With a good dinner and a good nights’ sleep under our belts we were off for our second day in St. Petersburg. Passport Control was slightly easier this morning but still no smiles from the Russians. Our tour guide, Eugene, was ready to show us more of his city. Today we are exploring the central area of the city, starting with a canal cruise. It is a totally different view of the city from the top of a canal boat. I did feel like I was in Venice at times, manoeuvring the canals and trying to avoid being struck by the low bridges.
One of the most interesting facts about SPb (St. Petersburg for short) is that all the canals and the Neva River freeze completely in the winter. While this might not seem too surprising it is simply because the Neva River freezes completely – right to the bottom of the river and remains solid for the rest of the winter. It is frozen totally from October to April. Hard to imagine a winter harsher than we endure but it happens in SPb.
Next we were off to visit the subways of SPb – another highlight! Now our tour guide adequately frightened us, telling us of the pick pockets and thieves. Leave ALL your valuables in the van (not something I am a fan of but I did what I was told!) “If you get lost here is my cell number”, says Eugene. “Hold hands with your partners and when the train comes get on, no matter what!” Wow what a build up. Now the subway is pretty spectacular. The escalator goes down deeper than any subway train I have ever ridden. It took several minutes and was very, very steep. The marble and bronze decor was truly a work. The train came, we all got on, there were no pickpockets and we had our adrenaline rush for the day – what fun!
I forgot to include this photo of the subway station - from what I can see it might be my favorite shot!
We also visited St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the resting place for most of the Tsars and Tsarinas of Russian. The church’s distinctive gold dome can be seen through the city. For those of you who watch Amazing Race will know that on a recent episode the group raced through this city. I will be rewatching those shows with interest when I get home.
And now for the moment that took my breath away today – the Hermitage Museum, which is actually the Winter Palace (and still looks more like a palace than an art gallery) and the Hermitage which houses more works of art than anywhere else in the world. They actually only have space to show 5% of their pieces. Two of only 10 known Leonardo Da Vinci paintings are in the Hermitage and we were fortunate to see both of them. I hope that a few of these photos help to describe the expanse of what we saw today.
Lunch today was at a local bakery, not a touristy type of restaurant. We had “perogy” but not like we are accustomed to. These were more like pasties (for those of you from Michigan), filled with beef, or egg and onion, or cabbage. They also served dessert pies – the plum one was yummy! We thought we would try the Russian beer and was surprised when a Czech version of Budweiser was served to us! It was costly but with the hot weather it was worth every penny.
With eight months of winter there is really no need for air conditioning so the old buildings have none. Their idea of cooling a building, like the Hermitage, is to open a window! It is stifling in all of the buildings.
And there is still one more stop for our day – the Church of the Spilled Blood. This is one of the Russian churches that has the distinctive and colourful domed roofs. The Church of Spilled Blood was constructed after Tsar Alexander II was killed on this site. After the obligatory photos of the outside we ventured inside and, yes another breathtaking moment. The entire Orthodox church is adorned with the most intricate mosaics, from ceiling the floor and on EVERY space in the church. Having just returned from seeing the mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul I didn’t think it could get more spectacular but this church has the best mosaics – hands down. Stunning! Sorry that the interior photo doesn't come close to showing the magnificence of the church.
Two interesting observations about Russia. First, we saw absolutely no police presence anywhere. I am sure they were there, somewhere – I am just not sure where! There are no armed guards guarding the treasures of the Hermitage – just a group of apple shaped Russian women sitting in each room of the museum! The other thing is that there are no street garbage cans so everyone leaves all their garbage everywhere – empty champagne and beer bottles, papers, water bottles – I mean everything! It seems the garbage cans make it too easy to set off explosives so once a day the garbage people come around and pick up the garbage.
Sadly, it was time to say good bye to Eugene and his boss Vicktoria. For those of your booking trips to the Baltic, please remember SPb Tours. They offer more than just St. Petersburg and do a ‘bang up job’. The company gets a big two thumbs up from yours truly!