Russias most European city

Our biggest travelling adventure started fairly unconspicously. After over a week of rest at Matthias’ parents of washing, packing bags sorting stuff out as well as welcoming a puppy into the family we found ourselves on a plane to Russia. We were both nervous and excited since it was not just us going to Russia but also hopefully around most of Asia. We had booked flights with Aeroflot to St. Petersburg via Moscow and were very happy with the experience and the quality of the service provided. The only downside was that we landed at 11pm and had to get a taxi to our hotel. Some fellow travellers told us to use the taxi stall located next to the luggage reclaim. The process was very easy and straight foward: book a taxi at the stall, pay, recieve a reciept with the number plate of the car and the destination written in cyrillic and then walk outside to the taxi rank and hand the driver said ticket.

Grand facade of the Hermitage

Checking in was the first true test of our pretty much non-existent Russian skills but we managed to get through it and find our room. Upon unpacking Matthias discovered his phone screen had cracked during the walk up the stairs in his pocket (the phone was only three weeks old and nothing else in the pocket) and didn’t react to touches. Little did we know at this point that this would be the bane of the following week…

After a good but short nights sleep and our first Russian breakfast (buckwheat, sausages and cottage cheese anyone?), we bought multi journey passes for the excellent metro system and went into the centre. Saint Petersburg is a grand city with big buildings; lots of them with fancy fascades, and many churches and monuments. The weather was very Scottish and so we decided to spend the day in the Hermitage museum. It is spread out over five buildings and located right on the edge of Neva river. The entrance fee of 700 Rubles (9£ or €10) also allowed us to visit the museum in the huge general staff building opposite the Hermitage and two other museums on the same day (a pretty much impossible feat). 

The clock controlled peacock automanton

The museum consists of over 20 different exhibitions covering art from almost every European country as well as all of central and northern Asia over the last 2000 years. It was by far the biggest and most impressive museum either of us had been to to date. It is simply impossible to properly appreciate all the paintings, sculptures and artefacts and go around the entire show in one day. We soon resorted to being most impressed by the beautifully painted and decorated rooms rather than looking at yet another 10 paintings of Russian tsars or generals. One of the things that impressed us most was the peakock clock. It is a bit automaton of a peacock on a tree with other birds around it in a big gold and glass cage. The clock itself is rather small and hidden in a mushroom at the feet of the golden bird in the center. When set in motion, the peacock spreads its feathers, calls and twists its head. The owl in the cage rotates its head while the bells around her chime a melody. Apparently the mechanism is still in working condition and triggered about four times a month to keep it that way.

Some of the grand interieur of the Hermitage

The only exhibitions we could not get into: the gold room and the treassury, require special tickets and can be visited only on guided tours which go between 11am and 2pm.

We were so lost in awe that we forgot about time and turned up at our couchsurfing host over half an hour late. Olga and her two sons were lovely and very welcoming and we spent the evening chatting and playing. Matthias also instantly became the new best friend of their tomcat Omu.

In the morning we equipped ourselves with a Russian sim card before heading out to Peterhof. The best way to get there is by getting the metro the ‘Moscovskaya’ and then change either into a minibus/line taxi (70 Rubles one way) which drops you of right outside the main gate of the upper gardens. The second option is getting a hydrofoil (boat) from the city center which takes an hour and a half and sets you back 800 Rubles.

Impressive fountains and cascade staircase with the palace

The main attraction in Peterhof are the gardens with the fountains. The upper garden has four fountains and is free whereas the lower garden with all the amazing water displays costs 700 Rubles to get in. We opted only to visit the museum about the fountains and omit paying for the palace and other (art) exhibitions. The most impressive display is a big set of water stairs just next to the palace with plenty of golden statues releasing fountains and spraying water everywhere. This is also pretty much in the middle of the lower gardens. Overall the park is 1 square kilometer and was built by Peter the Great with miles of paths to wander and countless fountains to discover. There are fountains called chessboard, sun, lion and many more.

The sun fountain

There even was a trick fountain with a water spraying tree and flowers. Very interestingly the whole show runs without a single pump. All fountains are fed by gravity and water pressure. We spent over two hours walking around before arriving back at the palace to see the fountain master museum just as it began to rain. The museum was a disappointment as it was tiny and all in Russian so we left Peterhof soon after.

Basilica on the blood with street market

Back in the city we went to visit the basilica of the spilt blood. It was built on the very same spot where tsar Nikolai was killed by a bomb in 1891. Unfortunately we arrived 15 minutes too late so we had to come back the next day. After a typical Russian dinner in a Tepemok  (cantine), we met up with our host in a roof top bar. It was a nice plan but sadly it was still raining so we had to stay inside. Although we did get to try a traditional drink made from birch sap which was colourless and sweet.

Part of the south face of the Kathrine palace

On our last day in St. Petersburg we had to go and see the world famous amber room (or at least the remake of it) located in Catherine palace in Pushkin. After a metro and a half an hour bus ride we arrived at the palace park thanks to the very helpful conductor. We had a pleasant walk but found some paths closed due to the reburbishment of the Alexander palace. Catherine palace opens for indivuals from 12 to 6pm but groups can get in earlier. If you want to see the palace you have to buy a ticket for the park (120 rubels) before entering or pay for it together with the palace. The park opens way before the palace but we went straight for the queue for individuals. There is a limit on how many people can see the palace at the same time so people have to wait outside until others leave. To our great annoyance and frustration there were two big tourist groups in the queue and people joined in everywhere having positioned a ’place holder’ while wandering round the park. None of the six guards cared about the groups at the wrong entrance and people were very rude, pushing in and trying to jump the queue. After paying 1000 rubles each and depositing our bag pack we were allowed in.

Tourist crowds in the grand ball room

The interior was very grand and impressive especially the great ball room with its golden decoration, mirrors and huge painted ceiling. We learned from an English guide that only a third of said painting survived WWII and it took a woman 35 years to repaint the rest and combine new and old. The result seemed totally worth it. The route was a bit confusing and we had to shuffle through all the small rooms stuck between groups.

Once we reached the famous amber room we were quite impressed by the craftsmanship.

The amber covered three of the four walls from top to bottom. It had some amber mirror and picture frames but the rest of the decoration was simple (no small intricate inlays or details). The other rooms were decorated fairly similarly and each had its own stove/heating. On the way out there was a small exhibition about the damage during the war, the operation to rescue as many of the 55,000 items from the two palaces and the following restorations. Basically the Soviets started repairing the damage in 1944 only two months after pushing the Nazis out of Pushkin. It was intriguing to see how much effort it took to turn the remaining walls of the shot and burned builings with half the roofs missing back to glory. Some black and white photos showed very lavishly equipped rooms that never got restored and it was clear to us how much had been lost during the war and that what we saw was nowhere near its former glory.

Vista over Neva river towards the fortress

Back in the city we went straight to the basilica of the spilt blood and this time we got in. We were blown away by the mosaics that covered the entire interior of the church. Many of them where gilded and the all depicted saints or other icons as it is typical for Russian orthodox churches. The bit of road on which the tsar was killed was now a holy place and covered by a roof on green marble columns.

Splendid mosaics inside the basilika

Our admiration waned a little when we discovered that the mosaics were actually made of glass and had all been replaced/restored in the early 2000s together with the onion domes. It was still very much worth visiting and it is clear why it features on every tourist itinery of the city.

All that we now had left to see was the north side of the river with the Peter and Paul fortress. It is a vast fortification that now houses many temporary and permanent exhibitions. We were not in a museum mood and the cold wind urged us on. After warming up in a cafe and dinner we spent some more time trying to sort out the issue with the broken phone before returning back to our host for one last chat and picking up our backs before heading to the train station to catch our sleeper train to Moscow.

We will tell you more about the Russian railway in our next post.

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