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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg Is Putting On The Charm

I have just returned from a trip to the "Venice of the North," the "city on the Neva," the "second capital," the "city where every stone remembers Lenin." In other words, St. Petersburg.

It was a strangely disconcerting experience. The whole town seemed to be on a charm offensive. I was there for two whole days and did not get into one shouting match. No one was even rude. I mean, I was all geared up for combat, and this beautiful city just took all the fight out of me.

I remember my first trip to Leningrad several years ago. I stayed in some cold, dirty Komsomol hotel with a group of students and a few thousand cockroaches, and the four days we spent there seemed like four years. The city was grey and inhospitable and we were constantly hungry. The cafes and restaurants were all either closed or barred to us -- you seemed to have to know something that I obviously did not to get a table at one of the few establishments that were open.

Add to that the facts that St. Petersburg water is so parasite-laden that you can't even brush your teeth with it, and that the bottled water available in those days had visible chunks of metal floating around the bottom and the taste of fishy dishwater, and you will understand that I was always prepared for the worst.

I have been back many times over the years, but I never quite shook the feeling that St. Petersburg was like a beautiful stage set -- nice to look at, but impossible to live in.

No more. This time I stayed at the Moskva, a great, hulking, Soviet pile that I chose simply because of its convenient location, at the very end of the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt. The reception desk was friendly and helpful, handing over my magnetized keycard in no time at all. No more ten-pound keys to be deposited with the dezhurnaya on the way out.

Gone were the hideous green-and-white spreads that seemed to cover every bed in every Soviet establishment, replaced by quilted flowered coverlets. Even the bathrooms had been remodeled.

There was a business center for sending faxes, a modern phone for making international calls charged to a credit card (very useful, since I had to do my twice-weekly breakup with my old friend Stan, who is now in Washington).

The only vestige of the good old days was the breakfast -- every combination of fat and starch known to man. Kasha swimming in butter, meat-filled blini, heavy cheese syrniki, blini and jam -- you name it, it was there, along with some fermented cabbage in case you wanted to force down something faintly vegetable.

Nevsky Prospekt was dotted with cafes, stores, and restaurants that looked as if you might actually be able to get into them.

It was heaven. But I kept waiting for the spell to break. When I tried to catch a cab to the train station, I was sure that Petersburg's charm was wearing thin -- the taxi driver asked for $10. I said, "You're nuts," and kept walking. Undeterred by my tone, he ran after me. "What do you want to pay?" he asked. "10,000 rubles," I answered brusquely.

"Well, why didn't you say so?" he said cheerfully, hoisting my bags into his van. "No need to get upset."

Back in Moscow, I was rejected by four cabbies, got into a fight with a fifth, finally caught a private car home, and got into a two-hour traffic jam on the way into work. It's great to be back.