Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, who wanted a capital with access to the northern waters, never mind that his choice of location was on a fetid bogland. Within a few years, it gained a reputation as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, which it retains till this date despite ceding the capital back to Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Saint Petersburg is considered “European” - a counterpart to the more “Russian” Moscow. Peter was the first tsar to travel to Europe and returned with a head full of ideas for reforms and architectural novelties which he put into practice in his new city. The reluctant imperial family and government was moved from Moscow’s relatively benign climate to this chilly, damp outland. With a rational street plan, stone buildings and academies, St. Petersburg became a thriving capital in which fashions and discoveries from Europe were tried out before filtering through the rest of Russia. Peter forbade the use of stone in buildings everywhere else but in his city.
Peter the Great was happily married to Catherine I and she became the first female leader of Russia on his death (1725). Their daughter, Elisabeth became Tsarina after an interim period under Tsarina Anna, daughter of Peter’s co-tsar Ivan.
Fast forward to 1825 to the Decembrist Rebellion which we already mentioned during our trip to Irkutsk. The Decembrists made a stand on Senate Square hoping to force constitutional reform following the French Revolution.
Fast forward some more and we come to the end of Tsarist Russia with St. Petersburg being the cradle of the Russian Revolution. In January 1905, the Palace Square was the scene of “Bloody Sunday” when gathered troops fired on thousands of unarmed demonstrators. Fast forward some more and late on the evening of 25 October 1917, the battleship Aurora fired blank shots at the Winter Palace. The Red Guard, trained by Trotsky, stormed the palace. On 7 November 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik’s supporters secured the Revolution by attacking the Winter Palace from the square as well as its west side. It is still a favorite venue for political meetings and cultural events. The square is the work of the architect Carlo Rossi whose name and work can be seen elsewhere in the city as well.
Once the Communists came to power, they moved the capital back to Moscow. We will return to this topic a few days later when we get to Moscow. Back to St Petersburg with a quick list of its celebrated citizens – Nikolai Gogol (the merciless satirist of society), Ilya Repin (realist painter), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (graduated from the conservatory and composed world-famous operas, ballets and symphonies), Grigoriy Kozintsev (filmed Hamlet in 1964), Anna Pavlova (prima ballerina at the Mariinsky theatre who took Paris by storm when she toured there in 1909), Alexander Pushkin (beloved poet), Sergey Diaghilev (driving force behind the Russian ballet), Anna Akhmatova (wrote the famous poem Requiem), Dmitriy Shostakovich (world famous composer of symphonies who suffered under Stalin’s rule), Fyodor Dostoevsky (novelist who lived in the slums of Sennaya Ploshchad and set a murder scene in Crime and Punishment there).
St Petersburg is a city built on water. As we explored the historic center on foot, we strolled past museums and palaces, bridges and waterways, cathedrals and parks. The heart of the city is in the area between the Neva and Fontanka Rivers. The historic area is cut in two by Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s vast main avenue. The most famous landmarks are packed tightly here including the Hermitage, Kazan Cathedral and Church on the Spilled Blood, the Palace Embankment, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Mikhailovsky Gardens and Summer Garden. We ended up walking 15km on this day…listed below are the sites.
The Bronze Horseman
The famous statue of Peter the Great was immortalized as the Bronze Horseman in the epic poem by Pushkin. With the horse (representing Russia) rearing above the snake of treason, Peter’s statue was sculpted over 12 years for Catherine the Great by Frenchman Etienne Falconet. Its inscription reads “To Peter I from Catherine II – 1782”. Falconet chiseled away the massive granite boulder to create the image of a cresting wave.
The site is popular with newlyweds’ photographs but they have busloads of tourists to contend with – most of them from China. Locals (speaking Chinese too!) dress up as royals to pose for money with tourists.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Named after St. Isaac of Dalmatia, on whose feast day Peter the Great was born, this is one of the largest domed buildings in the world. Climbing the 262 steps to the colonnade around the drum of the dome offers fabulous 360 degree views of the city. 100 kg of gold leaf was needed to cover the dome’s surface. Although the patriarch resides in Moscow, this is considered the leading Russian Orthodox Church in the world. The church is the fourth largest in Christendom. The interior is lavishly appointed with the grand iconostasis with its malachite green and lapis lazuli columns. Most of what look like paintings are actually mosaics in order to withstand the winter weather. The cathedral was controversially designed by then unknown architect Auguste de Montferrand. It took decades to build and was opened in 1858 but was deconsecrated and became a Museum of Atheism during the Soviet era.
The square is the work of architect Carlo Rossi. Facing the Winter Palace on its southern side is Rossi’s General Staff Building, the headquarters for the Russian Army. The two curving wings are connected by a double arch that links the square with Nevsky Prospekt. The arch is crowned by a sculpture of Victory in her chariot (1829). To the west lies the Admiralty with its tower and gilded spire. The Alexander Column in the square honors Tsar Alexander I and celebrates Russia’s military victory over Napoleon in 1812. The red granite pillar is balanced by its 600 tonne weight, making it the largest free-standing monument in the world. The column was designed by Montferrand in 1829 and it took 2400 soldiers and workmen 2 years to hew and transport the granite. The column is topped by a bronze angel and together they stand 47m high.
Passing through the double arch to get back to Nevsky Prospekt, we saw that the pedestrianized section of Bolshoya Morskaya street was filled with costumed entertainers out to milk tourists in need of pictures with themselves and someone dressed up as a historic (or comic) figure or simply painted in gold or silver. A short detour from our route was required to view another piece of the city’s history, albeit when it was known as Leningrad. A nondescript building with 1939 above the door has a short length of barbed and a blue plaque which is a monument to the Siege of Leningrad when the city was surrounded by Nazi forces for 872 days during WWII. At the outset, the city’s population, swollen with refugees, was 3 million. By the end of siege, a million had perished to starvation, claiming more lives than any siege in history. The blue sign reads – “Citizens: During artillery bombardment, this side is more dangerous”
Moyka River Embankment
The river is lined with 19th century architecture.
We resumed our walks on the elegant embankment with fine buildings appointed with graceful arches and statues of thinking men on their walls. A short canal connects the river to the large Neva river forming an elegant arching spectacle. The river curves right passing the imperial stables before its junction with Griboyedov canal, another one of the city’s arterial waterways.
Church on the Spilled Blood
The normally resplendently colored church with its gilded carrot top of onion domes was mostly covered for renovation during our visit. Our photos would not resemble those you may have seen. A riot of color, the overall effect of the church is created by the imaginative juxtaposition of materials. Inside, more than 20 types of minerals, including jasper, rhodonite, porphyry and Italian marble are lavished on the mosaics of the iconostasis, icon cases, canopy and the floor. The church, also known as the Resurrection Church of Our Savior, was built on the spot where, on 1 March 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a suicide bomber. The design is in the Russian Revival (some say neo-Russian Historicist) style. Its designers created a building that was a romantic, self-conscious, fairy-tale image of their own national history and traditions – similar to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. The great irony here is that Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861 and gave them land – but expected them to pay for it.
The church was finished in 1907 and its status as a place of worship only lasted till the 1917 Russian Revolution. During the communist era, it was used to store potatoes and the streets around it were named after Alexander’s assassins. Restored in the 1990s, it serves as a museum today. The walls are covered with mosaics (no paintings). The iconostasis is made of marble with inlaid doors. Christ gazes down at the visitor from the dome ceiling, bathed in light from the windows and ringed by the gold balcony railing. The equally lavishly appointed exterior demands careful attention to the details. Glazed ceramic tiles on the façade, jewelers’ enamel covers the surface of the five domes, the windows are flanked by carved columns of Estonian marble, the casings are in the form of double and triple kokoshniki (tiered decorated arches). Mosaic portraits of the saints are set in tiers of kokoshniki gables. Almost 7000 sq. m of mosaics embellish the church’s exterior. The flamboyant Russian Revival style of the exterior provides a dramatic contrast to the Neo-Classical and Baroque architecture that dominates the center of St Petersburg. It is almost as if this church was plucked out of Moscow and planted here.
There is the small matter of Mikhailovsky Garden to pass through before crossing the Moyka river to get to the Summer Garden.
Several of the city’s leading cultural institutions are situated on this Neo-Classical square. It was designed by Rossi in the early 19th century to harmonize with the Mikhaylovskiy Palace (now the Russian Museum). On the opposite side of the square is the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, also known as the Shostakovich Hall. Among the works premiered here were Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 1824 and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique in 1883. On the western side is the Mikhailovsky Theater. In the center of the square is a sculpture of one of Russia’s greatest literary figures, Alexander Pushkin. Across the street is Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, one of Russia’s most famous hotels. It is a grand structure seemingly stretching all the way till Nevsky Prospekt.
Nevsky Prospekt-Gostinyy Dvor
Nevsky Prospekt – the city’s main thoroughfare, is 2 miles long from the Neva River to Uprising square. It serves as anchor for most landmarks with its straight line, passing the canals and rivers which flow invisibly below the flat pavement.
We feasted our eyes on colorful sweets at Sever and indulged ourselves to a creamy fruit laden delicacy figuring that we had walked enough to earn the treat. The nearby Elyseev delicatessen beckoned but we made a mental note to return to it on our last afternoon after we are done with the rest of the sights. Across the boulevard, the two-storied length of Gostiny Dvor (“merchant’s courtyard”) beckoned and the underpass led us thither. It is shaped like an irregular quadrilateral and occupies a big chunk of the city bounded on one side by Nevsky with its longest side on Sadovaya street. The combined length of its 4 facades is nearly 1 km.
Our final stop for the afternoon brought us very close back to our hotel. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan was commissioned by Paul I and took over a decade to build (1801-1811). The design was inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome. Its 111m long curved colonnade disguises the orientation of the building, which runs parallel to Nevsky Prospekt, conforming to a religious stipulation that the main altar face east. Its most impressive features are the great 80m high dome (visible from many parts of the city as a beacon of the faith along with St.
Worshippers wait in line to kiss the church’s namesake, the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan which is considered the single most important icon of the Russian Orthodox faith, the original icon was discovered by a young girl in a tunnel beneath the city of Kazan in 1579. A monastery was erected on that site, and replicas of the icon were sent to other Russian cities to be venerated by the faithful.
And just around the corner was the front door to our hotel and our legs raced to that destination after having carried us for 15km today. Said that before. We are still not done. After a couple of hours rest, we headed out to explore another pocket of St. Petersburg’s history and combine it with dinner at the same Troitsky Most (Trinity Bridge) Café.
Wicked, nasty ATM
Forget all the above, if there is one thing for you to take away from this post, it is this…never ever enter more than 4000 rubles when you withdraw from an ATM in Russia. Ignore this at your own peril. If you do, you will be stuck with a talisman of bad luck that will stick to you and mock your attempts at getting rid of it for the rest of your days.
Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa
Just a short walk from Ulitsa Kaznskaya is Ulitsa Malaya Morskaya (Little Morse street) which comes after Bolshaya Morskaya (Big Morse). It used to be referred to as Ulitsa Gogolya after Nikolai Gogol (1809-52) who wrote The Diary of a Madman and The Nose, two biting satires on the archetypal Petersburg bureaucrat “drowned by the trivial, meaningless labors at which he spends his useless life”. As if this is not enough, the street boasts of another celebrity resident, the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky who tragically died in the top-floor apartment of No. 13 shortly after the completion of his Pathetique symphony in November 1893.
We walked up and down the street and had some difficulty locating No. 13. Gogol’s No. 17 was easy to spot and had a big plaque with his likeness. Tchaikovsky’s plaque at No. 13 only had Cyrillic writing and was placed above the first floor of a Georgian-Uzbek restaurant. The menu at the restaurant looked interesting (shame on us for quickly dismissing the tragic end of the composer from our minds) but we had already decided on our second meal of the day at Troitsky Most Café and that is where our legs took us. We managed to convince them to detour via St. Isaac’s and Palace Square for some nighttime photos.
We did manage to order something different but were deflated by the staff’s utter indifference to our pleas for help with the translations. Vegetarianism is an uncommon culture and it usually unites its adherents and cuts across all barriers. Just plain old sign language can and does go a long way among people who share this culture. Our recent experience with the young man in Kazan is a great example. Puzzled by this lack of empathy from the ladies who ran the cafe, we had a forgettable (literally, we don’t remember what we ate) meal to end off a momentous day on a low note.