Dear Family and Friends,
it is almost 3 months ago since my friend Gudrun and I visited the city of St Petersburg in Russia. I have been back in Australia for more than 2 months but have been busy been involved with other things. So this a “ belated diary” of the time we spent in the beautiful city of St Petersburg.
St Petersburg Diary (11th September to 16th September)
On Sunday the 11. September Gudrun and I boarded a flight with Aeroflot from Hamburg to St Petersburg. We had booked a 5 day city tour. After 2.5 hours we arrived in the 5 million city located along the river Neva on the Baltic Sea. In 1703 Tsar Peter I. founded the city in a wetland area to have access to the Baltic Sea. The city stretches over 600square kilometres and was built on 44 islands which are connected by bridges. St Petersburg has the nickname “The Venice of the North”. To build fortresses, churches, cathedrals, palaces and other administration buildings the Tsar used forced labourers and “Leibeigene” (serfs). Today most of these buildings are used as museums or for public purposes.
At the airport the pick up service took us to our accommodation The Petro Palace, a hotel right in the city in walking distance to most the attractions.There we met our guide Nina who gave us a short introduction into the itinerary of the next days. She had lived and worked in Germany as an “Au Pair” and spoke perfectly German.
Later in the afternoon – sunny day and 20 degrees Celsius – we walked for 2 hours to explore the neighbourhood of our hotel. That Sunday afternoon we saw lots of Russian families enjoying themselves in the parks and strolling along the river.
On Monday we and the rest of the group (the other two people) were picked up from our hotel at 9 am. Juri the driver of the mini bus we boarded drove us around the sights of the city. We crossed the river Neva several times and stopped on the so called “Rabbit Island” to visit the Peter & Paul Fortress. Inside the fortress is the Peter – Paul – Cathedral where since the 18th century most of the Tsars are buried. In 1998 the members of the last Tsar’ s family who were murdered in 1918 after the revolution were put to rest here as well.
We had our lunch in a Russian restaurant and learnt that it is quite common in Russia to have soup three times a day with every meal. Our lunch w glass of Vodka as a starter and then Bortsch the national food originally from the Ukraine, not Russia. In the afternoon we visited the city of Puschkin 30 km south of St Petersburg. Puschkin, is named after the poet and novelist Alexander Puschkin. The Catherine Palace is a Rococo palace located in the town. It was the residence of the Russian Tsars. Starting in 1743, the building was reconstructed by four different architects, before Bartholomeo Rastrelli, chief architect of the Imperial Court, was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles.
Hords of tourists, including us two, come here every year to see the legendary Amber Room.To create this extraordinary chamber, Rastrelli used the panels of amber mosaic originally destined for an Amber Cabinet at Konigsberg Castle.The room was completed in 1770. Due to the fragility of the materials used, a caretaker was employed constantly to maintain and repair the decorations, and major restoration was undertaken three times in the 19th century. The room was used to house a substantial collection of amber-work and Chinese porcelain. In 1941, when German troops took the city Puschkin, the Amber Room was dismantled in 36 hours, and shipped to Konigsberg . As the Nazi war machine crumbled, the panels were crated up and moved out of danger, but their eventual fate is unknown.
In 1982, the order was given to begin the recreation of the Amber Room, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million. Opened in 2003 by President Vladimir Putin and then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the restored Amber Room is a truly unique monument, and a testament to the painstaking care of the craftsmen who worked on it.No photos were allowed to be taken inside the chamber. We spent almost 4 hours in and around the palace before our driver took us back to the hotel.
On Tuesday we went for a ride on the Metro.The trains are popular, running almost every 3 minutes and packed during rush hour. The main attraction apart from the cheap fares are the Metro Stations themselves. St. Petersburg’s metro is one of the most elegant in the world as well as one of the deepest, which makes it worth a visit even if you don’t really need to move around the city a lot. Each of the old stations looks different.The escalators in some stations go down to the platform as deep as 40 metres.
The rest of the morning we spent at Peterhof the summer residence of Tsar Peter the Great. The Grand Palace at Peterhof was designed to be the centrepiece of Peter the Great’s “Russian Versailles” with more than 140 fountains and water cascades in a giant park on the waterfront of the Baltic Sea. Tsar Peter himself was very much involved in the design and construction of the building.The long, narrow palace, which was built in the last decade in baroque style has minimal decoration. Beige and white in colour, the palace is majestic without being overwhelming, and provides a perfect backdrop both to the elegantly formal Upper Garden, and to the spectacular Grand Cascade.
Inside the Grand Palace is considerably more lavish. The interiors had to be almost entirely reconstructed after World War II. We had 2 hours inside the palace and were happy to escape the indoor crowds by walking through the park while the sun was shining.
Back in town we had some lunch to get some energy for another 4 hours walk with our tour guide Nina through the Hermitage. Nina has a diploma in art history and had spent hours and days inside the Hermitage when she was a student.
The State Hermitage Museum is a museum of art and culture. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. This prestigious museum is a must-see for all first-time travellers to the city. With over 3 million items in its collection, it also definitely rewards repeat visits, and new-comers can only hope to get a brief taste of the riches on offer here, from impressionist masterpieces to fascinating oriental treasures. One estimate has it that you would need eleven years to view each exhibit on display for just one minute.
We had approximately 4 hours of intense art viewing and at the end of the day after our dinner we had an early night.
On Wednesday was a tour free day and we entertained ourselves with touristy stuff.
Again it was a warm and sunny day and the two of us walked along the esplanade of the Neva river, strolled down the Nevski Prospect with its shops and cafes, stopped at the State Russian Museum to feel relieved it was closed that day and walked around the Church on the Spilled Blood. With its 80 metres high and its richly coloured onion dome is one of the most picturesque churches in the city. The Moscow – style church got its awkward name because it was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881.
On Thursday Nina picked us up and took us to the Isaac Cathedral just a stone’s throw again from our hotel. St. Isaac’s Cathedral was originally the city’s main church and the largest cathedral in Russia. It was built between 1818 and 1858 by a French-born architect to be one of the most impressive landmarks of the Russian Imperial capital. One hundred and eighty years later the gilded dome of St. Isaac’s still dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. With a height of 102 metres and the cupola’ s diametre of 26m it covers 4000 square metres and accommodates 14000 standing worshipers. It was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Today, church services are held here only on major ecclesiastical occasions.
The cathedral’s facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns (made of single pieces of red granite). Inside you find numerous paintings, sculptures and mosaics by the most famous artists of their time. The walls are decorated with all kinds of marble , semi-precious stones and various minerals.
262 steps brought us up to a viewing platform and we walked around in a circle giving us the 360 degree view of the city.
While the weather was still ok we boarded a small boat and went on a cruise through the canals. It was a bit chilly and we wrapped a blanket around our waist and legs .The boat trip took us through a few of the canals and onto the Neva River. It was not a gondola, but with all the canals and the more than 320 major and minor bridges in the city it brought back memories of my visits to Venice.
We came back to our hotel in the afternoon in order to get ready for our big night out. We had booked to see the ballet “ The Sleeping Beauty” at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. The Mikhailovsky Theatre is one of Russia’s oldest opera and ballet houses. It was founded in 1833 and is situated in a historical building on the Arts Square in St. Petersburg.
We enjoyed the artistic performance of the ensemble very much. Russian ballet is simply top class.
On Friday we had to say good bye to the city of St Petersburg. While our driver was taking us to the airport you could see the grey, stormy clouds in the distance and they started to open for some rain. The flight with Aeroflot took us back to Hamburg. I had arranged a rental car to drive back to Bremen.
During the 5 days we visited St Petersburg we were lucky with the good weather. The temperatures were around 22 degrees and the sun was shining. We were wondering how it must feel and look like in winter time with temperatures dropping to – 20 to 30 degrees Celsius and the Neva River covered in ice. I was very surprised about how prosperous, clean and well maintained the city looked.Thanks to our German speaking tour guide Nina communication was not a problem, but in other places we could communicate in English language without major problems. I will end the diary with a collage of fellow tourists and local people we came across.