09.08.2015

THE CITY OF TALES

THE CITY OF TALES, Gönül Midesiz | 09.08.2015

I visited St. Petersburg for business, and then decided to stay for the weekend after my meetings. As I was there in July, my trip coincided with the famous White Nights. It does not get completely dark in June and July and this period is called "White Nights"; the sun sets and dusk settles, however the weather is always clear. If you don't mind not sleeping you can walk around day and night and save time. 

We head to our restaurant, which overlooks Kazan Cathedral and is just a short walking distance from our hotel, not far from from one of the main streets of the city, Nevsky Prospect. Kazan Cathedral is a magnificent cathedral with its 111 m tall curved wings surrounding the building, its dome, and the Roman architecture. It was inspired by the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and entrance is free of charge.

Walking back to our hotel after dinner, we stop by Palace (Dvortsovaya) Square. The square contains the Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building. Right in the middle of the square stands the 45.7 m tall Alexander Column.

St. Petersburg, which was founded by Peter the Great (“Mad Petro” in our history) taking inspiration from Venice, was once the capital of Tsarist Russia. The city that was once known as "The Venice of the North" was renamed Petrograd during World War I. It was then changed to Leningrad to honor Lenin, who founded the Soviet Union, on his death. The city was bombed and besieged throughout World War II (1.5 million people were killed due to hunger and cold), and was renamed St. Petersburg in 1991.

The next day I go on a Canal tour to explore the city. You can board the boats in front of the Hermitage Museum. If you are part of a larger group of people and can afford it, you can also arrange an exclusive boat trip. You glide through the canals by the magnificent buildings (palaces, Mariinsky Theatre, etc.) and under the bridges. St. Petersburg still boasts the traces of an imperial city. During the boat trip, we stop by the Russian cruiser Aurora, which played an important role in the October Revolution and is now anchored on the Neva. It now serves as a museum and a training ship.

In the afternoon, I purchase an entrance ticket to the Hermitage Museum for 2 days later and then hop on the boat in front of the museum. The boat goes to Peterhof Palace, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It takes 40-45 minutes to get to the Palace, which is situated on the Baltic Sea, at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. You can also get there by subway and bus. Travel agents also organize tours to the palace.

Peterhof Palace was established on the orders of Peter the Great on a 607 hectare plot of land in order to celebrate the victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War and as a summer palace. The palace, also referred as "the Russian Versailles," is a fine example of Baroque style architecture, and its garden is full of pools, fountains, statues, bowers, and small summer houses. The trees were brought in from various parts of Russia as well as outside of the country to the palace, which was completed in 1721. The Samson Fountain works by groundwater coming from Ropsha hills without the use of pumps and stretches out to the Baltic Sea by a channel. The statue of Samson tearing open the jaws of a lion (with the lion representing the Swedish army and Samson representing Peter) celebrates the victory over Sweden during the Great Northern War. 

When you get off the boat, follow the canal in the park right in front of you and you'll see the Grand Cascade and the Grand Palace. The stairs over the fountain and the interior of the pool are decorated with golden statues. With so many other visitors around, it can be a hassle to find space to take pictures here. After managing a few snaps, we enter the Grand Palace. We didn’t find it to be as grand as the name suggests, actually. The most interesting feature, for us, was the Çeşme Room. The naval battle that took place there in 1770 resulted in defeat for the Ottoman forces, with their fleet being almost entirely burned. The 12 paintings in this room represent the battle. However, the paintings were commissioned by Catherine the Great, who had never witnessed a naval battle, and so they are considered fantasies.

After we finish touring the Grand Palace, we take a walk in the park. There are 3 cascades and 150 fountains in the park. Just a little farther away from the Grand Cascade is the Chess Mountain cascade, built to look like a chessboard, with statutes on both sides. The third cascade in the park is the Adam and Eve.

Keep walking in the park and you'll see the water jets that kids love the most. When you step on the stones that are strategically placed around the jets, you get soaked! There are 3 jets in the park just like this one, specifically built for soaking the visitors. You need to watch where you step if you do not want to become a victim of Peter’s pranks. 

On our way back to the boat, we see people diving into the water at the beach in front of the park to cool off. They were obviously too hot to even take their clothes off and just dived right in! You can spend your whole day at the park with pleasure. There are also shops that sell food and drinks as well as souvenirs.

The next day, I start my tour with Saint Isaac's Cathedral, a short walk from my hotel and which had been on my list since I saw its golden dome during my boat trip. After 40 years work, the cathedral was completed in 1858. It is the biggest in Russia and the fourth biggest Orthodox cathedral in the world. The column of the cathedral is a single piece of red granite and is decorated with statues. It is said that during the construction of this Russian/Byzantine style building 100 kg of gold was used. It was painted gray to avoid attention during World War II. Firstly, I walk around the cathedral and take some pictures, and then I head inside. The interior, garnished with mosaic icons, paintings, malachite, and lapis lazuli columns, is truly lovely.

The cathedral began to serve as a museum after the fall of communism and is open for worship only on special days. The chapel next to the cathedral, however, is always open for worship. Despite my fear of heights, I purchase a ticket to climb up the dome of the cathedral. I climb the helix-shaped flight of 300 stairs with an elderly couple. We stop for pictures here and there and finally arrive at the dome. The view is absolutely breathtaking. St. Petersburg lies beneath our feet with its Baroque and Neoclassical architectural masterpieces, the Neva River, and its canals. Right opposite is Saint Isaac's Square and on the other side are Palace Square and the Hermitage Museum. The dome is adorned with 12 angels. It is worth climbing up here just to see St. Petersburg from high up.

I climb down, pass Saint Isaac's Square and keep walking along Nevsky Prospekt. I pass by the General Staff Building located next to the Neva River, and take pictures in front of the Lions, which is next to the Mariinsky Theatre on the Griboedov Canal. The bridge is a popular attraction where lines form with all the people wanting to take pictures. I then make a stop at one of the small cafes nearby.

I find out that the salmon-colored building is the Stroganov Palace, which also serves as the Russian Museum. The world famous Beef Stroganov gets its name from this family. The dish was first prepared by the family's head chef.

There are many Baroque and Neoclassical buildings in the city. I notice a beggar’s dog wearing sunglasses on the way. But my destination is the Church of the Savior on Blood. I finally arrive at this magical church and go inside to burn a candle. The colorful, round domes of this building and its exterior ornaments are just amazing.  The church was built on the spot where Alexander II of Russia was assassinated and cost 4.5 million rubles, a sum which was raised by the Tsar family and special donations.

There are many wedding cars in front of the Mikhailovsky Garden, right opposite to the church. Most of the cars are large and long limousines. Brides and their grooms take pictures in the park; it's a custom in St. Petersburg. A little further into the park, you will see Mikhailovsky Castle. The castle was built in the 17th century and was used as a residence by the Russian tsars until 1823. Later, the tsars moved to the Winter Palace and left this place to the army's engineering division. For this reason the palace is also known as "Engineers' Castle." Portraits of the Russian tsars are still exhibited here.

The lighting at night on Nevsky Prospect is also lovely... The same can be said of Palace Square; lively, sparkling, with people playing instruments, riding horses...

I want to choose a restaurant in this district but my aching feet do not let me; so I head back to my hotel only to return to this place the next morning. 

The next day, I enter the Hermitage Museum from Palace Square. Museum tickets can be purchased by choosing the entrance hours; and I recommend buying the tickets beforehand or reserving them. Or, you can simply enter by paying a higher fee, just like I did. The Hermitage Museum was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, began serving in 1852, and is one of the oldest and biggest museums in the world. It is a complex comprising of 6 magnificent buildings.  The entrance is in the Winter Palace, home of the Tsarist family. The buildings open to the public respectively are the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theatre.

The museum has the biggest collection of paintings in the world, with works by famous artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Degas, and Da Vinci contained in the collection. Fortunately, I got to see a Picasso exhibition containing all of his works. A separate section is reserved for Picasso's works only. It would take a week to tour the museum completely, so mine was an accelerated half-day tour. For Faberge eggs and the jewelry collection, you need to buy a separate ticket. Even though I have visited many great museums around the world, I was truly amazed by the magnificence of the buildings of Hermitage as well as the collections inside. However, my feet didn't agree.  I had limited time so I mainly concentrated on the Egyptian Civilization section, paintings, and statues. I shot a number of videos to remember it all. I was exhausted when I arrived at my hotel. The heat of July and the humidity of St. Petersburg really takes it out of you. I had to take 4 showers a day, just to give you an idea of the heat. :)

You will see the small souvenir shops (selling imitation Faberge eggs, paintings, scarves, matryoshka dolls, magnets, etc.) once you exit the Hermitage Museum. Whatever you wish to buy, remember to bargain. I did all my souvenir shopping here, but you can see similar shops as you walk around the city. The prices are more or less the same. While you're here, remember to buy something made of amber, which can only be extracted from the Baltic Sea.

I have to head back to the hotel to prepare to catch my plane, so I sadly conclude my trip without seeing many places I wished to see. I bid farewell to magical St. Petersburg, hoping to come back again another time. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. You need at least a week to explore the city comfortably and properly.

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