Our British Airways flight from Heathrow to Pulkovo International in St. Petersburg was a pleasantly short three hours. Our three-year-old son had graciously given up the window seat for once, and I felt my first real twinge of excitement as we hovered above the clouds and then began our descent into Russia.

That twinge faded pretty quickly as my Baroque vision of St. Petersburg was replaced immediately by the massive maze of gray Soviet-style apartment buildings that stretched as far as I could see interspersed with smoking stacks and the odd nuclear reactor tower. The airport was also smoky and dingy and poorly lit. It was almost like walking onto a Cold War movie set. Follow that up with the fact that we waited for an hour for our ride from the hotel…because “flights never get in early from London, they’re always late”…and my expectations were dropping by the minute.

But we did manage to resurrect them. We stayed at the Renaissance Baltic Hotel, which was half a block away from St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Mariinksy Palace. We took an evening stroll among the outdoor Christmas lights after checking in to get our bearings and then returned to the hotel and ordered room service…a luxury that we afforded ourselves on more than one evening as it was the easiest thing to do with a tired preschooler.

The next day was our only full day in St. Petersburg, and I’d planned it out fairly carefully so that we’d be able to see the things we wanted. But it totally fell apart, as all well-laid plans do. We were an hour late getting out of the hotel after breakfast, and our first big outing was going to be to the Winter Palace, home of the Russian Tsars. Admission was a mere $17 USD and little ones were free. But we had been informed that it was free entry on the first Thursday of the month, which this day happened to be.

So after a leisurely stroll along the Neva River with a little playing in the snow (yay! a morning dusting!), we came to the Palace Square…and spent the next two and a half hours standing in line with the rest of the Russians that had shown up for free entry. Happily we had purchased thermal underwear before we left, so it wasn’t completely miserable. But it was 28 degrees, and by the last half hour even the Russians were starting to huddle together and jump up and down in the cold.

The visible portion of the line outside the Winter Palace...the other half of it stretched across the inside courtyard.

The visible portion of the line outside the Winter Palace…the other half of it stretched across the inner courtyard.

Our son did surprisingly well. Other than insisting that his daddy carry him all over the country, he didn’t fuss much, and he was content to view the world from the comfort of Daddy’s arms, napping occasionally on his shoulder.

And of course the Winter Palace was fantastic. After another 30 minutes waiting for the mandatory coat check, we finally got to wander the palace. It truly is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. My favorite parts of the building were the Jacob Staircase, the Red Room and the Portrait Gallery. Of course, we only spent an hour in the palace, and you really could spend days walking up and down the halls.

The Jacob Staircase inside the Winter Palace.

The Jacob Staircase inside the Winter Palace.

By this time my husband’s blood sugar was totally crashing, so we headed straight toward the café where I’d planned for us to eat lunch. It’s a gorgeous little place called the Café Singer inside the old Art Nouveau Singer sewing building. We had a short wait, and two overly-done-up girls in their 20s tried to edge in front of us, but we politely shot them down and ended up with a great table by the window with a view of the Kazan Cathedral. And the food was very tasty. My hubby had stuffed cabbage, our son even snacked on a few meat-filled dumplings, and I ordered the salmon tartar with cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.

View of the Kazan Cathedral from Cafe Singer.

View of the Kazan Cathedral from Cafe Singer.

And I was really looking forward to the caviar. I’d ordered the house special Eggs Benedict at the hotel that was supposed to have caviar, but it arrived without it…and there was none on the breakfast buffet like the hotel pictures showed. So I was happy to finally get my Russian caviar.

Salmon tartar and cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.

Salmon tartar and cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.

I did have one little meltdown around this time when it took the waitress 45 minutes after our meal was over to bring my hubby the cup of coffee that he’d ordered. It was now after 5:00, and we had a dinner reservation at 6:30pm at one of the best steakhouses in town that even had a children’s room. Obviously we weren’t going to make it…and wouldn’t have been hungry if we had. But I didn’t want to leave them hanging. We weren’t able to get internet or any kind of phone reception on our cell, so I felt really badly when we finally got back to the hotel and the concierge informed us that they’d been holding our table for over an hour.

But once I finally accepted the fact that there was nothing we could do about it, we managed to salvage the rest of the night. We walked along Nevksy Prospekt and the Griboyedova Canal to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, so called because it was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. And the cathedral is just gorgeous. Modeled after St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, its onion domes were all done in blue and white and gold. Unfortunately it was closed the week that we were there, so we didn’t get to go inside. Maybe next time.

The top of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

The top of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

From there we peeked through the souvenir market across the street before opting for a horse-drawn carriage ride back to the hotel. Technically they didn’t go all the way to our hotel, but they went to the Winter Palace, which was close enough. Plus this day was my birthday, so it was fun to splurge…and it saved my hubby from having to carry our son an extra two miles.

Needless to say, we didn’t really bother with dinner that night…just snacked on chips and sandwiches and fruit in the room. But my hubby did order a couple slices of chocolate cake and two glasses of champagne from room service, which was a perfect end to a very special birthday.

Happy Birthday to me!

Happy Birthday to me!

Advertisements