St. Petersburg’s White Nights of Summer
By Herb Silverman and Betty Rolston
Tourism and business travel to St. Petersburg have gotten a dramatic boost from an unexpected but totally logical source, a leading vodka producer, Russian Standard. No accident since Chairman Roustam Tariko, the founder, was born in St. Petersburg.
The company has donated a major gift to the city by making a multi-million dollar contribution to the construction of a scenographic lighting installment that illuminates the Imperial capital’s 305-meter TV tower adorned with 6,000 stroboscopic flash lights programmed for a spectacular light show.
“As part of our ‘Shining City’ project, there are many unique lighting installments being constructed in St. Petersburg,” said St. Petersburg Governor Valentina I. Matvienko. “More and more private companies are taking it upon themselves to help us realize our goal of lighting the city’s unique buildings and structures.”
The $60-million Russian Standard Vodka Distillery, designed by famed architect Willem Brouwer, occupies a prominent position on the main road leading from St. Petersburg to the Pulkovo International Airport. In addition, the distillery is building a highly sophisticated Visitors’ Center scheduled to open in 2009. There, tourists will learn about the city and taste its native tipple along with "zakussky" (hors d'oeurves).
Comprised of several islands, St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great three centuries ago on a swamp. It’s Russia's second-largest city and Europe's third largest metropolis (after London). Its total area makes it two times larger than New York City and 13 times bigger than Paris. Its population is approximately five million people.
From 1712 up to 1922 St. Petersburg was the capital of the flourishing Russian Empire. Now, the city is the industrial center of Russia, as well as its cultural capital regaining much of its glamour lost under the Soviets when it was known as Leningrad.
Knowing the Facts
Among the major hotels is the five-star Grand Hotel Europe managed by the Kempinski Group. Located in the historic central shopping and business district of St.-Petersburg, it is close to several must-see sites including the Russian Arts Museum, Kazansky Cathedral and Saviour of the Blood Cathedral. Amenities include: satellite TV, air conditioning, mini-bar along with a pool and saunas, currency exchange, business center, fitness center, dry cleaning, hairdresser's, and cafes. Available are meeting and conference rooms, offices, shops, restaurants, bars, nightclub and a bank. Visit www.kempinski.com
The Hotel Astoria dates from 1912 but was restored in 2001, is located in the city center opposite Saint Isaac Cathedral, the Mariinsky Palace and the statue of Nicholas I, near the Senate and Synod, the Admiralty, as well as the offices of major companies and banks. Facilities are similar to the Grand including a pool and a casino Both properties average $400 a night. Visit www.thehotelastoria.com
If past memories of Russian food in St. Petersburg are colorless, today’s visitors will be surprised, not only by the quality and number of restaurants, but also by their diversity.
Food from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, with its mix of Slavic, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors, is especially popular. One of the most affordable is the family-run Khinkalnaya-Khachapurnaya whose specialty is shashlik (lamb on a skewer) and eggplant with walnuts or khachapuri, a Georgian national dish that's akin to a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich. The staff speaks very little English, but keeps a single English menu handy.
Na Zdorovie Restaurant could be a museum of Russian history: the interior contains Soviet relics mixed with traditional Russian crafts. The menus are both in Russian and English.
The Idiot Cafe and Bar is a cozy cafe, located in the cellar of a canal-side house featuring a warm 50s style interior, wooden furniture, antique lamps, slightly muted jazz music, and very friendly waiters. There are five different vaulted rooms including an art gallery and a library with English language books and magazines that one can read, while having a drink. The restaurant serves only Russian and vegetarian food, coffee and specialty teas. Dinner goes for around 300 roubles ($10) with free vodka. The staff speaks English, the menu is both in Russian and English.
Shinok is considered to be the best Ukrainian restaurant in St. Petersburg. The food is quite tasty and the portions are hearty. Another advantage is that the restaurant is open 24 hours a day. The interior is traditional with rustic tables and chairs and waiters wearing national costumes. The specialties are worth ordering: vareniki (cutlets made of cottage cheese), pancakes, various garnishes, salads, and Gorilka (Ukrainian home-made vodka).
Taking the well-below-grade subway is a thrill for a traveler oriented to the aseptic American version. The antique trains depart from terminals adorned with enough sculptures and art to be public galleries. Travelers can exit at the Petrogradskaya stop and head for the Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest section in town, it is lined with museums and the gorgeous, not to mention slightly eerie, Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
Peterhof is the 18th-century complex of palaces and gardens west of the city center. The estate is famous for its fountains, which operate through October accessible by hydrofoil from a berth on the Neva River.
The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, a winner of the Pritzker Prize for architecture, has been chosen to redesign the art displays in the already incredible Hermitage Museum. The museum will soon begin this six-year project by establishing a master plan for a new way of displaying its some three million treasures in the museum's roughly 2,000 rooms. Plans are to alter the displays in the Islamic and Chinese rooms and transform a section of the imperial general staff building into a space for contemporary art.
A major summer attractiom is "White Nights” (Beliye Nochi) when the sun never sets on lovers who promenade the canals and river banks.
Where to stay
Taking advantage of the “romantic” connection, the Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel on Nevskij Prospect has created a five-star wedding package, which includes the privacy of a banquet room, a sumptuous feast. and a wedding cake. One night accommodation in an Executive Suite for the bride and groom (and arrangements for guests), floral decorations, a fruit basket, a “sweet surprise” and a bottle of Russian sparkling wine in the room plus breakfast delivered to the door. Rates for two per night through July are $1,036 per night; $840 from Sept. through Oct. 16; and $643 from Oct. 17, 2008 through Dec. 31, 2008. Visit www.corinthiahotels.com
Situated on the banks of the Moika River and overlooking the treasure-filled Hermitage Museum and seum and Palace Square, the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22 is the ideal spot for access to St. Petersburg's most exciting cultural destinations.
A three-night stay in a Superior Room with a deluxe Russian breakfast buffet each morning, entrance to one of the world's most impressive collections, the State Hermitage Museum, (located just across the bridge from the hotel's lobby); and come evening, guests can see St. Petersburg in style with tickets to one of the city's renowned opera and ballet houses, which include the famed Mariinsky Theatre (home of the Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra). Priced from $2,170 for two; and is valid July 1 to Oct. 31, 2008. Visit www.kempinski-st-petersburg.com
For more information, contact the Russian National Group, which represents the National Tourist Office in North America., 877-221-7120; www.russia-travel.com
November 2007 Feature
Be there for the lively Russian Winter Festival
Each year from December 25, Christmas Day, through January 5, the Russian Winter Festival combines religious and secular holidays into lively, colorful celebrations. The Russian Winter Festival takes place in a number of cities throughout Russia, with the main events in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Veliky Novgorod, Kostroma, Vladimir, Tver and Suzdal.
So compelling is this festival that the Lord Mayor of London, England kicked off a tradition of emulating this event in the middle of town, at Trafalgar Square. It brought Russian music, dance and song - and even snow - to the heart of London, with performers including The Suvorovsky Ensemble of the Military and Music Academy of the Ministry of Defence (originally set up as a second Moscow school for the Red Army), folk groups including Cossack Soul, the Chuvash State Ensemble of Song and Dance, Pelageya and Russian Song. Contemporary artists included Ranetki and Tokio. The Russian pop legend Garik Sukachiov also made a headline performance.
In Moscow, the Winter Festival activities are centered in and around Izmailovo Park, which is transformed into a winter wonderland where traditional folk musicians, dancers and performers dressed as popular figures from Russian folklore mingle with visitors in an energizing party atmosphere. The well-below zero temperature with snow swirling around is no deterrent to hearty party-goers. Visitors are encouraged to join in the merry folk dances and games around the New Year Tree and to learn more about Russian traditions, customs and history. World-famous singers and performers entertain the crowds, while they enjoy pancakes with caviar and drink tea with bagels, honey and jam.
Central to the celebrations is Father Frost and his beautiful granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. Similar to another winter character, Father Frost usually dons a long red fur-trimmed coat, a fur hat, long boots decorated with silver ornaments, carries a long magical staff and travels in a troika (carriage pulled by three horses). The Snow Maiden, beautifully dressed in a long fur coat, long boots and wearing a Russian kokoshnik (hat decorated with pearls, silk and delicate lace), assists Father Frost with his gift giving duties. In Russian folklore, the Snow Maiden fell in love with a Slavic herdsman, but sadly their love was not meant to last and she tragically perished in the spring when she melted away. Fortunately for the children, the Snow Maiden manages to re-appear at each Russian Winter Festival, helping Father Frost to hand out Christmas gifts. www.geographia.com/russia