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Published: July 14th 2013
Church Of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood
St Petersburg's impressive answer to Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral.
It was a quintessential Eastern European experience that I was excited about yet dreading in equal measure - the overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg. Indeed the climax of the film after which this blog entry is named revolves around one. Hopefully our train ride won't be as exciting as that one.
This isn't my first overnight train
- if this one is to be as comfortable as that one, then the Russian overnight train experience would be a pleasant one.
Anna and I would be sharing a four-bed cabin with two other people and we were a little bit anxious about who we might be paired with - hopefully not weirdos, because the cabin is pretty cosy even if it is
To our mild relief, our cabin partners were an old English couple from our tour group - Paul and Wendy. They were a pleasant chat, allowing us to relax before hitting the sack.
The ride itself is about ten hours, not quite long enough for decent night's sleep and so it proved. You chat and stuff around for a little while just after you depart and just before you arrive so you only have a maximum of about eight
Taken from outside the Winter Palace, with the Alexander Column in the middle of this vast square.
hours to get any sort of sleep.
While the Luxor-Cairo train was too cold, this one was far too hot. There seemed to be a ventilation problem as well, as at times it got quite difficult to breathe. When the ventilator did come on, it blew right onto me on the top bunk and then it was freezing. The result was the zombiefication of Derek for the day ahead.
The general consensus among those who have visited Russia is that while Moscow is the important and famous capital, St Petersburg is the prettier, more relaxed, more European, and generally the cooler of Russia's two major cities.
Based on first impressions gathered as we zombied around the city, St Petersburg would definitely appear to be the prettier and more European of the two.
Tsar Peter The Great established the city in 1703 wanting Russia to have a proper seaport so that the empire could improve trade. The establishment of the city was part of Peter's plan to modernise Russia and in 1712, he moved the capital here. Peter's enthusiasm for seafaring established the city's maritime tradition which is evidently celebrated by landmarks and monuments dotted around the city.
Inside The Church Of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood.
then grew according to a plan and many Western European architects of the time were brought in to leave their indelible mark on the city - marks that are still here in their entirety today. What struck me is how there are no real modern buildings in the city centre - there is nothing but the massive, original terraced buildings that stretched the lengths of whole streets. If you ignored the cars, it was almost as if you were still walking around St Petersburg in the 1800s. There are no skyscrapers - in 1762, a rule was introduced decreeing that no building shall be taller than the Winter Palace. The whole place felt so regal and grand - like a massive enlargement of the royal parts of Copenhagen
And as I have said many times before, any city with canals automatically gains beauty points. They really give the cities that have them an extra dimension. Those that gave St Petersburg the moniker "The Venice Of The North" were not wrong - it's a beautiful city.
A beautiful city that was somewhat tarnished by the amount of scaffolding and construction that seemed to be EVERYWHERE and on all the
Summer residence of the Russian Tsars when St Petersburg was Russia's capital.
sights we were visiting. The Admiralty, parts of the Peter & Paul Fortress (which apart from being historically significant as the first major building built in St Petersburg, was pretty average), the Winter Palace - all of them were marred by scaffolding. A rather frustrating photo day.
St Petersburg is also known as Russia's cultural capital and this was evidenced by a procession in the park we were chilling out in. People on stilts and dressed up in strange costumes were putting on an artistic show that was being covered by TV and lots of photographers. It seemed to be a demonstration as much a show, with what appeared to be an old man on stilts slowly dragging what seemed to be a planet behind him - with the costumes made of items of trash (empty bottles, trash bags, plastics) the general theme seemed to be pollution and the environment.
That evening, we ate at a restaurant highly recommended by all the guide books, called Zoom Cafe - but not before bumping into Trevor & Suzanne, who were on our Moscow
walking tour, on the street (as you do). Zoom Cafe had a real arty feel to it, and
Hanging out with the Russian hipsters at this cool laundromat cum bar.
this was reinforced by the 60s fashion code that the waitresses all seemed to be following (the maitre'd was surely the happiest and smiliest Russian we had ever met). You could even play board games while you waited for your food (I kicked Anna's arse at noughts and crosses). The food was outstanding - in particular, the potato pancakes with salmon and Russian cream cheese. The combination of flavours was amazing.
We then went to have a drink at a bar recommended by Natalie, our walking tour guide in Moscow. The bar was called 40° and used to be a laundromat hence the name, which is apparently the average water temperature used in Russia to wash clothes. It was a funky set up and we got talking to some cool, young Russians. One of them was holding an exhibition of his paintings in the bar that night. The young Russians were really laid back and spoke good English. They also dressed well - almost the complete opposite to average stereotypical Russians we had encountered so far. We decided to drink White Russians - what else?
Everyone and everything seems so much more chilled out here than in Moscow.
Inside the Winter Palace.
day, I had already decided that St Petersburg was getting my vote.
The next day we checked out St Petersburg's no.1 attraction - the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace that houses it.
The Winter Palace was where the monarch lived for 185 years when St Petersburg was the capital of Russia. It is opulence personified, although to be honest, you are only really blown away by the first royal palace you ever visit - all other ones after it become much of a muchness. In saying that, the Jordan Staircase and the Pavilion Hall inside the Winter Palace were very impressive. I was pleasantly surprised that photos were allowed to be taken inside, because most royal palaces don't allow it.
As for the Hermitage, there is so much to see that if you looked at every single item inside for thirty seconds each, it would take you eight years. It is mainly antiques and art inside, but they come from all over the world and date from almost all periods of time - statues, sarcophagi and weapons from Japan, Ancient Egypt and the Caucasus; paintings from many a famous painter including Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet and Da Vinci.
View Across St Petersburg
From St Isaac's Cathedral.
While far from an art buff, I must say that I am definitely a fan of Picasso. The surroundings in which everything is kept inside the Winter Palace certainly made viewing everything a lot more pleasant than your average museum too.
On the way out of the museum, we of course bumped into Trevor and Suzanne again.
We then made our way past the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter The Great before going up the impressively large St Isaac's Cathedral for some views across the city.
We then made a beeline to perhaps St Peterburg's most iconic landmark, the Church Of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood.
It is similar in shape - if not as colourful - as Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral but St Petersburg's version is a bit larger and in my opinion more impressive. The inside of the church was definitely the most impressive out of all the churches I had been into on this trip - large, colourful and detailed, all of the mosaics inside are in mint condition.
We had to go back to the hotel for a bit of a nap before continuing our day and although the hotel's location right in the middle
of the city centre within walking distance to all of the mains sights was excellent, the Nevsky Grand wasn't as great as the Katerina Hotel in Moscow - to describe the furniture as being 'retro' is a rather nice way of putting it, and there was no jacuzzi, no free minibar, and a weird breakfast buffet that included apple strudel.
Despite St Petersburg being a more European city than Moscow, the hotel reinforced the general sense that St Petersburg was stuck in a sort of 80s/90s time warp karaoke video, with its old buildings, elevator music playing everywhere, and the locals' sense of fashion.
After our granny/grandpa naps and trying a delicious Russian donut, we rocked up to the St Petersburg Vodka Museum only to discover that we'd missed the last tour - gutted. Nevertheless we decided that we had to do a couple of pre-dinner shots to test out the locally made produce. Asking the waiter for recommendations we settled for a shot of honey-flavoured vodka and one called "Balyka", if I remember correctly (which given the alcohol consumed that night, I probably haven't). I don't know whether it was the fact it was served ice-cold on a beautiful
One of two cathedrals in the city centre.
hot day, the fact we were drinking vodka in Russia, or the fact that the vodka was actually pretty good, but the shots went down easier than I thought they would, without that harsh, paint stripper burning sensation that often accompanies vodka shots.
We were gutted to miss the tour - this was our last night in St Petersburg so we would not get a second chance at it. Before we left however, we of course bumped into Trevor and Suzanne again.
We then found another funky place to enjoy our last Russian dinner, a place called Teplo, which had a couple of awnings setup outside in their internal courtyard - and just as well they did because soon after we arrived for our 11pm dinner (it was still bright outside!) the storm that the thunder we heard at the vodka museum had promised was finally delivered. Al fresco dining in a torrential downpour - St Pete's style.
We ordered more delicious potato pancakes with salmon and Russian cream cheese - and no visit to Russia is complete without a serving of stroganoff. As a digestif
, I had a honey, pepper and chilli vodka which was served warm. It was
Canals By Night
Canals always gives the cities that have them that extra dimension.
nice and tangy with the chilli giving it a nice kick.
The wait staff were all young and the service was great, and we got talking to one of them who said she was from a town in Siberia where the pollution from industry is so bad that you can only spend about four months there at a time - a very interesting story.
St Petersburg still had one last interesting story if its own in store - but not before I bade farewell to Anna the next morning, Paris-bound for the French Open. We were on the same wavelength and schedule (ahem) for pretty much the entire trip and Anna was great fun to be around which is all one can ask for in a great travel buddy...it was a blast!
While Anna was bound for the clay courts of Roland Garros, my mission for the day was to get to the Catherine Palace, 25km south of St Petersburg in the town of Pushkin.
While the Russian tsars spent the winters in the er, Winter Palace, summers were spent at the Catherine Palace. Peterhof is another palace complex about the same distance from St Petersburg, but I only
Chapel of the Catherine Palace with it's gold-plated domes.
had time to visit one of them, so I settled on the Catherine Palace based on photos that I had seen before the trip of both.
When I say it was a mission getting out to the palace, I meant it.
Following the instructions given to me by the hotel reception, I got to Moskovskaya easily enough by Metro before jumping on a bus advertising that it was going to the palaces. I was told the bus ride would take about 45 minutes so after an hour had passed and I had still not seen the palace, I started to get a bit worried about where I was actually being taken. I then saw a sign on the road indicating the bus was now leaving Pushkin - and we were now on a country road in the middle of nowhere. At this point I realised that I must have missed my stop and asked the driver for "Katerina Palace". Reacting quite animatedly, he confirms that I have missed the stop and he helpfully drops me off at the next stop going back the other way. Even though the driver is speaking in Russian, I pretty much get the gist of
Lake & Grotto
Inside the Catherine Park.
what he is saying.
Getting on the bus back to Pushkin, this time I keep in constant contact with the driver about "Katerina Palace" making it obvious that I would need him to tell me where to get off. I avoid making the same mistake twice and finally arrive at the Catherine Palace...sort of. I pay to get into the Catherine Park which is like the immaculately kept gardens of Versailles
, within which are lots of landmarks associated with the main palace including lakes, boat houses, pavilions and other assorted outhouses.
The palace itself is rather resplendent on the outside - definitely impressive, especially with the amount of gold used to decorate the exterior.
While all this wondering around the outside of the palace was pleasant enough, I hadn't come all the way out here not to go inside the thing. I knew coming out here that the palace was only open to non-tour group visitors between 12pm and 2pm and between 4pm and 5pm. It was now 3pm and I had missed the 2pm cut-off thanks to my elongated bus ride getting here. I wanted to be back in St Petersburg at 5pm-ish so that I could
Check out the painted ceiling of the Great Hall inside the Catherine Palace.
pick up supplies for my overnight train to Vilnius that night. It would take me at least an hour to get back to St Petersburg so I really needed to leave here at 4pm.
No-one in the complex could speak English so I had real trouble working out what was happening and how to potentially sneak my way into the palace until I spoke to a security guard who told me to come back at 4pm. While most people would've probably have started making their way back to St Petersburg, I am a bit of an expert on cutting things fine
so I killed an hour walking around the gardens (the nearby Alexander Palace was unfortunately just too far away to get to and back within an hour) before lining up to get my ticket to enter the Catherine Palace at 4pm. My driver was picking me up from the Nevsky Grand at 6pm to go the train station so I just about had enough time to get through the palace in an hour before jetting it back to St Petersburg.
Like I said before about palaces, they're all the same after you have visited a few, so perhaps it was
With the outer wall of the Peter & Paul Fortress in the foreground.
unwise to have waited to go inside, but having gone all the way out there I had major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out - something Anna taught me) so I had to do it. The Amber Room is the most impressive room inside the palace but no photos were allowed - I managed to take a sneaky one, but the photo isn't that great.
Inside the palace are also information boards and old photos that depict the destruction of the palace when occupied by the Germans in WWII, as well as the subsequent painstaking restoration of the palace - I have to say that the restorers have done a hell of a job.
A self-guided tour, I whizzed through the whole thing in 45 minutes and I would have been even quicker had I not had to wade through the countless throngs of Chinese and German tour groups.
On my way to the Catherine Palace, I had noticed that there were loads of buses going back the other way, so when it was time to go back to St Petersburg, I figured I'd have no trouble catching a bus back. When I got to the bus stop and realised
Inside Peter & Paul Cathedral
Inside the cathedral in the Peter & Paul Fortress.
that I had a 25 minute wait, I then had to think quickly about other options. Just before I had time freak out, I was saved by a bus going to Moskovskaya - not the bus I was intending on catching but it was going where I wanted to go so I hopped onto it.
Just when I thought I was home-free, the bus then got stuck in a traffic jam - and it looked really, really bad. At this rate I was going to miss my transfer to the train station and most probably my train too, and there was nothing I could do about it. I started thinking about a Plan B because my Russian visa runs out at midnight so I couldn't stay longer in St Petersburg if I missed my train - I would have to get out of Russia before midnight. This really was turning into From Russia With Love. Where would I try and get to? Finland perhaps, since it is the nearest country to here?
I could still possibly make it though - one of the advertised stops on the window of the bus was Kupchino, which is the start of the Metro
I normally would have included a photo of the outside of the Winter Palace - but of course it was undergoing restoration and was completely covered up in scaffolding. This is inside the palace's courtyard.
line back into St Petersburg, something I observed on the journey out here. When a shitload of people got off the bus, I looked outside and saw that we were stopped at a Metro station - Kupchino - and I was saved again.
Getting off the Metro at Nevsky Prospekt I walked straight into another Russian brawl - a shitload of security guards and police were struggling to hold down a couple of dudes who were shouting stuff in Russian with a big crowd and some TV cameras stopping to check out the action. I had no time to do so myself - I had come out the wrong exit and I now had four blocks to run instead of one. Jandals are the worst footwear to wear for running - Russians seem to stare at them as well, as me and Anna were stared at all trip when we wore them, as if we were uncouth plebiscites who couldn't afford shoes.
I finally got back to the hotel at 6.15pm. Having asked my driver to come half-an-hour earlier than originally planned, I felt fortunate that he was laid back and friendly and not at all annoyed that I had
Statue of Peter The Great.
It was another classic Derek-style Amazing Race - mission accomplished.
I really liked St Petersburg - I had high expectations of it before coming here and they were exceeded. The prettier, more relaxed, more European, and generally the cooler of Russia's two major cities.
Now if you thought that my mission to the Catherine Palace and back was an adventure, just wait - just you wait - until you read my next blog entry.
до свидания (do svidaniya)!
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