So I started a new job recently, hence a conspicuous lack of updates. But yay money.
Next up on the Northern European tour: Russia.
More specifically, two days in St. Petersburg, formerly known as both Leningrad and Petrograd, the second largest Russian city that sits at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. It is considered the most Westernized city in Russia.
Though Moscow was the traditional capital of Russia, Tsar Peter the Great moved the seat of power to the city named for him in the early 1700s. The influence of these years is on display around the city and without, manifesting in opulent palaces and grand Russian Orthodox churches around the area. The Hermitage, housing one of the largest art collections in the world, partially occupies the Winter Palace, which was the official residence of the Russian monarchs. It’s impossible to escape the history, even if it’s interspersed with the more modern and familiar.
After an early morning tour corralling, our first step was to go through customs, which was simultaneously awesome and terrifying. None of the other countries along the cruise route required a customs check (besides an easy one in Denmark at the airport) so it was already something new. When combined with the generally intimidating element of Russian military scrutinizing your passport, that passport photo being seven years old and 40 pounds heavier, plus my very suspect long, dark beard, I was little tense. The two Russian male personnel looked down at my passport and gave each other a look. They studied the photo, bouncing from my visage on the page to the one in front of them. The two then laughed a bit, joked that I was heavier, remarked on my beard, then sent me along. It wasn’t the international spy thriller I was expecting, but I still breathed deeply afterwards.
The tour bus took a fairly direct route to the Hermitage, stopping briefly across the Neva River for some great photos and an opportunity to be accosted by Souvenir Salesmen/Pickpockets. Our first day was overcast, so the photos weren’t as vibrant as they could have been, but the view of the Winter Palace across the water was no less stunning. Our expeditious journey to the museum was to stay well ahead of the general admission crowds. As we were a specially designated tour group, we entered a couple hours early.
Our first introduction to the decadence of the Tsars was a giant marble staircase with bright gold statues, wall details and chandeliers. This led up to the throne room, where a large portrait of Peter the Great hung behind the red and gold chair. I won’t labor over every detail of this palace (and many others), but it was appropriately awe inspiring to view these places. All of the palaces have some degree of restoration because of destruction and looting after the revolution. Still, to know that these sights were typical of the Russian monarchy leaves no question why the communists eventually came to power.
The Hermitage was originally set up in a much smaller space adjacent to the palace. Another later addition makes the museum complete. We didn’t get to see all of the exhibits, naturally. It sounds like you need a couple days to enjoy the entire collection. But we did see some Renaissance art (including Davinci), some Dutch painters like Rembrandt, Rubens and various others. I’m not sure when I’ll ever get back to St. Petersburg, so it would’ve been great to see more. Time was limited, though, and there was still much to explore in the city.
Next, we saw Yusupov Palace (aka Moika Palace), the famous site of Rasputin’s murder in December 1916. We had a fairly quick walk through, but it was neat to see the actual rooms where Russian nobles carried out the deed. They wanted him gone because of his increasing influence over Tsar Nicholas II. Rasputin’s death was infamously drawn out. First he was given cyanide laced food and wine, which failed. Then he was shot at close range, which failed again. As he woke up from the gunshot, he attempted to escape the palace. Rasputin was discovered, shot again, beaten mercilessly. Somehow still breathing, he was then bound and thrown into a freezing river. His actions during WWI are seen as contributing to the revolution’s ultimate rise to power and even though his death was celebrated and welcomed, the Bolsheviks still overthrew the monarchy.
For lunch we had a multicourse meal that began with fish roe on bread, a shot of vodka and a glass of sparkling wine. Then came a simple salad with dressing (not Russian dressing, but I guess it technically was). Next, some of creamy, very tasty soup. Then, a floured chicken dish with potatoes. The dessert. I’ll go ahead and spoil it ahead of time, but this lunch was almost exactly the same as the one on the second day, save some slight variation in the soup and dessert. It was unusual and probably meant to cater to tourists unfamiliar with Russian food, but I would’ve appreciated a more diverse experience. The food was perfectly tasty, though.
The last two stops of the day were Russian Orthodox churches. The first was St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the second was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. I’m used to seeing occasional opulence from Roman Catholic churches, but nothing compares to how ornate and beautiful these cathedrals actually are. They don’t exactly adhere strictly to the modesty synonymous with Jesus Christ, but to each his own. It’s common to cover your hair in these buildings and, indeed, there were sections within that you couldn’t go without doing so. St. Isaac’s was the larger of the two and less traditionally styled. Tsar Alexander I opted for a neoclassical dome and column arrangement, as opposed to the more recognizable spiral domes of other churches (Including Spilled Blood). The latter was traditional, with green, blue and golden domes at the top of several towers of varying heights. Inside, images of saints, angels and Jesus are prevalent in painted scenes similar to Passion depictions in stained glass. Anyone, religious or not, can appreciate the detail of these places.
Let’s pause for a brief intermission that lines up with the end of our first day in Russia. These two days were exhausting. Briefly summarizing it conjures up memories of blisters and sore feet. One thing I learned on this trip was that I like my laid back sightseeing vs. action packed days. Staying in a place for a week, sightseeing casually, and living like a local appeals to me more than the Cliffsnotes version of a 300 year old city. Luckily, some impromptu happenings awaited us on Day 2.
The second day began with a canal tour through the city. There are a series of waterways that intersect with the Russian rivers periodically and allow you to see the significant sights from water. A photographer’s dream for the most part. As we floated along, an abundance of military equipment and soldiers were visible along many of the streets. Turns out May 9th is Victory Day, which commemorates the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany in WWII. Russians consider this their biggest holiday and this happened to be the 70th anniversary, so the planned celebrations were huge. The parade in Moscow’s Red Square was the largest ever. We got some good shots of The Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, but these military displays dominated most views.
We escaped the city and drove 30 minutes to Peterhof Palace, the Russian Versailles equivalent. Many of the rooms here were recreations of their documented state during the reign of the Tsars. Between the grounds, the interior and the large fountains in the rear, I’ve never seen a more quintessentially royal location. It wasn’t the primary residence, but if I was picking where I’d like to rule, it would be a place like Peterhof. This was also one of our UNSECO World Heritage Sites.
Lunch, which I’ve already described. Only other notable was that we sat with a couple of offensively pleasant British Columbians who sickened me to my core.
So now, our driver was tasked with getting us to Peter and Paul Fortress, adjacent to large swaths of Russians out celebrating Victory Day. Russian police warned us we couldn’t pass a certain point because the street was blocked to automobiles for the parade. We parked about a mile from our destination and continued on foot. Russian children carried balloons of submarines and WWII era fighter planes, there were Soviet flags waving in force and staying together became exponentially harder as we approached the fortress. At one point, our walk was stopped completely by a procession of WWII era vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Everyone seemed jovial, which cast Russian stereotypes of cold and removed individuals to the wind. Honestly, even in massive crowds, nobody ever seemed pushy or rude to us, and we were conspicuously out of place tourists. We grabbed some ribbons a girl was handing out; in my opinion, a cooler souvenir than the most decorated Faberge egg or Matryoshka dolls.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral, on the fortress grounds, is particularly neat because it contains the remains of 46 members of the Romanov dynasty. Morbidity and history converging nicely. It was another beautiful, elaborately detailed building. By this time, though, I was definitely ready to call it a day. Russia was truly amazing, but two full days of touring left me ready for a much needed rest.
Would I ever actively seek out returning to St. Petersburg? Tough to say. Viewing more of the Hermitage collection would’ve been great. Having an authentic Russian meal, equally so. Russia is a notoriously difficult country to navigate without the language. And supposedly dangerous. I was expecting to feel more threatened by pickpockets, but the element was largely absent besides that first photo stop. Perhaps the feeling would be present if left to fend for myself. After seeing so much, it’d be tough to justify a trip back on my own. Despite the incredible experience, it always felt like a country at arm’s length. The impromptu Victory Day celebration was fun, but I’m not drawn back like some of the other countries on the tour.
I also thoroughly enjoyed figuring out the Cyrillic alphabet. Still doesn’t stop me from thinking “Pectopah” in my head every time I see the Russian word for restaurant.
Maybe a Moscow trip is in my future.
Next Stop: Helsinki. I discovered a particular affinity for both Finland and the Finns.