August 6, 2012

St Petersburg – Feel Yourself Russian

So here I am, in St Petersburg, enjoying the hot weather and getting ready for a day of sightseeing. I was over in St Petersburg to do the Trans Mongolian Railway with an Intrepid tour which began in a few days. Ev, a friend from work was also doing the tour and we’d met up in St Petersburg and had a few days to look around ourselves. Today we decided to see some of the cathedrals around St Petersburg, as well as have a bit of a self guided walking tour of St Petersburg.

First on our list was the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood. However we stopped to have a look at the Kazan Cathedral. Good, but just an old church really.

Onward to the Church of the Spilled blood! This impressive building caught your eye from the moment it was visible on the streetscape of St Petersburg. It was situated on the edge of a canal, really colourful on the outside with coloured domes drawing your attention and mosaic decorations on the outside. Of course the obligatory tourist buses and souvenir shops crowded the outside, but not to be detered, we headed in. This church was amazing inside. In a lot of ways it was laid out like most other cathedrals. But this had some incredible examples of mosaics inside it, all of which had been restored over the last 30 odd years. All of the “paintings” and coloured decorations in there were mosiac. Tiny fragments of tiles arranged in such a way that they came together to form incredibly detailed pictures of Jesus in various biblical stories. It was impressive and well restored. Easily the best and most impressive church (or cathedral) I saw for the whole trip.

From there we headed around to Palace Square, the huge square outside the winter palace (which is now the Hermitage museum). The square was lined with tourist buses and old buildings, complete with a statue (the Alexander Column) that’s meant to be a great display of engineering. The column weighs about 600 tonne, stands 83.5 feet high and was erected in less than 2 hours without machinery. Guess with no guide to tell us those facts we didn’t really understand the impressiveness of it so we kinda gave it nothing more than a fleeting look while we walked from one end of the square to the other.

Alexandrovskiy gardens provided a welcome relief from footpaths and old buildings. They had a display of the “united buddy bears” that had bears from different countries. Seems there was a few countries missing though – no Uganda, PNG, Fiji to name a few … at least there was Australia though. Apparently those bears are in Paris after St Petersburg and have been to many different countries. I consider it such a privilege to stumble upon an international exhibition that I didn’t even know existed… Imagine if I’d have missed it, I would’ve had to go to Paris!

You could spend days walking around the streets of St Petersburg, just taking in the contrasting streets, canals, old buildings and people watching (and soaking up the relaxing park with waterfalls). However we had a few destinations in mind, so we kept moving. We checked out St Isaacs Cathedral next. Seeing as we’d already seen a couple of cathedrals that day, we did the climb to the top and looked out over the city of St Petersburg. It was great having a clear day, so we could see for miles. It was also good to get up above the city and see it from an aerial view. The views were quite spectacular and you could walk the entire 360 degrees to see everything. Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever there.

From there we headed to Nova River, because I wanted to see the road bridges opening to let water traffic through. We were there at 1pm, to see the bridges open at, we thought, 1pm. When it didn’t open at 1, we thought, must be 1.30, so we waited a bit longer. When it didn’t open at 1.30, we started to wonder if we had the right bridge. We checked the map, the bridges and yep, looked like we were in the right place. We went and asked somebody. They said yep, right place. 12 hours too early. Or 12 hours too late, whichever you prefer. So, if I wanted to see the bridges open, I was going to have to come down at 1am in the morning to watch it. Funnily enough, I never did see the bridges open while I was there.

Observed the customary Russian weddings (it was wedding season we figured) while eating a hot dog picked up from a river side vendor. We expected some restaurants or eating places on the side of the river, but there was nothing. Guess with only about 3 months of summer a year there’s not a big call for riverside dining.

Peter and Paul’s fortress was next. There was a real festival atmosphere over here, it’s basically an island on the other side of the river to where we were – with overpriced souvenirs, hawkers, and street performers. And of course, anything extra you wanted to enter would cost you a few more hundred rouble. When we were in Uganda we joked about nothing was free and they’d charge you for every little extra thing. St Petersburg was no different. Gave most of those extra places a miss – really, you could pick up the feel of the place without going into everything and we’d seen a few churches, seen the inside of many other buildings and still had some to go, so I’m pretty sure we didn’t miss anything. Although it was a warm day, it wasn’t what we’d have called swimming weather. But there the Russians were, outside on the concrete beaches of the fort, sunbaking, swimming and enjoying the sunshine. Guess when your average temperature in winter is -30odd, a 20 something degree day is something to get excited about!

Hurried home via the Soldiers of Revolution and Summer gardens so we could get ready for the Feel Yourself Russian folk show that we’d booked tickets for. We booked a taxi for 5.45 and it showed up at 5.15. The taxi driver said he’d wait. Wow… So we went downstairs to find yep, there he was, still waiting for us. That might not sound surprising, except for the fact that there was no parking outside the hostel, so there was this illegal line of traffic blocking the rest of the traffic, of which our taxi was a part of…

Now the traffic in Russia drives on the opposite side of the road to Australia. One thing we did find odd though, that there was a mix of right hand and left hand drive vehicles around. Left hand drive was definitely the most common though and at that point in time we hadn’t noticed – so Ev can’t use that as an excuse. She decided to jump in the front seat. Without thinking she wandered around to the other side of the car, opened the front door and a panicked taxi driver started yelling at her – just as she realised her mistake! The poor taxi driver had waited so long, I don’t think he would’ve been impressed if we’d have driven off in the taxi…

The Nikolaevsky Palace was impressive – although I must admit I did expect the theatre to be a bit bigger than it was. If you’re ever going to see this show though, make sure you get there early, because even though they say that all the seats are considered to have an equal view, there’s two big columns on the stage, so you need to find somewhere that avoids them. The show itself was pretty good. Definitely enjoyed the singing and dancing by the Russian dancing troupe and the quartet of singers (who sang acapella and have toured Australia). The Orchestra though – well, they were good. I enjoyed the music. However they looked like they weren’t enjoying it and barely cracked a smile at all, in fact when one of them did, we took a photo of it (but I think I missed it!) Talking to one of the Acapella singers at interval and turns out he’d actually been to Bendigo to perform. Small world.

After the show, some souvenir shopping at the palace gift shop (where everything was priced in Euros grrr), some pics of us imitating Russian dancers in front of the palace (must be on Ev’s camera) and a walk home, picking up some traditional Russian food along the way in some restaurant. It was like the old style places where you go along and select what you want then pay for it at the end. Unfortunately our poor (read non existant) russian and their broken english (also non existant) meant that we couldn’t tell them that we wanted a couple of different salads or meats, so we ended up with a whole pile of the same thing. So did everyone else, must be just how they do it over there…


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