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In Russia, it's St. Petersburg again.

"A stalled train bound for eternity" is what poet Joseph Brodsky called his hometown of St. Petersburg. Today the description is especially apt. The grey landscape of loading cranes and warehouses surrounding this once-bustling port seems all but abandoned since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Out-of-work spy ships, still emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, lie at anchor in the narrow channel that leads to the grimlooking passenger terminal. A brass band on the dock strikes up a hearty welcome for the latest shipload of tourists bringing dollars.

St. Petersburg's customs regulations change at every visit, the captain of The Song of Norway complains. "Who knows what they'll want this time?" Nevertheless, he confesses, of all the great cities of the Baltic, this is by far his favorite. He warns, though, that first-time visitors may experience culture shock.

This time there are no problems. Customs officials scrutinize passports and wave passengers through to the burgeoning souvenir market in the parking lot.

Consumer goods may be in short supply in St. Petersburg, but tourist trinkets are plentiful. There's an abundance of amber jewelry; lacquered boxes; caviar; and Matryoshka nest dolls, the kind with Stalin inside Khrushchev, inside Brezhnev, inside Gorbachev, etc., as well as a surplus of military coats and hats, hero medals, army watches, and illustrated guide books that still refer to this city as Leningrad.

The three-hour morning bus tour of St. Petersburg keeps tourists on their toes. The pretty young tour guide, Natasha, a stickler for staying on schedule, thinks nothing of ordering Vladimir, the driver, to drive on, leaving lagging tourists stranded. She makes her toughest stand at the government-run Beryozka shop, where, after listening to pleas from friends and relatives of the missing to wait just a few more minutes, she rushes back in a huff to round up the stragglers.

We visit the Cruiser Aurora that fired the first shot in the 1917 revolution, the Peter and Paul Fortress where Peter the Great ordered his son tortured to death, the green and white Winter Palace, home of the Czars and now the Hermitage museum. The famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great merits a photo stop, but we breeze. by with only a mention of the statues of Lenin at the Finland Station and of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the father of the secret police.

St. Petersburg's streets may be potholed and its buildings and parks shabby, but this city has something other Baltic cities lack--music. Walk all day through Stockholm or Copenhagen and you won't encounter so much as a flute or a fiddle. Here musicians materialize at every turn. Under a light drizzle, outside the Smolney Palace, a trumpet and a trombone serenade us with "She'll be Comin' Around the Mountain." Elsewhere a violinist and flutist render Mozart.

Material things, however, are less plentiful in St. Petersburg. On Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping boulevard, there's precious little shopping to be found. Store shelves are sparsely stocked. People stand along the street with goods for sale, one holding up a purse, another a pair of boots.

An ancient steamroller plugs away at a new strip of asphalt-a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. Hapless pedestrians are sprayed with asphalt as they try to skirt a puddle. Take a walk through this town and you're due for a visit to the dry cleaners, if there are any to be found.

Yet there is almost a palpable air of pride in this city and a lively regard for the arts. Stands of used books draw flocks of browsers. Makeshift artists' stalls line both sides of Nevsky Prospect for blocks. Here and there a lone restorer is seen dabbing in vain with a tiny paintbrush at a piece of some aging edifice.

In the afternoon we line up at a ticket window in the Hermitage museum. The entrance fee is 12 rubles, the equivalent of six cents. We offer a dollar bill, which is quickly snatched up. No change is given.

For a while we listen to a tour guide describing a musical crystal chandelier and a Peacock Clock. Then we follow the signs to the 19th Century painting galleries where the crowds are so dense it is impossible to browse. It's also uncomfortably warm. The palace has no air conditioning. There is, however, an effective security system--elderly women seated on stools loudly scold anyone who ventures too close to a painting. The next day, the sun is shining.

Our guide to Pushkin congratulates us on our luck. "We have only about 40 sunny days a year in St. Petersburg," she says.

At Pushkin we tour the famous Catherine Palace, which was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II and has been lovingly restored to its former splendor, which was excessive, to say the least.

Visitors are required to wear slippers made from carpet squares to protect the intricate parquet floors. They shuffle through the gilded rooms feeling like peasants.

The extravagant Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, commissioned this edifice in 1752. She also converted one of the outbuildings into a playhouse, where guests dined on such delicacies as nightingales' tongues and lips of young elk spread out on fully laid banquet tables that were raised through the floor from the basement. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, the guide says, only six rubles remained in the treasury.

On the return to St. Petersburg, we drive slowly around Victory Square where a 100-foot granite obelisk commemorates the defenders of Leningrad. A million residents died during the 900-day siege in World War II. "The defenders were determined not to let the city fall to the Germans," the guide says. "And they didn't."

In the afternoon, a Russian pilot comes aboard to navigate us out through the treacherous channel. He calls out new readings every few meters. Children wave from the shore as we pass by. The captain and crew wave back. Our last view is of golden domes and spires gleaming against a sullen sky. From this distance at least, St. Petersburg looks like the city Peter the Great had once envisioned, a mighty Paris of the north, which someday it may become.

The Song of Norway makes six tours of the Baltic this summer from June 23 to August 22. The 12-night cruise begins in Harwich, England, stopping at six Scandinavian cities, including a two-day visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. Prices range from $2,795 to $5,895. For information, call Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., (305) 539-6000.
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Title Annotation:travel
Author:Kreiter, Ted
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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