Stupendous St. Petersburg (pt 1) and the Hermitage

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May 27th 2017
Published: February 13th 2019
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R: So many months ago, I promised I would start blogging our experiences in Russia and on the trans-Siberian railway. It has been several months. If you are still interested, and I have kept you waiting.... I'm sorry. Anyway. I will recreate these memories from notes I took at the time.

This trip was a bit different for us, we were travelling as a four. Clare and Richard (Cate's parents) were with us too, the idea being that Richard and I continued on the trans-Siberian, while Clare and Cate came home at the end of half term. Lots of people have asked if Cate was annoyed that we continued on the journey without her. The answer is, no, she did not want to spend 7 days couped up on a train with me or her Dad.

We had an early departure from Heathrow - the best flights connected us via Warsaw on Polish LOT airlines. Predictably, the first flight was late so we had 25 minutes to make the connection at Warsaw. Bad news was - you had to go back through full security to enter the airport. Good news was - the second flight was late too. Thank you for being predictable, LOT airlines! We finally arrived at St. Petersburg airport armed with oodles of paperwork. For those who have not been to Russia, getting the visa is fairly complicated and required a trip to the embassy in London and much form filling. Our documents were scrutinised by extremely serious, but efficient border guards and we were in. We took a taxi into town, driven by a man who did not believe in showers. (Yes, I wrote that in my notes!).

Our first afternoon was spent walking along a canal to the Church of the Spilled Blood. This is possibly one of the more famous images you will recognise of Russia. A stupendously pretty Russian Orthodox church with a nice location sandwiched between a park and a canal. So nice, the cruise passengers had come out in force. It was hard to move inside, which made the visit a little bit claustrophobic, but we still admired the frescos and mosaics. Alongside it were large numbers of stalls selling nesting Russian Dolls which it was hard not to buy straight off the bat. We also had a stroll around the park next door and found a man dressed as a zebra begging for money. Not one I have seen in Britain. We headed back to the hotel - by now it was getting dusky but we stopped in at a brewery pub on the way, which was my first taste of a rather average Russian Black IPA. There was also Russian sports channels on the TV which gave us an opportunity to find out what was going on in the Russian Ice Hockey world. After dinner, Richard and I headed back into town. It was a city festival day, and the area outside the Hermitage had been sealed off for live music. What were the chances there would be live opera? Richard, an aficionado of opera, was in his element, and we stayed to watch the spectical on the stage there. After a short walk, we were at the River Neva, the large river that divides the city. The main bridge that crosses the river by the city was lit up - and the beacons that adorn it's central posts had been lit. What a day to arrive into Russia!

We woke the next morning, with the intention of exploring the city. Our hotel had slightly odd breakfast choices, including chicken meatballs, cottage cheese pancakes and lots of buckwheat. Needless to say I tried them all. We headed to the Hermitage - a giant state museum of art and antiquities - via Nevsky Prospekt and the Admirality to take in as much architecture as possible. The Hermitage was heaving with cruise passengers! It was pretty difficult to avoid the queues, but with a little bit of research Cate managed to get us in via the back door. Its a maze of grand rooms, staircases and all with views over the river. After a good half the day spent perusing the museums, we headed out as we had more to do. In the square opposite the Hermitage, where we had seen the opera the night before, we were handed a cucumber sprite by some marketing people - not a thing in the UK, but deliciously refreshing! We also went to the General Staff building which housed another collection of art, impressive interiors, and Manolo Blahnik shoes, which Cate was quite excited about. We stopped in the museum cafe and I managed to order myself some sort of meat patty, which was not a scone/cake type thing as expected. Oh well, still delicious. There was still more to do! We headed to the courtyard of the winter palace (part of the Hermitage) which was stunning too - lots of pretty windows surrounding a nice courtyard. We split from Clare and Richard and we then headed over to St. Isaac's Cathedral, which was an impressive round building, in which you could climb up to the dome. Of course, I was in. It was quite vomit-inducing inside with bright colours and big pillars. The view from the top was good, but not great as it is in a far off reach of town, but it did give you the measure of the city and you could see the Kazan cathedral and Church on Spilled Blood and river fortress in the distance. Part of the climb involved a walk over a wobbly wooden bridge that didn't make me too happy, but health and safety doesn't seem to have fully ruined Russia yet.

We finished with dinner in a board games cafe that Cate had researched, along with cuddly animals and toys. We were heavily encouraged to draw on the table cloth so we got busy, being children, while eating enormous Chicken Schnizels.

During the day we had also encountered a parade headed up by a horse on a tank that seemed to be linked to the sports events we had seen the day before, and after a quick stop at the Kazan Cathedral, pondered whether it was suitable to buy a mug with President Putin's face on it. I decided mug probably didn't mean the same in Russian, but decided not to buy one anyway, for fear of being thrown off the trans-Siberian at the Mongolian border.

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