St Petersburg, Russia - July 2010

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July 20th 2010
Published: October 26th 2010
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I was super super excited to go to St Petersburg, a city steeped in history and infamy and somewhere I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Being raised in a western country, Russia has always held a certain stigma as 'that country'. I guess American anti-soviet sentiments in our media and entertainment have driven this into an almost subconscious feeling, but all it really serves to do is make Russia seem incredibly appealing and exotic! So we were presented with the opportunity to buy nesting dolls and vodka, see some of the world's greatest palaces, visit The Hermitage and the home of mail order brides!! Even as we arrived into the giant cruise harbour at 6am we were struck by the huge cooling towers smoking off in the distance and the sheer density of dockside industry. Ahhh Russia... We couldn't wait to get off the ship!

Customs were quick and without event (a small and sinister part of me was kind of hoping we might see one of the Americans clapped in irons and dragged off never to return... sigh... no such luck). Before we knew it we were on the minivan with our very charismatic and straight speaking guide - Ludmilla (I must admit, I would have preferred her to be called Vladimir and wearing a black leather jacket). Ludmilla was brilliant, extremely knowledgeable, sarcastic and caustic and very passionate about all things Russian... except the men!

Our tour began (tours were the only option - otherwise you have to pay a US$150 visa just for the day!) with a sedate drive along some of the many canals and arrow straight streets that form the base of the grid pattern city. The first stop was an old submarine just kind of plopped up on the side of a canal edge, opposite a stunning Russian Orthodox Church - so surreal - two iconic symbols of Russia I would just not expect to see in such proximity!.

Next we headed to St Isaac's Square, dominated by the Mariinsky Palace and Saint Isaac's Cathedral, both very impressive in their own right... more so when combined with the tale of Catherine never living in the Palace as she didn't like looking out at the horse's bum on the giant statue!! Haha ... so she had a new palace built instead - the easier/cheaper option I guess... not. We milled around and took a few snaps then explored a bit more of the local area, including a couple of shops with complimentary vodka and oodles of Russian paraphernalia - nesting dolls, Faberge egg replicas etc etc. We passed the mighty statue of Peter the great (The Bronze Horseman) on his charger - a magnificent sight - especially as it really does look like it should fall over at any minute!

The next visit was quite unexpected, we descended into the St Petersburg subway system... which doesn’t really sound that appealing at first... but it has to be seen to be believed! The stations are virtually all marble, brass and gilt work; with ornate lights, statues, archways, architraves etc everywhere you look - they looked more like a palace wing than the metro! Even the trains were classic and very sophisticated looking. We took a brief ride for a few stops just to soak up the atmosphere - which... to be honest... is pretty standard once you’re moving - you can only glam up an old train so much!

One thing we noticed was a couple of impressive statutes to Lenin - apparently St Petersburg is one of the few Russian cities to have preserved examples of most periods in the country’s history - in many of the less liberal cities much was destroyed during the communist regime - so it’s nice to see a real mix of history and culture side by side. There are still some very impressive communist billboards around, which make for interesting viewing!

After being picked up by our bus again we headed off to the mighty Peterhof Grand Palace - Palace of the legendary Peter the Great (although he actually preferred to stay in the much smaller summer residence nearby). The Palace is situated on a huge landscaped area known as Petergof, this includes a vast man-made canal that stretches from the grand palace cascade to the ocean - creating an incredible vista from the rear of the palace. It is easy to see why the Peterhof is referred to as the Russian Versailles - the palace itself is amazing - just about everything is gold plated, the rooms are immense and highly decorative, styles of architecture drift from room to room as renovations followed both time and preference. (Although largely Baroque and neoclassical). The sheer number of paintings on the walls is staggering, it's very hard to believe this whole palace was more-or-less gutted by Nazi’s in WW2 - the restoration effort is staggering - as we saw from the photo logs of the process... woah! Photos are not allowed inside the Grand Palace but just the grandeur of the fountains and exterior give a good impression of what is held within... its a struggle to find the adjective “big and pretty” just don’t seem enough!! ;-)

We spent quite a while at the Petergof area, looking through Peter’s summer residence (a much simpler structure right down by the water.. and it’s pretty small!), the vast gardens, watching the magical gravity fed cascade fountains and just soaking up the scale of the whole place. We even had a lovely Russian lunch, which included Borsht (beetroot soup. It was ok. Just). By the time we were ready to leave we were pretty pooped and the 1hr drive back to the city centre was a godsend!

Arriving back in the city though the adrenalin started up pretty quickly as we drove down Nevsky Prospect. You've got staggeringly impressive buildings one after the other ... you soon get a sore neck swivelling to and fro the whole way down this long and lively street - one of the most famous in Russia. But on we went to the amazing Palace embankment which includes the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Theatre, the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and the Summer Garden. The areas which make up the Hermitage Museum complex. The complex itself backs onto the instantly recognizable Palace Square, dominated by Alexander’s Column. This really is a magic place - it’s been the setting of so many film segments and news broadcasts you almost get a sense of Déjà vu just being there!

The hermitage itself was epic, we trailed through an infinite number of incredible rooms, sometimes you just don’t know where to look - paintings, mosaic, sculptures, frescos, pottery, statues, carvings etc etc, the sheer weight of art in the place is beyond description. You can just be walking along when something captures your eye and it turns out to be a renaissance masterpiece. I could ‘name drop’ artists all day, but suffice to say all the big players were there, some in their hundreds. One of my favourite quotes of the day was when some random tourist asked Ludmilla “Where is the Leonardo?” Cheeky Ludmilla relied “Da Vinci or De Caprio?”. Brilliant. Another lovely Ludmilla anecdote: A very tall, young, attractive, slender, blonde Russian woman was tottering around on 6 inch heels - Ludmilla, who is the opposite in every regard, stormed over and blew her up - about potentially damaging the parquet flooring. Now this was pretty funny, she waggled her finger and everything - the girl could not believe what was happening - but even funnier was when we saw her later on, she tried to tip-toe past Ludmilla in her heels! It was classic, like a constipated stick insect with vertigo, desperately trying not to draw attention to herself but achieving the opposite - gold.

After hours of trawling through the vast halls of the Hermitage we emerged back into the bright sun in the Palace Square - completely overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the place. We had a sedate walk along some of the canals and soaked all that we could of the ever-impressive city. The canals were full of canal boats milling around like toys, most were the standard tourist jobbies you see in every major ‘river city’ in Europe.

After a short walk we arrived at The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (Church on Spilt Blood)- one of the sights I had most wanted to see. Built in the style of romantic nationalism (Similar style to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) the church is a myriad of colour, texture and spires - it looks like something out of a fantasy novel.. or Disney perhaps! Now, we mentioned in Gdansk how some churches can still take your breath away, The Church of Spilt Blood is definitely one of these - to be honest I think it’s quite possibly the coolest I have ever seen! The church was built on the exact spot where an assassination attempt was made on the life of Tsar Alexander II, someone threw a bomb at his carriage, he leapt out, unhurt, and started beating the bomber! However a second bomb was thrown, killing the thrower and mortally wounding the Tsar who later died at the Winter Palace.

Alexander III had the church built as a memorial to his father. As it was built more as a memorial than a functional church it is something of a novelty. The entire inside space is a just a single massive room - covered floor to ceiling in mosaics - there must literally be millions and millions of pieces of glazed pottery in there. As soon as you walk in it is literally breathtaking, I’ve never seen a work of art in that scale before, from the vast looming figures to the classic onion domed top, it is a marvel to behold from top to bottom! The difficult thing was trying to capture it in pictures or on film and somehow do it justice! Just an amazing, amazing place.

After leaving the Church we wandered across to a nearby market to get some nic-nacs for our collection, the guys selling were all very funny, that amusing mix of cliche's and catch phrases that they assume reflects the way we all talk. Classic. We drove around a bit more of the city and tried to soak up as much as we could before finally heading back to the ship, completely exhausted and quite overwhelmed - what a city, there is still so much to see here! It feels like we just cracked the tip of the iceburg... yet another place we would love to return to!

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