Monday 3 September 2012

Sweet Saint Petersburg

It is the first day of Autumn in St Petersburg, our first stop on our visit to the vast expanse that is the largest country on earth, Russia. We are like two green twigs, quivering with nervousness and apprehension, partly because of our border crossing hiccup, partly because the weather is actually starting to get cooler, and partly because we know almost nothing about the country we have just entered. Since someone else organised the logistics of our travel, as was the case with semi-independent touring, we have resultantly felt less obliged to prepare for it. So despite our previous experience, it feels like we were embarking on new, formidable adventure into the unknown. I cannot believe we are actually here in Russia! Excitement tingles in our toes as we scan the bus station crowd for a sign with our names on it.

A portly gentleman beside a beat-up sedan is waving a piece of paper at us from across the parking lot. Suppose that's our guy we muse as he grimly tosses our bags into his boot and we struggle in vain to find belts in the back seat. "Famous church" he gestures off-handedly out one window at a building that I blinked and missed, followed by "Nevsky Prospekt ... famous street." He pulls up on a side street to resolutely deposit us at our hotel and leaves. Ok, so no need to tip? we shrug and check in.

We had only just arrived, but when Katia, our knowledgable young guide recently graduated from the local university, called to ask when we would like to start our orientation tour, we keenly answered "Now please!" eager to hit the ground running. So Katia didn't waste any time coming into town for a late afternoon stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, which invariably was a very famous street. After surreptitiously providing us with our upcoming travel documents in a blank white envelope (well, I admit it may not have been as clandestine as my Russian-spy-novel imagination made it out to be), she introduced us to all the essential points of interest surrounding this busy central thoroughfare, enlightened us on the basics of Russia's most European city, and showed us how to use the metro and bus system to get about on our own. Incredible buildings of spectacular proportions and architecture came with equally incredible tales of political intrigue, imperial assassinations and social upheaval.

Palace Square - Saint Petersburg
We first crossed the Anichkov Bridge and admired at the four lifelike bronze statues of The Horse Tamers. The story goes that the sculptor had a tiff with his patron, upon which the former carved the latter's face onto the groin of one of the horses. Hmm, gawping at the nether regions of horse statues was one way to stand out from the crowd (I admit, I stole a few curious glances).

Canals - Saint Petersburg
We briefly visited a beautiful and quiet old Armenian church, browsed the Eliseyev Emporium, the fanciest supermarket I have ever entered, and stood outside the non-descript fascade of the Museum of Democracy. "There is nothing in there, I've looked" says Katia mildly, "This is Russia." She was similarly non-plussed about the current controversy of Putin versus Pussy Riot.

Near the gorgeous Dom Knigi building stood the grand semi-circular arms of the Kazansky Cathedral. Katia insisted that we go inside at 10am the next Sunday morning to hear the choir sing "like angels". That we did, as well as observed the devout rituals of a Russian Orthodox service.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan - Saint Petersburg
One of our favourite stops was the ornamental Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was more commonly known as the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, as it was built in commemoration, and on the spot, of Tsar Alexander II's assassination by conspirators in 1881. We fell in love with the oh-so-Russian coloured turrets and arches, despite it's morbid origins.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (aka Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood) - Saint Petersburg
Looking towards the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood - Saint Petersburg
The tenacity of such cultural landmarks always amazed me; despite the huge upheaval of Russian society over the last century, it survived destruction. As did the St Isaac's Cathedral, now a museum, which was covered in grey during World War II to avoid being an air raid target. I don't want to think about not seeing such beautiful mosaic treasures such as this.

St. Isaac's Cathedral - Saint Petersburg
St. Isaac's Cathedral - Saint Petersburg
St. Isaac's Cathedral - Saint Petersburg
The Winter Palace, former official residence of the Russian tsardom, included the world-class Hermitage Museum jam packed full of some three million pieces of rare art and artefacts from around the world.

The Palace Square on a Rainy Day - Saint Petersburg
State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace - Saint Petersburg
The genesis of this collection was none other than Catherine II's (aka Catherine the Great) love and support of the arts and sciences. In addition to the fantastical tales of this ambitious tsarina's lavish tastes and sexual appetite, it seemed she managed to acquire in her lifetime (via bulk spending sprees) a total of around 4,000 paintings from the old Masters; 38,000 books; 10,000 engraved gems; roughly 10,000 drawings; a natural history collection that fills two large galleries; and some 16,000 coins and medals. Later we managed to squeeze in an afternoon of Hermitage highlights, cramming in as much of the exquisite displays as possible and coming out very much overwhelmed.

The boudoir of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, inside the Hermitage Museum - Saint Petersburg
The Black Knight inside the Hermitage Museum - Saint Petersburg
Silver coins inside the Hermitage Museum - Saint Petersburg
To top off our bourgeois experience, we went and saw a stunning performance of the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre. It was the first live ballet either of us had seen, and something that I had wanted to do all my life, ever since I listened to the music during my childhood. I was so thrilled to finally see the real deal here in St Petersburg - not exactly Mariinsky level I'm told, but to my wonder-wide untrained eyes, it was pure magic!

Seeing Swan Lake, a Russian Ballet, at the Winter Palace - Saint Petersburg
Following Katia's instructions, we navigated the metro and bus network on our own to get to Peter the Great's summer retreat - Peterhof Palace and Garden. It was a long slow bus ride, but at a bargain fifty rubles we enjoyed public transport with the locals under the watchful eye of a stern and stout bus conductor, who not only ensured fares were efficiently paid for, but also kept her passengers in line. We got off at the start of the long garden entrance, passed several cool fountains, hedges and gates, to come to the top of the Grand Cascade.

Some of the many fountains at Peterhof Palace and Garden - Just outside of Saint Petersburg
A crying Statue at Peterhof Palace and Garden - Just outside of Saint Petersburg
These gardens were huge! It was not crowded at all, probably because of the rain, so it was kind of romantic.

Peterhof Palace and Garden - Just outside of Saint Petersburg
The fountains here were hands-down the most impressive that I have ever seen. What made it even more amazing was that all the fountains operated without the use of pumps - water was collected in a reservoir from natural springs and elevation difference did the rest. I like technology!

Another fountain at Peterhof Palace and Garden - Just outside of Saint Petersburg
Amidst the splashing sounds of falling water and occasional camera clicks, birds chirped in the trees, and hungry squirrels would literally come up to you and inspect your outstretched hand for acorns if they think you've got one. It was a great day out, and I would thoroughly recommend a trip out here if ever you find yourself in St Petersburg.

Some more of the many fountains at Peterhof Palace and Garden - Just outside of Saint Petersburg


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