Nevsky Prospekt

Strolling St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

Part one:

Strolling along Nevsky Prospect, the Main Street of St. Petersburg, you'll see some of the most beautiful and interesting architecture of anywhere in the world. The many waterways and canals rightfully earned Petersburg the name Venice of the North, however, during its construction it was quickly learned that the far northern climate made it impossible to navigate like its namesake. Still, you see many pleasure boats cruising through the canals during the summer months. And now a little historical background...

By comparison, Petersburg is a pretty young city. While Moscow celebrated its eight hundred and fiftieth birthday in 1997, Petersburg is less than three hundred years old. The official date of its founding is held to be 1703, when Peter the Great decided to build a new capitol, to wash away the conversative style of Moscow. He wanted Petersburg to be a true European city. Construction took place so rapidly that the city took shape not by the week or even day, but by the hour. In fact, travelers to the new city were required by Peter's decree to bring stones and building material with them, or pay a hefty tax!

Canals were dug along the streets and the ships bringing materials were expected to dock along the shores to unload their materials. However, it was quickly realized that this method was not suited to Petersburg brutal winter climate.

One of the first buildings to be constructed was a wooden cabin, Peter the Great's first home in his new city. This building is still preserved and housed in a simple brick building, near the Peter and Paul Fortress. It's an amazingly simple building. Peter probably didn't worry about making it to fancy, since he'd soon have some of the most lavish digs in the world.

Of course, construction was begun very soon on Peter's Summer Palace, on the opposite side of the Neva River; he built there to encourage other's to build along the bank of the river.

The pace of construction was relentless, with tens of thousands of workers being brought to the city to work on the massive project. Many of them died from the intensive labor and brutal climate. For this reason, Petersburg is sometimes said to be built on bones. Doesn't really give one a pretty feeling, I can tell you, to be told this while one strolls Nevsky Prospekt looking for tourist trinkets.

But apparently the climate in St. Petersburg, at least for Peter and his cronies, wasn't too bad. They were known collectively as the "All-joking, All-drinking Council of Fools and Jesters." Sounds more like a college fraternity, doesn' it?

Whatever went on back then, those almost three hundred years ago, what is left to be seen today by a tourist such as myself is a magnificant city. Buildings designed by architects from all over Europe, brought to Russia to showcase their talents and design a city rich in diversity, meet you at every corner and cause you to stop in your tracks.

The buildings in Petersburg are not tall, so they are not terribly imposing structures, like the skyscrapers of New York, for instance. In fact, Peter the Great made it law that no building, except for churches, could be built taller than his palace. So as you walk around Petersburg you are not dwarfed by huge structures, or made to feel boxed in by giant walls on either side of you, as in some cities. The sky, at least during the White Nights of summer time, is always visible, and as a pedestrian you feel a part of the city. There is a sense of modest proportions that make Petersburg feel open and friendly.

As I have said before, there is a whole different feel in the air in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. Petersburg has a hopefulness, and a pace that feels more like a western city. The people appear more optimistic, and smile more easily, especially when asked foolish questions by lost American tourists; I can attest to this personally.

One evening, with the sun placed in the sky just about where it is here at noon, Nino, Galina and I decided to search out a place to have dinner. Since Galina was the St. Petersburg native, we let her lead us around looking for a restaurant. She said she had a place in mind that I might like, a notion that should have made me immediately suspicious, and were began heading down Nevsky.

I was surprised, but only slightly, when she brought us into a sandwich shop that had a strange and familiar feel to it. Then when I saw on the wall the familiar, large displays of the New York City subway system I knew exactly where I was. It was an imported American Subway Sandwich Shop. "Eegad!" I said aloud, "Now they have Subway, too."

After explaining to Galina that I ate in an identical shop about three times a week while at work back in Atlanta, we set out for someplace different. And where she led us next was on just about the completely opposite end of the spectrum, a very nice restaurant right next to the Church of the Resurrection, pictured here on the right.

While we waited for a table, I took the shot you see to the right, and several more detailed shots with a high power lens. This church is probably the most familiar structure in Petersburg, and certainly one of the most visually stunning. The incredible intricate detail on the paintings covering almost all of the outer walls are truly incredible.

We sat down to dinner and ordered a bottle of wine, and a few glasses of lemon vodka. We had had a great day wandering casually around this beautiful city. We had made no specific plans, set no time tables, and had set one of the laziest paces a tourist possibly could. Galina demonstrated the patience of a saint, as my curiosity had us stopping at everything from shoe stores to side walk art markets. So now it was time to settle down to a great dinner and relax.

After we had just sat down a moment or two a very noisy crowd of about ten people came into the restaurant, chattering away loudly. I had become rather accustomed to not being understood most of time, so I said over to them, in an obviously joking and friendly manner, "Hey you bunch of balookas! Quiet down over there!" One man in the party shot me a glance, winked an eye and pointed. They then went off to a table some distance away.

A few minutes later the man who had winked and pointed in response to my little remark came back to the table to say hello; he was from Chicago. The group were mostly college professors from America doing a tour of Russia. Just my luck, and I told them all to be quiet.

The meal, of course, was wonderful, and not too terribly expensive by Russian standards. The total bill, with the wine and vodka mind you, was a little over two hundred dollars. Remember, this is russia.

When I handed the waiter my visa card he said something in Russia I didn't understand, but I knew something was up, because the visa card did not transfer to his hand. Oops! He explained they did not take Visa after five in the afternoon because their bank closed. "You have your own bank here in the restaurant?" I asked. "Yes," he responded. Only in Russia, ladies and gentlemen, only in Russia do restaurants have their very own banks.

So now it was off to hunt for an ATM machine that would take my Visa card. Nino and I left Galina there in the restaurant as collateral. I told the waiter if we didn't come back, Galina would wash the evening's dishes. He didn't find this amusing. Galina giggled and then poured another glass of wine; she was having a fine time of it, apparently.

Out in the street Nino and I were trying to remember where the machine was we had used earlier along Nevsky Prospekt. While were heading in what we hoped was the right direction we passed another ATM machine with a man cursing at it in english, "Damn thing," he kept saying, as he inserted his card only to have it spit back out at him.

From my own experience I recognized his dilemma at once. I explained to him that this machine was owned by a Russian bank, and intended only for use by their customers. He then explained to us he needed to find a machine in a hurry, because he left a friend back in a restaurant after trying to pay their bill with dollars. Silly American! We told him to follow us. So the three of us set off to find one of the rarest of species, Visa accepting ATM machines in Russia! You couldn't be more adventurous hunting the great Russian bear.

We found the machine, performed a cash-ectemy, and went back to the restaurant to rescue Galina. She, it turned out, was having a good old time finishing the wine and chatting with our waiter. We scooped her out of her chair and headed back into the street.

By now the sun was beginning to look as if it were ready to set, but I knew by now that it was only fooling me. During the summer here in Petersburg the sun barely goes down for about a moment around five in the morning, before creeping back up just a short time later. This may sound strange to someone from more equatorial climes, but as a tourist it's great. You never run out of sunshine, and at this late hour as the sun moves toward the horizon, the beautiful buildings of St. Petersburg are shaded and cool.

The temperature had dropped enough to allow us to put on the light jackets were had carried for most of the day. Walking along the canals, the sun would occasionally break through a courtyard, or small side street, and reflect off the water into our eyes; I didn't look away. The trails left in my vision as my gaze surveyed this wonderful place were truly visions of St. Petersburg, and I didn't want them to fade. I knew that the following evening I would be back on a train for Moscow, and the time we had spent here had been far too short. As I felt my departure come closer, walking along the waterways, and I felt that sense of sadness one feels when leaving such a place, I realized that in St. Petersburg, even a lifetime would be far, far too short.

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All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans