On The Beaten Track
The Catherine Palace
This is not located in St Petersburg, but Pushkin: 16 miles south-east. It is in keeping with the style and grandeur of the main city, however, and stands as a rewarding out-of-town excursion. The palace was the imperial summer residence from 1710 until the end of the Tsars, and so accounts for itself formidably in terms of vast, grand, sprawling and ornate opulence, not to mention gardens. The Neoclassical, Petersburg Baroque, Rococo styles and more combine to create a stunning architectural assault. Notable features include: the Great Hall/Grand Ballroom, with its acres of glass and gold, and sculpted forms decorating the walls; the Amber Room, just that, an ornate study lined with amber panels and even more gold; the Agate Rooms; The Palace Chapel; and the Hermitage Pavilion, located in the grounds. Grandeur beyond excess.
The “Russian Versailles”. This is a magnificent complex of palaces, in fact, with gardens, stepped terraces laden with gilded, sculpted fountains, pools…and more European post-Renaissance architectural combinations throughout. All part of St Petersburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m honestly running out of adjectives to describe the sheer, over-the-top splendour. Visit the Upper and Lower Gardens, the Grand Palace, the Grand Cascade and the Grand Throne Room, if you can take it all. As in France, no wonder that the peasants revolted when they saw where all the money was going. Phew.
The State Russian Museum
St Petersburg’s largest collection of Russian fine art, spread across several fine Neoclassical buildings. Centred on the Mikhailovsky Palace, the establishment also includes the Rastrelliesque Stroganov Palace, the Summer Palace of Peter I, St Michael’s Castle and the Marble Palace. Near the Mikhailovsky Palace is the Russian Museum of Ethnography. Now an independent establishment, it was once the Russian Museum’s Ethnographic department.
Church Of Our Saviour On The Spilled Blood
The blood in question was that of Tsar Alexander II, who performed radical reforms after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean war. After several attempts on his life, he was finally assassinated in 1881 on what was to become the site of the Church, built to encompass and preserve the blood-stained cobbles (to be precise, he received fatal injuries in an explosion on the site and died hours later.) Paradoxically, although the Church was finished in 1907, it is more authentic in its incredible, romanticised medieval Russian style than the grand, post-Renaissance edifices of the Hermitage et al. Internally, the church is decorated with lavish mosaics covering the walls and ceilings, and tantalises in its entirety with what was (or what could, or should, have been?). Amazing.
These are available day and night, along and around the Neva River, the Fontanka River, Moika River and canals. It is not called the Venice of the North without reason. A leisurely way to see the sights from a different perspective.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
The largest Orthodox cathedral in Russia, it is built after a traditional Byzantine, symmetrical Greek Cross layout. A portico is situated at the extremity of each short arm, rising to a flat roof with four squat, dome-surmounted towers and a massive central dome surmounting a rotunda and walkway, accessible by steps (300!). Think of the view… Internally, gilded mouldings and murals, as well as pilasters and columns in coloured marble and stone abound.
And that about wraps it up: the must-sees of the must-sees. No, your favourite may not be in there. Yes, I’m sure that a great many others are equally as valid as some of those featured. I drew a line – but it was an arbitrary one on a random, circuitous route. If you have any “But what about…” comments, then please post them below!
Something else to consider: guided tours, for those who want to take a break from wandering about with a map and get straight to the good stuff. With the added bonus, of course, that you are accompanied by someone who knows the ropes and who can answer questions. There are plenty of options: boat tours, walking tours, personalised tours, guided tours of the Hermitage. Take your pick.
Boy, this article is so travel-brochure-y that I’m liable to break out in orange fake tan at any moment. Argh! Maybe just one extended RST then. Nickolay and Iryna: save me!
Random Survival Tips
St Petersburg and other places. Gleaned from various sources.
Ladies of the Day and Night.
Nickolay: “About Russian women. Some of them are very beautiful. Many of them look sexy. They like to look sexy and it has nothing to do with morality. Their morals mostly are good, but their dress and make up often does not look modest. Prostitution is prohibited, but foreign tourists can see prostitutes because wealthy tourists are their target. They are recognizable as they explicitly offer their services. No matter how pretty they look, beware: they are involved in a cruel, criminal business.”
As far as the dating game goes, Iryna has some possible pitfalls to relate: “Russian girls look for non-Russian guys. Why would you date men from Ukraine [Iryna is Ukranian] with no money, when you can date an interesting English man with money? Men usually pay for everything all night, except with advanced women who are independent, confident. Some people abuse it from both sides. Men sometimes go over to “spend time” with a Russian woman [effectively treating her as a prostitute]. Russian women sometimes use it to pay the bills or even live off it, with three or four different men.” Expect letters asking for money for their sick mother’s operation. You have been warned. Of course, some decent foreign men meet decent Russian women, get married and live in contentment for evermore. There is that!
Next time: Virtual Trans-Siberia
Virtually There… or some other appalling VR pun, there are plenty. Arm-chair moving at speed, or arm-chair wandering about, whatever appeals.
[Photo by Maria Li]