It had been a long day of travel already–we’d driven from Scotland to York, seven hours, the day before, and another seven when all was said and done to get to Gatwick Airpot. We made it with plenty of time, and after a few hours to Riga, a short layover, and another hour to Saint Petersburg, our airBaltic flight landed. We made our way to the taxi counter, where you buy tickets for a legitimate taxi (the city seems to have a vast network of non-official taxis, where negotiation appears to be the norm) and paid about $15 for the ride into the city. Our drive took us down one of Saint Petersburg’s long boulevards (the city’s layout felt a lot like Paris, with huge streets radiating from the centre), and we finally arrived at about 1:30 AM to our hostel, Friends by Dom Knigi, close to the Dom Knigi bookstore building. We got our first glimpse of the Church of the Spilled Blood with its multicoloured onion domes.
Finally, here we were–Russia! We’d been looking forward to it for quite a long time, and after the faff of getting our visas, we finally arrived. Armed with Lonely Planet’s St. Petersburg guide and a few words of Russian, we plunged into the city. Piter is a grand, imperial city, with huge five or six-story blocks of buildings with proper, grand facades. Architecturally, it’s much like the other imperial capitals we visited, like Vienna and Budapest, except with uniquely Russian flair.
We ate pancakes with cheese curd and sour cream at Zoom Cafe before walking past the large, yellow Admiralty building en route to the Peter and Paul fortress. We crossed one of the many drawbridges across the Neva, paused to take in the view at the east end of Vasilevsky Island, which looks out at the Winter Palace and the fortress, and continued on to the fortress itself. Peter and Paul fortress is a bit of a destination for families, a six-sided walled-in island in the Neva, with sunbathers young and old on the sand and a grass beach that falls into the river. In the river were parked a destroyer and a couple smaller boats from the Russian Navy–we learned on arriving that Navy Day was around the corner.
Our first stop was the pretty church on the island, once the tallest point in St. Petersburg, built by Peter the Great in a Western style with a tall golden spire. Much of the imperial family is entombed there, right in the main hall. Peter the Great moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg to try to make the country more western facing, and the fortress was where the city originated. We took a quick stop in the Trubetskoy Bastion, where political dissidents, including Lenin’s brother and Dostoyevsky, were imprisoned in poor conditions up until the early 1900s.
We skipped the island’s many other attractions, and walked to Solkihna, a Georgian restaurant by the fortress, for lunch (we ventured to another guidebook restaurant, Chak Chak, but found it closed for good). A giant Georgian cheese boat (called Kachapuri) and some delightful meat stews later, and we were ready to venture forth again. It’s worth saying that we love Georgian food. It’s Russian comfort food, the equivalent of Mexican food in America. On RM’s demand, we walked down to the Artillery Museum, a large semicircular brick building with dozens of armoured vehicles and artillery pieces in the courtyard, all painted drab Soviet Army green. Clank, clank, clank indeed! Some of the guns were absolutely massive, and a couple of the trucks seemed to have ballistic missiles mounted.
We strolled along the Neva, and made our way to the Summer Garden, previously the garden of the Tsar’s palace. It’s oddly laid out, with a series of trellises that make courtyards within the garden, some open and some closed. RM had his first experience with Russian brusqueness after attempting to grab a Coke from a locked refrigerator.
It was a hot day, and we were getting a bit tired. As we’d walked we’d seen tens of canal boats with people on the decks touring the city, and a few motorboats roaming the canals. There’s one company, Anglotourismo, in the city that runs English tours, and after a long search we finally found it, just in time for a 7:00 PM cruise. We wrapped up in blankets (it was chilly on the water!) and took in the city from the canal. The many bridges were colour coded, we soon learned, because initially there were no street names, and the bridges were points of reference. We passed many more grand facades and saw the sad sight of a church that was entombed in brick by the Soviets, becoming a warehouse (in fact, it seemed like all of the city’s churches were at one point converted to warehouses or ice rinks). We learned that though most of the building facades look great, many of the interiors and courtyards–meant for less wealthy folk–were quite a bit worse off. Eventually, we made it out to the Neva with the many other boats, saw the Winter Palace in all its glory from the water, passed the docked warships, circled the fortress, spotted the small imperial Summerhouse, and headed back to the dock.
We had a dinner at Pelmenya, a dumpling place, where we sampled five kinds of dumpling, from the Georgian khinkali to the traditional Pelmeni, and had a house wine, all for about $20. By the end we were getting looks from the other tables–we had ordered way more food than expected.
The next day started with what seemed like a throwback to an earlier St. Petersburg time. We entered Pyshechnaya, and went past the cheap tables and chairs to the counter, where it seemed like only two things were served: doughnuts and coffee. No one was speaking English. $2 bought us four doughnuts and two coffees, the former with the texture of croissants and a delightful, sugary crust (perhaps the original cronut?), and the coffee–poured out of a large vat–seemed to be mainly milk and sugar. We were surrounded by families and elderly people, all seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere.
After a quick walk by the church (we couldn’t get enough, and must have passed it four or five times), we stopped by the Dom Knigi bookstore, housed in a beautiful building with a glass and steel spire. The bookstore itself is open till 1 AM, a testament to Saint Petersburg’s late-night culture and love of literature. Inside were at least two or three editions of each of Dostoevsky’s works, and Pushkin, Chekov, Tolstoy, and all the rest. Realising that we needed to fortify ourselves before going to the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg’s massive museum, we took a stop at Stolle, a small chain known for serving a variety of good sweet and savoury pies. The crust was multilayered and perfectly textures, and the fish pie and vegetable fillings were great. From Stolle we carried on down Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s crowded main street, and into the massive palace square, flanked on one side by the General Staff Building, a huge yellow and white semicircle, and on the other by the massive turquoise, white and gold Winter Palace.
The Hermitage, mostly set in Peter the Great’s palace, is one of the world’s finest museums. The interior is grand and ostentatious, with huge chandeliers and beautiful staircases, columns of marble and vaulted ceilings. There’s an opulent gold and white chapel, and ballrooms with plaster reliefs and painted ceilings. Some of the more interesting exhibits were the armaments room, with knights on taxidermied horses, and the golden peacock clock, a bespoke piece that spreads its wings once a day. There was beautiful furniture (the items of Karelian birch, with their mottled pattern, were especially interesting), and the Tsar’s walnut-paneled library was impressive. When we were done in the winter palace, we sat in the lovely courtyard garden and drank cappuccinos before heading on to the General Staff Building, known for its exhibition of impressionist works. Interestingly, only a small fraction of the Hermitage’s total collection is on display, with the rest in an off-site warehouse. The General Staff’s collection was far more impressive than we’d realised, with Monets, Renoirs, Picassos, and many more. The Dance, Matisse’s famous work, was also there. By the end, we were a bit overwhelmed.
Next up was the Church of the Spilled Blood, known as the location where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by an assailant. The outside is a riot of colour, multicolour onion-shaped domes sitting above large murals and blue, green and yellow roofs.onion-shaped was overwhelming and beautiful, every inch covered by blue and gold murals, the workmanship rivalling what we had seen in the madrasahs of Morocco. The ceiling was perhaps fifty or sixty feet tall, with each dome holding an image of religious figures. The corners of the pillars had floral designs all the way up. During communist times, the church had been used as a warehouse of opera sets, and during WW2 it had suffered damage from a shell. Now, it looks good as new. We lingered for a while before walking over to Rustaveli, recommended by the Wellesley network. It had a homely atmosphere and great Georgian cuisine–favourites were the eggplant with walnut and the vegetable stew. After the meal and a couple carafes of wine, it was beginning to get late–but we still had a long time to wait before the main event, the nightly raising of the city’s drawbridges.
After an abortive attempt to find Barackobamabar, allegedly hidden in one of the city’s courtyards (turns out it was closed), we walked across town to Barodabar, or beard bar, known to be a hipster hangout. It was nearly empty when we arrived, but we had a couple great cocktails, RM’s a peppery concoction called Paprika. Now about midnight, the city had fallen dark, though there were still many people in the streets. We headed on to Terrasse, an upscale sixth floor restaurant with a nice view, and had another small carafe of wine. We spotted a couple horse riders making their way through the city–we’ve presumed they’re carriage horses, but who really knows–every once in a while we saw some things not typical of Western European cities.
With the sky never really getting dark, Saint Petersburg has a huge party pretty much every night during June and July, called the White Nights. Families are out, and the Palace Square is filled with young people and street performers. There are coffee vans all over (the coffee vans are ubiquitous–we were never far from a fix, critical to AM’s happiness). Because of Navy Day, there was a display of tanks and missile launchers by the square. We continued on to the river’s bank to watch the main event, the raising of the drawbridges. It was past 1 AM, and the banks were crowded with people four or five deep, looking out at the reddish, purple horizon. Unfortunately we’d just missed the fireworks, but soon classical music came on, piped through riverside loudspeakers. With many thousands looking on, the drawbridges went up, and the vast flotilla of tour boats and speedboats–there must have been at least a hundred–began to pass by. It was a celebration of summer.
The next morning, we went to the Idiot, named after one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces, a cozy restaurant who many had recommended. There was a tour group there (it feels like many people come in tour groups, as a good portion of the people at our hostel were Russian. There also seems to be a big push for Chinese tourism.), a few lone Russian businessmen who came for lunch, and a clutch of older ladies watching YouTube videos on their phone. We had the pancake-crepes, some with herring and chopped vegetables and others with cottage cheese and raisin. The waitress brought us a cold vodka shot on the house, which seemed a bit aggressive for 12 P.M. It was surprisingly smooth.
From there we began walking down the river, looking at the docked warships–a couple large ones had come all the way from China. There were a couple of submarines and some smaller craft. We walked out on the pier and took the scene in–clearly there were plans for a big production the next day, as the city had erected stadium seating and a camera hung across the river by wire. A helicopter droned around the Peter and Paul fortress. We went into a church on the Vasilevsky side, stopping in the atrium because a wedding ceremony was underway–it was grand and beautiful, with large mosaics. Eventually we ended up at the viewpoint we’d been to on the first day, looking out at the water and the Winter Palace. We saw a few wedding couples (in fact, we saw tons over the weekend) taking pictures–one was harangued by a group of older guys on a boat until they kissed.
Our next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and on the way we passed a huge bronze statue of Peter the Great on a horse, sitting atop the largest boulder ever moved. We took a cheeky nap in the grass before heading on to the cathedral. The church is enormous, its exterior a series of huge columns with a gold dome on top. Inside, it’s easy to lose a sense of scale, with an impossible high ceiling filled with colourful painted murals. Dominant are the giant green columns (stone unknown) on one side. The whole thing, while grand, feels like a bit of a riot of colour. We took a quick walk around the crowded cupola, with 360 degree views out to the river, the Winter Palace, and the rest of the city.
One thing we knew we wanted to do in Russia was see a ballet, and we’d booked tickets to Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, performed by the State Ballet company. It’s a stately yellow building right by a statue of Pushkin on the Arts Square. Worried that we’d be underdressed, RM insisted on swinging by Zara, where we found a blazer for $30. We got dressed up, and found ourselves in the theatre’s lobby, amidst a crowd of Russians dressed to the nines and quite a few tourists mixed in. Our seats were in a box on stage right, with a decent view of the stage, set beneath the theatre’s soaring, painted ceiling and chandeliers. We were soon joined by two shockingly well behaved small children. Soon, the performance began–the music soared, the swans danced, there was love and a touch of violence. We loved the score. The dancers, with their leaps and spins, were fantastic. The sets seemed pretty dated, and the building a bit past its heyday. The intermission at Russian ballet is taken very seriously, and the Mikhailovsky was no exception. During the first intermission we had a couple glasses of prosecco, and during the second we had more prosecco alongside a piece of bread slathered in butter and red caviar. Turns out that all in all we kind of like the ballet. We took our evening stroll past the Church of the Spilled Blood (we just couldn’t get enough), and marvelled at its domes standing against the night sky.
Dinner was at the cozy Gosti, set to be homey, serving classy, delicious Russian fare. We decided we wanted to see the White Nights celebrations one more time, so we walked back to Palace square, which was filled with people young and old. A metal band and a soulful acoustic guitar player filled the square with sound, with crowds gathered around them. Off to one side a baton twirler, each end of the baton set aflame, lit up a rapt audience. Hulking Russian armoured vehicles sat in the darkness, a few interested men and children examined them inquisitively. We meandered to the bridge, joining the ever growing crowd waiting for the bridges to rise. The river began to fill with canal boats, until soon there were several dozen sitting in front of us. Just after 1 AM the music began to play, and the bridges went up. Soon the boats sped past, and we wandered home.
Our last day in Saint Petersburg was upon us, so we decided to visit the Russian Museum, a massive collection of art from Russian artists. There were examples of Russian handicrafts, but our favourite part was the more modern art from the 20th century, along with some impressionist pieces of Russian scenes. There was also a great set of china that represented the Russian worker. From there, it was time for our train to Moscow.
We hopped the St. Petersburg metro, passed through Moscow station’s grand entrance, with a huge mural seemingly from Soviet days on the roof, and had coffee while we waited for the train. The stations interior is pretty drab, though there did seem to be a gun kiosk set amidst its stores.