Getting to Russia has been a labour of love, the odds have not been forever in our favour. With passports stolen that had visas in them, not enough time to reapply, then even after we arrived being dropped in the wrong location by our shuttle bus, we still weren’t going to let all this stop us. But with our steadfast determination to see Russia and perseverance we had finally made it; albeit just to St. Petersburg, visa-free, for 72 hours. To do this we had to take a cruise from Helsinki which took somewhere between 12 and 14 hours. While on the boat on the way, we had a “my big fat greek wedding” moment; we were trying to pay the bill for dinner and our big fat Russian waitress asked “Would you like to pay cash or card?” and the rest of it went like this… Card please. Cash? No, card please. Ok you pay cash. Did the world not want us to visit and enjoy Russia?
In the short period of time we had, we managed to fit in so much, we were tourists in every sense of the word, everything was planned to the minute. St. Petersburg is called the cultural capital for a reason – an abundance of palaces, museums and theatres are spread throughout the city. So how did we get our culture on? We filled our days with walking (40km to be exact), tours, palaces, museum and even a evening at the opera.
We started however with a slightly more unique rooftop tour – we envisaged this as climbing up to and walking along the roof tops of several buildings throughout the city to get a variety of sunset and aerial views. Although it wasn’t as extensive as we’d hoped, we did get up to one roof top and took the opportunity to soak in the evening atmosphere from above, with the sun setting behind the domed churches in the distance.
The cultural appreciation really began on our second day. After the obligatory walking tour (11th on tour so far) to familiarise ourselves with the city and its main sites, we made our way to the Fabergé Museum. On display were many of the famed Fabergé eggs, which were made famous by the Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II which they used as presents for their wives and daughters for Easter. We were lucky there was a Salvador Dalí exhibition on upstairs at the museum, just to add some more culture.
On our way to the next museum on our carefully planned itinerary, we passed the city’s iconic Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in its unique Neo-Russian style. It is called this because it is the location where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded. The church was then built in that location in his honour. It’s a master piece made of a red brick a-symmetrical facade and ice cream like colourful onion domes. And that’s just the outside! The interior is floor to ceiling mosaics. Every bit of wall, column, ceiling is covered in brightly coloured mosaicked religious images.
Further along, the Winter Palace is a stunning green and gold vision by the the bank of the Neva river. This was the main winter residence of the generations of Tsars. Some of the rooms have been preserved in their original or near-original form and the rest is now a museum that began as the royal family’s personal art collection.
It has now grown to fill 3 buildings of what is now called the State Hermitage Museum. Many of the rooms are still awesome with their intricate interiors from floor to ceiling and opulent decor. So much gold! But our favourite room was hands down the library. Two floors of bookshelves, a carved stone fireplace and two grand chandeliers. Bookworm heaven!
In our opinion a visit to Russia would have been incomplete without even a basic appreciation of the country’s political history. This is how we ended up (after an hours walk) at the State Museum of Political History in Russia. While there appeared to be a lot of information, and we were assisted by audio guides, we felt the exhibits were a bit disjointed, lacking a nice chronological flow from one to the next. Although to be perfectly honest this could have been a symptom of being too tired to properly appreciate it. We may have fallen asleep on a couch half way through!
Russia was one of the reasons, if not the only reason for our decision to travel through Eastern Europe. Our trip would have felt incomplete if we hadn’t gone. So for us, yes, it was worth all the effort, even if we only made it to St. Petersburg. It is a beautiful city, that feels like something between European, Soviet, Oriental, Middle Eastern, a true melting pot of sights, people and cultures. It has definitely whet our appetite for Russia and it’s safe to say we’ll be back, hopefully with a Visa this time!
Now it’s time for a road trip! See you in the Baltics!