The trip (at last!)
I’ve been interviewing trip veterans for this section in particular, and I’ll be featuring some insights from native Russians too. What I’ll be attempting to do here is to condense a large number of recorded interviews, dealing with a two-week trip, spread out across 6,000 miles and three vast countries (and cultures). Obviously this is going to result in a picture painted in rather broad strokes, to say the least, but I’ll include more specific experiences and anecdotes as much as possible, to give you as real a picture as I can.
I’m heading East from here on in: starting with St Petersburg, a jewel on the Baltic. Not now on the Trans-Siberian line proper, but well worth a visit. From all accounts, I get the feeling that you could spend a month there and still not experience it all. Little chance of penetrating the “tourist bubble” in an overnight stay, then, but we persevere.
“The Trans-Siberian line is like a pearl necklace that straddles the Eurasian continent. A Vivienne Westwood one, in the sense that all the pearls are different shapes and sizes and designs. They don’t necessarily match, but all together it makes a glittering attraction. Sometimes a bit gaudy, sometimes delightful and elegant. Each one is different from the others. There is a reason for visiting each of the places.
“There are a lot of cities where we don’t usually offer or recommend stops. Because there’s so much to do and see, it is worth picking and choosing quite carefully. It’s a question of how much time you’ve got for the overall trip and what your budget is”.
St Petersburg: some history
St Petersburg grew from the initial building of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island, located on the north bank of the Neva river, opening into the Gulf of Finland and ultimately the Baltic Sea. The fortress was built in 1703 by Tsar Peter I as a defence against Sweden during the great Northern War, and although it was never used for that purpose, it was destined to become the seat of the St Petersburg Govenorate and ultimately the Russian capital in 1712. Its ornate architectural style drew upon European influences from Sweden, Denmark, Holland and a Neoclassical lineage with its roots in the Renaissance. This “Petrine Baroque” expressed a radical shift from the established Byzantine form (itself a legacy from the Roman Empire) that had dominated for the best part of a millennium.
Today, the city of St Petersburg remains a beautiful cultural centre for native Russians and tourists alike, as well as a major industrial port and trade/travel gateway into (and out of) Eurasia. Options for the curious tourist are immense: the famous Winter Palace, the White Nights Festival, the Hermitage museum (and over 200 others), 50 theatres (including the renowned Mariinsky), as well as numerous parks and waterways.
“St Petersburg has glorious 19th century architecture, which Moscow doesn’t (Moscow wasn’t the capital at the time, so money wasn’t being spent on big architectural projects there). It’s a city on the coast, a huge commercial port. A beautiful city built on water, made up of 17 separate islands. Rather like Stockholm to look at, with canals like Venice instead of main avenues. The road network and the bridges have taken over from the canals, which people don’t really use for any meaningful purpose, except for tourist boat cruises. St Petersburg was originally intended to be a city like Venice or Amsterdam.”
It is the home of 4.6 million people and the second largest Russian city, after Moscow. This results in the (friendly?) rivalry that occurs when two great cities collide over national importance.
“It’s like Glasgow and Edinburgh, or Melbourne and Sydney, or Rome and Milan. It’s friendly, but it extends to everything!” Even, apparently, to who speaks “correct” Russian: “It’s quite funny to hear them get on their high horses. Since I don’t come from either of them, I can sit back and let them slug it out!”
And what about the Trans-Siberian connection?
“St Petersburg doesn’t properly belong with the Trans-Siberian anymore. The original line did start in St Petersburg because it was the capital at the time. It ceased to be the capital during the first world war. The Germans had advanced so near that the government was evacuated. All the forces of national organisation and structure were moved back to Moscow, because they suspected that St Petersburg would be overrun at any moment. It never actually happened, but the Germans did get to within half a mile of the city. Afterwards, the Communists found it useful to keep the capital in Moscow and not move it back.”
“It’s more important, more beautiful and maybe more enjoyable than any of the places that you’ll see on the Trans-Siberian Express. St Petersburg has got so much to see. Because it was the capital of the Russian Empire from 1703 through till 1917 – all the glory days of the Russian Empire – St Petersburg is the glittering jewel on this necklace”.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 12).
Impressions of St Petersburg.
[Photos by punxsutawneyphil]