St Petersburg was my starting point in Russia. I’d arrived on an overnight train from Tallinn, Estonia, and was met at the railway station by my ‘guide’, because I did travel in Russia with a tour operator. (The tour was great, still allowed time for ‘free days’ to do as I pleased. Be warned, learn some Russian before you go, even if you are on tour. Knowing the alphabet is especially helpful, because things in English were very few and far between – it came in handy numerous times).
The many canals of St Petersburg lend it the name of ‘The Venice of the North’
St Petersburg is also known as the ‘Venice of the North’ – on that comparison I can’t comment, as I haven’t been to Venice, but St Petersburg surely is an amazing city. True to Russian form, its big – the buildings are big, the streets are big (and long), and the population is big too…. I had a few days in St Pete’s before my ‘Russian Tour’ started, and then took extra nights here after my trip – and still there’s lots more to see and do!
True to my preferred traveling form, I walked for hours in and around the city during ‘free time’ to absorb as much as I could. On day one I went to ‘Peter the Great’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography’ or ‘Kunstkamera’. It’s situated on the banks of the Neva, just over the bridge from the Winter Palace, and its purpose was ‘to collect and examine natural and human curiosities and rarities’. I read that Peter used to take visiting dignitaries and the likes in there to see if they could ‘stomach’ what was on show – those that could handle what they saw, were treated to vodka. Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly got some pretty gruesome ‘things’ in jars, but worth a look! I’d suggest going early in the day – it get pretty busy.
Do NOT miss the ‘Winter Palace’ aka ‘The Hermitage’! This impressive Baroque style palace doubles as Russia’s largest art museum – one of the largest and most respected in Europe. The Palace was built during the mid 1700s for Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great. She died however before its completion and only Catherine the Great and her successors got to reside in, and enjoy the Palace. Allow yourself at least 3 hours, because once you step inside, it will blow your mind! The guide from my tour operator took me along – it’s worth getting a guide, or you’ll end up spending about 10 hours inside. I told my guide that I wasn’t really into art, so to just give me a general look around. However, nothing can prepare anyone for entering a room housing some of the most famous paintings ever – including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne and Gaugin etc. And then there’s the tapestries.. enormous, and to this day exposed to minimal light – assisting in preservation.
The metro on Nevsky Prospekt
There’s a total of 2.7 million exhibits and display – not all on show at the same time, but if they were and you looked at each piece for a minute, it would take 11 years, non-stop, to see them all – apparently.
You can get to the Winter Palace from ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ – St Petersburg’s main street – which was planned by Peter the Great as the starting place for a road to Novgorod and Moscow. Take the chance to wander up and down Nevsky Prospekt – with its varied palaces (including the ‘Stroganov Palace, built in 1752 for ‘Baron Stroganov), cafes, hotels, bridges over canals (you’ll know the Anichkov Bridge with its impressive horse statues), restaurants and the Russian National Library, to name a few.
From the bridge over Griboedov Canal you get an amazing view of the huge, colourful, onion-domed (typically Russian) ‘Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood’ – which is easy to get to, and while I didn’t get a chance to look myself, is meant to be mind-blowingly beautiful inside.
I did sit in cafes on Nevsky Prospekt and people watch though – and went to a ‘Russian evening’ at a local theatre. Not only were snacks provided at an intermission (yes, there was caviar!!), but the dancing was amazing! I’m sure that break-dancing has been inspired from traditional Cossack dancing. A lot of this show had Ukrainian dancing, but it was still amazing to see experience this tradition of dance, music and clothing.
As with Moscow, the metro is a great, reliable way to get around, but taxis are common place – however, you do need to wave them down and they’ll pull over and collect you if they can fit you in – typically, you’re not going to be the only person in the taxi (pays to know some Russian for these exact situations!)
The great bronze statue of Peter the Great
Take some time out in ‘The Summer Gardens’ – over 11ha of greenery minutes from Nevsky Prospekt. In Senate Square is the famous statue of Peter the Great – The Bronze Horseman – erected in the late 1700s and nearby is the impressive ‘St Isaac’s Cathedral’ – inside are nearly 400 works of art. Near to this is the Astoria Hotel – famous for its famous guests including George Bush (senior and junior), Jacques Chirac, Prince Charles and Pavarotti.
While ballet is not my thing, I caved and got talked into going to see ‘Swan Lake’, at the Lenin Theatre. I managed to stay awake, and can say I’ve seen a Russian ballet in Russia – what’s interesting to note is the difference in prices between seeing a ballet in Moscow or in Saint Petersburg; it’s about 4 times more expensive in Moscow!
And then there’s the caviar; so expensive, so no I didn’t buy any! I tried it though.
For some ‘Cold War history’ I found the ‘Kirov Museum’ – dedicated to Sergei Kirov. I’d read about it in Lonely Planet and was intrigued by the fact that the uniform he was wearing, at the time of his assassination, was on display – with blood stains still intact. This was, yet again, a time when knowing some Russian helped – because the museum is housed in a non-descript building. If I couldn’t read the small plaque outside it, I would have missed it altogether. Kirov became head of the Party organisation in St Petersburg (Leningrad back then) and was seen as a ‘focal point of opposition to the more extreme policies of Stalin’ – he was shot and killed at his offices in 1934. The ladies running the museum were very sweet – they ended up setting me up on a computer to play an educational type game. I don’t remember how it worked, but I remember it being very difficult to leave – they wouldn’t let me go (in an innocent way!)
I’d recommend at least 5 days in St Petersburg, it will easily be filled with lots of sights, sounds and experiences! Hopefully by now the guy with the baby black bear, collared and chained, has been stopped from torturing this poor thing into ‘behaving’ so that people can get photos of or with it. Ugh!!