An index to this series is found on its first post.
Over the next several posts, I will be telling my story of two weeks in Russia. While I will stick with the essential chronology of my trip, I will also do some amount of reorganizing to group related parts of my visit. A visit to St. Petersburg must start with the story of one of the most visionary leaders to have shaped Europe: Peter the Great. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
October 19-20, 2017
The big day arrived! I packed my medium 26″ roller bag with my hiking shoes, sneakers, and shiny dress shoes. Do Russians like their conference speakers to be formally dressed? I tossed in a couple of ties, as well, just in case. The taxi arrived for a drive time that would get me to the airport before Cape Town rush hour hit its peak.
The drive to the airport would have been no big deal except for a gang-related shooting at the drop off area on the morning of October 18th. My taxi driver reported that the area had been crowded with police all through that day. My drop-off, on the other hand, was completely uneventful. I saw a couple of police officers, but otherwise nothing seemed out of place.
My flight path to St. Petersburg ran through Dubai, because the tickets purchased for me used Emirates Airline. It’s been a good option in the past, and this time I was able to supply my South African Airways frequent flier ID to get some credit for the trip (the two airlines are both part of the Star Alliance). There’s not a lot to differentiate a flight with Emirates Airline from a flight on British Airways, but there are a few characteristic features. Their flight stewardesses have stylish veils that are part of their headgear. Every movie begins with an advertisement for cultural events and hotels in Dubai, and they advertise very upmarket watches. I was delighted to discover both my seats were on the aisle. That mattered particularly for the first leg, taking off from Cape Town at 8:05 PM and landing at 7:25 AM in Dubai (this is much faster than the flight straight to London). While in Dubai, I traded 500 Rand I had brought with me from Cape Town to Russian Rubles. Google tells me that I should have received 2105.47 RUB with a market exchange rate and no commission. Instead, I received only 1210 Rubles and 3 UAE Dirham in change. I bought a cup of tea with cardamom from the change, easily the most satisfactory aspect of the trade.
The St. Petersburg airport seemed much like any other airport, though the lines for passport control took some time to pass. I was still worried that something wouldn’t be accepted about my visa, but I need not have worried. The officer’s only question for me related to the airport from which I had flown to St. Petersburg! Collecting my luggage and passing through customs was similarly straightforward. I opted to use the taxi desk to pay for my taxi into town. I like using public transportation, but in this case I would have needed a bus followed by the subway to make the trip. I put a 2000 Ruble charge on my credit card and breathed a bit easier ($35).
As the taxi left the airport, I breathed a deep sigh of contentment. The fall colors are on full display in late October! I don’t often think about trees in South Africa unless I’m talking about one of the non-indigenous pines or eucalyptus trees. There’s still plenty of stands of trees near St. Petersburg, though. The airport is south and west of the city proper, and all along the drive east I enjoyed the sights. Then we turned north, and almost immediately we were surrounded by city. As a tourist, I spent almost all my time in the historic center, but the drive in reminded me that the city has more than five million inhabitants, bigger even than Cape Town. It’s not really a city that has turned to skyscrapers, either, so a visitor sees medium-height buildings throughout.
I had decided to stay at the Abajour Nevsky, a small hotel right in the heart of the historic district, since I like to do my tourism on foot. Its street address, in fact, is right on Nevsky Prospect, the road sloping south-southeast from the Admiralty. From the cab, I walked through a gateway into a courtyard off the main road. I found the right door, but it took me a while to figure out that I needed to dial “20” to reach the hotel itself. I trudged up two flights of stairs and was checked in right away. The only thing on my mind at that point was to get a proper shower! There’s nothing like living in a city under extreme drought conditions followed by an overnight flight to make me crave lots and lots of steaming water!
I didn’t want to try any serious exploration as sunset arrived, so I simply walked down Nevsky Prospect a few blocks until I found the “Manneken Pis,” a somewhat Belgium-themed pub. I enjoyed a draft Estonian “black currant” cider with chicken ratatouille. For once I followed Natasha’s adage that you cannot call it dinner unless it has something green in it!
October 21, 2017
Bronze of Peter the Great’s head, from the Moscow State Historical Museum
I framed today’s journey on Peter the Great, the emperor of Russia who decided that Russia would create a “Window on Europe.” Just over three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was a frozen marsh. Within Peter’s lifetime, however, the area had become Russia’s imperial capital. At the start of the eighteenth century, the region of “Ingria,” connecting Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland, belonged to the Swedish Empire. The Great Northern War, however, wrested this area to Russian control. Peter the Great began building his city on this site to anchor his control over the area.
The Eternal Flame
I walked north from Nevsky Prospect to reach the river Neva. I passed by several worthy sites, such as the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan (next door to my hotel), the Russian Museum with its statue of Pushkin, the Mikhailovskiy Castle, and the “Field of Mars” with its everlasting flame commemorating the victims of violence in St. Petersberg. I reached my first goal site of the day at 9:40, but it didn’t open until ten. I had reached the Summer Garden!
Small Orangery in Summer Garden
Many visitors to St. Petersburg visit the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum, but the Summer Palace gets far less attention. It was a lovely, quiet start to my day. Peter invested considerable effort in the garden, with whimsical fountains, quiet walkways, and statues from his own personal collection. I enjoyed the orangery, imagining Natasha happily planting another box of greens. Soon enough I found the Summer Palace. It’s a tidy little white building with mythological scenes sculpted in brown panels on the sides. It’s hard to imagine the Emperor of Russia holding court in such an intimate space. The insides were in renovation during my visit, but I still enjoyed the visit.
The Summer Palace hardly looks like the home of an emperor!
The summer palace was built very early in St. Petersburg’s history, but Peter built an even earlier home here! I headed across the Trinity bridge to cross the Neva River. It crosses at quite a wide point, and I received my first view of the Peter and Paul Fortress, to the north, and of Vasilevskiy Island, to the west. On the north side of the river, I walked through a small park where dozens of high-schoolers were raking leaves into piles. I saw the massive and lovely blue Sobornaya Mosque, and I looped back to the edge of the Neva to find the cabin of Peter the Great.
How else do you preserve a cabin from 1703?
For 200 Rubles (bless the ticket booth attendant for offering me the student price, though), I got to visit the building. It’s a bit confusing, though, because the cabin is encased within a modern structure. The new structure is in pretty rough shape, with peeling paint, but once I was inside I saw that it is doing its primary job of protecting the log cabin Peter lived in during a few weeks of 1703. The furnishings of the cabin are visible through the windows, and tourists are kept from entering or otherwise touching it. I also got to see a boat that Peter had built for himself. I enjoyed imagining Peter strolling up and down the shore of the Neva, imagining what he would create in his newly conquered territory.
Why settle for a plaque when you could get a bust instead?
[I have excised a tangential hike for later discussion]
Instead of descending to the subway like a sane person, I began trudging west on my tired feet. I didn’t stop moving until I had come back west to the Peter and Paul Fortress. I wanted to see the cathedral and the city of St. Petersburg history museum, so I bought the all-museum ticket for 600 Rubles. I paused for half an hour at the Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology, where I learned the history of Valentin Glushko, the Russian father of jet engines.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, as seen from the Trinity Bridge
As I walked to the main square of the fortress, I was presented with a lovely view of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, crowned with a gilded spire that can be seen for miles. I entered the Cathedral and was surprised to see that its nave had been emptied to make room for tourists who visited the many tombs of the royal family. I spent a moment at grave number one, that of Peter the Great himself. His is unique in that it features a bust of the sovereign.
The Cyrillic letter “Pe” looks like a pi.
When I examined the map of tombs, I was in for a double surprise. Catherine the Great is also buried in the cathedral! I spotted her resting place in the row behind Peter’s. The other surprise I alluded to is that post-Soviet Russia relocated the remains of the last royal family, that of Nicholas II, to the Catherine chapel within the cathedral. I paused for a moment at its entrance.
From there, it was a short walk to the museum of the history of St. Petersburg. I was surprised how much this museum packed into its space. Many of the individual exhibits have only Cyrillic descriptions, but at least each room had a full-page panel in English to help foreign visitors. I enjoyed the maps showing the early development of St. Petersburg, and the eighteenth century anchor in one room just dwarfed everything else.
The platform where the Decembrists were sentenced is out of shot, to the left.
I was in for a bit of a surprise when I reached room 11. St. Petersburg had a substantial population of military men, and when discontent with autocracy grew during the nineteenth century, secret military societies began plans to overthrow the tsars in favor of a different system. On 14th December of 1825, three thousand soldiers launched a revolt in Senate Square (next to the Admiralty). When the “Decembrists” had been put down by artillery, the leaders were arrested and interrogated in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Room 12 of the commandant’s house (now the history museum) was where judgment was passed on the Decembrists, with several sentenced to execution. The room has been arranged just as it was on that day, with a raised platform where the rebels stood when sentenced.
The remainder of the museum was generally more cheerful, celebrating the development of Nevsky Prospect and describing the improvements to the city over time. The installation of city-wide plumbing and electricity was more problematic than one might imagine. To this day, visitors to the city receive recommendations not to drink the tap water! The last room of the museum is more somber, though, as it shows a diorama of a mansion in the city being attacked by Communist protestors with red banners.
I will have much more to say about this mansion a couple posts after this one.
[I have borrowed the following from October 22nd.]
Just to the west of the Admiralty, I came to two impressive buildings forming the western edge of Senate Square. The first was the Manege Central Exhibition Hall. The double structure of the next building reflected its dual role as the home of the Senate and the Synod, representing worldly and ecclesiastic authority, respectively. This square continues the story of the failed “Decembrist” uprising. The rebels were hoping to acquire power from the top by staging their revolt here. Senate Square has changed its look quite a lot since the nineteenth century, though. The area looks more like a park, with trees enclosing quiet paths on the side closest to St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
Senate Square is now a quiet park!
Senate Square was on my list so that I could see the massive Bronze Horseman monument that Catherine the Great erected to her “ancestor,” Peter the Great. I was pretty amazed by its appearance; the horse is mounted above a massive plinth of rock called the “Thunder Stone.” Seeing the snake (Sweden?) trampled beneath the horse was a very romantic image.
This monument also bore witness to the Decembrists!
I stopped by the stand of a painter who was outside in the cold with me, and I acquired a small watercolor of the Bronze Horseman. He named the buildings on the Vasilevskiy Island shore facing us, and I paused to capture images for a panoramic photo.
South waterfront of Vasilievsky Island
Ultimately, the greatest monument to Peter the Great is not a bronze or stone or wood artifact from another age. It is the city of St. Petersburg itself, which owes its life to this determined man. His vision opened the eighteenth century in a startling new direction for Russia. This city continues to be this nation’s welcome to travelers from the West.