Day 1-4: St Petersburg, Russia

by - June 13, 2011

Day One: Introduction

Less than a fortnight after flying home from Bangkok and equatorial South East Asia, I have headed off to northerly St Petersburg, which is on a similar latitude to the Shetland Isles.  The city is mine and Alex Rules’ gateway to the Trans-Siberian railway, which will take us along the 10,000km of rail track to Vladivostok.  Along the way we hope to stop off in Moscow, Yekaterinberg and Irkutsk.  The trip will last three weeks and will span two continents and seven time zones.

Russia is, as the often repeated Churchill quote says, is a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.  The majority of what I know of the country is from history lessons and even that only spans the era from 1905 to 1991.  The post-communist Russia is a mystery to me, apart from a vague notion that Putin is in charge and that it sits on vast supplies of natural resources.  Moscow and St Petersburg escape this ignorance though - they are in the 'must see’ category of world cities.  Sitting on the edge of Europe, both geographically and culturally, the two seem like a great place to start and spend a week.  From Moscow it gets a bit more intense, with 8 nights’ worth of train journeys and a good chance that the locals will have never seen a Brit before.  This is the challenge.  For now, our three nights in St Petersburg will provide a distinctly Russian take on a European city and ease us into what should be an amazing trip.

Little Sadovaya Street at 10pm
We flew out with 'Rossiya Airways’ an airway with a fairly mediocre reputation which we were eager to disprove.  I can have no complaints really - the flight was just over 3 hours and the food and service was fine.  I hope that it was through gratitude rather than relief that the Russians on the flight started clapping upon our safe landing in St Petersburg.  I was a bit nervous about border control - the Russian visa system is pretty complicated and I had images of being sent back to London for the smallest of errors on my application.  Thankfully it was all okay and we were soon at the hostel having caught a taxi into the city.  I hadn’t considered it, but the high latitude of the city means that the days are really long.  In fact, we were by chance visiting the city during the 'white nights’ weeks when the sun only sets for a few hours every night.  After dropping our bags off at the Acme Hostel, we headed straight out for dinner.

Nevski Prospeckt at gone 11pm
 By now it was about 9pm, but the sun was still high and there were still families walking around in shorts and t-shirts.  Having had a pretty long day we decided to hold back on having the local food and just grabbed a quick sandwich in the 'Dubai’ restaurant. It was amazing to be able to sit outside until about 11pm and for it still to be light, busy and warm.  If this wasn’t enough, first impressions of the city were that it really was a cut above the rest when it came to looks.  All of the buildings are palatial and well maintained, the cities are clean and the restaurants and cafes spill out onto the streets to make the most of the late evening glow.  Believe it or not, having left England with hail and thunderstorms, we arrived in St Petersburg to temperatures pushing 30 degrees.  That’s geography for you.  After dinner it seemed nice enough to just walk around for a bit.  Our hostel is fairly central, just off Nevsky Prospekt which is the Oxford Street of St Petersburg and is within walking distance of most of the old town.  A quick walk took us past the Russian Museum and past one of the many canals.  Bangkok is known as Venice of the East, and St Petersburg is known as Venice of the North and I have to say I am a lot more excited about exploring the Russian equivalent than the Thai one.

Day Two: The Historical Heart 

Anchikov Bridge, St Petersburg
The downside of such long nights is that the Russians take the chance to stay up drinking.  Our central location meant that the noise of car horns, music and wheel spinning was still pretty intense at 4am and that neither me nor Alex had much sleep.  This meant that we ended up getting up just before midday.  This hadn’t been the plan - we had wanted to get up and go, but it just kind of happened.  Not to be put off, we carried on with our plan and started exploring the old town.  St Petersburg isn’t anything like as old as you might expect in 2003 it celebrated its 300th birthday.  The city was founded on a swamp by Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted to have a naval base and city that was close to Russia’s arch enemy at the time, Sweden. Peter was also pretty embarassed by Russian culture at the time and longed for a city like Venice or Paris.  As a result he had the city built by Italian architects and was built with peasant and prisoner labour.  The working conditions were so bad that as many as 100,000 people died in the swamps.  At first the Russians thought that the whole idea was a waste of time and for the first 60 years of the city's existence a rock tax was implemented, whereby anybody entering the city had to bring a certain amount of stone to fill in the swamps.  Over time however, St Petersburg became one of the gems of Europe and is testament to the perseverance of Peter the Great.

Alex and the Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg
Aside from the Winter Palace, I wasn’t actually sure what St Petersburg had to offer in terms of individual sights.  As a result I was willing to put my faith in the Lonely Planet walking tour, just in reverse.  They ended, and we started, at Ostrovsky Square, a little park with the Anchikov Bridge at the corner.  This bridge has horses on each of its four corners.  Nevsky Prospekt bisects most of the city and we headed along it past Gostiny Dvor, an 18th century shopping arcade with a kilometer worth of facade which was designed by the Italian architect Rastrelli - who had a hand in most of the city.

Singer Building, St Petersburg
The first major sight that we got to was the Kazan Cathedral, built by Tsar Paul in a design based upon St Peters in Rome to attempt to unify the Orthodox and Catholic churches.  They weren’t so keen on people taking photos inside, but this made it a good chance to people watch.  Even after a week in Serbia, the workings of the Orthodox church are a complete mystery to me and I think that the best way to pick up the various symbols and rites is to stand and watch.  There appeared to be a wedding going on, though the bridge and groom must have been about 14 so we didn’t know quite whether this was the real thing or not.  Directly opposite the cathedral is the 'Singer Building’, one of the coolest buildings I have ever seen.  It was originally the headquarters of Singer Sewring Company, then the American Consulate and is currently a bookshop and cafe.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
Within 5 minutes’ walking distance, past the Russian Museum, is the iconic 'Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood’, built on the site where a terrorist group blew up Tsar Alexander II’s carriage and killed him.  He was quite a popular ruler and was seen as a bit of a reformist which meant that his death was a bit of a national tragedy.  The church was dedicated to his memory and is based loosely on St Basil’s in Moscow, but with a colour scheme leaning towards blues and yellows on its candy like onion domes.  We didn’t go inside (sites here are expensive and it just isn’t viable to go inside everywhere) but took plenty of free photos from outside.  Here we veered off our Lonely Planet tour and headed for the Neva River, the main waterway in the city.  This took us through the Mars Field, once the site of military parades and now the site of a memorial to those who died in the 1917 revolution and ensuing civil war.  It wasn’t far along the banks of the Neva until we arrived at the famous Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum.  The weather seemed to be too nice to go inside (we will be going in another day), so we walked past it and over the river to Vasilevsky Island.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg
The island is opposite the historic heart and was originally going to be the focal point of the city.  As it turns out, the island is home to a lot of museums but was best visited for its views back over the Neva towards the Hermitage and Admiralty buildings.  After a few snaps, and having seen Alex dip his feet in the river, we crossed back to the mainland to climb to the top of St Isaacs Cathedral.  The dome of the cathedral is visible from most of the city and as a result the view from the top is really great, even if getting up the crowded staircases to the top is a fairly unpleasant experience.  On our way to the top we had passed by a 'colour and flower’ festival where loads of attractive Russian women (of which there is an ample supply) were parading around dressed in flowers.  From the top of the cathedral we could see that the whole city was really busy and that there was a lot of music and other festivals going on to celebrate 'Russian Independence Day’ which is marked over the weekend.

View from St Isaacs
We walked back down from the cathedral and then headed back down Nevsky Prospekt to our hostel.  By now we had been walking for going on five hours straight and were ready to clean up and start thinking about dinner.  Russia isn’t renowned for its culinary range and we figured that we had plenty of time to try it during our three weeks here.  As a result of this we decided to sample food from some of the former Soviet republics.  First amongst these was Georgian cuisine, from which I tried traditional dumplings and Alex had a beef soup.  It was good food, and different from what I’m used to, but the portions were pretty tiny considering the amount of money that we paid for them.  The restaurant is called Kavkaz if you are ever in the area and fancy something different.

An open bridge over the Neva
Our evening’s entertainment was going to be something fairly unique to St Petersburg.  With the city being a major port, it is essential that commercial ships can get up and down the Neva.  The bridges are too low for these ships however and this means that they are opened in the early hours of the morning between 2am and 5am.  It is quite a popular event during the White Nights to go and watch the bridges opening in the pale twilight of the midnight sun.  It was fairly dark as we made our way to the first bridge at 1.30am, due to some pretty heavy cloud cover, but there were still spots of sky that showed how light it could have been.  We were with a German woman called Simiona and a British guy called Tom who we had met in the hostel and Simiona had seen the bridges open before.  She was able to get us around pretty efficiently to see each one go up.  I was impressed by how busy it was - even at 3am when we headed back to the hostel, there were still kids out with their parents.  Amusingly there was a lot of traffic around, containing a lot of angry drivers who were frantically trying to beat the bridges and cross the river.  Unfortunately my evening took a slightly rubbish turn when a gust of wind blew my lens cap off my camera and into the river, much to Alex’s amusement.  Aside from that, it had been a really interesting way to end a very action packed day.

Day Three: Peterhof Palace

Peterhof, St Petersburg
The Grand Cascade and Palace
Our failure to get up on time continued today to a lesser extent as our intention to get up and out by 9 manifested itself as being up and out at 11.  With three and a half days in St Petersburg we decided that it might be a good idea to take a day trip and there was no place more obvious to go than to Peterhof, home of Tsar Peter’s palace.  This required a half hour hydrofoil journey along the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland, on the coast of which the palace is situated.  Based on Versailles, but with a very Tsarist twist, Peterhof is without a doubt the most extravagantly opulent building hat I have ever seen.  We were only able to afford to look around the grounds, but these alone were vast and took us over 3 hours to cover.  It was quite an expensive day trip, costing 800 roubles (about 17.50 pounds return) to get there and a further 400 roubles (8.75 pounds) to get into the grounds.  The palace would have cost extra and gallingly the tourist price is nearly double the Russian price.

Samson and the Lion fountain
That said, it was worth it and thankfully the sun came out a bit as we walked around the grounds and ate our cost-effective picnic lunch.  The central attraction of the palace and grounds it the Grand Cascade, a combination of over 140 fountains designed by the seemingly water-obsessed Peter the Great.  The centre point of these fountains is a statue of the biblical character Samson opening a lion’s jaw, which is supposed to represent a Russian defeat of the Swedes.  As if this cascade, located directly in front of his palace and with a great view over the Gulf of Finland, wasn’t enough, the grounds are absolutely loaded full of more fountains.  We got some posed photos by the outside of the palace before heading off into the surrounding parkland.

The palace itself is mainly a reconstruction of its former self, as a result of an amazing bit of history that reveals the petty streak of two of the worst people in history.  Leningrand (as St Petersburg was once called) was one of the major cities that was captured by German forces during WW2 and upon capuring Peterhof, Hitler grandly announced that he was going to have a vast banquet there.  Stalin became so incensed by this that he ordered one of his bomber squadrons to fly over some pretty dangerous territory to blow up the Peterhof.  Believe it or not, the grand palace was blown up by the Russians, not the Nazis.  You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference however, as it has been lovingly restored to its former glory.

Another cascade and more fountains
The vast complex of grounds, lakes, fountains and extra buildings is too complicated for me to name all of its constituent parts.  There was a huge range of things to see - including a man-made fishing lake where members of the public were allowed to go and catch their own fish.  As stunning as the site was though, it was hard to shake the concept that the vast amounts of money that had been spent on building the palace came from the oppressed Russian peasants.  It isn’t hard to see why the working classes had an issue with the ruling elite would build palace upon palace and fountain upon fountain, without giving a whole lot back to the people.  It is strange, but also perhaps logical, that the most ostentatious and over the top building that I have ever seen was built in the home of communism.

Baku restaurant, St Petersburg
After walking around the grounds and dipping our fingers in the Gulf of Finland (an act that will hopefully gain more relevance when I can dip my fingers in the Pacific Ocean in three weeks’ time), we headed back to the city.  It was now late afternoon and a lack of computer in our hostel meant that we had to spend a while in an internet cafe to make some bookings.  We met Tom and Simonia in the evening and went out for our second Soviet republic meal, this time at an Azerbaijani restaurant.  This was very different to the Georgian food, with a real Ottoman influence that meant that after my meal of mutton wrapped in vine leaves, we all had some Turkish coffee. The Baku restaurant was pricey, but had an amazing atmosphere and was really genuine.  We stayed late, though even when we left at half 11 there were still people coming in to start their meals.

Day Four: The Hermitage Museum

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg
We completed our 100% record of failing to get up when we planned to today, by missing our alarm and waking up at 10.15 - having arranged to meet the others at 10.30 outside the hostel.  The next 15 minutes consisted of the most rushed checking out of a hostel I have ever done.  With no breakfast.  We were checking out because we would be sleeping on the train to Moscow in the evening, so we would be coming back to the hostel later for our dinner.  The plan for the day was to explore the vast Hermitage Museum, located in the Winter Palace.  The museum is one of the greatest collections of art and historical artifacts in the world, situated in one of the grandest buildings in the world.  The collection was started by the Tsars, but was bolstered firstly by the communists taking private property from rich dynasties such as the Strogonovs, but also from taking any Nazi collections that they came across on their way to Berlin.  This was actually a fairly noble deed if you are an art lover, as the private collections had never been seen by the general public and the communists opened them up to the world.  The various exhibits take up not only the Winter Palace, but also an annex and several buildings elsewhere, and incredibly there is over 20 times the amount of exhibits stored in the basement than on display at any time.

Inside the Winter Palace
As a result of it essentially being the Russian equivalent of the British Museum combined with the National Gallery, the queues to enter were enormous.  We had a new member to our gang - a Russian woman called Elena, who would prove to be invaluable when it came to talking to the rude and unhelpful staff.  The most annoying of these were the people in the cloak room who refused to take our bags because the bag clerk was 'on lunch’ and the coat clerks weren’t allowed to take bags, despite the fact they were stored in the same room.  We actually had to wait for the bag clerk to arrive before we could drop them off, despite Elena arguing our case.  The fact that the staff treated Elena in this way proved that they were just downright rude, rather than just unhelpful to tourists.  It took us about half an hour to drop the bags off, which was on top of the hour we had spent in the queue in the rain.  We weren’t in the greatest of spirits as we entered the galleries, it has to be said.

Grand staircase inside the Winter Palace
Luckily we were soon able to forget the unhelpful staff, as we began to make our way through the exhibits.  The bottom floor of the museum was dedicated to historical artifacts, ranging from Greek, Egyptian and Roman through to Scythan and Mongol.  We decided to spend more time in the latter sections, as the Hermitage seemed to have better the upper hand in these where the British Museum had the upper hand in the former.  The exhibits were really well laid out and the amount of material was vast.  My only complaint was that there wasn’t much English signage, making it difficult to know what each individual item was.  A large portion of the attraction of the museum was its amazing setting - the building itself would be a huge tourist attraction even if it wasn’t stuffed full of paintings and artifacts.  After looking through the historical sections, we made our way upstairs to the European painting sections.  I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying to name styles and eras of painting, so I am going to let the pictures do the talking for a bit:

Okay, so that should give you an indication of the range and depth of paintings on offer. I think. By this stage we had been either in the queue for, or actually inside the Hermitage for four hours and having had no breakfast or food I was starting to feel ready to collapse.  I think that leaving the building is always going to have an aspect of admitting defeat about it - you could spend a lifetime in the building and still find something interesting to look at.  I’m not even an art lover and I believe that.  We started to make our way towards the exits, making our way through banquet halls and up and down grand flights of staircases as we went.  We even saw a bride and groom who had come to the Winter Palace for a photo shoot - quite possibly the coolest place to have one done that I have ever been.  At about 4ish, we managed to get back outside and the five of us said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.  Alex and I went back to the hostel to cook a tonne of pasta for our lunch/dinner.  After three servings of pasta, we headed outside into what was now sunny St Petersburg, for a farewell walk around.  It is a stunning city to visit and is also incredibly important historically as the capital of the Tsars.  As a fan of history, it has completely changed my opinions on the Russian Revolution.  Having seen the sheer over the top opulence of the Winter Palace and Peterhof, not to mention the scores of other palaces throughout the city, I can completely sympathize with the oppressed workers who wanted a little bit for themselves.  I think that you have to come to St Petersburg to truly grasp that concept.  Anyway, with one last vodka, Alex and I headed off to the station to catch the overnight train to Moscow.  See you there.

St Petersburg vodka

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