We had managed to go almost an entire month in Russia without having a drop of the country’s most famous tipple, vodka. We thought perhaps we’d be offered some on one of our many long train journeys, but instead we’d been reprimanded by stern police guards for having a beer we’d bought on the station platform! However, luck was on our side on our last night, in our last city, our hostel hosted a Bilini (Russian Pancake) party complete with ice-cold “Fire Water”. We were taught the proper way to drink it as well, always start with two shots in a row, a bite of something salty after each, and absolutely no sipping! It was an ideal end to our time in Russia, a country not known for its generosity had been good to us that night!
Peter the Great founded St Petersburg as his new capital in the early 18th Century, and it was designed to “let in the light of Europe”. It is no wonder then that even today the city is the most westernised in Russia, famed for its mass of culture and European architecture, home to over 90 museums, world-famous Opera and Ballet companies, and a lively bar and music scene. We made base at the brilliant “Baby Lemonade” hostel (in a great location and filled with bilini parties!) and set out to fill our five short days with the best the city had to offer.
With rivers and canals everywhere, and a new church or palace to find behind every corner, St.Petersburg makes for a lovely city to aimlessly walk around, which is exactly what we did. We even made the climb to the top of the golden domed St.Issacs cathedral (ironically made into an anti-religion museum by the soviets) to get a better look at where we had just been. From the top you can look out across the city, seeing the domes and spires sprinkled throughout, as well as the rivers and sea beyond. It was a good way to start exploring the city, however the 260 odd steps around a spiral staircase was enough to make anyone quite dizzy!
Our next sightseeing stop was the Peter and Paul fortress, the oldest brick building in the city and home to the final resting place of 18th-20th Century Tsars. The entire complex is filled with varying museums and things to see but no doubt the highlight had to be the unexpected spotting of locals sunbathing… in tiny speedos… at 2pm on a Wednesday in April… when every sane person was wearing at least 2 jumpers, sure it was sunny but it was still frigging cold. It seems that regardless of the time of day or year, the middle-aged sun lovers will be down on the water’s edge stripping down to the bare minimum to pick up the rays.. St.Petersburg may have felt european, but its inhabitants where defiantly still Russians….
Also in the peter and paul fortress is another slightly terrifying sight that almost beats that of the sunbathers… a bizarre sculpture of Peter the Great! The founder of the city is immortalised in bronze, however, it seems that the sculpture had watched the movie Beetlejuice too many times, and instead of giving the sculpture its correct proportions had put a tiny head on the massive frame of Peter the Great (in real life he was apparently almost 7ft tall). The sign next to the statue says it was made from Peter’s death mask and wax mould of his body, which means he was a terrifying looking guy. No wonder he managed to scare off the Swedes…I think the pictures speak for themselves.
The Hermitage is dubbed as one of the largest and greatest museums in the world, and with a collection spanning everything from Egyptian mummies to World famous paintings, there aren’t many who would doubt it. Housed in the Winter Palace and numerous other buildings around the city it would take you weeks to see its whole collection… however, we only had the stamina for one day and decided to take in the museum’s greatest hits. We were equally as interested to see the Rembrandt’s and Da Vinci’s, as we were the opulent grand Winter Palace of the Romanov Tsars. Why have one enormous crystal chandelier when you could have twenty-four? And a gold clock with moving animal mechanical parts is a must for any palace, right? It was amazing to see the room where the Russian government was arrested by the Bolsheviks and the gothic library where Tsar Nicholas II liked to spend much of his time. But the winner of favourite moment in the maze of the Hermitage goes to the look on the face of a middle-aged french women who was surrounded by forty Chinese tourists pushing with their cameras to get the shot of Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child…priceless!
Anyone who knows me (Ella) well, knows that my favourite historical figure is a Siberian priest, with crazy hair and famed sexual magnetism called Rasputin (Ryan’s favourite historical character is of course a rock!). So it was to my delight when I discovered there was a museum dedicated to my historical hero in the palace where he was poisoned, before being stabbed and thrown into a frozen river: he died from drowning (his close relationship to the Tsarina and her son was frowned upon by others in the Russian court). The museum even boasts to have his pickled 13 inch penis! I arrived only to find out that because I didn’t speak Russian, I couldn’t go in without being on a guided tour…so disappointing! So it means I shall have to return, if only to see what made Rasputin such a heartthrob.
But the city has a more recent history than that of the eighteenth century grandeur. When under soviet rule, Stalingrad as the city was known, endured a siege lasting more than nine hundred days, as the Nazis cut the population off from the outside world. Its inhabitanats endured incredible hardships, tens of thousands dying of bombs, illness and malnutrition. There is a museum dedicated to the siege that made a welcome change from the gold rococo of imperial Russia and gave us a glimpse into what those months would have been like.
Unfortunately our Russian visa was coming to an end, and with just enough time to catch a glimpse at a practice parade for the upcoming victory day celebration, we headed to the famous Finlyandskiy station, where Lenin arrived back from exile, and headed for the European Union and Helsinki.
Till next time comrades,