24 hours of Russian heaven and hell in Saint Petersburg!

During October and November 2007 I set off on an adventure that took me from Australia to Japan, then on to Russia and China before returning home to Australia. I have kept my travel emails from that trip, so I thought it might be fun to repost them here and add a few photos.  This blog is Part 3 of that journey (Russia), my friend Esther from Switzerland joined me on this leg of the journey in St. Petersburg.

I only started to send travel emails in 2007 and only upgraded to a blog in 2011, so I think I will post a series of them from my other trips around the world between those years in further posts as a retrospective view of my travels.

October 16th, 2007

Hi All,

I am currently in St. Petersburg. In the last 24 hours I have experienced some of the best and some of the most frustrating things Russia has to offer!!!!!

Saint Petersburg Russia
Saint Petersburg
Bronze Horseman Saint Petersburg Russia
Bronze Horseman
Imperial Residence Imperial Royal Residences in Saint Petersburg
One of the many former Imperial Royal Residences in Saint Petersburg
Catherine the Great Ekaterininskiy Skver St. Petersburg Russia
Catherine the Great – Ekaterininskiy Skver
Kazan Cathedral Saint Petersburg Russia
Kazan Cathedral
Summer Gardens St. Petersburg Russia
Summer Gardens

Yesterday we decided to try out these little mini-buses (Marshrutka) that travel all over the city – they take you to various stops for about a dollar. We wanted to go to Tsarkoe Selo (Empress Catherine’s Palace) about 30km outside of St. Petersburg. So once we actually found the mini-bus near the former “House of the Soviets” we got taken straight there with no problem. The “House of the Soviets” was built just prior to the German invasion of Russia in 1941 it was intended as an office building for the local Communist government administration but instead it was used as Soviet army command post during the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg was known during communist times – from 1914-1924 as Petrograd then following the death of former Communist leader Lenin it was renamed Leningrad from 1924 until 1991 when the Communist regime ended). Today a statue of Lenin still stands in the forecourt and Communist imagery remains on the buildings facade but the purpose of the house is now purely commercial office space (oh how the world turns)!

House of the Soviets Saint Petersburg Russia
House of the Soviets

We had an amazing few hours wandering inside Tsarkoe Selo (Catherine’s Palace) and the palace gardens. The restoration of the palace is amazing as it was heavily damaged in WW2. The ballroom was incredible with it’s mirrors, gold, statues, wooden floors and an entire ceiling covered in art (you had to wear plastic covers over your shoes to protect the floor).

Catherine's Palace Russia
Catherine’s Palace
Catherine's Palace Ballroom
The Ballroom
Tsarkoe Selo Catherines Palace ballroom piano
The detail and decoration of the ballroom is astounding
Imperial dining room Tsarkoe Selo Catherines Palace Russia
Imperial style dining
Catherines Palace Russia
The restoration work on the interiors of the palace is perfect
Imperial Russia paintings Tsarkoe Selo Catherines Palace
Can you imagine this palace in the days of the Imperial Court?
Tsarkoe Selo (Catherine's Palace) restoration work 2007
Restoration of the palace still continues

The Amber Room  in Tsarkoe Selo is hard to explain but you can see why they call it the 8th wonder. It’s not that big, but worth many many millions of dollars and took 22 years to rebuild (German troops took the amber away to Germany in WW2, it was subsequently lost forever and it is one of the great mysteries as to what happened to it all). The amber stone work is amazing.

Catherine's Palace Amber Room Russia
Amber Room

From there we took another mini-bus to another nearby palace called Pavlosk.  It was built in the 18th century for Paul I, after the Russian Revolution of 1917 it was turned into a museum and in WW2 was captured by the Germans who used it as quarters for their officers and soldiers (thousands of pieces of art work and furniture were evacuated by the Russians before they got there, but many heavy statues were buried about 3 metres under the grounds of the palace and were luckily still there at wars end!). Pavlosk is impressive in a different way – not as flashy as Tsarkoe Selo. On the way back we got caught in peak our traffic….this became a loooooong trip stuffed inside the little mini-bus (Marshrutka).

Pavlosk Palace Russia Imperial
Pavlosk Palace
Pavlosk Palace forecourt Russia
Pavlosk Palace forecourt
Pavlosk Palace gardens
Pavlosk Palace gardens
Pavlosk Palace gardens Russia
Looking back towards Pavlosk Palace
Pavlosk Palace Gardens Russia
I can imagine dignitaries and those of the Imperial Royal Court relaxing in these gardens

Then as a glutton for punishment I decided to queue up to get a train ticket to Novgorod the original medieval capital of Russia – about 3 hours south of St. Petersburg (going there tomorrow night, for a night/day then another night train back to Moscow). Oh my god what a painful excruciating nightmare it was – first queue I joined was the wrong one – took 15 mins to find this out!, then I went to the right one, which of course was the slowest queue in all of Russia (as I slowly got angrier the other queues moved along nicely as mine stood still)! Took over an hour to even get to the ticket booth – then luckily I thought ahead and wrote down what I wanted in Russian – this proved very easy! But what an ordeal before that. So I am set now – and can travel without any stress to Novgorod.

I also got attacked by a Metro employee! The crazy lady grabbed me, shook me, yelling in Russian, real nasty looker!!!! Why? Well whilst in a Metro station I tried to take a photo looking up this massive escalator back up to the surface – “NYET NYET NYET” – she was real angry. I just stood up and towered over her, smiled at her and laughed. Oh if looks could kill I would be a dead man!  That’s what happens when you spend all day sitting in a booth at the bottom of an escalator deep underground I guess? Anyway it gave me a laugh. The funny thing is in Moscow you ARE allowed to take photos in the Metro! Who knows why it is different in St. Petersburg (maybe it’s not and she was just having  a bad day)?

What a crazy couple of days!!!! Moral of the story – some things are easy, some things are ridiculously hard and inefficient!! We hear “NYET” a lot! But its amazing how well a combination of some Russians words, english and pointing can work! We have also learnt to identify the Russian cyrilic writing to help with trains, buses, directions etc.

Aside from such tribulations we have wandered around the city and explored many places. We saw some amazing cathedrals and climbed a Smolny Cathedral steeple and the St. Isaacs Church dome for some great city views.

Smolny Cathedral St. Petersburg Russia
Smolny Cathedral
The view from Smolny Cathedral Saint Petersburg Russia
The view from Smolny Cathedral
St. Isaacs Cathedral Saint Petersburg Russia
St. Isaacs Cathedral
The view from atop St. Isaacs Cathedral St. Petersburg Russia
St. Petersburg from St. Isaacs Cathedral

ADDENDUM

I note that I seem to be missing information on some of the others things I did whilst in St. Petersburg,  a very beautiful city and once the seat of the Russian royal family (Romanov’s) and Tsar Nicholas II. The Tsar was forced to abdicate the throne in 1917 during a time of revolution. Tsar Nicholas II (50) and his entire family: Empress Alexandra (46), his daughters Grand Duchess Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17); and son the Tsarevich Alexei (13) were brutally executed (along with their Doctor and 3 servants) by the Communists on July 17th, 1918 whilst under house arrest in the Ural Mountains – far from St. Petersburg.

Tsar Nicholas II Romanov Family Russian Tsar
Tsar Nicholas II – Romanov Family

Here is a little snapshot of my time there:

I paid a visit to the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul – the oldest church in St. Petersburg (finished in 1733) within the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island. The cathedral was beautifully decorated inside and the entire fortress complex was quite impressive. Within the fortress was also the Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology which had many interesting displays on the Soviet era space program.

Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul St Petersburg
Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul
Cosmonaut Space Suit St. Petersburg
Cosmonaut Space Suit
The absolute highlight of any trip to St. Petersburg is the Winter Palace. Once the main royal palace (from 1732 to 1917), it was built to be impressive both externally and within it’s interior (it is a beautiful place).
Winter Palace St Petersburg Russia
Winter Palace
Winter Palace St Petersburg Russia Interior
Winter Palace
The storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 became an iconic symbol of the Russian Revolution (in reality they destroyed many priceless artworks and damaged the palace), that lead to the takeover by the Bolsheviks and eventually the formation of the Communist USSR lead by Lenin and later Stalin. Later in 1917 the palace was declared as a Hermitage Museum, it was damaged during WW2 when the city was known as Leningrad, but was fully restored (including royal emblems which had previously been removed).
1917 Winter Palace St Petersburg Russia
1917 storming the palace
Winter Palace Square St Petersburg Russia
Winter Palace
Today the palace remains as an impressive world renown art gallery (one of the oldest and largest in the world) but only a small percentage of the 3 million items they have are ever on display. Artwork includes Egyptian and Classical Greek and Roman period antiquities, prehistoric art, jewellery, Renaissance era art and endless artwork by famous artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gough, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso and the list goes on! You could literally spend days there!
Madonna with a Flower – Leonardo da Vinci
Another place with a key link to the royal family is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood (built 1883-1907), it marks the spot where Alexander II the Russian Emperor (from 1855-1881) was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt on March 1, 1881. A very decorative “onion domed” church, it is as impressive inside as out, but had to be extensively restored after WW2 when it was used as a morgue and later as a storage place for potatoes! The church reopened in 1997 after a 27 year restoration!
Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood St Petersburg Russia
Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
I also visited some military museums, including the CruiserAurora” – completed in 1900 this ship took an active part in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and participated in the Tsusima battle, in which most of Russia’s Pacific fleet was destroyed. During the October revolution of 1917 the cruiser gave the signal (by firing a blank shot) to storm the Winter Palace. The other was the Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signals a vast place with many tanks and weaponry on display.
Cruiser Aurora St Petersburg Russia
The Cruiser Aurora
T-72 Main Battle Tank Russia
T-72 Main Battle Tank
SA-4 "Ganef" SAM Russia
SA-4 “Ganef” SAM
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