July 20, 2011 • 5:13 am

This Saturday (July 23) I’ll be leaving for the Tenth International Symposium on Littorinid Biology and Evolution in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Littorina is a genus of marine snail, and although I don’t work on snails, I collaborate with Spanish colleagues on questions of speciation in the group.  I’m scheduled to give the final talk, on the relationship between biogeography and speciation.  How could one ever turn down an invitation to St. Petersburg?  And it will be my first visit to Russia.

As usual, Greg Mayer and Matthew Cobb will be posting in my absence, but entries may be sporadic because it’s summer and because Matthew is writing a book on the liberation of Paris.  I’m bringing my camera, computer, and connection cord, so I’ll try to post pictures of my peregrinations.

I’m taking a few days after the meetings to see the city, and will return to Chicago August 3.  If any readers have experience of the city, and can recommend things to see or places to eat (I already bought my ticket to the Hermitage), I’d be grateful for suggestions.

30 thoughts on “Peregrinations

  1. Enjoy St. Pete. It’s a beautiful city.

    Nice time of year to visit it, too.

    Hmmm … I can’t remember the names of any restaurants there, but try some Georgian food and wine if you get a chance.

  2. That does it.

    I’m going to become an evolutionary biology professor and write a definitive book on the veracity of evolution so that people will invite me to Russia.

    I’ll check back with y’all in a couple decades….


  3. When I went there in 1991 there was NO decent food apart from in peoples’ houses. You should see if you can get a visit to see Pavlov’s appartment – you might even be able to wear one of his hats (I did!). My hunch is the place has changed far too much for my dim memories to be useful, apart from w/regard to architecture.

    1. There is decent food now, although frankly I don’t think much of it will impress JAC.

      Like I said, Georgian food is probably the best on offer. One of the Georgian wines, Mukuzani, is pretty decent.

      Actually, it’s been 6 years since I was there, so the food situation has probably improved somewhat since then.

  4. I went to Moscow and St. Pete’s for the first time in April and had a fantastic time.

    Our strategy for the Hermitage was to sit down with the map and pick the three things each we most wanted to see, and then just peruse everything on the way to those six things. I think we saw about 70% of the museum that way, without trying too hard.

    Best meal by far was at Teplo, an apartment-based restaurant near St. Isaacs. Worst food of the trip was at the cafe with the wax Pushkin in the window. Great ambience, bad food.

    People there speak English like I speak Spanish after having a semester in 9th grade. There are a lot of casual cafes (they look like Starbucks + soup and sandwiches) that have menus in English and with pictures. Pointing will get you a long way. I really liked the ham blinis and cream of mushroom soup, which you can get just about anywhere.

    Don’t get stuck on the wrong side of a bridge after 1am. You’ll be there all night. The city is a group of islands and they raise the draw bridges every night.

    Finally, make sure somebody is meeting you at the airport. It’s a long way into the city, and if you get a gypsy cab there’s no way to guarantee where you’ll end up. Your hotel will send a car. It won’t be cheap, but they will take you where you want to go immediately.

  5. In absence of great local comestibles, Baltic culinary influence from Helsinki and by extension Stockholm ought to have spread to S:t P’bg by now, and there ought to be markets analogous to what you found in Colombia just as there are in Stockholm (at the saluhalls at Hötorget and Östermalmstorg) and Helsinki, and they may well have delicacies like the smoked elk and reindeer sausage, smoked lamb, and various smoked fish (do not pass on the smoked herring if you find it!) that we recently had – vs. restaurant prices it was a cheap banquet.

    Caveat: I remember years ago at the market at Helsinki, they had these meat pies which apparently contained a high amount of lard and fat. Good for going out on a fishing boat and working hard all day, bad it you’re a tourist, in case you run into anything like that.

    Back to good news, it is now possible to get good hoppy beer in Stockholm (try Bedarö Bitter), but I expect Helsinki still lags S’hlm in that regard, and I suspect S:t P lags Helsinki, so there’s a category to report on too.

    And if the mushroom soup is anything like that in Slovenia, you will want to consume lots of it!!

    1. I spent several years in Russia and later several years travelling to Finland and Sweden. The kitchens have not mixed much.

      There is a Swedish grocery, Stockmanns, in Moscow and now St. Petersburg. It’s pretty good if you’re desperate for high quality, foreign foods. And most shops will have some foreign brands anyway.

      However, the local Russian beer is not bad. Baltika (based in St. Pete) has several quite drinkable varieties.

      Of course the vodka is excellent, but don’t try to keep up with the Russians unless you’ve had a lot of practice.

    2. For quality also Grebbestad Lunator (dark, tasty) or some of Oppegård production.

      If you go down in prize and up in size I recommend some of Slottskällaren (local Uppsala microbrewery, sells all over; most sorts worth its prize).

      Both Oppegård and Slottskällaren seems good at distribution, so perhaps they are out east too.

    3. Slovenia … I loved Ljubljana, it was sooo cute and the food was wonderful. I’d go back in a minute. In fact I’m hoping the European economy will make it possible to retire there, (hope is free).

  6. I was there in 2001 with a performing group, and we were offered a mini shot of vodka before lunch and dinner. As of 2001, the recommendation was to avoid drinking the tap water, so I’d have an emergency dose of Cipro on hand, just in case.

    It’s quite a beautiful city. You should visit the famous cemetery where Tchaikovsky is buried. It’s chock-a-block full of dead people.

    If you have the time, definitely schedule a day trip to the Summer Palace. The gardens are quite something to behold.

    Watch out for pickpockets — children work in teams. A money belt is a wise investment. Anything in any pocket is fair game — one member of my group had a front pocket picked.

    While sitting in a tour bus, I saw two children practically denude an unfortunate tourist in about the time of a traffic light. Their “auntie” was about 50 feet away, and collected the booty.

    1. Water restrictions still apply. Locals don’t drink it either, it’s why tea is so popular.

      Bottled water available everywhere.

      1. In Moscow, we always filtered and boiled our tap water before drinking it. But bottled water is available everywhere, as you say.

        I had a Russian colleague who insisted that the tap water was fine, and he drank it straight from the tap. Unfortunately he died of cancer last year — I hope not due to that!

  7. My only suggestion was going to be to visit the winter palace, which you already plan on doing. It’s beautiful,and well worth the visit. It’s one of the few things I remember well from visiting in 1987.

  8. Russia was my first trip abroad, exactly 30 years ago this week! We went to Moscow, Kiev & Kishinev though. In those days it was all apple jam, birch juice, kvass from roadside tanks, great ice cream, lots of vodka, plenty of black tea (chai?) which we made with cheap champagne when the water was off in Kishinev. I got drunk at a wine tasting in a Moldavian bottling plant. You need to get invited to someone’s home!


  9. Never been there myself, but a ballet performance at the Mariinsky would be high on my must-do list.

    1. They are in the UK – the ballet at least – at present. A friend of mine works for them sometimes on tour here – she was a Russian correspondent for The Times for 10 years.

  10. Well, let’s see. It’s been about 30 years. Yes, the Hermitage is a must. If you have time, and can get out to the Catherine Palace, it’s stunning. Left a shell by the German’s, the Soviets did a terrific job restoring it.

    Closer to home, the Smolny Institute was the seat of the Bolshevik revolution, and worth a visit. Unfortunately, Wikipedia tells me the Foucoult’s pendulam was removed from St. Isaac’s.

    I always loved the ambience of the city, especially at night (not much of that in August, though). Having gone to Leningrad before I went to Hyde Park, the Midway always reminded me of the Neva at night.

  11. The Hermitage is nice, but I think the State Russian Museum is more interesting. It’s arranged chronologically so it’s somewhat like a journey through Russian art history as you walk through it. This is down the road from Nevsky Prospekt and has a big statue of Pushkin in front of it.

    Don’t drink Baltika, the beer I’d recommend in Saint-Petersburg is the dark Vasileostrovskoe that they make on the island of the same name. It’s an unfiltered (living) beer and some places will have it on draft.

    There’s also a cool German restaurant (I forget the name unfortunately) which is right on the “spit” of Vasilievsky Ostrov, near the university, facing the Hermitage on the other side of the river.

    Uzbek national cuisine is also highly recommended, though I can’t recall any specific restaurants. There should be cheap Uzbek cafes lots of places though.

    Don’t be afraid to move out of the historical center and see the more Soviet-feeling south and Petrograd sides. In particular there’s a square I like on Moskovsky prospect, “Victory Square,” which was supposed to replace Palace Square in Stalin’s reconception of the city. It didn’t work out exactly as he planned.

    1. Forgot to elaborate on the State Russian Museum versus the Hermitage. Since it contains only the work of Russian artists rather than the royal and noble families’ collections of (mostly) foreign art, it feels more complete and coherent in its transitions and historical contexts. It also has a much more extensive collection of 20th century art (since the bulk of the Hermitage collection was confiscated from people forced to leave the country in the 1920s), including lots of interesting futurist/avant-garde pieces.

  12. You already have the hermitage, so that’s win. There is a really lovely Georgian restaurant here:,30.346298&spn=0.070999,0.222988&safe=off&client=firefox-a&z=13&iwloc=B (B through this link.)

    Not overly expensive, but really really lovely food. So good that we went there twice in the 2 and half days we were there!

    I would take relatively seriously any warnings of having your papers and whatnot with you and sorted and also of being wary of the cops. They will shake you down, they do bash homeless people in broad daylight and we overheard some Swedish business men in the above restaurant talking about being detained and having to pay bribes. (I was there in July of 2008, btw.)

    Having said all that, the people are absolutely lovely, and it’s a BEAUTIFUL city.

  13. Russians do Cathedrals with a vengeance. They are sprinkled throughout St. Petersburg like cookie crumbs. You should see at least one of the following: The Church of the Savior on the Blood; The Smolny Cathedral; The Cathedral of the Resurrection; St Isaac’s Cathedral. The buildings are spectacular and the art of the Icons hanging on the inner walls is breathtaking. It is amazing what people will do for a superstition.

    The Church of the Savior on the Blood is alongside a canal and if I remember correctly, we got on a canal boat not too far from the Church and toured through the city canals. The tours were guided in English and you got to see a number of the important historical points in St. Petersburg although it was kind of zoom zoom—right on by.

    You should also see the Peter and Paul Fortress. The Fortress holds the prison where the Decembrists were held. There is also a small Cathedral, The Peter and Paul Cathedral (1712 – 1733) which is the burial place of all of the Russian Czars from Peter the Great to Alexander III, the last Czar.

    Along the Neva River near the Palace Bridge is the docking point for Hydrofoil boats that will take you out to the Summer Palace and Gardens. You could also take the train but I will tell you that zipping out the Neva to the Gulf of Finland and along the Gulf to the Summer Palace Quay at 60 to 70knots is a lot more comfortable than being packed 70 or 80 strong in a un-air conditioned rail carriage designed for 45 or 50 clacking along at 30kph.

    A number of the palaces of the Russian Nobility were restored for the St. Petersburg Tri-centennial in 2003. If you have the time, you really should tour one. You will find the ostentatious opulence of these palaces astonishing. Parquet flooring made of 16 types of exotic woods—hand formed ceramic tile inlaid designs in the floors or on the walls—gold leaf everywhere and that is just for openers. If you have any idea of how the non-Nobility lived in pre-revolution Russia then you will understand why they had a revolt about every month or so for a couple of centuries.

    If you get to tour one of these palaces, be prepared to shed your shoes. They supply a pair of felt slippers that are about the size of clown shoes—one size fits all—but when you are walking on 100, 200, or 300 year old floors that are this beautiful I think you can put up with clown shoes.

    Enjoy the trip.

    1. James C, the only thing with discouraging a train trip is that you are discouraging seeing the stations!!!

      A quick google image search will highlight why they’re worth seeing.

  14. Oh, yes, and the Tikhvin Cemetary, which holds the graves of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimski-Korsakov, among many others. (You might want a recording of Danny Kaye singing “Tchaikovsky” on your iPod for the trip:, try “The Best of Danny Kaye on Amazon).

    Also, people are serious about
    don’t drink the water’. Saint Petersburg is built on a swamp, and the water carries ameobic dysentary.

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