St Petersburg Russia –
With our first stroll down St Petersburg’s main street Nevsky Prospekt, Rick and I note the light-hearted relaxed atmosphere compared to Moscow’s brisk businesslike vibes. Locals walk arm-in-arm past side-walk cafes, buskers performing lively antics, and the calls of tour operators promising wonderful excursions. Jutting out from Nevsky Prospekt the many canals and rivers are sided by long rows of imperial classical architecture in hues of pale gold, aquamarine and coral. Three hundred and forty bridges bind the streets together, a dozen of which are raised for a time after midnight to allow large vessels access into the inner waterways. This charming city named “Sankt Peterburg” at its inception, was renamed Petrograd in 1914, then after Lenin’s death in 1924 it became Leningrad until 1991, and has since come full circle to its saintly name.
Our St Petersburg Photo Gallery
Up early the next morning we begin the hour-long walk to Peter and Paul Fortress. We figure we may as well start where St. Petersburg itself began. Crossing the large bridge next to bumper-to-bumper traffic over the Neva River we set foot on Zayachy (Hare) Island where Peter the Great founded the first walled settlement in 1703. This fortress is now a complex of museums with various themes. Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral’s prominence is overpowering, its bell tower rising to 122.5metres, making it the highest structure in St. Petersburg. While Rick rounds the outside to gauge the best photo angle, I enter through the heavy wooden doors.
The interior is resplendent in marble and gold, rows of sarcophagi surround the edges of the gleaming marble floor – all of the Emperors of Russia are buried here, except for two. It was a heady feeling to gaze upon the resting place of “The Greats – Peter, Alexander and Catherine”. I move to the canopied section at the back of the church where on July 17, 1998 the remains of Nicholas II, the last Romanov Emperor, his wife and three daughters were laid to rest here, along with the servants who were murdered with them. This macabre execution by the Bolsheviks took place in the city of Yekaterinburg in July 1918, to ensure ties would be broken to those citizens who after the Revolution might remain loyal to the Romanov Dynasty. Buried are Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia. The remains of the other two Romanov children, Maria and son Alexei’s were discovered in 2000, approximately 70metres from where the other members were found in a mass grave 16 years earlier. The authenticity has now been proven by DNA tests. Burial is waiting for the Russian Orthodox Church , which in 2000 canonized the other Romanov family members, to recognize the remains of Maria and Alexei.
Checking out the selection of other Fortress Museums, I decide on the Commandant’s House to glean the city’s history prior to 1917, but the signage is all in Russian so I just check out the old office-type furniture that the top-dogs who once ran the place may have used. My last museum was the Prison of the Trubetskoy Bastion. Off of the corridors are prison cells with one small high window. In each cell is an old metal cot with bare springs or covered with a thin mattress or rough grey wool blanket. A small table beside the bed sometimes has an open bible resting on it. Outside each cell is a glass covered write-up with a photo of some of prominent figures that were imprisoned here – but alas, only in Russian, and no supplementary information sheets in other languages.
It is time to mosey over and climb the tower platform of the Naryshkin Bastion for a view of the cannon firing at noon. I am none too early, as I no sooner get settled along the rail, with about 200 other spectators, than the church bell chimes. I am expecting a loud boom, but not the unravelling ear-shattering, juddering blast that causes me to yelp and jump a foot almost loosing my video camera over the rail – my resulting video footage is only the deafening blast and the aftermath of billowing smoke trickling out of the cannon.
Nevsky Prospekt is our daily route to almost everywhere, and we never tire of its energy. Often buskers perform at the entrance to pedestrian streets. At every bridge crossing hawkers shout out their spiel for boat rides. The sidewalk cafes are a great place to people watch. Russians love to dress up. The ladies are almost all in dresses and skirts, some impossibly short, maneuvering with no problem on 4-inch spike heels, their legs are sheathed in nylon stockings. Rick is relishing the fashion parade. Little girls adorn their hair with flowers and bows. Men and boys wear long pants; nary a pair of shorts do we see on a male physique.
Inevitably on every walk we are met with yet another architectural wonder. We snap photos of a majestic structure and later find out it is Kazan Cathedral, modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. The dome is 80m high, and the colonnade facing Nevsky Prospekt has 96 columns. It is considered a monument to the Patriotic War of 1812, as although its construction began before the war, General Kutuzov (Alexander the Great’s right hand man) prayed here to the Lady of Kazan to win the war against Napoleon, which of course they did. The inside is said to hold numerous French flags and other military paraphernalia.
Each of the city’s many spectacular cathedrals has distinctive European styles. In fact the only church that has the Moscow-style onion shaped domes, and one that the interior should not be missed is Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood (a.k.a. Church of the Resurrection). The large cavernous interior has 7000 square metres of mosaics with a rich blue colour setting off the many biblical scenes and saints, which have me expounding, “I have never seen anything like this!” The church was built over the spot where Alexander II was blown up by the “People’s Will” terrorist group in 1881, which explains the gruesome name.
I have long been intrigued by the Siberian self-proclaimed preacher and healer Grigori Rasputin, and his murder at the hands of political big-wigs who feared his ever growing influence over Tsarina Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas II (only a few years before the Romanov’s met their disastrous end). When I heard of a Historical Artistic and Documentary Exhibition in the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was done in – I was in!
The Romanov’s son, Tsarevitch Alexei, unfortunately was a haemophilic and was often near death’s doors. Rasputin was summoned to Alexei’s bed and the little fellow improved, which brought the monk back many times to work his magic, which some believe was hypnotism.
The story goes: Rasputin was invited to wine and dine (both which he did lustily, as well as being a known womanizer) at the Yusupov Palace. I could imagine this wild-eyed monk feeling honoured to be recognized by the wealthy Yusupov’s as we moved down the same corridors where he was led to a portion of the palace that Felix Yusupov and his wife remodelled for their son, also named Felix and his new bride. The reno’d rooms had the dining room in the basement, formerly a coal cellar – perfect privacy for a nefarious deed. It is eerie to see the dining room set with wax figures – Rasputin sits by the table drinking the poisoned wine, while young Felix stands with his hands gripping the back of a chair ready with a pocketed pistol, and his fellow assassins not far off. When this giant of a monk did not succumb to the poison, he was beaten with an iron rod and then shot 4 times. Believing he was surely dead the assassins dumped his corpse into the Neva River, but an autopsy showed water in his lungs and death by drowning. The one write-up in English in the palace stated that the facts as given were a compilation of writings and disclosures of the men involved in the assassination after they left Russia.
The State Hermitage Museum is “second to none” in the realms of top calibre world museums, and we are about to find out. Facing onto a gigantic cobblestone square the Winter Palace is spectacular in mint green, white and gold with a profusion of columns and windows, the roofline topped with rows of classical statues. An imperial home for hundreds of years, boasting 1057 rooms and 117 staircases, the Winter Palace is now one of five connecting buildings along the Neva River which make up this grand Museum. With over 3 million works of art and treasures housed within, we know from past experiences of visiting major world museums to pre-plan our strategy for our interests, as it would take more days than we had to do it justice.
The entry to the Winter Palace up the Jordan staircase is astounding! I imagine those once invited to a grand ball climbing the wide marble staircase, the centre ablaze with brilliant red carpet and gazing up at the lofty sculptured white ceilings with works of art painted in the dome.
We spend time in dozens of imperial staterooms and apartments, each with is own sumptuous and dramatic decor; some with gigantic copper chandeliers, others with gold or marble pillars, floors with as many as 16 different woods arranged in intricate patterns – all revealing staggering opulence. For us it is then onto our favourite old masters, zeroing in on the works for Da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Tintoretto – to name a few. A lengthy chamber called Raphael’s Loggias, commissioned by Catherine the Great is splendid, a copy of the wondrous room in the Vatican.
A break for a much needed energy boost in the museum café, and it is off to become lost in the wealth of the impressionists, such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso – and more. Matisse’s flamboyant red bodies called “Dance” and “Music” (1910) commissioned by Sergei Shchukin apparently were first painted with male genitalia, but Sergei asked that these “man-parts” be painted over in case polite Russian society might object.
Catherine the Great was the one who started the vast collection, still known as one of the greatest art collectors the world has ever known. Nicholas I greatly enhanced the collection, and post-revolution the collection expanded three-fold as the state confiscated works owned by the wealthy. Yet 20 times more than seen on display is in vaults! After six hours and three floors of the Winter Palace, plus the main two floors of two of the other buildings, named the “Little” and the “Large” Hermitages, we leave dazzled by what little we have seen of this glorious collection.
It is time for our test run on the Metro, this time from our hotel out to the airport, which entails not only the subway train, but then catching mini bus #K39 that for sure goes to the domestic terminal, as we are Siberia bound. Piece of cake, we can do it with our eyes closed on leaving day.
We leave St. Petersburg with feelings of having time travelled back over the 300 years of Romanov rule, and enchanted by this city designed by Europe’s greatest architects that was for the most part untouched by Soviet times. But as always, wherever we go, our greatest enjoyment is the people, and even with the language barrier we still had good exchanges with the gracious and helpful locals.
Next stop – Siberia!
A tad more info:
State Hermitage Museum Tip: The queues are long to purchase tickets, and the ticket kiosks on the grounds only begin to work when the museum opens – so we highly recommend buying tickets ahead on-line for immediate access.
Our “tried and true” Ave Caesar Hotel is only a block from Nevsky Prospekt! The friendly, helpful staff speak English, the reasonable priced (for St. Petersburg) rooms are clean and comfortable, great breakfast included. Most of these converted hotels from apartments do not have elevators, so if stairs are a problem, ask for a room on the lower levels. Krushev’s brother once had a flat on the first floor. For a discounted room price contact Alexey Avdeev, the Manager at Ph: +8 (812) 974-81-42 or +8 (911)177-37-57
Hotel Reception – Ph: +7 (812) 314-54-82 Fax: +7 (812) 314-74-50
Metro to Airport: Catch the Metro line that runs from Nevsky Prospekt Metro Station to Moskovskaya Metro Station. Get off at Moskovskaya Station. Exit station to buses on left. Mini bus #K39 leaves regularly to Pulkova-1 (Domestic Terminal), or take bus #K13 to Pulkova-2 (International Terminal).
Also Published in Europe Up Close.com