Updated: Oct 12, 2019
To say my initiation to St Petersburg was a whirlwind is an understatement. I was shown so much my head was reeling with Russian history, splendid architecture and a montage of objets d’art by the time I left. Still, I will do my best to recall what I saw and what I learned.
The city was built in 1703, hence its long boulevards and geometric layout. It is simple enough to navigate as a person can see for miles down a road. Called the Venice of the North, there are canals running alongside buildings and pathways and every so often there is a square of green – a small park, where people can sit, play or amble under the trees. Peter the Great certainly employed competent architects when he decided to build the city on marshy land, therefore the buildings are not very tall.
There are over 400 palaces in the city, many now museums, or government buildings, but not all are grand. All are rectangular of two or three storeys with rectangular windows in perfect symmetry.
No building is exactly the same, they have different features and there is an array of colours: blues, creams, pastel pinks and greens, dusky reds, russet browns, burnt umbers and soft greys. It’s a feast for the eyes and the churches are spectacular. Golden spires glistened in the summer sun, radiating light onto coloured tiles of jasper and goodness knows what else. To say St Petersburg is a vibrant city is an understatement – it is stunning.
And so clean! Not one piece of litter, not a single beggar, not a dirty window. Okay, there are some buildings under renovation, but they are wrapped up in green netting to stop debris from falling onto the pavements. It was beautiful and I have to add, I felt safe. We were warned about pickpockets, so I took little money and left my rucksack on the coach. For the most part I just carried my phone to take pictures.
Our first stop was to a stunning blue and white cathedral, part of the Smolnyy Convent. Inside there were brilliant white walls and columns, decorated with pictures of saints and the holy family framed in gold. It is beautiful and dare I say, packed with tourists. I discovered the way to avoid the crowds is to visit in February or November when the weather is a lot colder. However, the day was 21 degrees with clear blue skies.
I had fifteen minutes to look at the church, then back on the coach passing through the wide streets lined with trees, where palace after palace was pointed out. One particular dusky pink building, set in its own square by a canal and surrounded by trees was built for Paul I (who was also Paul the Last). He lived in it for 40 days before being assassinated by a “conspirator”.
My guide used that word quite a bit during my visit – not “anti-royalist” or “Bolshevik”, but “conspirator, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to who was conspiring against whom.
Next stop was the Church on Spilled Blood, an opulent building of coloured tiles and shining round domes. Unfortunately the main steeple was being renovated, but that didn’t take away from the flamboyance of the overall structure. I didn’t go in as a service was underway, it being Sunday, but it was certainly a sight to behold and I can see myself returning to St Petersburg for a day or two to explore some more.
There are a number of bridges over the canals and River Neva, some being bascule bridges to allow boats through. Anichkov Bridge boasts four superb statues on each of its corners of a boy taming a stallion.
I caught a quick glimpse of a statue of Catherine the Great, who is known as Catherine II in Russia. My guide called her “humble”, but I am sure he was joking. Russian sense of humour is drier than the Sahara Desert.
Passing several statues of Lenin and one of the first head of the KGB, I took photo after photo of the spectacular buildings and I was given information on what was what, but as I scan back through my snapshots I can honestly say, I can’t remember this from that. I do recall seeing the building where Tchaikovsky, the composer lived and the Admiralty, but the rest are a beautiful blur.
I stopped at an official shop where I used the loo, then I headed off with a friend for fifteen minutes, walking around a block and through a park where people were out for an early morning stroll, or seated with their dog, or watching their children play on the climbing frames. A scene reminiscent of many European cities and St Petersburg is overwhelmingly European. A fountain with a statue of a cherub smoking a pipe was the central feature of the park, but we pressed on arriving back on time for the coach.
The coach passed the Marinsky Theatres and St Issac’s Cathedral, finally reaching the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, both of which overlook the River Neva and Palace Square. Schools had finished for the summer and plenty of celebrations were to be had and were in the making. Concerts and fireworks were to be held later in the evening.
I had to queue for about half an hour to gain access to the Hermitage museum, which gave me plenty of time to admire the exterior of the Winter Palace, a beautiful blue and white painted symmetrical building with Corinthian columns, the leaves painted in gold. In the centre of the square is a tall pillar, weighing 500 tons as it is pure granite. On top is a bronze angel overlooking the city.
The Hermitage Museum is part of the Winter Palace and is splendid. The rooms are extravagantly ornate with electric candelabras in gold leaf, candles on the walls in gold leaf, paintings on the ceilings in gold surrounds. Yellow, blue and white are predominant colours, arrayed with splashes of the gold. The parquet flooring in some rooms mirrors the gold leaf patterns on the ceiling. Mirrors decorate the walls and there are statues galore alongside vases of jade and jasper. Even the chapel is ornately opulent. It is undeniably palatial.
The museum boasts a wall of portraits of soldiers who fought in the Patriotic War of 1812. These were painted by an English artist, George Dawe, with his Russian assistants, and are displayed on a rich, red background.
The throne room was red, white and gold, the throne itself dwarfed by the red and gold hangings. Room after room of richness filled with growing crowds.
A clock of gold was overly decorated with an eagle and a peacock sitting on a tree, the timepiece itself a small rectangle at the base. Nothing is really functional, just pure decadence.
The museum has a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, a depiction of the Madonna and Child, about the same size as the Mona Lisa. It was in a glass case, thronged by tourists. I am not a da Vinci fan, of the man, yes, of his artwork, no! His true genius was as an innovator, not as a painter and I was more impressed by the one and only Goya, a portrait of a doe-eyed young girl, and the El Greco was typical of his art too.
The museum owns more Rembrandts than the Rijksmuseum in Holland and the portraits and self-portraits were housed in a separate room. I strolled through the museum, each of the rooms dedicated to country of origin: Italy, Spain, Holland, finally moving into the Ancient Roman room, displaying marble statues of men of note and into the Egyptian room, where artefacts had been donated by the Egyptians, in thanks for the Russians help in building the Aswan Dam.
Back on the coach I was once again driven around the city, with palaces and buildings being pointed out. The sky was brilliant blue and the city shone in the sunshine. To contrast with the 18th and 19th century it was decided to see a more modern newly built business complex where the rectangular buildings were fronted by plain, tall columns, pathways covered by glass and facades decorated in an Arabesque style. The overall effect screamed modernity and wealth.
Lunch was a buffet and I tucked into fish and chips, which was cod and damn delicious, washed down with cranberry and the lemon flavoured vodka.
After lunch I visited Saints Peter and Paul fortress were we went into the central church, again splendidly decorated. This is the resting place of Catherine II (the Great), several others and most of the Romanovs. Two of the children are in Moscow and yet to be placed alongside their family. (I’m sure I was told it’s because their remains have to be authenticated, but don’t quote me.)
The exterior and interior of the church are striking. Again, plenty of gold leaf, deep blues and whites inside, pastel yellow and white outside.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go into the fortress itself but as I made our way back, I found my bearings and realised the centre of St Petersburg is not particularly vast. It’s well navigable and I’d like to come back to catch up with the more literary/arty aspect of the city.
Having walked over 10km I was certainly ready for a beer, my dinner and bed. I had another day of sightseeing ahead.