Sore feet in St Petersberg


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Europe » Russia » Northwest » Saint Petersburg
July 14th 2019
Published: July 19th 2019
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Once upon a many moons ago I started my first big adventure and moved to New Zealand for a year, with grand plans of returning home via Asia to Europe on the Transmongolian railway. I had a fab time in NZ, made it to Asia, but got slightly side tracked and moved to Australia for a year instead of heading home. Then when my time in Australia was coming to an end, returning via Asia felt like a missed opportunity, so I planned a route home via Africa, promising myself that one day I'd go back and do THAT train journey. I never thought it'd take 12 ish years to do so but finally....

I was sat on the plane at Gatwick airport when I had my first opportunity to muse that perhaps finding time to learn some basic Russian before leaving might have been wise. The intent was there, just work and life kind of got in the way. So I found myself with the very nice hostess saying something to me with a look of earnestness that made me understand it was v important. Alas I couldn't understand a word. To be fair, no amount of 'Russian for travellers' would have helped me with 'does the sandwich you have contain nuts as there is someone on the flight with a nut allergy'. Thankfully the Latvian and Ukrainian ladies in the seats next to me helped out with that one. They did look slightly perturbed when I explained the journey I was planning to take mind. On my own? Yes on my own. And with no Russian, yes with... hmmm, I busied myself with the phrase book for the rest of the flight.

Day 1 - The Hermitage - surely more gold gilt could be added?



Day 1 began with a stressful start that resulted in a speed walk to the rendezvous point for the free walking tour I'd signed up for - a combination of not quite being up to figuring out the metro on the 5 hours sleep I'd managed after arriving late the previous night and a wrong turn along the way left me somewhat cursing myself as I turned full sprint into the palace square fairly convinced I'd missed the tour and would shortly be looking for a plan B. Despite my haste the view across the square fairly pulled me to a stop. The sea green palace ahead, with it's white columns and statues, facing on to the the black and white check-a-board like paving of the palace square with the yellow, bow shaped General Staff building opposite made for a stunning view. At this time the organised tour groups were busy queuing to get into the Hermitage so with only a few people milling around it was the emptiest I would see the square which is what made it so special.

The good news was I could see the tour group still waiting at the base of Alexander Column. Named after Emperor Alexander I (rulers post Peter the Great are Emperors (or Empress's) not Tsars I was to learn on the tour) who ruled during the Napoleonic wars, at 47m high it's impressive for the column being a single piece of granite which through a major feet of engineering took just 2 hours to get upright and is held in place by it's own weight. I get the physics of it but still, there's something quite perturbing stood at the base listening to the potted history of the city whilst half your brain is wondering well, now what if it should topple and.....

I still get slightly muddled with our various King George, Edward and Henry's in terms of who did what - it's the II vs III vs IV etc that gets me. So as we wove our way through the history of the Russian monarchy, with a couple of Alexanders, Nicolas's, Ivan's and Catherine's (some met nice ends, others less so) I began to get a sinking sense of deja vu. However, this being a practical history lesson certainly helped - as we spent the next few hours walking between various monuments, squares and churches a few of them did start to stick. There was Peter the Great, who proclaimed the Russian Empire and is immortalized near the river front as the Bronze Horseman statue, which looms imposingly over you as he and his horse look set to jump from a giant rock to which the statue is affixed. Alexander II (nephew of Alexander of the column fame) was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt at the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood - the iconic church with the amazing onion domes (albeit part covered for repair when I visited). Catherine the Great helped overthrow her husband, ruled in her own right and provided the personal art collection which started the Hermitage museum. Which is where I was headed in the afternoon.

Today the Hermitage has some 3000 paintings and other works of art. I confess I didn't really linger for the paintings (some would recoil in horror at that thought) - the museum is massive and my crowd avoidance approach meant I easily managed to leave the art galleries till the end, by which point I'd walked the corridors of it's other galleries for 4 hours, was rather a bit tired and despite me taking advantage of their late opening hours on a Wednesday, they were still busy! Instead I covered everything from ancient antiquities to coins through to furniture from different eras, and the gold gilt decorated walls and ceilings of the palace rooms, my there was so much gold.

Being veggie and life before wifi



I've chuckled to myself multiple times on this trip about how I managed to travel in a world before pervasive internet and offline maps stored on a mobile device - i.e. the days when I had to go and queue to sit in an internet cafe and pay for the privilege of using something powered by hamsters or memorize a walking route so I didn't have to keep a paper map in hand. There's been 'book online and skip the queue tickets' which saved several hours of my life, skimming through reviews of different places and opening hours in a bid to try and narrow down how to best use my time (I could easily have filled a week here not just 4 days), but most of all the food! Being veggie and travelling is always 'interesting' - time seems to revolve around planning food, but not in a good way as the likelihood is it's going to be painful experience which results in something disappointing anyway - a poor mans equivalent or just well, bland. But not this time! Thanks to that pervasive internet thingy I found three amazing 3 vegan/veggie/raw food restaurants and my new favorite - Georgian food - spicy aubergines, walnut pate and cheesy bread. Heaven! OK so the rest of the meals weren't so easy (corn on the cob from a street vendor for lunch on the go became a favorite) and I know it's going to get harder as I head further east (the packet pasta occupying the bottom of my rucksack will I fear at some point be needed) but it was a promising start.

Gold, gold, gold - from churches to Faberge



My second day was spent with god, going inside a number of churches and cathedrals we'd passed on the walking tour. I started with the onion domed St Saviours and having practiced my best Russian to a) get a ticket then b) argue that I'd been given me the wrong change (elements of miming with that one!) I made it inside. Wow. The lighting was dim, despite a number of massive chandeliers, but every surface from floor to ceiling was covered with intricate mosaics and every inch of ceiling was covered with beautiful fresco's. As the sun moved round to catch the gold of the mosaics it was beautiful.

St Petersberg has a large number of large number of follow the flag tour groups - it's a popular stop with cruises and anyone doing a multi city organised trip. Usually its easy enough just to sit an wait them out, particularly in churches. Eventually they go and there is a lull. The slight flaw in the plan here is that in Russian churches, even ones like St Saviours that are now museums, there are no seats. You stand. Sometimes for hours in a service apparently. Hmm I need a new tactic.

From St Saviours I walked across to the more austere Russian Orthodox Kazan Cathedral which dates from 1801. The long colonnade outside leads you to an entrance and into a huge, cavernous dimly lit space with sculptures, paintings and rows of columns. This is a practicing church so had more of a calmness to it. Still the same tour groups and lack of seats though. From there I meandered along the canals towards St Issacs Cathedral, originally a church but converted to a museum in 1931, which won the gold gilt ranking of the day. In need of something different I ended the day at the excellent Faberge museum - not just eggs you know! Although the eggs were amazing, more so listening to the history of each on the excellent audio guide, the museum houses collections of art works from a range of St Petersberg guilds. Lots more gold, including the rooms themselves, some of which were stunning before you even started looking at the display.

Forts, fountains and Russian tourism



I spent my third day at the excellent Peter and Paul fortress, the original citadel of St Petersburg founded by Peter the Great in 1703. There's a mix of sights here, from walking atop the stone walls, meters thick and with great views back over the River Neva, to the Peter and Paul cathedral with it's 122m spire that's been painted a variety of pink, blue and now yellow over it's history. Its here within the green and gold gilt interior that members of the Russian monarchy from Peter the Great were buried. There's an excellent museum in the Commandants house which tells the history of St Petersberg through the 18th - 20th centuries, with photo's, documents and exhibits covering all aspects of life within the city and how they changed over time - from transport and lighting to new job opportunities, entertainment and housing. Finally there's the Trubetskoy Bastion prison which dates from 1870 and which was still used to house political prisoners until the 1920s. Fascinating yet sad insights into the lives of those incarcerated there, less so for the conditions, but (for those that weren't then sentenced to death) more so for the cycles of arrest, sent to work camps, release, re-arrest, re-sent....

My final day took me out of St Petersberg to the Peterhof. There are options to getting here - guided tour, metro/bus combo (a real option now I'd mastered the metro!) or the hydrofoil. I wanted to be back in time for a Communist walking tour later in the afternoon and given the horror tales of queues I'd read about I opted for the fastest route. It wasn't until I sat down that I remembered my dislike of boats (I'm at the seasick in a bath tub level) but actually this was fine. 35 mins later and I was stepping off at the palace. After 3 days of gold and tour groups I'd decided not to do the palace itself, but instead had come to chill out and wonder the gardens and look at the fountains. Commissioned by Peter the Great the palace and grounds were his statement piece on the international stage, messaging to the world that Russia was now a power, with palaces and grandeur to rival Versailles. There's wooded areas where you could escape, walks along the river front and then the fountains themselves, from the Grand Cascades outside the palace, resplendent with gardens and gold statues, to the slightly more bonkers Chess Hill cascades - think chess board with strange Alice in Wonderlandesque characters at the top.

After 4 fab days in St Petersberg it was time to move on - next..... step one on my route to Mongolia, getting to Moscow.


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