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Roaming Russia: St. Petersburg, with guide and without

Two couples compare notes after touring the city in very different modes.

September 23, 2007|By Don Drake and Mary Walton | Special to The Los Angeles Times

St. Petersburg, Russia

The ancient cab we were in raced down the dark streets of St. Petersburg. My wife, Molly, and I had no idea where the driver was taking us. He was supposed to be returning us to our ship, but he didn't seem to know where the dock was.

Straining to get a better look at the driver, I could see he had a mustache; the driver we had made arrangements with that morning had been clean-shaven. And Molly was sure this guy was very drunk.

"Stop the cab," she yelled.

"I know good nightclub," he said. "You want go?"

"We want you to stop," I said.

He kept driving, faster and faster.

When we started planning our Baltic cruise aboard Holland America Line's Westerdam last year, we had been warned about unscrupulous Russian cabdrivers who sometimes robbed passengers and left them stranded. But Molly and I were determined to see St. Petersburg on our own rather than with one of the many tours offered by the Westerdam, even though it meant we had to get visas and plan our own itineraries. (Travelers on ship tours don't need visas.)

Our fellow travelers Mary Walton and Charles Layton took the easy way and chose a Westerdam tour. Mary and I thought that comparing our experiences would be helpful to other travelers. However honorable our motives, a certain competitiveness set in, and each of us hoped to have made the "right" decision.

Measured on price alone, it was a wash. Although our initial outlay was more, we could use our visa for the two days we would be ashore. Pro-rated, our total for the day was $327. Theirs was $313. But money was not the chief consideration: Molly and I like adventure.

Mary: Charles and I are not unadventurous people. We have river rafted in Ecuador and biked solo through Hungary. Later on this cruise, we explored Berlin on our own, ending up in a gay rathskeller where a long-haired blond German in shorts and pink boots led a sing-along to a jukebox filled with '70s tunes. But Charles and I did not relish going it alone in St. Petersburg, where few people speak English and even the alphabet is unreadable to us. The red tape in securing a visa frightened us. So we signed up for the Westerdam's 8 1/2 -hour expedition, "Grand St. Petersburg."

Don: Our adventure in Russia started at 9 a.m., when we walked down the gangplank. Because of its huge size, the Westerdam was tied up at a dock for cargo ships, three miles from the port's exit gate. There were no cabs in sight. As we stood on the dock trying to figure out what to do, a large Russian approached us and asked in simple English whether we wanted a cab. He gestured toward a banged-up red car.

"How much to the Hermitage?" I asked. "Thirty dollars," he said. Molly and I exchanged wary looks but accepted the ride.

We learned only his first name, Michael. But he drove well and got us to St. Petersburg's famed museum without incident. We arranged to meet him at 10:30 p.m. at the same place where he had dropped us off.

Mary: Shortly after 8 a.m., as a four-piece brass band played "Stars and Stripes Forever," we climbed aboard a big, comfy tour bus. It was a bright, cool Sunday morning, and we wheeled through the nearly empty streets of St. Petersburg, whose faded beauty is more sad than scenic.

Our guide was a repository of statistics. St. Petersburg has 316 bridges, 42 islands, 93 rivers and canals, 126 museums and 65 theaters. We stopped briefly -- 20 minutes max -- at St. Nicholas Cathedral, where we were told that Dostoevky's Raskolnikov came to pray; at St. Isaac's Cathedral, its gilded dome visible from miles away; and at the battle ship Aurora, which fired the first salvo of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Don: With 350 exhibition rooms and 3 million items, the guidebooks said it would take seven years to view everything in the Hermitage, even with spending only one minute in front of each piece. So Molly and I decided to visit exhibits that could be seen nowhere else.

For 3 1/2 hours, we walked through history, entering and exiting the palace's elegant throne rooms, living rooms, and bedchambers. In the White Dining Room, we saw the mantle clock that is still stopped at 2:10, the early-morning hour in 1917 when the Bolsheviks entered the room and ousted the leaders of the fledgling Provisional Government, changing the course of Russian history.

During the 10 minutes we spent in the Gallery of 1812 with hundreds of portraits of Russian military officers who fought in the Napoleonic wars, four tour groups raced by. I looked in vain for Mary and Charles dutifully following an upheld umbrella or artificial flower. I wanted to cheer them on.

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