Greetings from Cankt Peterbourg! I wish I could access the Russian keyboard on this little netbook but I can't/don't feel like it. We're having a great time in St. Petersburg, which in English adds the 's' after Peter but in the Russian there's no 's'! Fun! With! Languages! Before this trip, my only exposure to this quite charming city was the song from "Anastasia" that starts: "St. Petersburg is gloomy! St. Petersburg is bleak! My underwear got frozen standing here all week!" But it's better than that. Well that is a very low bar but St. Petersburg is very nice. Though it has been raining hard a lot which is gloomy, and yes it is cold but like, for the summer, not for the earth, and definitely not cold enough to freeze undies. The city is a very interesting mix of old and new school while still seeming totally European. We are surely easing in slowly to the onslaught of Soviet towns we will be seeing later, because right now it still feels like we're in Europe.
Well, except for the Cyrillic everywhere! It is so strange and so cool to finally see what we have been preparing for with our Russian classes. We're doing great, if not at communicating with people (omg SLOW DOWN (oh and maybe could you write it down I'm better at reading kthx)) then at least at reading signs (and menus! Most are in English too! We're great at that!). They say for all languages you really learn when you are immersed, and I can see how true that would be for Russian, now that we actually are surrounded by it and its alphabet. We're definitely getting stronger with reading Cyrillic quickly and I have high hopes that that will lead to comprehension. Maybe by the time we get to Siberia we will actually be able to handle the fact that no one will speak English! I dream big.
When we got off the train on Saturday at Finylandskiy Vauxhall (named after the country we had just left? That's confusing!), we walked around the station to find the giant Lenin statue, commemorating the big speech he gave when he arrived in St. Petey's in 1917 during the Revolution. We start our sightseeing immediately, even when we have 90-pound backpacks on (and I'm frontpacking too ughhh I have too much stuff but I don't know what I can get rid of! I really did just bring the bare minimum but we're going to every season!). We walked the half hour or so to our hostel, The Travellers' Palace, and it was hot so that was pretty rough because like I said, 90 pounds. I will either break or be super strong by the end of this. The receptionist at the hostel is very friendly and helpful, and even though we can hear every footstep people take at all hours of the night and they sound like gorillas stomping around and even though someone stole my bananas and apples from the fridge (they were labelled!) (and I KNOW bananas in the fridge is weird but I was keeping everything together in the labelled bag (so f-ing ironic!)), we like the hostel fine. The shower is legit the strongest I can remember taking in my entire life, like it was intended for an elephant and I wish I could take it with me. The rooms here are named after famous Russian literary characters, like Onegin and Catherine. It was quite the good omen when we were put in Karenina, considering Anna K is my favorite book (once you pretend that that final section about Levin finding Jesus by talking to peasants ("Life is often so unpleasant / You would know this, as a peasant!") doesn't exist)! There's a little light-up train on my bedside table and everything, haha so morbid. And across the hall is the room called Bolkonsky, like the prince's family in War & Peace! So it's like the universe wants me to keep singing "The Great Comet" at every moment of this trip!
Once we dropped our stuff, it was already late afternoon, so the best use of our time was to stroll the Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard running through the city that everyone spells with a K even in English so I'm rolling with it. It houses all the big stores, lots of restaurants, a good number of statues and monuments, and lots and lots of people. Walking along it is a great first thing to do in St. Petey's because you can get a sense of the city's layout and feel, while seeing both important historical markers and fun Russian chain stores (like the Russian version of Sephora whose Russian name is pronounced like Rive Gauche lol that and Sushi Wok, where the 'sushi' is in Cyrillic but the 'wok' is in our/Latin characters, crack me up every time. There are also horse statues along the various canals which we liked because it reminds us of our flat in London (those who have been over and have seen what we call the Horse Wash will know why!).
On the Nevksy Prospekt is the famous Singers sewing machine factory, or the building that used to be that and now is a giant bookstore in the most beautiful building along the boulevard. Inside, they had a snack section that had vegan bars (similar to Lara Bars)! Marked and everything! Come on obviously I love books and bookstores but we can't buy books on this trip (or anything) but we need snacks. We also saw this monument to Catherine the Great (with her laavaaahs).
The other hugely famous building along the Nevsky Prospekt is the giant department store Gostiny Dvor. Although we are so determined not to add anything to our packs right at the beginning of the summer, we have a necessity exception - and we needed umbrellas so we bought umbrellas there yesterday (after we got drenched in a downpour, naturally). Upstairs at the Gostiny Dvor, the long, curving walkways are nearly empty and provide great views of the Prospekt. What most people don't find, however, is the INSANE CELEBRITY FIGURE AND ANIMAL SCULPTURE GARDEN around a far bend that no one goes to. OH MY GOD, look, it's Hagrid and the Harry Potter kids STANDING BEHIND PUTIN! No big deal! Don't mind the peasants with sickles! OR THE DINOSAUR! Why this isn't the #1 thing to do in St. Petersburg I will never understand. As it is, it's pretty much hidden and NO ONE was there or even nearby so I think I discovered some kind of magical walkway.
As for serious things, the Kazan Cathedral is along the Prospekt, a Russian Orthodox church dedicated not to Elia or even Zoe but to Our Lady of Kazan, which I know is very helpful. It's not a very nice looking Cathedral, kind of the most Soviet and drab-looking thing we've seen yet, but it could just be that it is severely outshone by the gorgeous cathedral across the way from it, The Church of Spilled Blood. I know, I know, it doesn't exactly sound like the most beautiful spot in all St. Petersburg, but it is! It's real name is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood which yes doesn't really help my case. So it's built around the spot where Alexander II was mortally wounded and inside there's a little stone area and canopy marking the exact spot where he was hit by grenades and suffered the injuries that killed him a little later (he actually died in the Hermitage) you know what why don't I just show you:
See it really is soo beautiful even though it's so dire. But all churches are built around and commemorating dire circumstances. This church, which we went in yesterday, is one of the most incredible churches I've ever seen, definitely in my top five. I know I said in a recent Spain post that ugh churches, who can tell them apart after St Peter's, but this was a great one. I was blown away by how beautiful it was inside and outside. Usually they're whatever on the inside, full of paintings of oldies and crucifixen, but this one is decorated in 100% MOSAIC. Every painting and image you see is made up of tiny tiles (that is what mosaic means!). See that lady getting lasered from the heavens by a laser-happy Jesus? ALL TILES. How incredible is this?
On Sunday, we woke up early (lol not) and went to The Hermitage, the endless museum inside the Winter Palace. We read about how crowded it is, especially in the summer, and how the lines for tickets can stretch to a kilometer long. Because of this, we were tempted to buy tickets online, but they cost $18 online and only 700 rubles in person so we decided to risk it. And it's a good thing we did, because there was no line. We bought tickets at one of several kiosks in the courtyard and went right in. On a Sunday! In the summer! We were so pleased with ourselves and got a little too cocky about it because after about an hour and half the Chinese cruise ship groups arrived ahhhh! It was wall to wall and they really like to push so it got a little rough. But it was still great. The Hermitage has millions of pieces of art, so you really need a plan to make sure you see what you wanna see. The state rooms of the palace and the Russian art are the most important. The Italian and French art is great, of course, but we've seen that literally every weekend at museums in London. That sounds very ridiculous of me but when you live in a museumy city like London, it's important to see stuff that's different from what you see all the time and feel okay about skipping the same same stuff. So in the Hermitage, we focused on the palace parts, the preserved rooms and furniture and sculptures and stuff, over paintings that have nothing to do with Russian history. And the palace rooms, hoo boy are they amazing. We both love malachite and cobalt shiz and this palace was full of both. It was all so stunning. I especially loved this gazebo.
We were both obsessed with the library, which was so Belle. And I loved the Peacock Clock, which I didn't know at first even was a clock. I mean the tiny mushroom thing at the bottom has a clock on it so it's not like the whole amazing gold artwork is a clock, it's literally just the smallest piece of it that is a clock, but still, pretty cool. I got in fights with Chinese men who were trying to push me aside when I was taking this picture.
The Hermitage is important to visit, I think, since it's such a well-known tourist attraction, but it's exhausting. It goes on forever, and the bathrooms are very poorly located. We had to backtrack through to the entrance to find one, when we were like in the middle of the top floor. So dumb. It shouldn't be that hard! But I'm glad we went and saw the great pieces they had. It's easy to spend hours and hours there, but don't.
Even though we were pretty beat after our day at the Hermiterge, we decided to walk to St. Isaac's Cathedral next (in the pouring rain! no umbrellas yet!) and climb the 260 stairs to the top of the golden dome! For the view! So pretty! The golden dome you see in the picture is very striking in the skyline. The climb wasn't that bad at all, and it was worth it for the stunning views. Note that the main Cathedral is one ticket and the entrance for the climb to the top of the dome is another separate ticket. It's worth it though! Again I'm proved wrong because the insides of this church were beautiful too. Russia keeps proving me wrong about church insides! St. Isaac's was full of malachite columns which were stunning.
The cathedral tour of Russia is only just beginning! After we saw the Church of Spilled Blood, we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of St. Petersburg built by Peter the Great in 1703. It's a big complex full of various museums, but we skipped the many museums (so many museums!) and went straight to the Peter & Paul Cathedral, the gold spire in the city skyline. This Cathedral houses the tombs of Russian czars from Peter I to Alexander III, and there's a little room off to the side with the Romanovs, including Anastasia, which I was excited to see and then realized how messed up that is. But speaking of, I still haven't written about the new Broadway musical so maybe I will do that in honor of seeing her tomb! So morbid I'm sorry. It was a decent show, and a decent church. The fortress was best for its views of the Hermitage and other stately buildings from the other side of the river. Luckily today was the one sunny day in the middle of lots of rain so this view on our walk along the riverfront fortress was lovely.
After we saw all the things Monday, we took the subway (new subway!) down to the Grand Maket Rossiya, which is a private museum of a scale model of ALL OF RUSSIA. It is AWESOME. It shows everyday life in every part of Russia, from St. Petersburg (included the building we were in, weeeird) and all the monuments we've seen so far, to Moscow, to Siberia and the Urals and the Sochi Olympics and farmers everywhere and a movie studio with various funny backlots and people on the beach and lots of trains and lots of construction and just EVERYTHING you could imagine in life, they had it on the model. It was so cool, and so giant and detailed that it took an hour and a half just to walk around it once. One of the coolest parts was that the lights would go down every 13 minutes for 2 minutes, gradually to show the sun setting and then rising. Some of the 'night' sections there were thunderstorms which was kind of crazy. My favorite part, of course, was that Vinnie Poo (the Russian Winnie the Pooh who is NOTHING like the Winnie we know) was hidden in one of the forests. I also loved the "Bad Husband" section that showed a man in his underwear on the sidewalk as his wife threw all his clothes out the window. Like. What.
So yeah so far St Petersburg has been very nice! The weather is ploha, with super heavy rainstorms most days. Yay for anoraks! Drivers here are absolutely insane, like super speeding down the Nevksy and no cops ever stop it. Don't rent a car here! Traffic is really bad too so we mostly walk everywhere. One thing I've noticed is how confusing but nice the pedestrian crossings are. Most have green walking man countdown clocks, and most give you a crossing time of well over 30 seconds, some even 90 seconds! BUT, the confusing part, the red man/don't walk man gets a countdown too, and sometimes they switch red to green/ stop to go without finishing the clock. Like yesterday we were crossing and green man said we had 30 seconds left but then it changed to red man and cars started going. I don't know about that! I am tired. We've done a lot and we still have some museums we haven't discussed yet! Today we are thinking of going to Peterhof, like the Versailles of Russia, but again it is super storming and it's really a good weather type thing. We will see! Last night we saw the World's Longest Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, which was, well, long. It wasn't as long time-wise as the Mastersingers but it was longer soul-wise. It also might be as fun to write about as the Mastersingers was so stay tuned! A little more on St Pete's to come (and food!), and then we're off literally on a midnight train to Moscow. Byeeee!