Water is as much a part of her soul as the stone and brickwork that breathed life into her atop marshlands along the Baltic Sea 300+ years ago. With 45 rivers, tributaries and channels crisscrossing her city limits, not to mention 40 man-made canals and 342 bridges, St. Petersburg has rightly earned the moniker “Venice of the North.”
Mother Nature continues to bless us with another splendid day in the city that Tsar Peter the Great built, as Orna O’Reilly and I, photojournalists invited by Insight Vacations to experience its Easy Pace Russia journey, board the Baltika, a sightseeing boat, with our travel mates — 21 paying customs — and shove off on this optional, one-hour cruise (€44) from a dock along the banks of the Moika.
Passing under bridges, some less than 3m tall (DUCK!), we make our way past the Winter Palace, home to the State Hermitage Museum, and into the Neva, the city’s largest river that empties out into the Baltic, and take in the hustle and bustle of all the water traffic and camera-ready panoramic views.
Like La Serenissima, situated across 118 islands out in the Venetian Lagoon, St. Petersburg, bathed in the White Nights — those unique, luminous northern mid-summer eves when the high latitudes radiate an overnight glow — encompasses 101 isles, sans crooning gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats, but she’s equally intoxicating in her own special way.
Outdoor seating under a clear blue sky makes this the ideal photoshoot. Add to that glasses of champagne and I’m all in on cruising the canals and rivers of St. Petersburg, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, made even more spectacular at water level.
Down past the ornate, art nouveau Troistkiy Most (Trinity Bridge), St. Petersburg’s second longest bridge at 582m, we glide. The Neva rests easy today, like a cobalt-blue sheet of glass, as it reflects perfectly Peter and Paul Fortress out in the distance. Just past the Mir, a three-masted, full-rigged, sail training ship, our pilot slows the craft down as we cautiously tuck in underneath the three-arched Parchenchy (Laundry) Bridge and enter the Fontanka.
From here it’s clear sailing as we pass by Letniy Sad (Summer Gardens) and squeeze underneath St. Petersburg’s high street, Nevsky Prospect, via the Anichkov Bridge and its four horse tamer statues. We then make a U-turn at the opulent, palatial digs of the Stroganoff family — from whom the classic sautéed beef in a sour-cream sauce dish supposedly got its name — and then head back up the Fontanka.
Nearing the end of our cruise, we veer left back onto the Moika, passing by the iconic, five-domed Church of the Resurrection of Christ (aka, Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood), and then slowly make our way to our starting point just behind the Winter Place, gliding alongside more Italianate mansions and baroque and neoclassical palaces. A friendly wave to the crew of the Baltika — SPASIBO! — and we disembark.
Lunch, on our own ruble, is just a few steps away as Orna and I stroll along the cobble of Moika Embankment until we spot the bright-red, wooden bicycle fronting No. 16: Yat, a Russian fare-only, country-cottage-style restaurant down in the basement of an elegant, okra-colored building.
We score a table straight away, order a bottle of chilled French rosé d’Anjou, scan the menu and order the following: a beetroot and cottage cheese salad, an assortment of homemade pickles, a plate of pancakes with both red and pike caviar and a tempting slice of Yat’s homemade cheese cake and two forks. We finish our midday repast with a couple of shots of interesting flavored house vodkas — cranberry and horseradish. Na zdorovye!
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A high-speed Sapsan train whisks us off to Moscow tomorrow, but before we bid St. Petersburg adieu we’ll spend some time exploring elegant Yusupov Palace, the site of the murder of Rasputin, the “mad monk” from the court of Tsar Nicholas II.
Note: The Palladian Traveler’s participation in this journey was supported by Insight Vacations, which did not review or approve this article before publication.