If you wish to travel to St Petersburg from Moscow, are you sure that you want to catch yet another plane? Why not trying the beautiful and iconic Red Arrow sleeper train?
The Red Arrow Train is an icon of the Russian Rails and started its first regular service in 1931. Since 1965 the haunting strains of “The Hymn to the Great City” have been playing (loudly and pompously for the whole station to listen) from the station loudspeakers at your arrival, and when the train leaves St Petersburg. It imbues a sense of awe to the foreign and a sense of pride to the Russian passenger. I tell you, you will feel like in a movie when you hear it.
The train interior is deliciously old fashioned and similar to a movie set, the staff stands rigidly in line in front of each door and doesn’t utter a word (actually it looked quite scary to me when I made my trip), and the exterior is such a bright red that it’s difficult to mistake. Even with its retro charm, though, this one-of-a-kind luxury train is as up-to-date and modern as any sleeper carriage found in about any country. A wonderful experience especially in first class, where you are alone or with your traveling partner, and you can enjoy a traveling bedroom with a great view.
And now off to St.Petersburg. Grand, impressive, absolutely stunning. Even the Zara shop (strategically located in the Nevsky Prospect – a must see street), with its beautiful high ceiling covered in frescos and antique interior is more special than any other one I have seen.
If you have time for only one thing to do in St.Petersburg, make it a visit to the Hermitage Museum. The director, Mikhail Borisovic, once said “I can’t say that the Hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not the second”. And he has a point. The Hermitage would be worth a visit even without any single work of art displayed in it – the palace itself is amazing – and it has been calculated that, if you spend 30 seconds in front of every item of the museum, it would take you five years to see it all. The museum is a combination of everything: the greatest paintings by the greatest painters selected as far back as Catherine the Great, luxury items like daggers of Persian shahs and Faberge articles, opulent costumes (there are even original Luis Vuitton trunks for the traveling Czars), amazing views from the windows (the natural light from the windows is one of the special features of the museum), the grandeur of the halls, amazing parquet floors. In the museum you are hardly allowed to touch anything, but you can sit on the floor and it is splendid when tourists or children do it. The materials are superb, marble and false marble combined in a sort of plasterwork which is remarkable art in itself represent diverse levels of luxury.
If you are fortunate enough to have a high budget for your trip, the Kempinski Hotel is a one minute walk from the museum and has outstanding service and breakfast.
The other experience I would warmly recommend for anyone who wishes to have a look at one of the best Russian traditions is a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. I am not an expert of ballet at all, but if you expect anything from classical ballet, the Mariinsky will sure deliver it. I am also not a big fan of modern ballet and that’s why, during my stay in St.Petersburg, I enjoyed the Mariinsky so much. The choreography, costumes, colours, rapid change of scenes, virtuoso pieces, passionate or very serene and calm scenes are simply amazing. World class, beautiful and never boring.
Restaurants are also an interesting part of a trip to St Petersburg. In the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, things have changed dramatically and Russia has seen a real restaurant boom. You’ll be spoilt for choice if you walk the city’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, or alternatively, if you like famous names, you can try the latest Alain Ducasse eatery, Mix, at the W Hotel, or Barbaresco (just opened and owned by Gerard Depardieu), a few steps away from the Church on Spilled Blood, another beautiful landmark. If you want to catch your own fish and choose how you want it prepared, you can dine at one of the best seafood places in St Petersburg, Russkaya Ribalka. The staff will provide you with a fishing rod, bait, and fishing tips.Jaques Chirac and Putin had an informal – fishing – meeting here.
Critics have observed that St Petersburg is a beautiful stage, and Austrian writer J. Wechsberg noticed that “old St Petesburg is not what Rome is to Italians or Paris to French. The decisions are made in the Kremlin. The city of Peter remains a museum, open from 8 am to 5 pm”. Personally, I have been jogging through the city and seen some disappoint parts too, and I was told it wasn’t allowed to run in a beautiful park (the Summer Park, founded by Peter the Great for courtly life outside the Palace) full of tourists and locals enjoying a (not too sporty) stroll. So like every other city, St petersburg also has a negative side to it. But its remarkable beauty, culture and mix of modern and antique are an unforgettable experience for anyone who likes traveling, and I would no doubt recommend it.