St. Petersburg is a place that has intrigued me since my High School days when the Soviet Union was part of the Social Studies curriculum. Of course, back then, we were taught about the evils of Communism not about the beauties and mysteries that define Russia. As a young student, my mind saw Russia as a place where people stood in line for bread and had to practice their religions in secret. I even have an Uncle who, at one time, smuggled bibles in to the Soviet Union! A few years later I read an historical novel that portrayed the city as cultural and romantic. I was determined to see if any of that still existed today. My first impression of the city did not lead me to believe that any of that culture and romanticism remained. I couldn’t see past the crowded and filthy streets that have fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. The next feeling was that of sadness as we strolled along Nevsky Prospekt and saw the invasion of Western commercialism. Hell, we were there for 5 days and couldn’t find a plate of perogies or cabbage rolls yet North American fast-food chains we saw in abundance. We were not to be disappointed in our search however, and I, for one, am glad we made the trip.

We stayed at the friendly St. Petersburg Youth Hostel from whom we had obtained our invitation to Russia. While, at $50(USD) per night, it was a bit pricey for a hostel, the location was ideal, the staff very helpful, and they spoke excellent English. Through the hostel we managed to catch one of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Peter’s Walking Tours. Peter is a lively, colorful local whose accent, a blend of British and Russian, he created because he liked the sound. He moonlights for the local English newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. If you want a typical tour with all the popular sights then you might be a bit disappointed, although he will take people to the best-known sights if that is what they want. As a small group we were fortunate enough to be taken more off the beaten path.Thanks to someone’s love for Dostoyevsky we saw a few of the places related to the novel "Crime and Punishment". As we climbed the several flights of stairs to the place where the old lady, in the novel, was killed, we could hear an elderly lady on the stairs mumbling something that, of course, we couldn’t understand.

Peter relayed to us that she was ashamed of him for showing the "foreigners" the slums of St. Petersburg. The locals do have their pride after all. As we went along Peter took us through several, little-known, courtyards and side streets. He said that, at one time, he had planned to put together a map of all the connecting courtyards of the city but, alas, the task proved to be too enormous and, he dropped the project.

Peter showed us the immense Flea Market where you can buy anything under the sun including; underwear, stolen leather goods, fruits and vegetables, and homemade (100 proof) spirits sold by the Gypsies. This immense open-air market is like a little city within the city …that becomes a ghost town at night. The "streets" have no names or numbers so it is very easy to get lost, although sometimes that’s the best way to explore. The streets surrounding the market are lined with ladies selling socks, nylons, shampoo, and other assorted goods from their hands. It is illegal for them to sell goods from a stand without a license and a couple of times we saw several people quickly disassemble their makeshift stands, at some silent signal that the Police were within arresting distance, and reassemble them once the Police had passed. We saw the historical "Hay Market" as well, which is, sadly, a shadow of its former self. Apparently there was a beautiful cathedral there but, in the 70’s, the Communists tore it down to put in a Metro station. Signs of the construction site are still there today! We ate the most incredibly delicious, and cheap (!), pancakes at a little place just off of the market. Just outside of this restaurant Peter managed to pick up a little gem …an antique radio.

From a bridge that spans one of the many canals in the city (St. Petersburg is known as the Venice of Eastern Europe) we saw the eye-catching St. Nicholas’ Cathedral. The dark, ominous clouds that had rolled in served as a striking backdrop for the shining, gold domes. We ended the tour not far from the cathedral, at Mariinsky Palace, which houses the Kirov Ballet. Taking Peter’s Walking Tour was the best thing we did in St. Petersburg. He knows the city intimately and, with his knack for story telling, the tour was interesting and educational. And all for the reasonable price of about $7USD. It gave us a chance to see past the drunk and the pushy to the smiling and the proud. It gave us a much better understanding of the city and its inhabitants than we could have ever achieved on our own.

Touring on our own, we saw numerous sights that made us pause and stare. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular was the Church of the Resurrection. This colorful, multi-domed, multi-named cathedral was the object of hundreds of pictures and awe-inspired looks from the many tour groups in the vicinity. It was also one of the only cathedrals we saw on our trip that wasn’t covered or surrounded by scaffolding. If you want to buy yourself a nice Russian souvenir, there is a small market set up close to the cathedral. There are many beautiful things to be found, hidden among the celebrity Matreshka Dolls (the most amusing being the one of the "Simpsons") and cheap trinkets, but if you are going to bargain make sure you buy then and there …otherwise, they have excellent memories and you will end up paying a far higher price when you return. We left with a beautiful chess set and a piece of history in a little ceramic bust of Lenin.

Of course you can’t go to St. Petersburg without seeing the spectacular Winter Palace. The beautiful, green and white, 3-storey structure was built in the mid 18th century for Empress Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great) but, unfortunately, she died before it was completed. The first to occupy it was Catherine the Great. The Palace has been remodeled several times, the most extensive renovation done after a huge fire in 1837 wiped out most of the place. The Palace is now home to the main building of the famous Hermitage museum. The museum boasts work by such artists as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, French Impressionists (Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Pissarro), plus Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin, Picasso and sculptures by Rodin. You will know when you’ve found a room with a more famous artist’s work in it …just follow the hordes of tourists with headphones trying to cram into it. There are also several exhibits of art from Ancient Egypt to the Dynasties of China. The museum costs about $8USD to visit (unless you are a student, in which case it’s free) plus extra for cameras but it is well worth a day’s visit. If you enjoy museums you may also want to check out the Russian Museum, which is not far from the Church of the Resurrection.

The city also has some wonderful dining and entertainment options for people with some extra money to spend. We ate at a great place called Café Idiot, a hangout for ex-patriates, they serve excellent food and a great Happy Hour. Of course there is always the obligatory Irish Pub to look for and in St. Petersburg that would be Mollies’ Irish Bar. Along Nevsky Prospekt, running away from the Winter Palace, you will find a lot of options to choose from but be warned …they aren’t cheap! If you are on a budget there are stores and stands on every corner that sell breads, meats, fruits, vegetables and, of course, beer.

For a night out on the town there are numerous ballets and operas to enjoy in season, check out the St. Petersburg Times for information on what’s happening. If you are looking for a way to get in touch with the folks back home there are many Internet Café’s to choose from. We found a great place on Nevsky Prospekt, not far from the Hostel, called "Cro-Magnon Club". It was about $1USD for an hour!

It was hard to see Communism as an "evil" thing when we saw people on the streets that were most likely working, with a roof over their head, under the former regime. The saddest case we saw was a woman in one of the numerous subway tunnels (which, by the way, are a fascinating experience in themselves). She looked about 60, was probably about 40, and she was coaxing the most exquisite sounds out of her violin. We stood there in awe for quite some time and eventually walked away with an overwhelming sense of sadness. We saw men drunk by 9 in the morning and women cleaning the streets with brooms fashioned out of sticks tied together with twine. Yet when we turned around we saw men and women climbing out of expensive cars, dressed in designer clothing and dripping in jewelry, heading for the most exclusive Restaurants and Casinos. The price of Democracy? At any rate St. Petersburg really offers quite diverse sights for its visitors especially if one is willing to follow one’s nose, so to speak.