So if you follow me on instagram (@amyamyann) you will know that we just had our last big adventure across the Baltic Sea in Russia.
Seeing as the last 2 weekends have been spent in the company of friends, and the next few will be the same, this was -in a way -our Christmas weekend with each other.
And can you think of any way to spend Christmas more ideal or unique than in cold, gray, snowy St. Petersburg? I mean, its no Tahiti, but it’ll do.
From Helsinki, there are a variety of ways to access St. Petersburg: by car, train, or ferry. We opted for the longer ferry trip, which allows you to enter Russia for up to 72-hours Visa free. Despite it being the longest journey, I think it was a great way to get there, if you have the time.
We left Helsinki at 6pm on Thursday evening and woke up in St. Petersburg Friday at 9am. In between, we had dinner, enjoyed a very productive happy hour, and watched a hilariously hoaky showed of actually quite talented dancers doing “traditional” Russian dances (in the bar/nightclub). Then you retire to your tiny cabin and let the Baltic rock you to sleep until you dock in the morning.
|Hearing the boat slice through ice was pretty cool|
Our first day was spent walking the most prominent areas of the city. We started out from our hotel towards the Peter and Paul Fortress, which didn’t seem too far away down the river and over a few bridges.
…approximately 45 minutes later, we made it. I had seriously underestimated the size of the city. It is huge. Paris scale huge. But we didn’t want to take the buses because of the constantly crawling traffic and crazy speeding drivers. And, to be honest, the language barrier kept us from trying out the metro. So we walked. And we walked. And by the end of the weekend we had walked 45 miles (I might mention that at least 2.5 of those I did in heels).
Anyhow, the day was extremely gloomy, wet, and misty. And quite cold. All of which is exactly how you would expect St. Petersburg to be. It has a certain historical quality that begs it to be dark and cold. As we approached the fortress, the iconic spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral was hardly visible through the mist. The fortress was built by Peter the Great as a defense structure on the Neva River to protect against invasions from the Swedes. It is considered the first structure of the city and, therefor, marked the birth of St Petersburg in 1703. The fortress now largely hosts state museums, but has a dark past time as home to many famous political prisoners throughout history. The crowning jewel inside the walls, however, is the cathedral. This Russian orthodox church is home to the tombs of all Russian Emperors and Empresses, including the Romanovs, who were interred there in 1991 following the recovery of their remains.
|Seriously it was this cold.|
One thing to note before visiting the small island is the noonday cannon. Jimmy and I happened to be there at noon, and heard music coming from down one of the streets. We followed it to find a large group of people, clearly marked as tourists by their matching black fur soviet-era hats, staring at the top of one of the ramparts. We clued in and prepared for something to happen. There were people around one of the canons, so we figured there would be a “bang” of some sort. Turns out it was more of a thunderous, defibrillator halting, breath taking “BAAAAANG” that rolled around the city and back to us before we had composed ourselves. I cannot tell you how loud it was. We heard it the next day from inside a museum and it was still loud. We were also really happy that we saw it happening, otherwise, we might have hit the decks and waited for the American fighter jets to pass over next.
The church was very beautiful and very much unlike most orthodox churches. It is a prime demonstration of Russian baroque, both inside and out, with a highly ornate gold alter inside. The tombs, however, were very plain and austere, with little ornament and plain markings.
After our tour of the fortress, we found our way to Palace Square, then up the Nevsky Prospect, which is the main artery through the city and host to most major sights and shopping destinations. This trek ended up taking the rest of the day. However, we managed to eat a good lunch, and see many of the major sights along the way, including Our Savior on Spilled Blood (the iconic onion domed church) and the Kazan Cathedral, as well as charming canal-streets.
TripAdvisor clued me in to Severyanin, with reviews saying that is was the friendliest restaurant in St. Petersburg, with a cozy setting that made you feel at home. We were seated in a corner next to a brick hearth and a shelf full of old Russian books. Each table is set with a Russian book to read. The walls are decorated with portraits from the turn of the century, the chairs and tables are mis-matching, and there was a smooth saxophone player in the corner.
The waitress/hostess, Nelly, was adorably awkward trying to make sure we were happy. She freely gave her opinion on what was best on the menu, and we ended up just going with whatever she said, starting with a bottle of Georgian wine. When Jimmy ordered the lamb’s tongue, she remarked that it was “Too Russian” and suggested a side of potatoes as well, and started with the venison carpaccio. I started with a mushroom soup- which was, basically, mushrooms in broth with dill and creme fraiche, and had some form of crispy, fatty pig for the main. When the dessert round came, Jimmy went for a port while I had Nelly’s recommendation (no idea what it was) and Russian tea. The dessert came out looking like a potted plant, and ended up being a very delicious tiramisu-like parfait, with a nougat-y type layer and truffle-chocolate shavings on top. Plus the tea was wonderful!
Fat and happy, we dragged our legs back home, stopping for Jimmy to take some fabulous photos, stopped for a warm drink at the hotel, and crashed.
Day 2 in St Petersburg was spent mainly touring the State Hermitage and Winter Palace. The Hermitage is currently one of the largest museums in the world, with millions of pieces to look at. It could literally take you days to get through it. It houses artifacts and collections back to ancient Egypt, as well as works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Rembrant, and Ruben. In the upper-most floor, there are is a large collection of Fench Impressionistic art including Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, as well as more modern works by Picasso, Gaugin, Matisse, Lautrec, and sculptures by Rodin.
I love museums. Love them. But when it comes to massive, high profile museums like these, you just cannot pause to take in every piece and they start to all blur together. You need to go in knowing what you want to see, and simply enjoy and take in the rest of the art along the way. It is the only way to really enjoy it. I will do a separate post on the art work that we saw over the weekend. For now, lets talk about the palace.
The museum is laid out within the old Winter Palace. It becomes overwhelming, because you could easily take a wrong turn and end up missing half the displays and rooms, but we managed to loop around through everything before throwing in our white flag.
I would say that, on the whole, the rooms within the palace were more spectacular than Versailles. Of course, they are from different time periods and Versailles has the gardens going for it, but I mean just on a room-by-room stand point, there was more “wow-factor.” Finished in its current form in 1725, it is a product of continuing generations of emperors and empresses, who each in turn altered the palace to their liking. From the dainty marble room with a mezzanine and stairs carved into the wall to the heavy, to dark wooded library (Jimmy’s favorite), and even the room lined with malachite or the grand entry hall, it was extremely grand and over the top.
Of course, it is the palace’s grandeur that places it so prominently in Russia’s history. Although it was not the home the the Tsars of Russia after the late 1800s, it remained a symbol of the imperial government, which had been removed in February of 1917. The place was then stormed by Bolsheviks in November of the same, taking down the provisional governments and plunging Russia into a civil war, resulting in Lenin’s rise to power. The palace was poorly guarded and easily taken by the revolutionaries, but its occupation was a symbol of governmental authority.
Both Jimmy and I were very much in awe of the amazing rooms within the palace. We ended up spending the majority of our morning there, leaving just as the crowds were beginning to surge in. After that, we found lunch in a basement pub, before meandering back through the now snowy city to our hotel to rest and get cleaned up for the ballet.
I was ecstatic that it was actually snowing, in December, in St. Petersburg. It was absolutely perfect! Unfortunately, at some points, it was a driving, windy snow, but by the time was wandered home that night, it was softly falling and covering the silt-y city with a thin white coat. Exactly what you would want to happen when you visit Russia in the winter. However, it didn’t do much for my hair, which I had attempted to style for our night at the theater. We left early to give us enough time to enjoy the theater, but ended up getting there with little time to spare. Unfortunately, we have been spoiled here in Finland and have gotten used to everyone accommodating our limited language skills. That is not the case in St. Petersburg. After arriving, we tried to enter the theater through one of 4 adjacent entries. The short old lady said something in Russian and waved in the other direction.
Same result there. So we went to the ticket office, handed them our print off, and were handed back two tickets.
Ok, turns out that wasn’t the ticket.
We tried the doors again. Same results, but the third time was the charm and we finally made it almost inside. We went to where we thought we were approximately sitting. However, through he labyrinth of short doors and corridors, and unable to read any signs or our tickets, we were completely lost. Eventually we checked our coats, and found another small old lady who lead us to our seats. And I mean, she literally walked us through the booths and made people move so we could get to our chairs, making it clear where we were supposed to be sitting. At this point in time, the last “find your seats” buzzer went off and the show started shortly thereafter.
The ballet, overall, was very fun and one of my favorite experiences. Nothing like being totally lost and confused during a cultural experience to create some memories! We got lots of laughs out of the old lady and the poor kid that slipped and fell on his face during the performance. Plus, we drank champagne during the intermissions, so that was a bonus! We were seeing Raymonda, which neither of us knew anything about. The dancing was, of course, amazing. The principal performers were absolutely lovely and some of the finest dancers I have ever witnessed. However, they had jam-packed the stage with dozens of other performers and kids and acts, and there was a lot of awkward jostling, bumping, and cramping going on. But that was funny too.
After the show, we went in search of late-night, post theater food. Most places wither looked too expensive or were no longer serving food. Tired, wet from snow, and defeated, we figured we would grab a bite at the hotel bar and call it a night.
However, about a block from our hotel, we noticed a restaurant that was still alive with lights and loud music. We had passed it nearly everyday and noticed the plush couches and low tables along the street side, and figured we should pop in and see if they were serving. Greeted by a very enthusiastic host with a pencil thin mustache, we were welcomed in and seated in the glassed-in exterior room away from the music, as per our request.
Now, we had thought that we saw a lady dancing through a window on our way in, so we figured it had a dance club in the adjacent room. However, as the map on our menus indicated, it was more than just a dance club. We were sitting in the lounge area, next to a dance club that was currently populated with an odd collection of vodka sipping businessmen, older women, and a stag party. However, it turned out that there were many more rooms for different performances, culminating in the full on strip club in the basement (all of this is according to our map, we did not explore ourselves).
It was truly one of the more hilarious places that we have eaten. The food was fabulous and the cocktail menu was huge. Our waiter was a cute, giggling and smiling man. We were one of the few diners left, but the only straight ones. We left at nearly 1am, and I think the night was just getting started. It was fine dining meets pride fest meets bachelor party. It was a riot. Oddly enough, I think we would return to sit in the same seats in the dining area and watch the crowds go by.
The final day in St. Petersburg started with a late breakfast and a stroll to the Russian museum. (Jimmy was such a trooper letting me go to my museums…) We spent less time here, but it was easily my favorite over the Hermitage. The works were all by Russian artists, ranging from early iconic work through pastoral scenes, early modern works, political propaganda pieces from the mid century, and up through contemporary art. I thought it was all beautiful.
After the museum, we browsed for tacky souvenirs for our up-coming office white elephant gift exchange, stopped at a coffee shop for a snack, and trekked back home to grab our bags and head for the ship, where we immediately hit happy hour at the Cuban bar (perhaps a little too hard), ate, and fell asleep before 10. However, we both woke up around midnight from the ships violent rocking, and stayed awake until we arrived in Helsinki the next morning.
Both Jimmy and I agree that we would return to St. Petersburg. We did not feel rushed, but there is still so much more to see. In the summer, we would love to go and make a trip solely out of visiting the palaces surrounding the city (each a 2 hour trip away) or even the monasteries and gardens. Jimmy is a very good compliment to my traveling style. Which is usually all out attack mode. I had made us an itinerary before we left, with scheduled “meandering” time between sights. But where I am hell-bent on never missing a major sight, Jimmy is much better at enjoying the city by walking the streets all day. Together we make a good team; without me, he may never see the important stuff and without him, I would miss the experience of the city. I think that we did plenty of meandering this trip, but also saw most major architectural attraction that the city had to offer.
Special note: St. Petersburg is dirty. I do not mean trash and smell dirty; in that sense it is very clean. I mean that there is a layer of silty dirty on all the streets and cars. I am assuming it comes from the river, but do not tour in your best shoes; I had to wipe a layer of dirt off of them each day.
Next post on art, followed by some festivities leading up to the holidays!