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An Insider's View of St. Petersburg: Part 2
Yet another group of musicians, once again made up of demobilized Russian Army Bandsmen, sat on the wharf playing a range of music from American jazz to Viennese waltzes for passing tourists. The band's leader asked where each person was from, and the entire group instantly reacted by playing the appropriate National Anthem, from that of Japan to the Stars and Stripes, with never a note astray. And tourists, flattered by this, invariably responded with one to five dollars placed into the strategically positioned hat on the quay.
"These guys, and other groups like them make a very good living. Getting foreign currency donations instead of Rubles is the winning factor. A US Dollar buys a lot of groceries here."
We mentioned to Yuri that we would like to go shopping. First he took us to the shop Aurora, at Kubysheva St. 33/8 which had a wonderful range of those exquisite lacquer boxes that make marvelous souvenirs of a visit to Russia. These were produced by the villagers who used to paint fine religious Icons before the revolution. During Stalinist days they were "persuaded" to make these lacquer boxes, with illustrations from Russian folk stories, instead.
The painting on these boxes was so delicate that some lines were painted with brushes made of just one hair. Now that Icons are again in vogue, these boxes may become more rare and valuable.
Now we were once again passing Nevsky Prospekt at a section where streets were lined with people selling new and second hand clothes, household items and lots more. They somehow did not look like shopkeepers and I commented on this to Yuri. "Some factories have no cash, and pay workers in the goods they produce instead," Yuri explained. "Those people then have to sell that merchandise. Others sell goods they've bought on overseas trips or clothes that no longer fit."
Yuri then took us to the Bolshaya Konyushannaya Ulitsa department store, set in a lovely Art Nouveau building. After that we visited the Gostiny Dvor, the biggest store in St. Petersburg and the equivalent of Moscow's GUM. Housed in a building dating back to 1785, the Gostiny Dvor complex occupied a whole city district, and its facade alone is over 1 km long. Here we saw where the more affluent 10%-20% of the city's population shopped. If one had the money, the shops had the merchandise.
Accommodation and dining also went to extremes. One can stay in semi-barrack surrounds like the Oktyabrskaya "Hotel" for around US$50 per double or at the elegant Grand Hotel for around US$400-$500 per double per night. Homestay accommodation with local families is cheap, but it's a lottery.
Restaurants too vary tremendously. The best meal in town was the Sunday Brunch at the Grand Hotel, but only foreigners and Russia's nouveau riche could afford that. The same applied to the overpriced dinner shows at the Troika, the Metropol and the St. Petersburg, which are popular with tourists.
The average places at which the ordinary citizens ate were, to overseas visitors, of little more than the minimum standard of the most basic Salvation Army soup kitchens. Yuri suggested that, for reasonable to good food, a visitor should check the "Travelers Yellow Pages" booklet available at the hotels. There we found places, often joint venture Russian/foreign ones, that were pleasant, acceptable, and often with prices only quoted in hard currency. We looked at the Chaika, Austeriya and Na Fontanke and they looked pretty good.
Today's St. Petersburg is still breathtaking. The Winter Palace, the Summer Palace, The Hermitage, The Admiralty, baroque churches, golden domes, gilded halls, great ballet and theater, stylish boutiques, a huge department store, and five-star hotels tend to shield the tourist from the poverty of those on fixed low incomes, the beggars, the black market, the Mafia and a rapidly increasing crime rate that is starting to match that of some parts of New York, Naples or Rio.
But as long as you wear a money belt and are careful, you should avoid problems. And don't be put off by the difficulties the city is suffering. Even with all these, this fabulous city is a "must" for the serious traveler. And if you visit once, the chances are that you, like us, will want to return -- again and again.