“The water sustains me without even trying…”
This line comes from a favorite song of mine, “The Water” by Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit. It lays out in seven words what I’ve been struggling to articulate when I contemplate why Saint Petersburg is so incredibly alluring. From the Neva River to the city’s snaking canals to the nearby Gulf of Finland, water is as central a concept to Petersburg as cold is to Siberia, or as perennial mediocrity is to the Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s just something about the almost overwhelming presence of water (I almost forgot to mention rain; in Petersburg, days with rain are more common than days without) in Russia’s Window to the West that draws people in, regardless of nationality. I say this because in 2017, 7.2 million tourists visited the city, over half of whom were foreigners (https://guidetopetersburg.com/st-petersburg-tourism-statistics-2017/). Clearly the abundance of water in Petersburg contributes greatly to its famous beauty.
It was the prospect of seeing big water that drew me to the coast our first night in the city. After a guided tour of the Hermitage early in the day, we were on our own, free to explore Petersburg. I’m not sure where it came from, but an idea popped into my head while deciding what to do with my time: walk west from the city center to the coast. I pulled up a map and quickly realized it was a bit too far to walk, so I opted for the metro. I bought a couple of tokens and hopped on a train to Vasilievsky Island, the largest one in Petersburg. I needed Primorskaya station, but when we rolled into Vasiliostrovskaya, one station before Primorskaya, everyone on board was told to exit the train. This had never happened to me in Moscow; I was really confused. I asked one of the workers if there would be another train soon, and she shook her head no. Taking another look at my pre-downloaded map of Petersburg, I decided I could walk the rest of the way to the coast. It was only about three kilometers, or 1.8 miles.
I emerged from the station and started west. The sun was beginning to slide down into the horizon, so I walked briskly. Quickly I became glad I was kicked off the train; this part of Petersburg was vastly different from the area surrounding the Hermitage, and the extra walking gave me a chance to do some more exploring. It looked a bit more like a Moscow neighborhood, but, in a way, still very different. Again, I think this was due to the proximity to the water. By this point I was around a mile away from the Gulf of Finland, and maybe I could smell the sea. Who knows? At any rate, there was something intangible that separated this place from all other places I’d visited, Moscow, Petersburg, or otherwise. Moreover, it immediately became apparent that there were next to zero tourists around, excluding myself (although I don’t like to think of myself as a tourist). This gave the neighborhood a strong vibe of authenticity; there I was, surrounded only by real Russians, blocks away from big water.
After a quick stop for an oversized bottle of water, a massive bridge in the distance came into view, and soon I was approaching the gulf. As I stepped to the edge of the water, I witnessed some teens messing around atop an old military speedboat on display at water’s edge, and a solitary backpack-wearing girl sitting on some steps leading down to the gulf, taking in the view. The people there numbered in the single digits, a far cry from our visit to the Hermitage. This, in combination with the vast, open water, provided a welcome feeling of solitude, a very positive solitude. The sun was setting, and all I did was enjoy what was right in front of me, lost in thought. For the umpteenth time, I thought about how crazy it is that I’m in Russia, the former Soviet Union, long-ago home of the Romanovs. On the edge of Europe, leaning on Peter’s windowsill. And it occurred to me, this also for the umpteenth time, that the best experiences, in my experience, happen organically. I absolutely had a great time during our planned visit to the Hermitage, but the naturalness of my walk, the “real” Russians going about their business in their neighborhoods, and, of course, the water, and the way it all unfolded was, for me, much more fulfilling, much more sustaining.
The sun slipped below the horizon, and in the waning light, somehow with more energy than when I began, I returned home.