And so it begins.
The biggest country in the world.
While the plane prepared for landing I looked East and realised that vast, cloud clad horizon went on and on, all the way to Japan. It’s hard to grasp the size of this country, especially when you only visit two places. Here I am in the first: Saint Petersburg.
Sturdy immigration officers in outdated uniforms. A strange and incomprehensible language. Helpful people with sullen faces.
Then, fresh out of the airport came another vast extreme: the depth of this cities metro system. A journey on the endless, steep elevators seems to take forever, which is fun at first but gets on your nerves rather fast when in a sightseeing hurry. Once deep enough, platforms boast high round ceilings and glimmering stone floors and walls. The layout reminded me of WWII tunnels, however the decoration has an airy, vintage glamour; a sepia filter that takes you back to times long gone. My hostel’s station, Sportivnaya, is the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far. I fell in love with it upon arrival and will admit it is still one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg.
[I haven’t taken any pictures though, as my guidebook told me photography is illegal in the metro stations. I only found out today that such info is probably outdated…]
Welcome to Saint Petersburg!
Arrival in the hostel was swift, although a bit awkward. The place is occupied completely by Russians, many staying here while looking for a job in the city. They are people of all ages, students as well as blue colour workers, however none of them speak enough English to properly strike up a conversation. In fact, everything about this place is uber-Russian. The building is grim and old, the stairways empty and run down, the elevator so small and fragile I still hesitate using it. It’s barely big enough for one, although we’ve managed to cramp three people in it at one point and boy was that uncomfortable!
Luckily, the inside of the hostel was cosy and clean, with comfy beds and a large kitchen. It made me wonder what lies behind those plentifull grey facades on the city outskirts. Those charmless concrete buildings and heavy, faded doorways. I suppose most Russians have their little pretty home hidden in shaggy places like this?
My first day in the city was dedicated to art, most in particular that of the famous Hermitage museum. The first Thursday of the month has free entrance for all, which resulted in a two hour long queue to get in. People sprawled out all over the square, far beyond the Alexander column! As I patiently waited in the cold rain and wind, the couple in front of me was kind enough to entertain me with their chocolate and holiday pictures. Once inside, however, I quickly went my own way.
The classic, main wing of the Hermitage was a disappointment to me. While the collection is no doubt impressive, I felt it couldn’t compete with places like the Louvre, Prado, or museums like the ones in London and Rome. I took shortcuts to some highlights (which for me included the two rooms with Spanish art and the ground floor with ancient Egyptian artefacts).
Then I escaped to the Staff Building, on the opposite side of the Alexander square. This is the main reason why I visited Saint Petersburg: the outstanding impressionist collection. To my amazement, there wasn’t the tiniest queue here, and the halls were serene and uncrowned. It gave me plenty of time to enjoy an afternoon between my beloved Van Gogh & Picasso, the huge Matisse paintings, and a whole bunch of amazing artists of which I had never even heard.
The next day was all about churches.
I popped my head into the Kazan Cathedral while a service was going on, and that made all the difference, because nor the outside or the inside of the building managed to impress me. Modelled to Saint Peter’s in Rome, the church has nothing of it’s grandeur and instead feels cold and unwelcoming.
Orthodox services, however, are a marvel to behold. For someone raised in a catholic country there is something otherworldly about a church without chairs, an evil looking priest who constantly turns his back to the people, the endless muttering of texts from big, golden books,… As usual, there were lines of women with headscarves, bowing and kneeling and queueing to kiss their magical icons. And then the altar doors loudly banged shut at the end of service. Only the choir kept singing after that. I absolutely loved it.
What I loved even more, was the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood.
The location of this building, at the end of a narrow canal and beside a green park, is perfect. Street artists played Russian folk music, vendors sold souvenirs to tourists and balloons to children, food stalls sent a warm scent into the autumn air.
But wait until you see the inside! Pictures don’t do it justice… The walls all clad in golden mosaics, the altar gates shimmering, the ceilings high and lavishly decorated. They brought a big grin to my already happy face!
The church of the Spilled Blood lies close to Saint Petersburg beating heart: the broad avenue that is Nevsky Prospekt. It’s a noisy place full of shops and restaurants, but it’s great for people watching, buying postcards and having afternoon tea. So that’s what I did after having popped my head into the Russian Museum. I wouldn’t recommend that place unless you seriously dig endless portraits of dead Russians, or the odd works of the avant garde movement. I found the rooms horribly lit. With just some classic chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, it was nearly impossible to get a good sight of the icons I had especially came for. The avant garde rooms, however, were pleasant enough – but not really my cup of tea either. The afternoon tea was more what I’d been looking for.
The came my last day in Saint Petersburg, and since I decided not to visit any of the summer palaces (statue gardens and baroque interiors really don’t entertain me – I hated Versailles), this was a day for aimless wandering. I had planned on joining a walking tour in the morning, with hopes of meeting some people there to spend the afternoon with – however when I got to the meeting spot there was only one other tourist and the guide didn’t want to waste three hours of her time for just two peoples worth of tips. I started my own little walking tour through the city centre, but soon ended up on the Hermitage’s square again. This time it was clad in sunshine.
While having a little pick-nick, I leached the museums free wifi and landed myself a meet-up with two friendly Couch Surfers: a cheerful girl from Iran and a Wallstreet guy from NYC. Together we decided to check out the one church I hadn’t been inside of yet: Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
As mentioned I’m not a baroque fan at all, but everything is nicer in good company. And even though Saint Petersburg’s layout is an utter mess, the views over it’s skyline managed to impressed me quite a bit.
To end a great stay, we went to have a late lunch/early dinner in a cosy restaurant that had it’s terrace set out in one of the cities many courtyards. The food wasn’t that outstanding (as non of Russia’s has been, to be fair) but warmly wrapped up in a blanket and with a large pint of beer in front of me, it was the perfect ending to this first part of my trip.
If all goes well, I’ll catch the morning train to Moscow tomorrow.