St Petersburg, where do we start?
Our introduction to the city and to Russia couldn’t have been better as we were met at the station by Lera and Vladimir, friends of our friend and Russian teacher Natalia who kindly drove us to our hostel, and later that evening took us out with their friends Vadim and Varvara for a great first evening swapping stories of life in Russia and the UK over Russian beer and snacks in a Soviet-style beer hall.
The city itself is certainly the most beautiful, intriguing, absorbing, chaotic and exhausting we’ve seen so far. Incredibly, although it looks much older, nothing in the city is over 300 years old. Electing to build a new capital from nothing on swamp land – and ordering the landowners and aristocracy to build their palaces here and move to the city – must have been a controversial decision (Jonathan Dimbleby describes it as a grand folly!). But the city – like its many museums and churches – is staggering. Seemingly almost every building, in the centre at least, is of grand neo-classical or Baroque-style, and with its wide boulevards, grand edifices, many waterfronts and canals it looks like a slightly dishevelled hybrid of Paris, Venice and Amsterdam.
Even the metro stations are grand marble affairs with chandeliers and never ending escalators lit with art deco lamps (see photo below). The stations’ great depth is due to their dual purpose as bomb shelters – apparently their independent water and food supplies are still maintained, though we weren’t sure whether hearing this made us more or less nervous about using the underground.
One of the striking things we noticed about the city is how similar in height almost all the buildings are: looking out across the city from the colonnade of St Isaac’s cathedral it seemed the only buildings over 5 storeys high were the other churches, whose gold domes shone even with the cloud.
We spent many hours enjoying the grand vistas, palaces and parks, and views of golden onion-domed churches which dominate the city, and also went on a fascinating guided walking tour of one of the islands west of the main tourist sights (if anyone else is visiting the city we’d definitely recommend: http://www.peterswalk.com/) which gave us much more of an insight into the city’s recent and less recent history than we would otherwise have gained.
It’s also been fun to practice our (very limited) Russian and exciting to discover how much we can understand, and that with a bit of work we can even make ourselves understood quite a bit of the time (thanks Natalia!).
Yet while St Petersburg and its sights are impressive, we found ourselves at times longing for something less grand and ostentatious, and a bit less hectic. The Hermitage, the fabulous art museum located in Peter the Great’s Winter Palace, is awe-inspiring but so packed full of treasures ranging from the ancient Far East to 19th and 20th Century European masterpieces (there are whole rooms of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse works we’ve never even seen reproduced elsewhere), not to mention vast numbers of tourists that it was at times just overwhelming. Similarly, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is dazzling both inside and out with multi-coloured domes outside and 7000 square metres of (mainly gold) mosaic on the inside, that it made our heads spin. Even outside on the street it seemed at times like every building was a grand palace, and all the roads permanently busy –not just the 8-lane main shopping street.
So, on our last day in St Petersburg we travelled a few kilometres outside the city for a more restful trip to Peterhof, one of several palaces built by the Tsars as country retreats. The palace itself was reminiscent of a grand French chateaux, and we skipped the museum indoors to spend a couple of hours walking blissfully in the immense classical gardens, with exquisite tree lined avenues, ornamental flower beds and some rather large and very impressive gold-encrusted (what else?!) fountains and water features.
While Nicholas II may have described St Petersburg as “Russia but not Russian” it’s been a fantastic introduction to the country for us and while not officially part of the Trans-Siberian route we’re very glad to have come here and would definitely recommend St Petersburg to anyone interested in coming to Russia.
Enjoying a drink with Lera and Vladimir