November 2, 2014 § 2 Comments
Travelling to St. Petersburg this past summer had been nearly ten years in the making. I first fell in love with Russia’s “Venice of the North” through Paullina Simons’ ‘The Bronze Horseman’. A story of war, of love but ultimately of Russia.
Say to (nearly) any 20-something girl from New Zealand that you want to go to St. Petersburg and (nearly) all of them will say: “oh, because of The Bronze Horseman”. I kid you not, this was the reaction from all of my Kiwi-born female friends.
So, when my best friend (and fellow Bronze Horseman fanatic) said she was heading to St. Petersburg in August, along with her Russian-born other half, I jumped on board. In spite of recent political unrest, it seemed there was never going to be a better time to see this particular dream become reality.
And reality did not disappoint. Six glorious days of blazing sun and balmy White Nights, spending time with my best friend discovering just how amazing a city St. Petersburg. And here’s why….
No trip to St. Petersburg would have been complete without walking in the footsteps of The Bronze Horseman’s central characters: Tatiana and Alexander: strolling through the beautiful and lush Summer Garden (running round like crazy trying to find the statue of Saturn Eating His Children); visiting the vast, gold-guilded, fountain-filled Peterhof Palace; climbing the stairs of St. Isaacs Cathedral (and losing our minds completely, pretending to be on the lookout for bombers).
But there is so much more to this city then reliving the pages of a novel. For art-lovers, a visit to The Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, is a must. With five buildings open to the public, displaying everything from Egyptian antiquities, prehistoric art, jewellery, paintings and fine art from all over Europe there is no shortage of things to see. After spending five hours walking round and getting ourselves hopelessly lost, we gave up, realising we were only ever going to see a fraction of what was on offer.
If you’re after something a little different, I highly recommend a midnight boat ride on the River Neva. During the summer months, every night at 2.00AM (or so) St. Petersburg’s bridges raise – and it attracts huge crowds. It’s a somewhat bizarre experience as there is no fan fare: no alarms, no announcements or lights nor entertainment. Yet, a flotilla or ferries (when we went there were at least 20 rushing past each other) cruise the river and thousands line the embankment. If you can keep your eyes open long enough, make the effort and enjoy the almost festival-like atmosphere.
The highlight for me (which came as a surprise) was the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Having traversed a reasonable amount of Europe, I’ve set foot in a fair number of churches – but rarely has my jaw, literally, dropped. The entirety of the church is mosaics, from the floor to the walls to the ceiling. For sheer splendour and magnificence this is hard to beat.
Founded over 300-years ago by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg has accumulated quite a history: industrialisation, revolution, a 872-day siege to name but a few of the monumental events experienced by its citizens. It should come as no surprise then, that history buffs can revel in the past: the Peter and Paul Fortress, originally built as a citadel is has since been used as a garrison and a prison and now holds the remains of all of Russia’s tsars (Romanovs included); the Siege of Leningrad Museum – small, but extremely moving (and entirely in Russia – use of the audio-guide is highly recommended), the museum details one of the most harrowing period of the city’s history.
And if military prowess is of interest, the warship Aurora (the most popular attraction in St. Petersburg, so be prepared to queue) and the Artillery Museum displaying weapons from throughout the ages (us girls took a pass on the latter) are also worthy of mention.
Oh my god, the food. Culinary delights were not high on my list of expectations of Russia. Stunning architecture, a wealth of history, but food – not so much. It was then a sensory surprise to find that I love Russia food – in no small way due to what I consider the dish of the Gods: potato pancakes. Meat wrapped up in deliciously salty, shredded friend potatoes. Heaven on a plate for this starch-obsessed, spud-loving individual.
If potatoes aren’t your thing, then soup, dumplings, meat-on-a-stick, apple-filled desserts and much more are there to tantilise your tastebuds (but really, when you have potato pancakes on offer, what more do you actually need….)
Should you have made it this far (and I applaud you and apologise in equal measure – I swear it was not intended to be this long – there are a final few note-worthy things to mention about visiting St. Petersburg ….
Find a Friend
If you’re able to find one, a Russian-speaking guide is invaluable. I was lucky enough to spend my time in St. Petersburg with a ready-made translator in the (very compliant, patient) form of my friend’s Russian boyfriend.
Although I’m sure you can get by without having a Russian-speaking native, it certainly makes touring the city simpler. Signage – even in the subways and tourist attractions – is almost entirely in Russia, with the odd English word here and there. Aside from the language barrier, it was handy having a local to pal around with, as the prices for tourist attractions are significantly higher for non-Russia. My friend and I spent much time smiling politely, nodding and steadfastly not speaking English any time we were near a ticketing office.
As much as I would like to debate this, when travelling you very quickly realise that generalisations about other cultures exist for a reason. At face value, Russian people are not overly warm and welcome, perhaps residual from the days of Communism and the Cold War where clouds of uncertainly and distrust constantly loomed. Do not expect smiles from the lady selling your tickets at the museum, or the waiter serving your food.
But … get to know them a little bit and you’ll find Russian people to kind and incredibly hospitable. After spending less than two days with my friend’s (soon-to-be) in-laws I was being chastised (in Russian, of course) for not visiting them in Moscow and being made to promise I’ll visit the next time I head over. An easy promise to make.
So. Petrograd. Leningrad. Saint Petersburg. No matter what you call it, one thing remains the same – it’s a city that should be on your travel bucket list.