Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 3: out and about in St Petersburg

St Petersburg isn't, despite my previous post, entirely composed of museums. The city and surrounding regions are awash with churches, monuments and, after the thaw, beautiful parks.

Indeed St Petersburg boasts more churches and cathedrals than a tourist can possibly hope to visit, even in four months. Some, for example Kazan Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of our Saviour and Nikolsky Cathedral (the Sailor's Church) are working Russian Orthodox cathedrals. It is always interesting to enter in order to watch a service, and to see the beautiful icons inside – but be aware that utmost respect is expected, both in attire and behaviour. 

Trinity Cathedral

Dostoevsky's grave
The golden-starred bright blue cupolas of Trinity Cathedral, currently being restored, are an iconic sight of the city, but two of St Petersburg's most famous landmarks are St Isaac's Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. Russian students can enter the former free, and the interior of the cathedral is stunning – however, it is worth paying the 100 roubles to climb to the top of the colonnade. The 262 steps should be avoided by anybody with a heart condition, but the views across the city from the top are breathtaking. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is truly a symbol of Russia, second only in fame to St Basils in Moscow, on which it was modelled. After years of Soviet mistreatment, the church has been elaborately and carefully restored. Prepare in advance to fight your corner with your student card here – otherwise you will be charged around upwards of £5 per person. Finally, the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery is a must for Russian students. Not only is its Tikhvin Cemetery the resting place of great composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Tchaikovsky, but it is also the final home of Fyodor Dostoevsky. While the monastery itself is a holy and revered place for Russians, for many it is this grave that is a place of pilgrimage.

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Walking tours of the city enable tourists to take in all these sights, as do boat trips around the canals in summer. You perhaps wouldn't associate Russia with outdoor activities in the sun, but as our conversation teacher became so fond of reiterating, the weather in St Petersburg is very changeable. In February, for example, we took a casual stroll on the Gulf of Finland, which remains frozen solid until mid-March. By late April, however, the same water was thawed and ready for boat-loads of tourists taking hydrofoils to Peterhof.

Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, the two most famous summer residences of the Russian Tsars, are hugely popular excursions amongst tourists. While the palace and museums at Peterhof often charge expensive admission fees, the grounds alone – classically symmetrical gardens with a spectacular array of golden fountains – are worth the trip. The parks at Tsarskoe Selo are similarly impressive, but here it is worth paying the (cheaper) admission to the Catherine Palace to see the sumptuous interiors, not least the recently restored Amber Room. 

Of course, not everybody is staying in St Petersburg for four months, with the opportunity for day-trips out of the city. However fountain-lined parks are never far away in this city, and so an afternoon visit to the Summer Garden fulfils desires to see sculptures and pavilions designed by Peter the Great. For more rambling, less elegant beauty, the botanical gardens are the ideal location for a relaxed moment and a chance, for once, to be away from the imposing gold structures found on every street corner! And if you can afford the time for a not particularly Russian activity, the zoo is also a fun visit – although alongside polar bears and lions, you should expect to marvel at such wonders as the lynx that is definitely a domestic cat, the hens, two magpies, and a pigeon, all of whom have their own cages.

Naturally my last couple of posts have barely touched upon everything there is to see and do in St Petersburg, and of course everyone has different tastes and expectations. For a few of us, trips to the Mariinsky Theatre to see the operas Evgenii Onegin and The Marriage of Figaro were unmissable nights out, whilst anyone who has studied Russian poetry at university would be considered a charlatan if they didn't make a brief pilgrimage to the statue of the Bronze Horseman. The souvenir market tucked behind the Church on the Spilled Blood is not to be skipped, especially if your trip is a one-off, as it's the best place to find hats, matryoshkas (Russian dolls) and bits and pieces of artwork.

Twice in our last week in the city, we walked to the river at one in the morning, to see the bridges go up. By mid-June we had entered the famous White Nights of St Petersburg – a period where, being so close to the Arctic Circle, the nights do not actually get dark. Inevitably this led to near insomnia, and a fine excuse to be walking the city streets at 2am. I have never felt so in love with a place than St Petersburg at this time of year – and night – and watching the huge floodlit bridges go up and ships ranging from tiny tourist boats to huge trade vessels make their way upriver was a genuinely magical experience.

We've all had great experiences living in St Petersburg, and as a close-knit group of friends have discussed and reminisced over each and every one. But at that moment, as the boats sailed by in the 2am sunset (or was it sunrise?) we all watched silently. I'm pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing: even after four months we'd be sad to go home finally – and if nothing else, we're never going to forget the unique sights offered to us by St Petersburg and Russia.

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