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

super models.

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.

Apparently

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.

The

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).

One

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.

At

least the view from our Soviet era hotel room was beautiful. A little

mix of old 18th century convent with 21st century technology.

Speaking

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.

There

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

link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_Room

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.


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