Thursday, January 07, 2010

Здравствуйте (Hello) from St. Petersburg!

Continuing our Russian adventure from Moscow, we boarded an overnight train from Leningrad Station to St. Petersburg in a four-berth coupe shared with two other strangers, both were Russian. There is common stereotype that Russians rarely smile, which to us foreigners, may be perceived as cold, hostile, and unfriendly, but this is completely cultural so don’t take offense. In typical Russian fashion, no introductions, smile, or eye contact were exchange between the four us during our 8 hour train journey; instead, we crawled into our respective beds and fell asleep whilst listening to our I-Pods. Tchaikovsky, Puskin, Dostoevsky, the Russian ballet...I couldn't want to get to St. Petersburg.

Palace Square on NYE:

Saint Petersburg (Russian: Санкт-Петербург) is a beautifully planned city built by Peter the Great as his window to the Western world. Having spent time in Western Europe, and inspired by the elegant architecture of European cities, Peter the Great set an ambitious plan to build the grandest Russian city upon the swampy land on the Neva River in 1703. His perfectly planned city with straight geometric lines flanked by Baroque palaces would later become the imperial capital of the Russian Empire for the next two hundred years. As the birthplace of Russian literature, classical music, and of course the ballet, St. Petersburg flourished as the cultural centre of Russia. Like father, like daughter, Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, continued her father’s love affair with Baroque architecture, so much that she commissioned her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, to design the exquisite Winter Palace. Then came Catherine the Great, who was a prolific collector of artwork from around the world which would later developed into the world-renown Hermitage Museum housed inside the Winter Palace.

The Admiralty:

Regal, beautiful, and fairytale-like indeed, however, St. Petersburg have also witnessed its share of war, famine, and revolution during its brief history. The tragic events of the 20th century -- Decemberist Movement of 1905, Russian Revolution of 1917, and the 900-day seige and blockade by the Nazi forces, coupled with three name changes -- Petrograd, then Leningrad, and then back to its original name, St. Petersburg will always be part of the city’s identity. It is a fascinating city with amazing history.

Along Nevsky Prospekt:

Upon arriving to Nevsky Prospekt Metro Station on the city’s main artery around 9AM, we were greeted with pure darkness, a thick blanket of snow, and below freezing temperatures of -11C (12F). Goodness, it was COLD! However, St. Petersburg did not disappoint. I was immediately captivated by the elegant Baroque and neo-classical buildings that adorn Nevsky Prospekt. St. Petersburg and Moscow are two contrasting cities, yet each has a very distinct “Russian-ness," and both unique in their own ways.
Kazan Cathedral:

Church on Spilled Blood:

After a quick nap and a hot shower at the B&B, we went on a walking tour to explore beautiful St. Petersburg, stopping along the way to admire the Stroganov Palace, the 96 Corinthian column Kazan Cathedral, and the Church on Spilled Blood which sits on a picturesque location on the Moika Canal where Tsar Alexander II was murdered. We took a stroll through Mikhaylovskiy Garden and around Arts Square all covered in snow -- a winter wonderland.

Mikhaylovskiy Garden covered in snow:

Along Art Square:

That evening we treated ourselves to an evening at the ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, one of oldest ballet and opera houses in Russia. It would be wrong to come to Russia, and not see a ballet! I loved the whimsical production and the music to The Nutcracker – it was the perfect way to end the holiday season, or for the Russians, start of their festive period leading up to Orthodox Christmas on 7th January.

A Winter Wonderland:


Encore ~ The Nutcracker Ballet:

The next day we meant to explore Peter and Paul’s fortress, but the bitter cold weather deterred us from walking beyond Vasilevskiy Island, so we stopped at the Dvortsovvy Most bridge to snap of few photos of the frozen Neva River, Peter and Paul’s fortress in the distance, and the stunning sea-green Winter Palace.

Peter and Paul's Fortress 


Frozen Neva River and the Winter Palace:

We spent most of the afternoon at the world-renowned Hermitage Museum, which housed some of the world’s best art collections second to the Louvre in Paris. The staterooms were impressive, as was the sweeping Jordan staircase.

Gorgeous Winter Palace:


Home of Doestoysky, we had to pay tribute to Russia’s most notable literary figure who wrote extensively on the social context of 19th century Russian society. So we spent the late afternoon at The Idiot, a café/restaurant located near the St. Issac’s Cathedral for an afternoon break of blini (Russian crepes), beer and vodka. It has a wonderful, cozy atmosphere with plush couches and quirky decorations. Vegetarians rejoice! -- The Idiot
has an extensive fish and vegetarian menu, hard to come by for this meat-loving country.

St. Issac's Cathedral:

It was also New Years Eve in St. Petersburg. This would be our fifth consecutive New Year Eve abroad (we like to keep this tradition going as long as possible!) and like every New Year before, we looked forward to an amazing year ahead. We had a quiet dinner at a Georgian restaurant called Karvaz Bar. Following dinner, we braved the cold with several hundred of reverllers on Palace Square to ring in the New Year 2010. Of course, we toasted the New Year with what else…Russian “champagnesky” and vodka. I couldn’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year.
From Russia with Love!

Happy New Year!:


Next stop...Helsinki!

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