It is absolutely incredible when you can go to a place and have every single stereotype and preconception you had about it totally shattered, finding the real thing so much better and so much different from what you were expecting. This is what happened on my first trip to Russia.
St. Petersburg looks old, but by European standards, its pretty much brand spanking new. Originally a backwater fishing village, Czar Peter the Great decided that he would build his new capital city here and founded St. Petersburg in 1703. He wanted a Russian version of the great European cities in the West, so St. Petersburg has a very European feel about it. There are plenty of things to remind you that you are indeed in Russia however. A good example here is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with those lovely onion domes. The church's unusual name reflects the fact that Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 on the spot over which the church was later constructed. Inside the church, there is a patch of cobblestones, which are supposedly the very same on which the Czars blood was spilled.
Inside the church is indescribably beautiful. Practically every surface is covered with these incredibly colorful mosaics depicting various saints and scenes from the bible.
Intricate is an understatement when describing this piece of architecture. The Church is one of the few traditional Russian-style buildings in St. Petersburg. This reflects Peter the Great's wish to move Russia away from Asia and more to Europe. Alexander the Third, however, decided to have the church built in the old Russian orthodox style as a memorial to his father.
I was there just after the much celebrated "white nights" in which twilight is as dark as it gets in the city. We got only a few hours of darkness, with the sun setting shortly after midnight and then rising again before 5 AM. It was pretty cool, and it definitely threw off my sleep schedule. The people definitely enjoy celebrating the summer weather too...cafes and restaurants all set up places to sit outside, and dinner (normally eaten around 11 PM) was taken sitting outside and enjoying the phenomenal people watching that St. Petersburg provides. Then around 1 AM, its about time to hit the bars for some nightlife. In the mornings, things don't get started til around 10 AM or so, and this is because most younger people aren't back home and into bed before 7 AM. Crazy and fun. And yes, they do drink vodka very heavily.
Statue of Catherine the Great outside of her palace. St. Petersburg is a massive city, but the old part is the Fontanka, which is bounded on two sides by the massive Neva river and consists of a series of radial and ring streets and canals. The Fontanka is packed with old palaces (it seemed like every czar had their own newer, bigger palace built just for them), churches, and tons of great places to eat! The food was fantastic. I loved the ''pancake'' dishes. The pancakes are really just thick crepes, which are a remnant of the heavy influence France has played on Russian cuisine. I particularly loved the ham and cheese pancakes and the salmon pancakes with roe. Russians love pickles, dill, and cranberries too. In fact, a plate of pickles is known as a plate of ''chasers'' in Russian, since assorted pickled veggies are a popular side dish for drinking vodka. Cranberry juice is served everywhere, as well as a traditional rye beverage that tasted like liquid rye bread. I also loved the soups, which are a regular part of most big meals. My favorites were the mushroom cream and borscht (beet) soups, hot and cold and served up with a dollop of sour cream of course. Fish dishes are also extremely popular, and I was amazed by how popular sushi bars were in St. Petersburg (though I must admit, I didn't eat any as I was recommended against it in favor of more traditional Russian foods). Having a massive nation, Russian cuisine has many different influences and styles. We tried Georgian cuisine while we were there, and I think this was actually my least favorite meal, though still delicious.
Just tuck this church away here...perfect. Walking on that side of the street, it surprised me every time I walked past.
I loved this. Over by the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which is also very close to the Russian Museum, they have all these replicas of beautiful Russian paintings just scattered randomly on the outside of buildings. Pretty cool stuff. Public works of art are pretty big over there. The subways are insane: very ornate and beautifully decorated, but unfortunately, they do not allow photography down there.
Opera. I didn't see an opera or a ballet, but there were plenty of options for some classy evening entertainment.
The drastically different styles of architecture were quite impressive. Each coming from a different era under different national leadership.
The city actually reminded me a lot of Paris for its beauty everywhere you went. I was very fortunate my first day to meet a 20-something Russian guy, who was taking his sister a tour of the city center since she was visiting from Moscow. They were more than friendly, and though she was the only one who could speak English, we all had a good time wandering around. I really learned a lot from them about different parts of the city, Russian history, and modern Russia. Overall, I found the people there to be very friendly and helpful, and a lot of people spoke at least some English, which I was very surprised to find.
The Winter Palace, which is now the home of the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's great museums. I'm devoting an entire blog post to the Hermitage and Yusupov Palaces, so don't worry, there's more to come.
The yellow palace seen here is actually a working prison now. I couldn't believe it! This is seriously some prime real estate, just across the way from the Winter Palace/Hermitage and Neva riverfront property, and what do they do with it? Turn it into a prison. Wow.
A palace across the river housing the Grotesque Museum. Apparently one of the Csars had a thing for grotesque art...so much so that his collection of it fills up an entire museum. So this is a view across the Neva River. St. Petersburg has easy access to the Baltic Sea, and it is more than noticeable that the city has a strong naval history (and current presence as well).
There was a lot of Greek-god influence. The outside of the Winter Palace had god after god along the top of the building, and they appeared in friezes like this one all over the place. Poseidon was particularly popular, once again reflecting the strong naval heritage.
View from up top on St. Isaacs cathedral. The Peter and Paul Fortress is seen in the background across the river. It was there that Peter the Great first started developing the city. The views of the rest of the city were spectacular too.
Old and new. Funny thing is, the old thing is St. Isaacs with its gold dome in the background. The new one is the soviet-era building in the foreground. It was really interesting to hear the younger Russians knocking the soviets. They particularly did not like their architecture.
The colors they used on the buildings were spectacular. Oh, and I haven't mentioned yet how freaking hot it was there. I was not expecting high humidity and temps in the 90s in Russia. They were in a heat wave, and it lasted the whole week I was there!
There was cool architecture everywhere you looked. They seem to like owls over there too...there were many of these decorating building tops.
Seriously? The Russian language was really cool. Being the first time I was really exposed to it, it is not nearly as harsh as I always thought. It's quite nice sounding really and I love the alphabet. I learned to read the Cyrillic quickly enough and its incredible how similar many of the words are to English and French.
The Singer building...loved this one, especially more so considering the inside is a huge bookstore!
The insanely Romanesque Kazan Cathedral. Yes, that is a Christian cathedral! It has those two colonnaded sections off of the middle that circle out like bird's wings Another interesting thing about the Kazan is that the soviets turned it into the Museum of Anarchy during their era. This museum housed as much anti-religious propaganda as they could find, like photos of priests having sex with nuns and paintings of massacres in the name of God.