A Baltic sea cruise, 2001 – seven countries in fourteen days. Next stop St. Petersburg.

We had attended the talk the previous evening and were advised we should stay with our tour guide and not go off on our own. It was the only city that welcomed us with a jazz band – and armed guards who were at the entry and exit of passport control. The tour bus filled and we set off through the docks. We were informed new docks were being built especially for cruise ships and that much other work was planned to be ready for 2003 and the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the city.

As we proceeded we could see for ourselves just how much work needed to be done. The bus lurched over pot-holed roads, past grimey, sad-looking residential areas. All the buildings were of classic (Georgian) style and, by contrast, the education buildings and tourist attractions – such as the Winter Palace – were in good repair, bright and shiny. The city seemed almost empty – people had gone to their dachaus, we were informed. Those that were still around looked as grey as most of the buildings. Brighter spots were tall cages, from which melons were being sold, and glimpses of community spaces behind the buildings where vodka and beer was on sale from small cloth-covered tables.

We were taken to a tourist shop. Locals who tried to get in were turned away by the guards at the door. The shop was wonderfully fitted out – a long bar opposite the door offered free shots of vodka, coffee, ice-creams and sweets. The merchandise was varied, of good quality and reasonably priced, and varied currencies were accepted.

Back on the bus, we passed a grand hotel, expensive cars were parked outside – a spot for business people and the richer tourists. Then, to our surprise, the bus was parked in a leafy square and the guide told us we could wander off on our own for an hour or so, and an appointed time was set for us to return. Remembering the advice we were given the previous evening and the armed guards we had seen, we set off feeling somewhat nervous.

We walked back past the hotel to a square, where several roads met, and into a grey, dilapidated building that housed an indoor market – although many spaces were either closed or empty. The traders looked rather grim too and would only accept roubles or, ironically, American dollars. The merchandise was sparse and not particularly attractive. A big contrast to the tourist shop and to the bright multi-coloured church, opposite the market, with its gold, blues, yellows and reds glistening in the sunshine.

I have no desire to re-visit St Petersburg, but I often wonder just how much of the necessary work has been done in the ten years since we visited that city of contrasts.

— Ida Jones

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