Wednesday, 5 September 2012

St Petersburg and the Russian Adventure Begins

Church of Spilt Blood
Our first stop in Russia was probably not an introduction to the real Russia.  There is no denying that St Petersburg is an incredibly beautiful city, built along the banks of rivers and canals, full of exquisite cathedrals and palaces designed primarily by Catherine the Great who was in fact a German!  

I should mention at this early stage that no reliance should be placed on the historical accuracy of anything I say – there has been a lot to take in and I have dozed off and/or glazed over on more than one occasion.

St Petersburg to Beijing is the only part of our trip which was pre-organised through an Australian travel agent and each stop includes a half day city tour with a guide.  Neither of us are particularly fond of such rigid planning but as we only have limited time in each place we thought it would be quite useful.

The city has no sense of real history – it was founded at the beginning of the 18th century and before that it was uninhabitable marshland up until it was decided that it was a decent place to build an important port, strategically speaking, as most of coastal Russia freezes in the winter months and St Petersburg was far south enough for ships to navigate all year round.

Inside the Church of Spilt Blood
Another reason the geographic location was favoured by the Tsars was the ongoing war the Russian empire had with the Swedes or the Finns (I can’t remember which, I just know they were Scandinavian and I don’t currently have access to the internet to crib the facts so I’m winging it).
Catherine the Great wanted to build a beautiful city and a cultural centre and she started collections of art and opened museums and encouraged musicians to visit.  Effectively she wanted this city to be able to rival any other in western Europe.  And it really does feel like western Europe and not Russia at all.

Anyway, back to the history lesson.  Catherine, at the tender age of 16 married Peter the Great but the city isn’t named after him – this bit is definitely true.  The city was named after St Peter who held the keys to paradise.
Catherine also wanted to design a city to rival Moscow and become the capital and she certainly spent a lot of time, effort and hard cash making St Petersburg the city is still is today.  They reclaimed marshland and built the city on a network of rivers and canals - there are bridges, palaces and churches everywhere.  The whole city is a statement to the rest of Russia and, to a point, the rest of Europe.

The Hermitage Museum
The Church of Spilt Blood rivals the St Basil’s in Red Square (or the Pokrovsky Cathedral to call it by one of its proper names) – it is just breathtaking, inside and out.  It is so named because a Tsar was murdered on the spot of one of the onion domes.  I can’t remember which one.  Which Tsar, that it.  It’s the big onion dome on the left.
The Hermitage Museum is also stunningly beautiful and we spent 3 hours wandering about the Hermitage when it was a rainy day outside.  The rooms themselves are museum pieces in their own right, and the museum houses a collection similar to any large museum in any other city so in that respect it was disappointing for us.  Again, Catherine started the collection and wanted show the finest art, artefacts and talent in her city.  This results in lots of pieces from around the world and not specific to Russia.  While we are glad to went, we were not really interested in seeing museum exhibits that you can really see anywhere else in the world.

Inside the Hermitage - we managed to avoid the crowds!
The view from the colonnade at St Isaac’s Cathedral is amazing but you need a head for heights, which neither of us have, and I nearly didn’t venture up the last 30 or so steps.  Once I had my panic attack over and done with, it was an amazing view.
We also visited the St Peter and St Paul Fortress over on the north side of the river and that was interesting, particularly the prison which was famous for incarcerating lots of revolutionaries before the Revolution actually happened.  The cathedral in the fortress is also where the Romanovs remains are (allegedly) buried.  But there are tributes to them all over Russia. 

The Kunstkammera Museum was another stopping off point for us.  It is basically a collection of macabre pickled things and not for the squeamish, although it is alarming how quickly one deformed pickle foetus looks just like any other.  Not sure I would recommend that one, to be honest.
We spent hours wandering around the city too.  Easy to do when the weather’s good.  No so easy when a monsoon hits which it did a couple of times.  We found refuge in a cafĂ© where beer was cheaper than coffee – that was a no brainer then.  Although the food left a lot to be desired.  Eating generally, seems to be something that Russians do for survival.  There are exceptions but that is definitely the general rule.  And they do like a bit of dill.  They serve bunches of dill with almost everything which we have to admit we found a bit odd.

Inside the Hermitage
And it’s true – Russians drink beer at all times of the day. It is really not uncommon to see anyone wandering around with a bottle or can of beer at any time of the day.  They drink beer to keep warm and vodka to get drunk it seems.

Our accommodation was at a homestay (which is basically the Russian version of bed and breakfast).  Our hosts were Tatyana and Yuri – Tatyana spoke excellent English, Yuri not so good but he was very friendly and very helpful.   Something that we probably took for granted at the time but we’ll get to that later.
Tatyana took us on our walking tour of the city when we arrived and it’s from her that I have gleaned most of my knowledge – some of it I’m sure was lost in translation.  One thing we certainly learned from St Petersburg is that Russians are very proud of their imperial heritage.  There remain tributes and reminders of the Tsars and Emperors all over the place and you do get the impression that this forms as much a part of the Russian psyche (if not more) as does its more recent history. This came as a bit of a surprise to me but I suppose is down to ignorance and misconception on my part. 

Tatyana also made the most amazing breakfast.  Proper, hearty, traditional Russian food which lasted us until late afternoon, she was very attentive, and we would recommend staying with her.  Their flat was very centrally located, just 5 minutes from the Church of Spilt Blood and about 10 minutes from the Hermitage Museum and Nevsky Prospekt.
Beautiful city though it is, we thought St Petersburg lacked any real soul.  It is only a little over 300 years old and it seems to have been created by a rich queen to prove a point.  We were keen to move on to Moscow and try to see some of real Russia.




  1. man u will be a history teacher paul by the time your trip is finished learnt more reading this than i did a school... keep it up mate

    1. Just hope that doesn't mean you're bored yet!!!