“From Russia with Love” brought James Bond to this land. Cold wars have come and gone since that movie, and this year’s no different. So, on the unlikely chance they’ll film my visit, let’s call my trip “To Russia with Curiosity.”
Nadya Ivanova, manager of tour operations in St. Petersburg, the land’s cultural capitol, had this to say: “Culture and history—they’re out of politics. The only danger,” she laughs, “is the uneven cobblestones.” That, and an overdose of sour cream.
The easiest way to explore St. Petersburg is as part of a group tour, which many travel companies offer, along with help in obtaining the necessary visa. We landed at Pulkova Airport, opened in 2013, after an Aeroflot journey featuring supermodel flight attendants in pumpkin-orange outfits and matching stilettos, handing our breakfast trays with the question, “Skrimpled igs or penkaks?” (Scrambled eggs or pancakes.)
Our van sped us to the new Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace, originally a princess’s palace guarded by two stone lions immortalized in a Pushkin poem. Talk about location: a block from the Neva riverbank, across the street from opulent St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and two minutes from Nevsky Prospekt, the Fifth Avenue of St. Pete. From my balcony, I could spot the nearby Hermitage, one of the world’s top art museums, with Tsar Alexander astride his stone horse monitoring Palace Square.
Bring on the Sour Cream
The hotel’s kitchen is run by Chef Andrea Accordi, proud winner of a Michelin star from his stint in Prague. Our dinner began with an eggshell filled with potato-lemon foam topped with caviar, designed to showcase the “egg” he’d conceived of for the opening of the Faberge Museum. It’s followed by re-imagined classics including the chef’s revitalized Russian salad (remember that dish from your grandma’s repertoire?). His featured quail and crayfish as well as the customary diced veggies.
Then came marinated Baltic herring in beet foam with mustard ice cream (tasting is believing) and borsch served in a hollowed green apple. “Borsch should be so thick your spoon stands straight up,” he instructed.
Granny’s vareniki dumplings stuffed with more beets (a Russian icon) partnered with white asparagus and pancetta sprinkled with poppy seeds. Then, panfried pike perch with dill, apple, chanterelles, radish and tarragon sauce.
Andrea’s beef Stroganoff is served over mashed potatoes (as it always is in Russia: Where did those noodles come from? Only in America.) “There’s nothing you cannot eat with sour cream,” Andrea declares, making his case with dessert: raspberry mille feuille (multi-layered Napoleon) with rose water-sour cream foam.
Sour cream reappeared the next morning, embellishing the crepe-like blinis he serves at breakfast. Brides were judged by the thinness of their pancakes. Thankfully, our own thinness is not assessed.
The next morning Andrea takes us to Sennaya Market, where tubs of sour cream are on offer, along with salty pickles (cukes, cabbage, mushrooms, garlic), white peaches from Uzbeckistan, horse sausage, venison sausage, wild blueberries and cranberries, and that trendy new exotic, sweet corn. The embargo on foreign food products imposed by the Ukrainian conflict forces chefs to be more creative, Andrea attests.
Art, Vodka, Castles
Enroute to the Hermitage—actually a collection of five gilded, gorgeous buildings, including the Rococo Winter Palace of 1753—we’re stopped by the persnickety police, who invite our driver into their van to inspect his papers. This happens two days in a row. Once there, our guide, Tanya, acts as the Pied Piper of art, weaving us through throngs of camera-toting Japanese to its 25 Rembrandts, two da Vincis, and Impressionism’s bold names. Across the Neva looms the Peter and Paul Fortress, erected when Peter the Great decided to build out of nothing a capitol for all Europe to envy back in 1703.”Here there shall be a town,” he said, as if instructing, “Let there be light.”
Then we head to the far less formidable Vodka Museum, featuring 220 varieties—the biggest in Russia, and that’s saying a lot—where our guide lays down the rules: Gulp, don’t sip, and eat after each shot: herring, pickles, caviar, sardines, boiled eggs. “Tender,” murmurs Tanya in praise of her favorite brand. Museum admission includes a guided tour and tastings of three vodkas with snacks.
We head off for dinner at Stroganoff Steak house, a homey tavern where, before the main beef event, we nibble on typical small plates: a more traditional Russian salad, salmon caviar, blini with sour cream, crab salad, liver pate pickled whitefish, smoked boiled potatoes. For dessert, wild strawberries with vanilla ice cream. And more vodka.
Then the show-offy castle tour: Hopping a hydrofoil, we glide to Peterhof, the castle-cum-theme park built by Peter the Great, envious after a visit to Versailles. His mansion takes a back seat to the grounds dotted with statues of Greek gods amid 150 fountains, four cascades and a canal. A sign warns us about pickpockets but not about the trick fountains that Peter the Jokester constructed to douse his guests.
We returned to the city to lunch at FermA, our glimpse of a trendy, see-and-be-seen café, to feast on a salad topped with roast duck in honey-mustard dressing followed by “farm-style” borsch served in individual tureens and pumpkin soup served in a pumpkin shell. Then, veal tenderloin, tender as a baby’ cheek, served with asparagus. For dessert, we indulged in a sampling of the fancy tarts offered by FermA’s famed patisserie.
Next, it was off to Catherine’s Palace of 1710, surrounding a courtyard as big as a landing field. All that glitters is gold, indeed, along with chandeliers, mirrors and other uber-Baroque embellishments.
As a refreshing contrast, we dine in Podvovye, a log cabin amidst a forest of birch and pine: old timey fare like borsh, cold pork, and pelmeni dumplings. For dessert, blinis with a tart berry filling, a drizzle of honey and ice cream. By the way, Putin celebrated his birthday here.
Back in town, we visited one last palace—that of the Yusupov noble family, to whose basement Rasputin was lured and killed. Other emblems of the darker days: Dostoevsky’s haunts (walking tour available) and a museum heralding the 900-day siege of World War II.
Yet another grand palace was recently converted in to the new Faberge Museum, sporting the world’s biggest collection of those fabled jeweled eggs, including those Tsar Alexander presented to his wife. Then a visit to the onion-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, glittering with mosaics, erected on the site of Alexander’s assassination by revolutionaries to launch another epoch in Russia’s tumultuous history.
And we saved the best for last. After a people-watching stroll along Nevsky Prospect, we delighted in a night at the ballet. The jewel-box Mikhailovsy Theatre presented that ultra-Russian classic, “Swan Lake,” not far from where composer Tchaikovskly wrote the score. It was a perfect ending to my love affair with Russia. — — Story and Photos by Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor
Four Seasons Lion Palace www.fourseasons.com/stpetersburg