Outside of St. Petersburg, History, Sea and Spa Await

SPTRevelers letting out kite lines over the Gulf of Finland.

For the Moscow expat, a trip to St. Petersburg is the automatic getaway — perhaps a bit too automatic. Not many travelers take full advantage of the possibilities that such a trip provides, especially those beyond the city's borders.

That's why you may want alternatives to the usual haunts. So pack a few books or pick up a couple magazines. There is a lot of train riding ahead of you.

Trains from Moscow to St. Petersburg run several times a day. Travel time ranges from four hours to 10 hours, depending on the train you select. Prices range from about $50 to $100 each way. Buying tickets at Leningradsky Station can be extremely trying, even humiliating, and not always successful. Spare yourself, and book your tickets well in advance at www.rzd.ru (registration on the web site is required) or at a remote outlet. The Mostransagenstvo window by the escalators of the Turgenevskaya metro station is never crowded, and the sales ladies there are surprisingly nice.

Finding affordable accommodation is much easier in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. A quick Internet search will yield ample results. A random sampling of hostels showed that there were plenty of rooms available a month in advance, with prices starting at $40 a night and the opportunity to spend much more. But call ahead, as a holiday influx is expected.

We won't dawdle in St. Petersburg, though, but use it as a base for further adventures. Information about the Northern Capital's clubs, bars, dives and museums can be found easily on the commercial site www.saint-petersburg.com or via The St. Petersburg Times at www.sptimes.ru.

Let's Start With Skiing

There are several ski spots that can be reached by public transportation from St. Petersburg. Igora is one of Russia's most modern resorts, opened in 2006. Bus 859 goes 54 kilometers directly to Igora from the Devyatkino metro station. It leaves every 40 minutes. Or you can take an elektrichka, or commuter train, from Finlyandsky Station to the "69th kilometer" stop (find the schedules for all elektrichkas at www.tutu.ru/spb) then follow the crowd for about 15 minutes.

Call the resort in advance, at (812) 960-0055, for times and prices. (Be prepared to pay about $70 for rental and lifts, with a special holiday add-on admission charge.)

If your taste and budget run toward luxury, there are cottages to rent, shops to browse, a skating rink, spa, swimming pool, restaurant, bars, bowling,  movie theater and everything else the well-heeled sportsman could ask for. The slopes are good, too, and accommodate various skill levels.

After a day of skiing, you are sure to feel invigorated and alive. So now let's work our way back in history, stopping first in Imperial Russia.

Gatchina Palace has 600 rooms and was built in the 1760s by Catherine the Great's paramour Count Orlov. It passed to the royal family after his death and remained a royal palace until the Communist Revolution. The last tsar, Nicholas II, spent his childhood there. It was badly damaged by the Germans in World War II, and restoration continues to this day.

The town of Gatchina has a population of 80,000. It can be reached by marshrutka, or minibus, No. 18 from the Moskovskaya metro station in half an hour, or in about an hour by elektrichka from the Baltiiskaya station (take the one that stops at Gatchina Baltiiskaya). The museum is open every day except Monday, the first Tuesday of the month, and Jan. 1 and 2. Call (813) 719-3492 for more details.

The palace's facade has been restored, and several halls are open. Original artwork from the palace recovered after the war is on display. There is also an exhibition of ceremonial weapons from the former imperial collection. On the palace grounds is a charming smaller palace, the Priory, which also has been restored.

The park adjacent to the palace dates to the same era. There are three lakes and a variety of monuments to walk around, weather permitting.

Within walking distance of the palace, across the park, is the P.E. Shcherbov House (4 Ulitsa Chekhova). Shcherbov was a Silver Age artist and caricaturist. His mansion is an impressive, cream-color brick building from 1911. It houses a modest exhibition. Walk by while you're there, but call (813) 712-0864 or (813) 712-1088 to find out about access to the exhibits.

Since Gatchina is close and easy to get to, you might be back in St. Petersburg in time for more exploring. Take a look at the Kresty, or Crosses, one of Russia's most notorious prisons and Europe's largest. The gloomy, redbrick complex was built by inmates in 1890. A number of luminaries, both political and artistic, were confined there. A short list includes Leon Trotsky, Alexander Kerensky, hundreds of members of the pre-revolutionary State Duma, Nikolai Gumilyov and his son Lev, and Kazimir Malevich. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it has been most noted for its inhumane overcrowding.

The prison's museum has been closed for ages, but its massive but austere church, in the center of the complex, holds services twice monthly. Call (963) 325-5973 if you are determined.

Gatchina palace was built by count orlov, catherine the great's paramour, in the 1760s.

Otherwise, practically the only other reason for a member of the public to enter the prison is to leave a prayer request for the health of an inmate. Adjacent to the church is the package drop-off (priyom peredach), in which there is a box to make such requests. You can leave a request (zapiska) for the general good of the prison's population. The drop-off is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed from noon to 1 p.m., seven days a week.

Go to the Leninskaya Ploshchad metro station and walk down Ulitsa Mikhailova to Arsenalnaya Naberezhnaya. The prison is the redbrick complex at No. 7. It is slated for closure once a new facility outside the city is completed.

Going further afield and farther back in time, our next jaunt is to Vyborg, population 80,000, located 130 kilometers from St. Petersburg and nearly on the Finnish border. The town is largely industrial and shabby, but its center is like nothing else in Russia. It is home to the country's only European-style medieval castle, walls, towers and much nice architecture from the turn of the last century. Most of the sights are in the open and easily accessible.

From Vyborg to Sestroretsk

Vyborg is a straight shot from Finlyandsky Station and about two and a half hours traveling. The castle is now a museum and is closed on Mondays, as usual. Call (813) 782-1515 for details.

Increasing the complexity of the trip slightly, we next head for Staraya Ladoga, one of the oldest cities in Russia, founded on the shore of Lake Ladoga in the 8th century.

Today it is a village of 3,000 inhabitants living in concrete Soviet buildings and surrounded by a compact assortment of churches, a fortress and other monuments dating back to the 12th century. A separate admission fee has to be paid at most of the monuments. Everything is closed on Mondays. Call the Archaeological Museum at (813) 634-9070 for information.

On the outskirts of the town are pagan burial mounds and a network of large caves, which should be visited only with the assistance of a guide. The intrepid may be able to find one, however.

Getting to Staraya Ladoga requires taking the elektrichka from the Moskovskaya or Ladozhskaya station to Volkhovstroi-1, a trip of about 120 kilometers or two hours. From there, a bus runs every 50 minutes to Staraya Ladoga, nine kilometers away. Be sure to plan your trip back, and watch the time. An online timetable can help with the planning, but pay close attention because the site automatically gives you next-day return information. There is only one hotel in Staraya Ladoga, and it would be risky to count on finding a room in it.

After such a busy few days, it is time to restore your health. A short elektrichka ride from the city (from Finlyandsky Station to Kurort Station) is the Sestroretsky Resort, tel. (812) 437-3453. Founded in 1898, expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, and renovated in 2001, Sestroretsky offers a quintessential Russian experience: the sanatorium.

Sanatoriums are spread throughout the former Soviet Union. They were a mainstay for Soviet vacationers, who traveled to them in organized groups, often with their co-workers, for rest and restoration.

As with skiing, there are a number of choices in the area, but this is one of the nicest. Note that for only slightly more money than your hostel in St. Petersburg (accommodations at Sestroretsky start at about $70 a day for a single room, $45 if you double up), you also get three meals.

For entirely reasonable additional charges (starting at about $6), there you can have a massage, mud bath (indoors, with local mineral-rich mud), therapeutic workout, aromatherapy (with essential salts), take a dip in a hot tub, swim in mineral water and a try host of other "procedures." You could even have a session or two of psychotherapy. Medical consultations and more specialized therapies are also available.

There are billiards, movies, parkland and the shore of the Gulf of Finland, with its colorful horizon and drifting clouds. Chances are there will be dances in the evening.

The manager promises that rooms will be available and staff will be happy to see you. There is a minimum stay of four days during the holiday season.

If you are in danger of becoming too well-rested in that time, take a look at Sestroretsk, a suburb one stop away by elektrichka and placed on a beautiful strip of coast on the Gulf of Finland. Early in the last century, an array of Silver Age literary greats (Anna Akhmatova, Leonid Andreyev, Kornei Chukovsky, later Mikhail Zoshchenko) had dachas there. Some lovely dachas survive from that era, though not theirs.

On the northern side of the town, the local cemetery, founded at the turn of the last century, has an array of Russian-style ornate gravestones. It is the resting place of Zoshchenko and a number of local heroes; it also has a mass grave from World War II. Unusual for Russia, it is divided into Russian, Jewish and German sections.

Sestroretsk has ancient roots but got its real start when Peter the Great built a summer residence there.  It grew into a usual town in the 1950s, with a population of 40,000 now, and you will have to hunt for the sights. But it's worth a couple of hours since you're close.

After that it will be time to go home to Moscow and its own familiar joys. Happy trails!

Moscow Guide Winter 2011
Moscow Guide Winter 2011
<p>A fresh snowfall can make any street in Moscow beautiful. No matter how familiar we are with what lies underneath the snow — a smudgy kiosk, a dusty road, last year’s remont — that layer of white makes our city new.</p>
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