Friday, April 22, 2011

The surprising loveliness of St. Petersburg

On day 4 of our Arctic expedition, the five of us hopped a night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, expecting it to be miraculously warmer at the other end. I even formulated some scientifically shaky theory involving the Baltic Sea, rouge breezes and an imaginary warm front coming to envelope us all. It is notions like this, and a myriad of other reasons really, that would make me a crap meteorologist. We had travelled straight north. Of course, it was colder...much, much colder.

But it was also sublimely stunning. The streets were exactly what a winter dream should like. Thanks to frequent snowfall, and believe me, it gave new meaning to the word 'frequent', the snow stayed white and pristine, not having time to turn into the usual snirt (snow dirt) I am accustomed to finding in big cities. The architecture, mainly neoclassical giving way to Art Moderne, rivals anything found in the grandest cities of Europe. The light has this crispness that is hard to put into words and even harder to capture in pictures. From the moment we stepped off the train, I was shivering in awe.
In an algebraic formula I had not known possible, the depth and breadth of beauty beat out the ridiculous level of cold. It would have been easy to just roam the streets, mouths agape, blithely taking it all in, without a clue as to what it was we were looking at. Luckily, we had arrived with a plan. Nikita from Moscow Free Tours had intervened on our behalf, and set us up with their yet to be open St. Petersburg counterpart. Our was officially the first SPB free tour.

Just an hour after we had stepped off the train and checked into our highly recommended Soul Kitchen hostel, the very sweet and enthusiastic Alina was waiting to show us her city. She began by showing us  city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. This Avenue, once referred to by Alexander Dumas as "the street of religious tolerance", cuts right through the historical and commercial center of the city. It is here that you find some of the most spectacular buildings, many of the major touristic sites and oftentimes a guy dressed in a bear costume; the latter promoting a restaurant chain named Yolki Palki.

Over the course of the next five days, we got to know this area (and the bear) quite well.

My favorite, the Singer building was once the headquarters of the German sewing machine manufacturers by the same name, but now houses an excellent bookstore.

Beat-boxing on the Prospekt.

Lamp adorning the exterior of a music store.

Gorgeous Art Nouveau door reflecting the neighboring Kazan Cathedral.

On that frosty first day, Alina continued on from Nevsky Prospekt, showing us snowy parks, snowy open squares and ultimately revealing to us SPB's snowy answer to Moscow's ubiquitous St. Basil's.

That would be the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. The mouthful of a name refers to Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on that very spot in 1855, with construction on the church beginning two years later. Like St. Basil's, it harkens back to an earlier Russian style, with eye-catching candy-colored domes and an eclectic mix of patterns. Each church is unique and special enough to stand on its own and one could argue that it is completely unfair to compare the two. It is also very much in keeping with human nature to make that very same comparison. I preferred this one. A lot.

Although I must confess to a strong SPB over Moscow bias, one that increased with every passing day, I would be willing to call it a tie, if judging based on the exteriors alone. But, the interiors...sweet sassy molassy, the interiors!  Every square inch of the Church of the Savior was covered with some of the most spectacular mosaics I've ever seen. Nowhere did a paintbrush ever land upon these walls. All the magnificent murals were created by artists with more patience than I can possibly imagine using itty-bitty colored fragments.

Alina continued her tour in weather, that against all logic pertaining to the rules of Spring, only continued to get colder. A climb up the bell tower of St. Isaac's Cathedral nearly froze of us all. Shortly thereafter, we made a dash for both food and indoor heating. Our destination:Yolki Palki. A fine choice by Alina (and of course, the bear) and an excellent conclusion to our introduction to a city whose grandeur came as a complete surprise to me.

Once we had become familiar with the lay of the land, it was time to get more in depth. We wisely decided to devote the entirety of our second day to the Hermitage Museum (and even more wisely opted to pre-buy the entrances online, allowing us to avoid a massive line that can only be more horrific in summer). The museum, which was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, is currently spread out among 6 interconnecting buildings (4 of them open to the public), including the tsar's winter palace. I went in knowing that it ranks up there with the Louvre and the Prado in terms of size and collection. Still, it is hard to put into words the sheer scale of the place. It is just so, so...vast.

In attempting to get a photo showing just how vast the Hermitage is, I managed to fumble my lens cap straight into the Neva River.  I don't recommend doing this.

We'd asked about hiring a guide to help us navigate this behemoth institution, but none was available. The only option for a live guide was to join the afternoon's one English language group tour. I imagined trying to appreciate a painting or a sculpture alongside a writhing mass of people, elbowing and jostling for space. So instead, we all chose to rent audio-guides, which came with a small map of the museum's layout. I devised what I felt was a good and logical plan for visiting the numbered rooms in a chronological order and set about trying to follow it. The problem was that no matter how hard I tried, my internal GPS kept finding ways to screw up the agenda. I'd think I was entering room 211, would check the plaque on the door to verify this fact only to realize I was not even in the correct building. Making it more overwhelming was the fact that a lot of these "surprise" rooms were really spectacular, as in the rooms themselves were so dazzling that they were successfully rivaling one of the world's greatest art collections for attention. This made me think that with my now-scattershot approach and no idea of where I was going or what I should see, I was bound to miss some really great stuff. To ease this anxiety, I stopped at one of the gift kiosks and bought an illustrated guide to the museum. Surely, the author would include all the must-see rooms/ artwork. So, now I had an audio-guide, an illustrated book to follow and a... and a... Fuck me! I'd lost my map. As if I was not sufficiently challenged, somewhere between book purchase and bathroom break, I'd lost the stinking map. I looked at my watch. I had four hours left to see one of the largest museums in the world in its entirety and not a clue as to how to do this. All of a sudden, the group tour did not seem like such a bad idea. After all, I'd been riding Russian metros for nearly a week already and felt pretty confident in my own elbow-throwing capabilities. With the assistance of 6 security guards or so, I made it back to the entry foyer five minutes before the tour was supposed to begin... and found no one. No group, no guide, no one. I asked a ticket taker, who confirmed that a tour was indeed about to take place. Good enough. I went outside, jumped the queue, bought a tour voucher and returned to the empty bench to try and figure out what was going on. Minutes later, an elegant Russian woman approached, introduced herself and suggested we commence the tour. Incredibly, I was the tour! In the span of 30 minutes, I had gone from lost and mapless to a personal one-to-one tour with a woman who knew that museum better than I know my own house. It was the kind of dumb luck you just can't plan. For three hours or so, she showed me around, pausing at both the museum's top masterpieces and at some of her personal favorites and opening my over-whelmed eyes to details I would have surely missed on my own. In the end, I can safely say that I still missed at least 35% of the museum (the entire French impressionist movement only got a quick run-by from me on the way out the door) but I left more satisfied than I ever have in a museum this size.

Your average Winter Palace door knob.

The Malachite Room

A library I would kill for.  No joke.

Every single one of this woman's wedding photos will have some variation of this pose.  Why?  Because she is trying to hide the fact that she is super duper knocked-up.

Ever since seeing his work in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I have been a huge fan of Antonio Canova.  At the Hermitage, there is an entire gallery devoted to his work!

I'm not going to lie. Upon stumbling into this gallery, I squealed like a pre-pubescent schoolgirl at all these Canovas.

Sonia, our Moscow guide, had explained to us the tsars' grand architectural plan. They would find a European palace they fancied and then tell their architect "We want that. But make it bigger and with more gold." Also, it is to be expected that if you have a winter palace, you must have a summer one, too.

Day 3 was thus devoted to one of those gilded summer getaways, the one known as Catherine's Palace. Located in Tsarskoye Selo, it is a short day trip outside of St. Petersburg, but getting there is not the complicated part. This palace has an unwieldy ticketing system, which requires the independent traveller to either hire a guide for the simple task of procuring an entrance ticket or wait until closing time to be permitted in.

The palace, which was destroyed by the Germans following WWII, is in the midst of what seems like never-ending restorations. Some of the reception and dining rooms have been returned to their former splendor, including the famous Amber room, where ridiculously photography is not permitted (this coming from a person who cringes anytime anyone uses a flash in a museum!) but the majority of the living quarters remain unadorned and now feature sub-par displays.

I suspect that if we'd been able to appreciate the gardens and pagodas in the summertime, perhaps this palace would have been more impressive, but as it was, it seemed to be lacking.

For livable royal splendor, I much preferred the interiors of St. Petersburg's own, Yusupov Palace. Set along the Moika River, it was once home to wealthy nobles, and is now best known as the scene of Rasputin's murder. It originally housed a truly spectacular art collection (including several Canovas) but as explained in the audio-guide, once the Soviets came into power, the collection was disseminated amongst the country's museum, where much of it remains. What is on display today is a series of tastefully decorated rooms in an eclectic variety of styles. The Palace, as a whole, conveys a sense of refinement and sophistication that would seem almost out of place at Catherine's summer home.

My two favorite rooms were this private theater (who wouldn't want that...)

and this Moorish gem for relaxing and entertaining.

But it was not all palaces and castles in SPB. We chose the coldest and snowiest of all our days in Russia to go traipsing across the Neva River- which is what you do when you have limited time and loads to see- in order to see what can only be described as the polar (no pun intended) opposite of the luxurious life.

We were headed to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was the site of the original walled city. It was founded for defensive purposes by Peter the Great in 1703 and is now a museum complex with plenty of sites to see.

One such site is the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the main church of the city and the resting place of most of the Romanovs.

Peter the Great himself is still there, along with a long line of successive tsars. His tomb is the one on the far right.

Another site, the one that had lured me out in this weather, was a high-security political prison that housed the likes of Peter the Great's own son, Lenin's brother and the writer, Gorky. It is always odd to me when places of such great suffering evolve into tourist attractions, as this one very much has. The audio-guide did an excellent job of conveying the grim conditions faced by those considered enemies of the tsars (and eventually the tsars themselves).

Our final days in St. Petersburg are a blur.  There was just so much to see and time was going so quickly.  There was a near scavenger hunt to find the griffins that grace all the t-shirts and shot glasses in town, but remained hidden in clear sight (to us at least)....

Then, there was the famous Mariinsky Theater, which was only located when we had the good fortune of asking a member of the theater's orchestra for directions.  He eventually gave up on trying to explain and instead walked us 15 minutes out of his way in order to make sure we got to see his workplace.

But, best of all were the things we just stumbled into.  Things such as the Tim Burton-esque doll gallery, where each creation was far too gorgeous to be a mere plaything.

Or the writer, Nabokov's small but exquisite home, which is now a museum run by the University.

It was clear that another five more days would have yielded many more treasures (and possibly a case of hypothermia) but for such a brief visit, I was grateful to have seen as much as we did.  When I return, and I am certain I will, I intend to do so in the summertime  I will take a boat trip along the canals, sip cocktails in outdoor cafes and take pity on the heavily-costumed Yolki Palki bear.


  1. Это сказочный статьи вашего визита в СПБ. Великая картина слишком!

  2. Спасибо, Роланд!