Russia

DAY 40: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE


Today we fell in love….

It’s official: we love St Petersburg! We had our first full day in this glorious city today and it was awesome. Some reasons why we love St Pete’s:

  • The architecture. There are so many beautifully restored 18th and 19th century buildings, and within the old part of town (which is all a UNESCO World Heritage sight) building heights are limited to 3-4 storeys maximum – so no high-rises to spoil the views. 
  • The waterways. St Pete’s is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North” as it’s built across 14 islands at the delta of the Neva River, where it spills into the Baltic Sea. But it’s so much nicer than Venice because the waterways are wide and free flowing, and the city is not sinking or stinking. It was lovely watching boats cruise along the Neva River, and we saw lots of St Pete’s locals hanging out on the grassy riverbanks enjoying the sunshine.  
  • The parks. There are lots of green spaces everywhere and the grass is mowed! Sounds shocking, I know, that somewhere in Russia, someone cares enough to mow the lawns in a public space, but we saw it here in St Petersburg! Most of the main streets here are wide boulevards (or prospekts as they are called in Russian) with green, leafy strips down the centre of the road, adding to the general feeling of green-ness.   
  • The people. Generally people here seem friendlier, less grim. People smile! Heaps of people speak English and there is an air of openness that was completely lacking in Moscow. It’s still Russia, don’t get me wrong, but a far more welcoming version. In many regards this city feels so much more European, which was the really the whole reason it was built, so makes sense really! Our guide Tatyana said that people from St Pete’s are generally regarded as being very relaxed and laid back for Russians; she told us a great Russian joke that puts it really well: “You know, 90% of Russians live in constant stress; 10% of Russians live in St Petersburg”.
We separated ourselves from the tour group for a couple of hours today to stroll along Nevsky Prospekt (the main street through St Pete’s) and enjoy the atmosphere. We took heaps of photos of the buildings, the canals, the river, the people – way too many to bore you with here, but the collage below should help give you an idea of why we enjoyed our walk through the city so much.
 

A selection of snapshots from our wanderings down Nevsky Prospekt – the main street in St Petersburg.

Part of the reason we enjoyed St Pete’s so much today was also because we went to The Fortress of Peter & Paul and to The Hermitage – two of the most impressive places either of us has ever visited. 

The Fortress of Peter & Paul is the original citadel built in 1703 after Peter the Great and his army defeated the Swedish Empire in the Great Northern War. The construction of this fortress was the first step Peter the Great took in moving the capital of the Russian Empire from Moscow to St Petersburg. His idea was to move the imperial capital and at the same time, make sweeping changes to modernise Russia – to bring it into line with what Peter the Great had seen in 18th century European cities such as Paris, London and Rome. St Petersburg officially became the Russian Empire’s capital city in 1712, and remained the seat of the Romanov Dynasty and the Imperial Court of the Russian Empires, as well as the seat of the Russian government, for 185 years until the communist revolution of 1917. (Interesting side note: We found out today that before 1712, the monarchs of the Russian state were called Tsars and Tsarinas; after Peter the Great’s sweeping changes however, Russia became an Empire and thus they were known as Emperors ad Empresses).

The Fortress of Peter & Paul remained the heart of the city throughout the 185 years it was the imperial capital. Within the fortress walls there are a number of 18th century buildings left from the original citadel and the Cathedral of Peter & Paul, which was spectacular. Gold-encrusted wooden carvings at every turn, and more detailed, ornate sculpting than our eyes could comprehend. As well as being the original church of St Petersburg, this cathedral has particular significance because this is where the bodies of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses of the Romanov Dynasty are buried – from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and his family who were murdered in 1917. Tatyana, our guide, gave us a great tour through the fortress and a history lesson in the process. The photos below will hopefully give you an indication of the splendour within the cathderal.

The Fortress of Peter & Paul, with the central spire of the cathedral towering above the trees. For the 185 years St Pete’s was the capital of the Russian Empire, no buildings were allowed to be built taller than this spire. In the older part of town this edict remains, which means no ugly high-rises to spoil the beauty of the city.

 

Cathedral of Peter & Paul – exterior.

 

Entering the cathedral, already awed by the sumptuous interior.

 

The central pulpit and icons of the Cathedral of Peter & Paul.

 

Within the cathedral lie the tombs of all the Emperors and Empresses of the Romanov Dynasty, including the recovered bodies of Nicholas II and his family who were murdered during the Russian Revolution of 1917. DNA tests on the remains have confirmed that the entire family was murdered, including the Princess Anastasia who was originally thought to have escaped.  


From the Fortress of Peter & Paul we walked through some of the older parts of St Petersburg, past a multitude of churches and monuments  (some of which are highlighted below), on our way to lunch. Lunch was an awesome selection of Russian kulebyaka(translation = pies);; we shared a beef one, a rabbit and mushroom one, a veggie one and sweet lemon pie. Very tasty and oh so filling – we both wanted a nap after lunch, but no such luck ’cause we were off to The Hermitage!

Generous slabs of Russian kulebyaka for lunch.

 

The Cathedral of St Isaac – St Petersburg.  Destroyed during the Soviet era, this has now been rebuilt and restored.


 

The Russian Museum. This museum holds only the works of Russian artists.

 

Palace Bridge, St Petersburg – one of hundreds of bridges in this great city.


 

Palace Square – so large it makes buses look like toys.

The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world; founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, it has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections comprise over 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world; items from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; numerous tapestries, sculptures and furnishings from all over Europe; and a huge section dedicated to Russian art and culture. The collections occupy a large complex of 6 historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace (the former residence of the Russian Emperors and Empresses) and the private theatre of the Romanov family. 

There is no way we could see all of the exhibits in a day, but our guided tour certainly covered the major highlights. The former private rooms of the imperial family were especially interesting – seeing how opulently they lived and the splendour they were surrounded by on a day-to-day basis. Most awe-inspiring were the baroque rooms, with their ornate gold detailing, velvet furnishings and detailed wooden floor mosaics. In all honesty it was the most splendid display of wealth we have ever seen; beyond what we could have imagined. As amazing as all the museum displays and room decorations were however, after about 2 hours, our eyes were glazing over and it all began to blur together. The Hermitage is one place we would love to come back to, but at our own pace. To have a few days to enjoy the museum would be great, but for now we are satisfied that we have at least had a taste of the majesty of The Hermitage.   

Again, we took heaps of photos, and its doubtful that the photos we’ve chosen here will do it justice, but at least it will give you an idea of just how rich those Russian Romanovs were. 

The entrance to the Hermitage, off Palace Square.


 

The first ornate Baroque room. This one had been Catherine the Great’s private art gallery.


 

The Rococo designs within the Romanov’s private theatre was beautiful.


 

Just a small example of the furnishings that filled every room throughout the Winter Palace.


 

The splendour of the ballroom. Just enough gold to impress your guests when holding a ball.


 

One of Catherine the Great’s private sitting rooms. All red velvet, white plaster and gold.


 

The furniture in the private quarters of the royal family was no less ornate than in the public rooms.


 

This room housed portraits of all the generals who helped Peter the Great defeat the Swedish army.


 

Frescos on the ceiling, marble pillars, golden chandeliers – this is just a sitting room


 

The main throne room, with the double headed eagle of Russia emblazoned behind.


 

This is called “The Golden Sitting Room”. Wonder why?


 

The Dutch Room was designed to house paintings by Dutch artists.


 

The Spanish Room holds sculptures and paintings from various Spanish artists.


 

The Italian Gallery contains thousands of frescos on the walls and ceilings by Italian painters. Apparently no two are identical.


 

Us, all excited after our tour through The Hermitage.


After such an action-packed day we were exhausted, but managed to fit in a meal of tasty pirogi (translation = Russian meat-filled dumplings, like ravioli) before coming back to our quiet hotel room for a well earnt rest. What a day! It was fanastic to see so much of St Petersburg and to see what a magnificant city this is. It’s history as a centre of art, culture, science, education and international trade has definitely left its mark of this city – this day has been by far one of the most exciting to date. So much more to see and do – but you’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s blog for more!

1 reply »

  1. Very impressed with the splendour & opulence of St.Petersburg (so much gold) – not surprised the starving masses of serfs turned against them.

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