Last year, my first international trip began with a week-long visit to Russia. We spent our first few days in Moscow (read Glimpses of Moscow – A Photo Essay) and took the Sapsan superfast train to St. Petersburg – the more European of the two cities.
Stepping into Sankt Peterburg
Travelling as we were in the winter, I expected the city to be a sullen, grey shadow of its summer-self. But “Sankt Peterburg” (as it is called in Russian), was out to surprise me with its colours and a strange warmth in the frozen climes.
A Taste of Russian Hospitality
I made this trip with my parents and little sister. My folks had been wary of my travel planning skills, but they were delighted when I kept revealing one wonder after another. Our place of stay (Soul Kitchen – more on that in another blogpost) in St. P was something they absolutely loved! After all, I had booked us two private rooms at the best place in (possibly) all of Russia! 😀
The evening we entered the city, we chatted with our friendly hosts and got some nice recommendations on places to see. We had a quick dinner at a nearby cafe and slept early for the next day was going to be an exciting one! 🙂
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
The icy winds could do nothing to stop us from leaving our temperature controlled haven. We strutted out in our boots and overcoats and followed the map to our first stop – Isaakievskiy Sobor. More commonly known as Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, this is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. You can climb a spiral staircase to reach the roof of this building, from where you shall have a panoramic view of the entire city.
The cathedral has opulent interiors which take at least an hour to admire. There are also shopping kiosks for those looking for good quality amber and ornate trinkets to take back home. This cathedral deserves a blogpost of its own, so I will reveal more about this Sobor in that article.
Before you read about the cathedral, you must be aware of ‘Our Lady of Kazan’. She is a venerated icon, often regarded as Virgin Mary, and the guardian of the Russian city of Kazan. The cathedral, also known as Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor, is inspired by the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Many events of political importance have transpired inside this semicircular splendour. It is mandatory for every woman to cover her head before she enters, as a mark of respect for Our Lady of Kazan. It’s unfortunate that photography is prohibited inside, I cannot show you the palatial and lavish interiors.
The Church on Spilled Blood
The Church on Spilled Blood is so named because it is here that Alexander II (who happened to be the Emperor of Russia, the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland), was assassinated with grenades. The church stands beside the Griboedov Canal and has mosaic interiors to match the magnificence of its elaborate exterior.
A Marketplace of Happiness
We lunched at a bright, cheerful restaurant called MarketPlace. This cafe is highly recommended for its artisanal breads, fresh vegetables and a wide selection of Russian dishes. The ambiance is warm and welcoming, and the decor, homely, with pots and pans suspended from the ceiling.
On a side note, I have been so impressed by Russian food and places to eat that I’m going to write an exclusive guide to eating in this country.
The Other Side of Neva
River Neva is the third largest river in Europe and has a number of bridges connecting its banks. From Nevsky Prospekt, one can see the Palace Quay and the Winter Palace on the other side of the deep blue waters. The river itself is home to wild ducks and fresh water fishes. It is difficult to describe what a walk along the Palace Embankment feels like. Pushkin puts it much better in this poem from his novel, Eugene Onegin:-
Filled with his heart’s regrets, and leaning
Against the rampart’s granite shelf,
Eugene stood lost in pensive dreaming
(As once some poet drew himself).
The night grew still… with silence falling;
Only the sound of sentries calling,
Or suddenly from Million Street
Some distant droshky’s rumbling beat;
Or floating on a drowsy river,
A lonely boat would sail along,
While far away some rousing song
Or plaintive horn would make us shiver.
But sweeter still, amid such nights,
Are Tasso’s octaves’ soaring flights.
The Palace Square
The Palace Square is an expansive open space with the Alexander Column as its focal point. The column was constructed to commemorate Russia’s victory over France in the 19th century. This square has seen a lot of history – revolutions and bloodshed. But today, it’s a place for teenagers to skateboard and toddlers to scamper around; a place where lovers walk holding hands and the romantics take horse-carriage rides.
The Winter Palace
Once upon a time, this green palace would house the Russian royal family. Today, it forms a part of the Hermitage Museum which has a colossal collection of European art and antiquities spread across more than a hundred rooms! It is said that to properly see every room, one needs an entire month. It is awful that we only had the better part of an afternoon 🙁
The palace and museum complex is one of the most grandiose I have ever seen in my life. There are throne rooms that have been privy to coronations, reception rooms that have held many spectacular balls, guest suites and nurseries, apartments for the Tsar and the Empress, and umpteen private rooms, apart from the halls that housed arms and gilt.
My fingers are already itching to write another post specifically for the Hermitage complex. But right now, I must take you across the Palace Bridge to another spectacle on the other side. 🙂
Peter and Paul Fortress
This fortress was built by Peter the Great (the ruler of the Russian Empire) on Zayachy Ostrov or Hare Island to protect the city of St. Petersburg from a potential Swedish attack. The fortress served a dual purpose of being a military base and prison for high-profile inmates.
There is also the imposing Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress complex which has a gilded spire that makes it the tallest Orthodox church in the world. The complex has an array of museums with separate entry fee, canon exhibits and interactive statues for photo-ops.
I was in St. P for less than 3 days but I got glimpses of history spanning hundreds of years. Some trips are too short to search for answers to all the questions we have. I know in my heart that I will return to Russia someday.