by Bob Sparrow
For me, St. Petersburg is a tale of two cities; one tale of being a city filled with a rich history and unbelievably beautiful and opulent palaces and museums that are beyond compare; the other tale being a city filled with people who match the ‘modern’ architecture – dull, gray and tired. We’ll focus on the former and summarize the contrast with, “It’s a great city, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
It had been raining most of the summer in St. Petersburg, so parks were resplendent in foliage. Our private guide reminded us of how lucky we are to have two such beautiful days to explore this magnificent city.
If you ever plan on visiting St. Petersburg, let me start with a travel tip: To help keep all the Elizabeths, Catherines, Alexanders and Peters straight (I’ll avoid the sophomoric remark about keeping your Peters straight), you must read, Catherine the Great by Robert Massie; it is a wonderful book and it will not only help you keep all the Russian monarchy in order, but it will give you an appreciation for most of the venues that you’d be visiting.
Our first stop was at the Hermitage Museum, which holds so many works of art that it is said if you stood in front of each piece for just one minute, it would take you 11 years to get through the museum. We did not select that option, but we did stand in front of some Rembrants, da Vincis and Rubens among many, many, many others. Adjacent to her ‘Winter Palace’, the Hermitage was created by Catherine the Great, as she became the foremost collector of art in all of Europe during her reign. The Hermitage is magnificent, not only for the art that it holds, but for its spectacular gilded and mosaic interiors. It is truly magnificent. If you see only one thing in St. Petersburg, this is it. But it was just the beginning.
For pure iconic Russian architecture, the Church of Spilled Blood, site of the assassination of Alexander II is hard to beat. During the course of our two-day visit our tours included visits to Peter the Great’s summer ‘cottage’, Peterhof, situated on 100 acres of beautiful park grounds with water features that rival Versailles, France; in fact Peter’s goal when it built it was to build something better than Versailles. He may have succeeded. We took a canal cruise up the Neva, Fontanka and Moika Rivers to see the ‘high rent’ district of St. Petersburg, then continued on to see Catherine’s palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and Fortress, the room where Rasputin was assassinated. We took a ride on the super subterranean subway and finally hitched a hydrofoil ride back to city center. Toward the end of our second day we convinced our tour guide to make an unscheduled stop at a Russian bar, where we not only got a taste of a local brew, but of the local culture as well. The beer was better than the culture.
It was an exhausting two days, but we absolutely got our rubles worth.
Next: Day 8 A Reunion in Helsinki