St Petersburg (6 – 8 September)

Ed’s St Petersburg photo gallery (new tab)

So, Helsinki… or really St Petersburg and Russia!
Quite an adventure indeed…

We caught the return ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, but didn’t even leave the ferry building, we just switched ships and departed on another ferry bound for St Petersburg a mere couple of hours later. It was quite posh, but a little older than the Tallink ferry that we had been on between Stockholm and Tallinn (and the express Tallink ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, which takes the same amount of time as the train from Bristol to London and costs considerably less). It contained a few different internal offerings, such as the Cuban cigar bar (which served as the entrance hall to the disco and cabaret lounge) and a slightly stern sounding lady doing the announcements with a Russian accent who rather threateningly ended every statement with “you are welcome”, such as “the restaurant will close in one hour;  you are welcome”.  We speculated that even “we have re-routed to Siberia and you will have to walk for months through winter snows to reach St Petersburg” would end with “you are welcome…”!

We enjoyed a buffet dinner (which in typical Russian style started off with a complimentary shot of vodka) and visited the spa on the ship to enjoy the sauna. It was very quiet compared with the Tallink one, but we met a pleasant young American with whom we got into conversation. It turns out that he was visiting as much of Europe as he could whilst on a 3 month holiday, so we swapped notes on various destinations which we’d either been too, or were considering visiting. We also discussed our respective St Petersburg itineraries, to find that his plans were even more ambitious than our own! (and as you will have gathered, Greg hates to waste time and doesn’t idle well..). So we wished each other luck and headed back to our cabin to get some sleep before a busy next day. The breakfast the next morning was very good, with an excellent make-on-demand omelette station being a particular standout. But what really caught my attention was the entry to St Petersburg itself. It took us almost half an hour to go from the first outskirts of the city, though the docks to our destination quay. During that time we passed an absolutely vast amount of port machinery – cranes, shipping containers, storage warehouses, forklifts, etc. The scale was utterly vast and absolutely mind-boggling. I’d never before seen anything previously which even came close.

As you would imagine I was a little concerned at the prospect of visiting Russia without a visa, but as ever Greg had a plan. Step 1 was the discovery that because St Petersburg significantly values it’s tourist traffic it likes to make life as easy as possible for the many cruise ships which wish to visit the city (bringing lots of high-spending tourists with them). So it offers a 3 day visa-waver to anyone visiting on a cruise ship, providing that they are on an official tour.  Step 2 was the further discovery that the Russian ferry company, after much lobbying to St Petersburg officialdom, had managed to have the daily ferry from Helsinki classed as a “cruise ship”. So, putting these together meant that by catching the ferry to St Petersburg and having a return ticket for 3 days time we were able to qualify to enter Russia visa-free!  Of course we had to be on an official tour, but again Greg had a plan for that.. the crafty ferry company had designated their bus transfer from the port to the city centre as an official tour!  So the net result was that we were able to go through Russia passport control with a return ferry ticket, an official “city tour” ticket, our visa waver forms and a smile :-). We also had ready our (pre-paid) hotel details, as apparently these can be required too, but we weren’t asked for them and in the end the entry process was very straight forward; quicker and simpler on balance than entering America generally is. Amusingly my immigration officer went through what seemed like a very prescribed set of actions including punctuating them with a rictus grin at a specific point almost like she was following a script.

So, we boarded a small minibus and got out about 15 minutes later in the center of St Petersburg, opposite St Isaacs Cathedral. We were now free to roam St Petersburg, just as long as we didn’t miss our ride home in three days time!  Our first stop was to our hotel, a small boutique hotel on one of the embankments of the Moika River called the “Domina Prestige”. We were greeted very warmly by the staff and shown to our room which looked very comfortable.  The lobby had been simple, almost austere, but the room was a riot of colour in deep red and vibrant green. Apparently each floor has it’s own distinct, vivid colour palette for the rooms (and the dining room looked like it was a combination of all of the colours!)  The only slightly odd element that I noticed was that the “in event of a fire” advice appeared to suggest that we donned the supplied harnesses, broke the window to the inner atrium, and abseiled down to safety; an approach which certainly seemed novel to us..

St Petersburg has been described as too Russian to be European and too European to be Russian. And it did indeed feel like a typical European city in many ways, but with a difference which is difficult to describe. It felt quite vibrant, confident, very big and clearly has a very rich and proud history.  Our first day took us to a key element of the rich history of the city, the Peterhof palace – the summer palace of Peter the Great;  sometimes referred to as the Russian Versailles and built to it’s current grandeur by Catherine the Great. Having once been well outside the city it was still quite a journey, and the most efficient way to get there was by boat, or more specifically by high speed hydrofoil. They left every 30 minutes, and took about 45 minutes to get there, the journey to which provided a different perspective of the city as we admired the many impressive buildings which lined the waterfront.

Our first impression of Peterhof was somewhat like it’s host city – it was big! The impressive scale began with the extensive garden and we quickly realised that we needed to purchase a map in order to find our way around at all efficiently. So armed we headed to our first destination – the Royal bathhouse, in the Monplaisir part of the palace garden. This proved to be an interesting tour of somewhere which felt quite different to European palaces we’d visited – the complex was somewhat of a royal spa complete with saunas, baths, resting facilities, even a lavish dining room and associated kitchen, with separate wings for the women and gentlemen. We started with the female wing built for the Tsarina and were very impressed with the facilities, which included a splendid sunken wooden shower with steps down into it with it’s shower head built into an ornate chandelier above, an extensive boudoir and small sauna.

However it was overshadowed by the Tsar’s wing, which contained not only a much larger sauna but also an exercise room, dressing room and bedroom and the most splendid bath and shower we’d ever seen. What was particularly impressive was that it was all still in working order, as delightedly demonstrated by one of the many lady attendants who motioned for us to move to the corner of the room and get our camera ready before she enabled the mechanism. When you walk into the room you face a hot tub sized bath with a central pole topped with what looks like a large golf ball, surrounded by a wide wooden walkway. Once the mechanism is activated, the golf ball started spouting water like a gigantic shower head, then previously hidden jets all around the edge of the tub began to spout creating a fountain of jets into the pool. Finally, after we were already completely impressed, the entire wooden walkway turned into a large fountain as jets hidden between the boards began to spray water, until almost the whole room was a massive indoor fountain!

From the impressive bath house we moved back outside, briefly enjoying the Japanese style garden which surrounds it. Our next stop was the royal chapel, which definitely wins the bling prize – the main chapel itself contains a significant amount of gold leaf decoration, all looking as shiny as the day it was installed (thanks to the fact that the buildings close once a week to allow a legion of cleaners to carefully polish everything!). I think it was at this point that we decided that, for us, Peterhof palace was more impressive than Versailles.

This judgement was confirmed when we entered the main building of the Palace proper and enjoyed the sumptuous surroundings, which were surprisingly quiet in terms of other visitors (sometimes we had whole rooms to ourselves). We also were really impressed by the decoration and especially the furniture, most of which we’d have happily had in our own home; something we don’t normally feel even for pieces of historical or other significance. We were impressed with how new and in good condition everything seemed, something which was explained when we found an information panel detailing how most of the building had been burnt down during the Second World War and had been completely renovated subsequently with most major structures rebuilt by 1947. The work was only finally completed in 2011 and is absolutely stunning. Fortunately much of the art and furnishings had been removed for safekeeping during the war, so can now be seen back in situ.

The palace, from the outside, looks large and grand but is actually much smaller than you would imagine for a palace of it’s importance;  easy to forget from the sumptuousness that it was only a summer palace. The rooms are large, very ornate and beautifully decorated and some are particularly interesting such as the Picture Hall which contains 368 paintings – head shots of variously dressed women, differing in appearance and even age (though most were drawn from a single model) covering the wall almost like wallpaper. There were also two Chinese cabinets (small rooms) decorated with extraordinary art works imported from the far east in the 18th century, and very impressively Peter’s original study which was relatively small but a stunning example of amazing wooden panelling, marquetry and other woodwork.

The palace also continued the trend established by the bathhouse of every room being manned by a Russian woman; normally on the older side and on several occasions we noticed some room to room discussions and gossip going on, which was usually hurriedly curtailed when we entered the room so that the lady could return to her seat to keep a close eye on us (and any other tourists), returning to their conversation as we left.

After the buildings we took a wander round the Grand Cascade, which is a large section of the garden adorned by numerous golden (genuine gold plate and lots of it) statues alongside a fountain cascade; all of which were also very shiny! There is also an extensive grotto behind the cascade including a dining room where the Tsar could entertain guests, though sadly we did not have time to see it. We strolled around the vast gardens visiting the minor palaces of Monplaisir (a small palace not much bigger than a large family room, which was Peter the Great’s favourite place to stay) and Marly (a very small modest palace surrounded by fish ponds rather like a moat) and the Catherine Block (built for grand receptions, banquets and balls). There is also a very small moated palace called the Hermitage, which was designed for the Tsar to show off at intimate dinner parties, as it had the State Dining room on the first floor overlooking the bay (the kitchen and pantry below). At that time there were no stairs so the only way up was by a specially contrived stairlift (seating two); more amazingly the entire dining room table would be lowered down into the kitchen to be set and food laid out, so the privacy of the guests was utterly maintained. (The chairlift was apparently replaced with a staircase after Pavel I was stranded in mid-air due to a snapped cable in 1797!).

After taking the hydrofoil back to the center of the city we sought out a restaurant for dinner which turned out to be a rather hip burger joint called the Clean Plate Society located in a basement near the hotel. We enjoyed a very nice burger in pleasant surroundings with great service. A nice end to a great day.

We had a big day planned the next day – a visit to the Hermitage!  I knew only a little bit of history of the place and primarily knew of it as a somewhat mysterious and world class museum.  What I hadn’t appreciated was that it was housed in a number (six) of interlinked historic buildings, of which 5 are open to the public. The buildings include the Russian Emperors Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre.  The result is an absolutely huge museum.  We spent about 7 hours there and looking at the map we estimate that we covered less than 10% of the overall area!  The museum has more than 3 million items on display (and it is estimated to see everything they own, including stored in warehouses, would take years). The museum was established in the Small Hermitage in 1764 by Catherine the Great to showcase her and the Russian Royal Families collections to guests and only opened to the public in 1852. It is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, and alongside these main buildings has eight other museums in other parts of the world.

The museum has grown to include all the main buildings in the complex and recently has begun to include the Menshikov Palace and part of the General Staff Building. Catherine the Great was an immense collector and in her lifetime acquire more than 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection. Her successors continue voraciously collecting resulting in an almost continuous expanding of the museum and the buildings it was being housed in. The collection grew to include, sculpture, bronzes, vases, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities, Medieval and Renaissance artefacts and arms and armour. Often entire existing collections from other institutions were simply acquired wholesale.  Immediately after the October Revolution of 1917 the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, former Imperial residences, were proclaimed state museums and eventually merged. During the revolution which saw much of the wealth of the rich redistributed the collections at the Hermitage were carefully protected, as the revolutionaries recognised the cultural value of the collections within the palaces. The Hermitage’s exhibits were further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were nationalised.

To get in we had to queue for a while before going through security.  The security checkpoint was airport style, manned by gruff looking security guys who looked rather serious.  We left our backpacks in a cloakroom (in keeping with the size of the place it was one of many, each with hundreds of coat hooks and bag spaces) and were soon at the bottom of the initial staircase which would take us into the palace proper.  Rather than purchase a dedicated audio-guide at the ticket booth we’d noticed that the museum had an official iOS app, so we downloaded that and used our iPhones as audio guides.  This worked very well on the whole, although in a couple of sections the visual description and the audio narrative got out of sync, so we had to go forward or back a step or two from the relevant listing to hear the correct sound track.

The museum contains a great many stand-out exhibits.  There are vast halls of priceless artwork and I am quite sure that we walked ignorantly past many major pieces which would take pride of place in a lesser gallery, but here were just another exhibit amongst many competing for attention with works from the likes of Michalangelo, DaVinci, Reubens, and Rembrandt, Raphael and Tintoretto.  I was particularly impressed by the remarkable golden peacock clock made in the 18th-century by James Cox, which is housed in a very roman villa-like hall.  We also very much admired the Rembrandt “Old Man in Red”.  In addition to the main museum we paid for a ticket to the Diamond Room (there is also a Gold Room), which is only accessible via guided tour.  Our guide spoke excellent English and was clearly very knowledgable about the items on display.  The tour took just over an hour with the guide narrating our visit for most of that time at a brisk pace.  The diamond rooms themselves were full of amazing pieces of art from throughout Europe, with stunning workmanship and materials.  I particularly remember a horse blanket which was a gift from the Sultan of Turkey and was encrusted over 8 thousand brilliant cut diamonds!  All in all I think that only the Vatican has impressed us more.

After our visit we were quite peckish, so we went down the road to a cafe called Chainaya Lozhka known for it’s delicious fast food – made to order pancakes!  These were splendid and we enjoyed a fresh cranberry juice with them, together with a pot of tea (from a choice of about 10 varieties – you get a pot and cup then go and select your tea leaves from the pots on offer and fill with hot water).  After out snack we headed back to our hotel, changed before heading out for dinner at Tepló, a resaurant which was highly recommended, though noted for it’s sometimes slow service.  We did note when we arrived that there was a bookcase of books to read whilst we waited, together with the fact that the table next to us had broken out a deck of cards and was in the midst of a game!  All that said we didn’t find that the food took overly long to arrive, and when it did it proved to be delicious.  I enjoyed some splendid pumpkin soup to start, followed by very tasty goulash for mains and some moist honey cake for desert (and they sent us on our way with a bag of free cakes)!

On our last day in the city we started by tackling the public transport, more specifically the subway.  It was a fun trip;  we found it fairly straight forward to navigate and the halls were absolutely magnificent – huge, grand creations adorned with various artworks in a starkly communist style.  It felt quite Soviet and rather splendid (and reminded me a little of wandering around Rapture from the Bioshock game, only without the mutants).  Our primary stop that morning was Degtyarniye Baths, a traditional local, Russian banya, where Greg had arranged for us to have some authentic treatments. They only spoke a small amount of English, but enough for us to understand what to do and soon enough we were seating in the cooler sauna as a warmup whilst the attendant prepared the main sauna. Then one at a time we went into the main sauna to be given a treatment which consists of having your circulation boosted in a searingly hot sauna (they can get up to 120°C, but I am sure this one was less than that) by being softly beaten by leafy birch twigs (called venik) which have been soaked in water for a while in advance to often them.  It was surprisingly pleasant though very hot, and as soon as it was done I hurtled straight from the sauna to leap into the cold plunge pool to cool down – as did our attendant!  I should add that this was the first sauna in which I’ve worn a felted sauna hat, which keeps your head insulated and protected from overheating.  Our attendant had a special one – tall and very colourful – which made him look rather pixie like!  After a second round of the birch treatment we had the second part of what we’d arranged – a soap massage.  With vast amounts of soap and exfoliating mitts a full body massage ensued;  by the end of which I’d never felt so smooth or so clean!

Our final stop before returning to the ferry, I mean our cruise ship, we visited the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral which is now a museum.  Originally the largest Russian orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world, it is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia; a patron saint of Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint. It is a monumental neoclassical building which took over 40 years to build, opening in 1858 and was incredibly costly at the time. Under the Soviet government the interior was utterly stripped and it ceased to be a consecrated cathedral.  In 1931 it became the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, before becoming the museum of the Cathedral in 1937 (The exhibits of the previous museum were transferred to the Museum of the History of Religion – located in the Kazan Cathedral). At that time regular worship activity resumed in the cathedral, but only in the left-hand side chapel which was the only part reconsecrated. The cathedral has an impressive interior and some displays which chronicle it’s history.  The highlight for me however was the tour around the colonnaded rotunda on the roof below the dome, which allows panoramic views over St Petersburg.  A great way to end our visit of this impressive city.

Leaving Russia proved as straight forward as arriving; and in fact I recognised the same border guide as who granted us entry.  She even smiled at a similar point in the process!  And soon we were aboard the ferry back to Helsinki and heading towards our next city..

(I should also add that whilst leaving the ferry we bumped into our American acquaintance from the sauna.  He hadn’t managed as much sightseeing as intended as he’d ended up drinking on Saturday with some Finns he’d met, and as a result Sunday was apparently somewhat of a write off..)

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