For my parents generation, the idea of Russia was of this large region
covered in secrecy and danger. What was really behind the iron curtain?
But for my generation, who are barely old enough to remember the
collapse of the USSR, its a strange new world. Ripe with poverty and
Bentleys. Oil and barren Siberia. Little babushkas and hott, alien
Despite the new access to Russia, it is still a
bit tricky to get in. Russia was my first experience needing a
pre-approved visa, which had to be applied for at least 2 months in
advance. The complicated part about obtaining a Russian visa is that
you need to have proof of your hotel reservations, flight reservations,
and a letter of invitation from some kind of "official" from inside the
country. In other words, you need to have everything planned and paid
for before you even know if you'll be allowed in. Fortunately, Dad had
another business trip here, so the hotel and letter of invitation were
already accounted for.
In 1703, Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great)
moved the Russian capital to St. Petersburg. Wanting a more Western
city, ripe with culture and modernity, St. Petersburg was designed to
be the Venice of the north. The city articulates around canals that
flow from the River Neva, Peter the Great gave everyone in the city a
boat as a way to promote canal use. Unfortunately, this is northern
Russia, and often the river is frozen and VERY cold.
we were lucky when we came to the Northern Capital, because we had sun
for every day of our trip... a rarity in most of the country (perhaps
this is one of the reasons for the heavy alcohol use). St. Petersburg,
is like most large cities around the world, were the center is
beautiful with color and architecture and the outskirts are not quite
as organized and clean. Russian cities take this even further, as the
outskirts are anything not from the reign of the tsars and are even
more plan and drab than you could imagine (reason no. 2 for heavy
drinking).But when you see the magnificence of the churches and palaces it is not at all hard to realize why there was a revolution.
center of St. Petersburg functions around the Nevsky Prospect and the
Winter Palace, now home of the famous State Hermitage museum. The
Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world,
housing nearly 3 million pieces of work, including ancient Egyptian
artifacts, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrant, Matisse, Picasso,
and many many many more. Tour guides have to take a 2 year study course
before they are given their official certification to be a guide.The
Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood is another must see in St.
Petersburg. It's beauty and color are unmatched, save for St. Basil's
cathedral in Moscow and the Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona.And,
in my opinion, equally as exciting is the array of kitsch sold outside.
From matryoshka dolls to old soviet kitsh, its a gift buyers paradise.Now
for a little note about Russian culture, or as Mom likes to put it,
"the Russian shut-down." What does this mean? Well, its good to know
that the little angry babushkas control everything. It's not Putin or
Medvedev, it's the old women who have survived the wars and the USSR
and are battle hardened and spiteful. Don't expect to get on any
trolley without immediately being confronted to hand over a few Rubles,
and most likely more because you are not Russian (trust me, no matter
how hard you try or how much Russian you speak, they'll know).
of the most memorable "shut-down" experiences happened on a night we
tried to go out for dinner. We looked up a good little restaurant from
the guide book, found it, and tried to get in. At the door we were told
that they were closed. Hmmm.... Well, somehow we decided that we'd try
the hotel restaurant. We walk in to a nearly empty restaurant and are
told that they cannot serve us. That they have too many parties
tonight. WHAT? Now we're hungry, still jet-lagged, and even after
arguing are not going to get dinner. So what did we have to eat that
night? Potato chips and soda from the hotel lobby store.
least the view from our Soviet era hotel room was beautiful. A little
mix of old 18th century convent with 21st century technology.
of paying double, be prepared to do so at any other cultural events,
like the Mariinsky Theater, home of the Kirov Ballet. But to see the
Kirov perform at the historic Mariinsky Theater is such a beautiful
experience. We were fortunate not only to see a classical performance
of Swan Lake, but also a contemporary interpretation of Cinderella.
are two must do day trips when you're in St. Petersburg (which again
will make you see why there really was a revolution). The first is to
the Summer Palace, Petrodvorets. Petrodvorets sits out in the Gulf of
Finland and requires a boat trip via. Hydrofoil!The
Summer Palace is a huge grounds with acre after acre of gardens and
fountains. The most famous fountain has a gold gilded statue of Sampson
and the Lion to represent Peter the Great ousting Sweden from the gulf.The
second great palace to visit is Catherine's Palace, or Tsarskoye Selo,
the Pushkin Palace. Engorged with decadence, the large blue structure
is home to the most uniquely decoded rooms I have ever seen. One room
is covered, floor to ceiling with malachite, a precious green mineral.
The pillars, the chimney, the tables, chairs, and wall panels are all
made from this heavy rock.Another
room in Catherine's Palace has beautifully constructed panels of
varying colors of amber (a famously abundant stone in Russia), that
depict a beautiful landscape scene. The panels are huge and beautiful,
and unfortunately, a reproduction... still real amber, but the
originals were lost during the second World War. Because photos were
disallowed and seriously controlled by the babushkas, I recommend this
Catherine even had a room
made for her men in waiting, completely decorated in red velvet. Yes,
Catherine had many male suitors. Many!
SO, despite the Russian
shut-down and a dinner missed (don't worry we still got good food
eventually), both easily accommodated, St. Petersburg is opens you to a
whole new culture and history that is just waiting to be explored.
For a good read, I recommend Russka by Edward Rutherford.