by requiring a visa. This means filling out paperwork and paying a steep fee. For Americans, such as myself, it’s $160. That alone would cover the airfare to Paris, for example, which one reason we’ve never much considered Russia as destination when planning holidays.

Fortunately, the St. Peter Line, which operates ferry crossings between Helsinki and St. Petersburg offers an attractive loophole, apparently due to an arrangement it has with the Russian government. Passengers can forego the costly visa if their stay in St. Pete is less than 72 hours, which is still plenty of time to get a reasonable taste of the city.

It was the first time I’d penetrated the eastern frontier since a 1984 bus trip my wife and I took to what was then called Leningrad. To say things have changed would be an understatement. For one thing, Lenin's former namesake is, like most everywhere else in the world, a bastion of commercial capitalism. Peter the Great, after all, did envision the city as a "window to the West", and so it seems to be once again. 

Something that hasn’t changed, however, is the grandeur of much of the city's architecture, especially the Neoclassical facades along the Neva riverfront, which are brightly floodlit at night to wonderful effect. Also, what was different this time was that, unlike on the previous trip, we were visiting in high summer, a magical time to experience far northern cities like St. Pete, or Helsinki, for that matter.

Despite a long day walking around the city sightseeing, I had trouble sleeping the first night because, well, my snoring prevented my wife from sleeping and, in turn, her sharp elbow in my ribs prevented me from sleeping. At two o’clock in the morning, I gave up and I decided to go for a walk.

Our hotel, on Vasilyevsky Island in the middle of the Neva Delta, was only two blocks from the wide Bolshaya Neva, the largest branch of the river. As I walked out to the quayside, I could see that the nearest drawbridge, the Annunciation Bridge, was raised, its two middle spans pointed skyward. The Neva is an important waterway for commercial shipping, but in St. Petersburg it is crossed by several busy drawbridges that are opened for ships only briefly in the middle of the night. During the day, you see sea-going vessels moored all along the riverfront, waiting for nightfall and the chance to move upstream.

The bridges are lined with lights along their entire span, so when raised they add a dramatic element to St. Petersburg’s nighttime display -- stretching a couple of miles along the left bank -- of stately, brightly lit buildings rising over the glistening, inky water of the river. It is a truly beautiful sight.

When I reached the Annunciation Bridge, it was already being lowered, so I missed a chance to get a good photo (and anyway, I only had my phone camera with me). But the Palace Bridge, the next one upstream was still raised. It was peaceful night. There was practically no traffic, though there were some cars waiting in line to cross the river once the bridge was down again. And there were a surprising number of people around.

Or, maybe not so surprising, since the “White Nights” are a magical time to be out and about. I walked up the University Embankment, towards the Palace Bridge, which also started to close before I got there. I kept going to the very tip of Vasilyevsky Island, the Split, where quite a few people, mostly young folks, had congregated.

The Split, one of the best-known places in the city, is undoubtedly a natural spot to hang out on a summer’s night, with its vista of the broad, dark river dividing the city, and the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral rising into a bright northern sky. From there, I could see at least three more bridges upstream, some still raised.

I strolled back along empty, quiet streets behind the old stock exchange, arriving back at the hotel at 3 o’clock, just as it was getting light enough for the street lamps to automatically switch off. It was an experience well worth losing sleep for.

Our next trip was to Brussels, but will have to wait for another post. 

The Exchange Bridge in St. Petersburg, around 2:30 in the morning.

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