Photo: Exeter International
By Wendy Perrin
My English-speaking guide in St. Petersburg has a talent for getting into places after they've closed for the day. Yesterday it was the State Russian Museum. Today it was Tikhvin Cemetery, where many famous Russian artists, composers, and writers are buried (Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Glinka among them). We arrived at 5:30 only to learn that the cemetery had closed at 5:00. The guard eyed me skeptically. Whatever my guide said to him, he ended up letting us in. For half an hour we were the only (live) people in the cemetery. Then my guide explained that the guard would be expecting payment. On the way out he named his price: 200 rubles (about $8).
We were running so late because I'd had to spend six hours this morning checking out hotels. Anyone who thinks the life of a travel journalist is one giant vacation should spend a morning with me scrutinizing hotel rooms and trying to cut through the marketing spin dished out by hotel sales managers. I chose six properties, ranging from 3-star to 5-star, that are good bets for Conde Nast Traveler readers, and at each one my goal was to determine which room category (e.g., superior river-view) or line (e.g., all rooms ending in "05") or floor or single room represents the best value for your money. Try doing this with a hotel like the Eliseev Palace, where no two rooms are the same, or the Kempinski Moika 22, which has 17 different room categories.
Only after completing this hair-raising task could I start my sightseeing day -- at 2:00 pm! By the time we had zoomed outside the city to Peterhof -- Peter the Great's summer palace and gardens -- and zoomed back, it was 5:30 and we had missed our can't-be-missed appointment at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory. Since I'm more into dead composers than dinner plates, I wasn't devastated. But if you think the cemetery visit was the end of my work day, you're sorely mistaken. Since then I've checked out two restaurants and a Russian Orthodox church service. I've also switched hotels. Had to flee the affordable Petro Palace because, after many wasted hours battling the world's most bizarre hotel Internet-access system, I could not get onto the Web from my laptop. Which made blogging tough. I'm now at a five-star classic that is totally unaffordable (a large bottle of Evian in the restaurant costs $15), but whose ace business center got me WiFi-enabled within three minutes. (Can't tell you where I'm staying, of course, since I'm here incognito. I'll spill the beans after I check out on Thursday.)
Okay, enough throat clearing. Today's highlights:
1. Peterhof's 28 over-the-top rooms, which I might describe as Versailles meets the Hofburg, only with even more floral silk upholstery. Peter the Great's decorator, Catherine I, clearly believed that more is more.
2. Learning that Peter never even lived there! Way too grandiose for him. He preferred his four-room log cabin in the city.
3. Finding out from my guide that Rimsky-Korsakov was actually a naval officer by education, that Borodin was a chemistry professor, and that Rachmaninoff, who fled to the U.S. when the Revolution started, "died of homesickness."
4. Learning--again, from my guide--that the theft of 220 works of art from the Hermitage about a month ago was an inside job perpetrated by the husband and son of one of the curators.
5. Being told by the Grand Hotel Europe's sales manager during this morning's hotel inspection that Tchaikovsky honeymooned at the hotel. Talk about marketing spin: My guide told me later that this is not possible, since Tchaikovsky was gay and never married.
It's now 1:00 a.m. St. Petersburg time and I'm still at my laptop. Yup, the life of a travel journalist is just one giant vacation.