Trans-Siberian Railway: Three Days in St. Petersburg
Now we’re deeply into Western Russia with it’s high prices and big-city vibes. St. Petersburg is huge, the whole central area is full of former palaces converted into apartments and office buildings. The boulevards skirt the edge of Venice-like canals, criss-crossed with hefty decorated bridges. The Neva is the biggest waterway of all, an expanse patrolled by ships and hydrofoils. The wide lanes are full of cars and the wide sidewalks packed with people. Pairs of young women hold hands as they walk down the street, matching in clunky high heels.
The city's renowned for its beauty, and fabulous it is. But all the luxurious historical immensity also makes it seem impersonal. It made me feel small and disconnected from everything around me, which is I suppose the whole point of making a city for royalty — everyone else is supposed to feel small and insignificant.
This was the last stop with my sister, she left St. Petersburg to go home, and I to depart on my solo journey across Europe and Asia. I vividly remember the feeling I had when she left and I was on my own, simultaneously excited and apprehensive. Ready to be that way for an indefinite amount of time with an unplanned route ahead of me.
This was the last of our quick-stop tours, the ones where we visited half a dozen spots in half as many hours. It was a welcome last. The downside of the Trans-Siberian and traveling such a long distance in a short time is that you only get a glimpse of each place you’re in. That leads you to seeing the most famous tourist places, and that’s about it — my style is more to get to a place and hunker down, to meet people and try restaurants and attempt to live like a local. This particular route could be more interestingly done if you spread it over, say, six months. But I digress.
We started off on Nevsky Prospect, the central Boulevard named after the nearby Neva River. Our hotel was just across the street from Kazan Cathedral, which we wandered into to watch an orthodox wedding procession. A small group of
maybe 20 people led by the bride, groom, and priest were in the middle of this gigantic empty space, roped off from a group of staring tourists. As I watched I couldn’t help but think about how foreign this option seemed to me. Even if you did get to have your wedding in a famous and beautiful church, would you want strangers watching you as you said your vows? But it was wedding season, and we saw many more brides and grooms walking arm-in-arm and posing for photographers all over the country.
We proceeded across the Neva River to the island that holds Peter and Paul Fortress, founded by Peter the Great. Among other buildings, it's the home of a cathedral that's burial place of the majority of the tsars. And after that was the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest orthodox basilica in the world. Russia has a lot of cathedrals, and each of the famed
ones boasts some sort of special feature. It's a lucky benefit of a bygone monarchy following this religion, using overwhelming wealth and beauty to create houses competing with one another to catch the eye of God. This one has a 360 degree view of the city, and an interior laid out with huge columns of green malachite and lapis lazuli.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was the final stop, so named for being the location of Emperor Alexander II’s bloody assassination. The church sits in an open space along a canal, and the location of the assassination at the time was on a street outside of the building. It has been preserved, protruding out of the church into the canal. But the best part about this church is the mosaics it’s also famous for, done in rich shades of blue and changing throughout the day based on the tone of the light streaming through the windows. Absolutely beautiful.
The second morning, we took a hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace (seeing a trend here in the naming of important buildings in the city?). It was, predictably, amazing. Even with the clouds of tourists swirling around you, led by their screaming guides holding up river cruise signs, you can't help but kind of feel like a princess. It's an extensive property with a collection of constructions, created in different times in various styles. The palaces are held together by gardens full of trees and statues, and there's gold absolutely everywhere. Like many of the Russian palaces on these tours, you were not allowed to photograph the interiors as you wandered through the chambers, feet clad in little throw-away booties.
The Catherine Palace was next on the list, the summer home companion to Peterhof, but for the ladies. Because queens don't just get their own rooms, but their own palaces as well, thank you. The palace is in the Rococco style, I remember the nerdy thrill of seeing an real-life example of what Arcade Fire was talking about. The entire outside of the palace is a beautiful sky blue, and it's particularly famous
for The Amber Room — a chamber completely inlayed with precious Amber.
Many of these palaces took forever to build, passing from royal hand to royal hand even after people had started to inhabit them. There are always additions, changes in the styles of the time. Even room-to-room there are stylistic differences, say if a Queen Mother wanted to keep her "vintage" quarters in a palace recently redone by the newer addition to the line.
This was also the night we did one of the absolute must-dos for us in Russia — the Ballet. I’m one of those girls who to this day wishes she could be a ballerina, so pretty much my #1 desire in Russia was to see a performance. Swan Lake was on at the Mariinski Theater, so we pulled out the dresses that we packed into our very space-valuable suitcases for this single event, and went for cultural night on the town. We entered the the big airy lobby, to have some wine before the show, and then found our seats in the modern wooded auditorium (there's an additional, older building as well). The dance was beautiful, sharp and precise like I haven’t seen before. The grace was there, but it was punctuated by a sort
of severity that was beautiful in it’s own way, the chorus dancers so perfectly in sync and the prima ballerina attacking the part of the Swan.
Our final day together involved the exploration of the famous Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum. There was a special exhibit on the clothing of the Royal Family, called “At the Russian Imperial Court” and it was a deliciously ultra-feminine experience, seeing the men's uniforms and women's gowns as they changed style throughout history, made with the best and most luxurious materials. In particular we noticed the dresses of Empress Maria Feodorovna, mother of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Whether it was because it was her garments that were well preserved or because she just had more of them than anyone else, we never found out — but she seriously dominated fashion.
That afternoon we spent wandering through the Nevsky prospect and the gardens that sporadically spotted the city, taking in everything before I departed for Copenhagen!