Following our overnight train to St Petersburg – our final experience on a Russian train, for now! we arrived in the morning and made our way to our apartment. Time enough for a full day's sightseeing!
Finally - a train photo. Not really representative though, since this train was a flasher one than most, like the one from Kazan to Moscow.
We deliberately left Moscow a day earlier than we might have otherwise, to have longer in St Petersburg. This meant we arrived on a Thursday, which, being the first Thursday of the month, meant free entry to the Hermitage!! Yussss! So that is where we made our way.
the Winter Palace
and nearby building
It was an elegant and tasteful introduction to St Petersburg. The building itself is beautiful, so as we looked at the exhibits within the Winter Palace we also took note of the lovely interior. Some of the rooms were, in fact, entitled “Palace Interiors”. John reckons it may be the most beautiful palace we've seen, beating Schonbrunn and Versailles; although the rooms were still decorated lavishly and opulently, they seemed to always be cohesive, and not over the top, limiting themselves to three main colours in general.
As for the exhibits themselves, we saw a bunch of Russian art, which I love, as well as French art. All the different artworks from the art galleries we've visited recently are blending together in my mind, though, so I can't remember exactly what there was. I do know there were also more museum-type exhibitions, with artifacts from Central and East Asia, Tibet and Siberia. We found the Siberian section the most interesting. It included a stuffed chief's head and a completely mummified body – those were pretty grim. Death doesn't do the body any favours. There was also a big cart, a huge felt tapestry with pictures of guys with awesome moustaches and clothes – lots of items that wouldn't normally stand the test of time (in this case thousands of years), but thanks to the permafrost in different areas of Siberia they have been preserved for our viewing pleasure today.
The other main reason we allowed an extra day in St Petersburg was so we could attend a Russian ballet. Following our visit to the Hermitage, we walked to the Marinsky Theatre II – apparently a very new building, only opened in 2013. It was definitely flash enough! There we beheld a myriad of elegantly dressed fellow audience members, matching their surroundings, while we dressed up as best we could in our travel clothes, complete with mud-stained boots.
before the show
More importantly, we also got to see Swan Lake, in three acts. It was so beautiful – the dancing was exquisite, so graceful it brought tears to my eyes near the start – and I always love the outfits they wear. I feel you get a two-in-one deal at a ballet: an orchestral concert, plus ballet dancing thrown into it. I gave John a basic overview of the plot, from what I could remember, and unintentionally spoiled the ending a bit, saying how all Russian narratives, be they ballets or novels, seem to be tragedies. I seemed to remember a big long death scene at the end. And then the prince ripped one of the evil magician's wings off, whereupon the villain died, and the prince and princess were reunited in a happy ending! I was so shocked. But I'll never say no to a happy ending!
taking their well-earned applause
Speaking of happiness, we also paid an extravagant price for two pieces of Russian layer cake during one of the breaks. So worth it! As Brian Regan would say: delectable!
Much of the rest of our sightseeing in the city involved wandering round and looking at, or inside, things. I suppose that pretty much encapsulates all sightseeing, really. Here are some of the objects we saw.
- The Admiralty
- and this picture in the "Admiralty" metro stop - one of many in the metro stations
- Decembrists' Square with the Bronze Horseman – iconic symbol of the city
- This triumphal arch
- St Isaac's Cathedral. Massive! Opulent!
- Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. This church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881. There was a special structure inside marking the very spot. The church itself was so beautiful, with nearly every internal inch covered with large mosaics – but in a pattern, so it wasn't too overwhelming.
another insane altarpiece
one of the mosaicsThe paintings filled every inch.
- Kazan Cathedral. This still operates as a place of worship, rather than the other churches we visited in St Petersburg, which have been converted into museums. On the plus side, having it as a still functioning church means you get free entry. On the minus side, you're not allowed to take pictures inside. So we have no photos inside Kazan Cathedral, but it lived up to the standard of the others, we thought – tasteful, if not quite as opulent. It seems that tastefulness is a feature throughout St Petersburg.
- Alexander Nevsky monastery. We walked for a long way down Nevsy Prospekt, the main street, to arrive at this monastery. It was also a proper experience in the Russian winter, as it was snowing the whole time. It was great, apart from when the wind blew the snow into our faces as we walked. Still, like I said, it was great! And it meant the monastery, when we reached it, had a decent covering of snow, and the sky was light and pink with snow clouds even though the sun had long set, and it just had an awesome feeling to it. The snow setting on our camera didn't work very well, though, giving us decidedly sub-par photos, so you'll have to take our word for it.
- Peter and Paul fortress, with cathedralthe entrance to the fortressthe cathedral - very pointyJohn fist-bumps a statue in the fortress
- Here is also a picture of the lack of the cruiser Aurora. We went to the place it was meant to be – we expected it would be bobbing around merrily on the water, and our guidebook had opening hours for it, but when we got there, all that greeted us was a partially frozen body of water and some large buoys.
No Aurora! Must be sleeping.
A more successful outing was the one that involved an Indian restaurant for lunch/dinner. John got a medium-hot curry dish (i.e. WAY too hot for me) and I got the mildest possible butter chicken (i.e. safe, predictable and perfect). The food was really good – possibly the best Indian I've ever had.
And now back to sightseeing. We got a further taste of the art on display in St Petersburg by visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace (not the same as the nearby Mikhailovsky Castle. Confusing). Again, like the Hermitage, some of the wonder of this place was in viewing the lavish rooms, decorated with beautiful gold leaf and paintings made to look like 3D sculpture. Many groups of schoolkids seemed to have chosen that same day to come and appreciate the wonder of Mikhailovsky Palace as well, but we didn't let that put us off. Have I mentioned that I love Russian art? This was reconfirmed here. There were the artfully imagined biblical scenes, beautiful sunsets, moody forests, a fantastical underwater scene and, one of my favourites, a huge sea with a drowning ship.
We finished off our time in the city, and our OE proper, with a visit to the Museum of Political History. It had been done in quite a flash, modern way, rather than long blocks of text with photos, like in some of the other museums we've visited, but it was also the most confusing museum we've visited. Confusing to know where the different rooms were, and which order to do them in, and sometimes what order to view the exhibits inside. I think I came away with a better understanding of how the revolution happened, though, and a clearer picture of life under Stalin's rule, with the incessant propaganda, as well as the ideological bases of those involved. Once again, it made me grateful to not have lived there and then.
I thought St Petersburg was great. I also thought Moscow was great. The architecture was amazing, the Christmas decorations lifted everything up a notch, and it just seemed right to be preparing for Christmas in the snow. St Petersburg was easier to manage, being much less spread out than Moscow, and it also left me with a sense of style and elegance. It was the perfect end to our trip.
St Petersburg, you were grand.
Yet end it must, and end it has. And so has my part of the blog post. John now offers some final thoughts on our trip.
I'm meant to come up with a grand closing statement, a final paragraph, some sort of meaningful, poignant reminiscence or wistful nostalgic phrase that ties the whole thing together into some cohesive and coherent whole. (It's a tough job, but someone's got to have the last say, right?) Here goes: Six months or so ago (I forget exactly how long – since May some time) I guess I expected that
a. we'd have more spare time.
b. we'd learn more about ourselves and our place in the world.
We've definitely not had very much spare time (sitting around on the train notwithstanding). I'm not sure about b. The world has become a much smaller place; visiting famous places is like having only seen movie stars on a small distorted TV plugged into a VCR with dirty heads – then when you see the same movie in HD you realise that those perfect (if blurry) movie stars have wrinkles, and are human after all. Oh the humanity. This would be an appropriate time for a literary quote ('cause you know I'm just pretentious like that).
“Not all who wander are lost.”
- J.R.R. Tolkein.
Now that our wandering is over for the time being (and thanks to the magic of GPS we were only lost a few times) my overriding feeling is that NZ is a great place to come from, in spite of our insularity, and it's a great place to go back to once you've seen some amazing and interesting parts of God's green earth (although we're sitting in Shanghai airport as I'm typing this, and I have to say, I do wonder what it's like through the smog haze out the windows. Perhaps next time).