Catching the sleeper train to Saint Petersburg seemed like a no brainer. Maximise daylight sightseeing hours while at the time absorbing accommodation cost in the train ticket! What I had forgotten about sleeper trains is that they are noisy with the grinding from stopping and starting and people chatting loudly in front of your cabin door, jerky, vibrate to your bones, serve terrible food and have hard beds. Would I do it again…probably – being the stingy traveller that I am.
I’d been warned by my airbnb host that a taxi would cost about five times more than a Yandex (Uber competitor) from the train station but could I get the app to work!?!? It seemed stuck on Moscow. Eventually a ticket officer accompanied me to the pick up area, ordered one and sent me on my way.
I arrived at the accommodation at 8am and was due to meet my tour guide out front of the Hermitage at 10am.
After chatting with my host’s aunt (in a weird twist the artist owner was in Australia for a wedding) I got myself sorted and ventured off with the goal to find a clear pick up spot from which to order my Yandex. Yandex problems again! I was cutting it fine for time as we had boat seats booked so I started to get a little worried. This time I attempted to get assistance from a delivery driver waiting for an order at a shop window. He had no English and while he tried his best to understand he gave up and signalled for me to wait five minutes. Next thing I was in his (Vadim’s) delivery truck on route to the square. He sweetly tried to point out some key sights on route which of course I just smiled and nodded in appreciation. He refused to take any cash, putting it back in my pocket as I exited. Russians initially show little expression on their faces but I had worked out that behind that they were very friendly.
Saint Petersburg was eight degrees colder than it was when I checked the week of my departure! I certainly had not packed for eight degrees; the rain wasn’t helping.
I met my guide Maria at Alexander Column, reportedly the largest single piece of stone in the world (standing just short of 50m), which is held upright by gravity alone, and we quickly headed down to the Neva River to catch our hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace.
Scooting across the Gulf of Finland was the quickest route to the Palace. The palace had been pretty much re-built after the damage caused by the Germans in WWII. The interior of the Tsars’ Palace was beautiful but it was the some 140 gravity fed fountains that were truly lovely. The most splendorous reflecting Peter the Great’s victory over the Swedes in early 1700s with him pulling apart the jaws of a lion (the Swedes). The Russian art was full of allegories – each with a clearly intended story.
Back in St Petersburg we wandered under the triumphal arch and down Nevsky Prospect passing the high fashion houses and their branded Porsches out the front. While I wasn’t tempted to poke my head into them for a look (I couldn’t quite pull off the whole pretty woman manoeuvre) I couldn’t resist a russian donut! Yum!
I learnt along the way to the Kazan Cathedral (modelled partly on Rome’s St Peters) that while stone was the prominent building product of St Petersburg buildings it was being ravaged by humidity (was hard to believe when it was so cold). I also learnt that St Petersburg was made up of some 40 odd islands, which has led to more than 340 bridges! City of stone, City of islands, City of bridges???
St Petersburg has its colourful Russian orthodox onion domes in the form of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The church had been built on the spot that Tsar Alexander II had been fatally wounded by protestors in the late 1800s. It was full of beautiful mosaic pieces and of course a place marking the spot where Alexander’s blood had spilt.
A moment to rest our feet as we travelled by metro to the Peter and Paul Fortress. These were without a doubt the deepest metros I had been in – the escalators travelling for more than two minutes. Might not sound a lot but think about that next time you’re on one and you’ll realise what I’m talking about.
The fortress was not ever used as a fortress but certainly looked the part. The cathedral within the fortress walls now holds the remains of the last Tsar and his family of Romanovs (although two of the family members are yet to be laid to rest here).
It was here that I farewelled Maria to go on to visit the Hermitage. Thankfully it was open until 9pm on Fridays so I had a couple of hours to take in the amazing collection. The Hermitage is in the beautiful Winter Palace and has essentially only ever served as an art gallery (except during wars of course when the art was shipped off to be preserved). It would be impossible to see even the fraction of the three million pieces held but I certainly got to appreciate some beauties in my two hours. The Rembrandts always a favourite and I enjoyed the Russian renaissance paintings as well
I was so tired on exiting that I absentmindedly found myself in a restaurant ordering mulled wine with my dinner. It was delightful – served infused in dried fruit. Perfect to send me on my way home.
Having seen nearly all of the key sights on day one I decided I had the luxury of time to visit Tsarskoe Selo (the Tsar’s Village) to see the Catherine Palace. Thankfully Maria had managed to fix my Yandex location so I was on the go again.
My Yandex driver seemed a little more lost than I was, which was a worry, and then he attempted to drive into a one way street to be confronted by a police officer on the corner. We pulled over at the officer’s request and the driver first put his seat belt on and then produced numerous dockets followed by a few notes from his wallet and then we were on our way again.
Peter the Great had presented the Palace to his wife Catherine I before their marriage but it wasn’t until the mid 1750s that it became the elaborate Palace as seen today when their daughter Empress Elizabeth Petrova engaged Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli to rebuild it as her summer residence.
As expected the interior of the Palace was beautiful but it was the Amber Room that was the particular drawcard for this palace. It was like nothing I’d seen before. All of the walls of the room were faced with Amber stone with decorations in the form of reliefs and illustrations – quite surreal. Another post war reconstruction but given the throngs of tourists I imagined it had paid off quickly. Amber is considered lucky by the Chinese so you can imagine their ogling eyes when in the room, with a few trying to sneak photos only to be sternly cautioned by palace staff about potential ejection from the Palace.
It was so cold I decided to head home after the palace visit but once back in Saint Petersburg I got distracted by the steady stream of people coming from a nearby street blocked off for road work. I decided to explore the source and to my delight found what’s called the New Holland precinct. Within a park was a circular building with a round central open courtyard surrounded by bars/cafes on the lowest level and shops of Russian designers on the two above.
I found a bar that was clad with dark brick walls and dim lighting and settled in at a bar table for a beer or two. Not long after sitting a woman seated beside me offered me some of her salted cucumber. Having seen that I enjoyed it she then offered me a fork with some of the dried fish from her plate. It was tasty too.
Through google translate I discovered her name was Nina and she was a Russian nurse holidaying in Saint Petersburg for a few days. She google translated that Russians don’t like to drink alone (explaining her offer of the food). The menu was in Russian so I asked her to point out the dishes she had ordered and the red drink (turned out to be a vodka tincture of beetroot and horseradish). Delish! The vodka drinking began… I had been contemplating a visit to the ballet that night but this turned out to be a great way to spend my last night in Russia.
I woke late on my final day …with a bit of a fuzzy head…with the goal of visiting St Isaacs Cathedral and getting a souvenir of Russia. I succeeded in both but it was a real challenge given the weather. It was now six degrees and the misted rain was blowing sideways strongly in all directions. Despite this I took the option to venture up to the colonnade for the lovely view out over Saint Petersburg. It was worth the effort and getting wet – a final look at this lovely city.
The inside of the Cathedral was quite incredible. It had taken 40 years to build the Cathedral, which the previously unknown French architect Montferrand got to see completed a month before his death. The cathedral (which served more as a museum than church) had lovely little kiosks inside where I picked up a lovely amber necklace as a momento of my visit.
I decided to enjoy some more local food for my final meal in Russia, this time I focused on Armenian. It was so lovely and cosy I was reluctant to leave but alas I had a flight to catch.
I farewelled my hat of over 28 years. It had been a saviour in this cold weather. It was nice to think it had started life at the Sydney Paddington markets and would finish life on the other side of the world.
Saint Petersburg had been a lovely city to visit with its opulent architecture and rich imperial history. Certainly a great contrast to Moscow. It was surprising I’d only met one other Australia – he was from the Hunter Valley and had been living in Russia for five years and now worked in a Saint Petersburg souvenir shop.
I felt a great warmth for the Russians given all of my experiences during the trip…memories that would last a long time. I was now on to find myself a knight…