Insight Compact Guide: St. Petersburg

At last I would be going to St. Petersburg, the gorgeous Russian city that for years I had longed to see. But, alas, I would only be there for a bit of time (two days), so a bit of book is all I would need to pilot me around–and to leave room in my shoulder bag for the souvenirs I was destined to buy.

Small–but not tiny, and thus still readable–the Compact Guide proved handy both for the guided tours offered as part of my package (a cruise through the Baltic’s) and for the self-led urban wandering I always indulge in. I could easily follow along as tour leaders pointed out this and that–from flamboyant churches to ornate palaces to gilded theaters–as well as take myself independently from place to place without undo loss of direction. The guide’s maps proved ideal for both situations. And its slenderness prevented the map overkill that bigger books fall prey to, causing one to spend entirely too much time trying to remember on which big, little, or medium map–or was it that un-refoldable foldout?–you saw building X. Plans of center city, neighborhoods (each geared to a walking tour), and the vicinity proved more than enough.

The book takes its design cues from website graphics, as so many good guides now do. It is crisply divided into prim sections of text, a sprinkling of sidebars–both varied nicely by typeface and titles–and small but clear photos. Before one even meets the city, the Compact Guide offers an introduction called “Top Ten Sights,” eight of which I managed to fit in. A history section traces St. Petersburg’s story from before its founding in 1703 to the present day, covering plenty of triumph and tragedy, the latter crowned by the grisly German siege of 1941-44. Other guide features include the tourism basics one expects: transportation (including subway), hotels, restaurants, useful phrases, and a little list of terms one constantly runs into. I now know that “ploshchad” means square and “prospekt” means avenue.

My tour of the city started next to the Neva River at the Peter and Paul Fortress, in whose needle-spired cathedral the Romanovs, including the last of the clan, are buried. But most of the sites were to be found on the other (south) side of the river, churches and palaces and squares of astounding spirit and variety, their three centuries of architecture a continuous delight to the eye (no high-rise slabs–yet). Since the city was rigorously planned, its boulevards and squares–and a surprising number of canals–held special interest. And it was down the most famous of the streets, the crowded Nevsky Prospekt that one could escape tourism and catch real Russians strolling, shopping, dining, working, or just sitting in parks. All of the attractions were but a quick flip away in the guide.

St. Petersburg’s number one draw is, of course, the Hermitage, the famous and enormous art museum that occupies the Winter Palace of the czars and adjoining buildings, strung along the embankment of the Neva. Since even a reasonable amount of time devoted to the treasures within can lead to overdose–perhaps even the art-induced dizziness that psychologists have dubbed the “Stendhal syndrome”–the guide’s text offered me visual relief as well as a useful little floor plan to propel me through the opulent galleries. And since I had to check my bag upon entering, a heavy guidebook would have proved regrettable.

A trip south of St. Petersburg to the former czarist village called Tsarskoe Selo was the pinnacle of my trip, since it offered a chance to see much more of the city as well as a slice of deep–green countryside. As the bus headed out on the super–scaled and still very Soviet–looking boulevard that begins in town as the Moscovsky Prospekt, there was plenty of time to consult the guide about passing sights as well as our goal, the fairly-tale-like hamlet-in-a-park where the royals wiled away their summers. I would have liked more information on the little town and the stunning Catherine Palace that dominates it, but that would have to wait until I could consult fatter books. One of those was the Insight City Guide: St. Petersburg by the same publisher, a heftier version of the Compact Guide, which I had stowed back at the boat to read before and after my St. Petersburg outings.

And the souvenirs? Well, yes, they did include a set of those nested dolls, I must confess. But that was for a friend. My own acquisitions included an acrylic cube showing the Admiralty Arch on one side with the colossal Alexander Column embedded in the middle–both in the immense square in front of the Hermitage–a tiny lacquered box, and chocolate bars and boxes of tea, all of which I nested in my bag neatly next to the Compact Guide.