St. Petersburg

Wooden nesting Babushka dollsRussia’s surprising shopping discovery

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – Called the “Venice of the North,” the magical city boasts of countless canals crossed by more than 300 bridges and adorned by 500 palaces.

To say St. Petersburg’s legendary offerings are unmatched would be redundant: meals beginning with caviar, summer days that never end (called “White Nights,” the translation means around-the-clock sunlight), vodka so smooth it glides along the throat and for some . . . shopping.

Shopping?

I didn’t buy it.

However, I was game to test the hypothesis. Thus, I set out from my deluxe digs at the Grand Hotel Europe for a bit of retail reconnaissance.

The legendary hotel’s location was unparalleled for this task, and upon stepping from its sweeping red-carpeted staircase to the entrance, I stood on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s most prominent promenade and epicenter for shopping.

Universally chic stores, such as Versace, Hugo Boss and Max Mara, sport this address, but my quest was to unearth homegrown treasures.

Gostiny Dvor department store (Nevsky Prospect) was my first stop. Among the city’s largest, it’s been calculated that a single circuit around the perimeter of its aisles is one kilometer. Unlike North American department stores, it is a collection of shops, stalls and kiosks.

The caliber of the merchandise varies, along with its customer service; but for coats and hats (including fur) it’s a “must” because of variety and value (regardless of season).

Yeliseyev (Nevsky Prospect), a turn-of-the-century food emporium, displays only the finest items, including chocolates, cheeses and vodka. And its Art Nouveau setting is exquisite . . . so exquisite that the interior alone warrants a visit.

But for an authentically Russian food excursion, I headed to Kuznechny market (Vladimirskaya metro stop) where I sampled honey, purchased ½ pt. of caviar ($15, all prices U.S.) and observed local banter (well worth the meager cost of a metro ticket).

Beluga Deluxe (Iskusstv Square) is a jewelry boutique near the hotel. Judging from its exterior, the store promised to be expensive; and having to push a buzzer to enter convinced me it was out of my league. However, it was an unexpected find – three rooms (each graduating in price), with caviar expectedly found in the final chamber. My reasonable purchase: amber necklace ($37).

Onegin (Iskusstv Square) was chockfull of Russia’s expected but exceptional souvenirs: lacquered boxes (magnifying glasses were provided to verify detail), Faberge-style eggs and art work (with proper paperwork for customs). Though its prices were high, its quality matched.

But I sought bargains, and headed to Rynok Suvenirov across from the brightly-domed Church of the Resurrection. Its reputation as the city’s best tourist market is easily interpreted: English-speaking, hospitable and bargain-friendly.

I was not disappointed.

“Do you have a red fox hat for me?” I quizzed Jenia, a 21-year-old student/vendor.

In the market for a Dr. Zhivago-style head covering, I tired of those making me look like a Cossack.

“Please wait,” he responded, rushing from sight to an undisclosed location and returning with my stylish, soon-to-be souvenir – a fur hat ($35).

Browsing the market’s stalls, I found abundant “buys”: handmade wooden toys ($3), a wide selection of matryoshka stacking dolls (from $5) and Russia’s famed Lomonosov porcelain (I checked for the exclusive stamp), cup and saucer ($30).

Continuing, I combined my endeavors with sightseeing, learning that shopping at major tourist attractions (such as the Hermitage and Peter and Paul Fortress) is always possible.

Here’s the drill: a tour bus stops and entrepreneurial street merchants converge upon it with a selection of souvenirs – from colorful scarves to Soviet memorabilia. And though bargains can be had for mere rubles, their quality is up for grabs.

Solution: museum shops. I discovered that the best caliber and widest selection of items can be found in the Hermitage, Russian Museum and other famous facilities.

My return to the Grand Hotel Europe was not without motive. It is home to Avanov, a small but select shop where I spotted my expedition’s piece de resistance – an intricate box adorned with amber stones ($10,000).

It was clearly out of my budget, but it was certainly worth its price – the treasure was designed by the same artisans who restored the Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace.

Mission accomplished.

In celebration I sought friends in the Grand’s Lobby Bar. The cream of Russian society has collected there for years, and Dom Perignon is served by the glass. The setting is orthodox St. Petersburg.

“To shopping,” we toasted. “Skoal!”

Tips:

For more about the Grand Hotel Europe, go to www.grandhoteleurope.com