St. Petersburg! (Days 1 and 2…kind of)

Greetings from Russia, where “alcohol is cheaper than books” (a quote from one of our tour guides) and snow and Tetris blocks fall in equal abundance. My (legally restricted, visa-free) time in St. Petersburg has been packed to the brim with all sorts of sights and activities so far, making for a truly unforgettable experience. And I’m not even done yet! This post will only cover Day 1 and Day 2 of my time in Russia, however, so please also check out my post on Day 3 as well (which may go up at the same time as this one due to limitations on internet access).

We arrived in St. Petersburg by ship on Friday morning, and there hasn’t been any time to look back since. Immediately after going through customs, we boarded our tour buses and set off to see the city. Stops and sights included the Peter and Paul Fortress, the City Council, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Our tour guide talked so candidly about most of the landmarks we passed, but they were truly amazing historical sites. The building where Leo Tolstoy lived for a year? Just that one over there. A church built over the spot of an assassinated tsar? It’s called the Cathedral on the Spilled Blood (and it’s the only church in traditional Russian style in St. Petersburg, which was largely planned to be a model of “European” style rather than that of Russia). Do you like looking at palaces? Well, there are over 600 in St. Petersburg. It’s truly astonishing, and I’m constantly reminded of how young the United States is; St. Petersburg (just the one city) is over half of a century older than the US. Since I’ve been in Europe, I’ve started to get a sense of what “history” actually is.

Following our city tour, we were dropped off at our hotel (Hotel Dostoevsky) and had a short period of free time. After settling in a little, I rushed to prepare to see a world class show – Swan Lake, the classic Russian ballet! Russian ballet is renowned for a reason, and the performance exceeded any and all of my expectations. The ballet itself was held in the Imperial Hermitage Theater, the private theater of Russia’s former tsars. And it was a beautiful venue for a beautiful performance. I don’t think there were more than 200 people in the entire room, so it was an intimate experience, to say the least.

After the ballet, we were taken back to the hotel in order to get ready for our limousine tour of the city! The city is truly breathtaking during both night and day, and seeing St. Petersburg lit up was a highlight of my day yesterday. Coupling that with being escorted around in a limo and taking some beautiful pictures of the city, and you can call that a pretty good end to (only!) your first day in Russia.

On Saturday morning, our first destination was Pushkin (also historically known as “The Village of the Tsars”) to see Catherine’s Palace. To say that it was extravagant would be a gross understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much opulence in my life, and I doubt I will again. Some visitors of the palace have even called it “barbarian” because of how excessively decorated it is, and I can see where they were coming from. The entire palace is simply a display of extraordinary wealth and power. It is almost beyond comprehension how that much extravagance is in one space, but I’m just glad that it was there for me to see!

The most exciting thing for me, however, was seeing the (reconstructed) Amber Room. The original room, which was covered exclusively by amber, is a veritable piece of “lost history”; despite attempts to “save” the room during World War II, it went missing (though pieces of the room, like one of the frames in the current Amber Room, have appeared over time in places like Germany) and was thought to be either destroyed, lost, or stolen. Thirty years were spent perfectly reconstructing the room, and the “new” room was unveiled in 2003, the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Painstaking attention to detail – like looking at black and white photos (the only remaining images of the lost room) to determine the relative darkness of each amber piece placed on the walls in the new room – assured that the new Amber Room would essentially be identical to the older version. And what a sight it was! I actually went back after our official tour of the palace was over to just look at it again. I’m really fascinated with the concept of lost history, and I didn’t even realize that the Amber Room was at this particular palace. So it was a great surprise that I was finally able to see the room that I had read so much about!

After our tour, we were taken back to the hotel where we had a few hours of free time. I spent the first part of my free time trying to figure out why my camera wasn’t working (and I didn’t figure it out, so most of my pictures are either iPhone pictures or pictures that other people have taken of me). But once I figured it wasn’t necessarily stressing over any longer, I decided to venture off and see a few of the famous St. Petersburg metro stations. These stations were quite unbelievable; instead of what Americans think of as a sort of dingy, dirty subway stop, these stations were lavishly decorated with all kinds of mosaics. Each station had its own theme and look to it, and I was taken aback by how much time and effort was put into each station. They were all remarkably clean and well-preserved, especially considering that most of these decorations/pieces of art (some stations have full statues in them, if you can believe it) date back to Soviet-era Russia. Who would have thought that so much marble would be put at a subway station? I took a bunch of pictures of the stations I visited, and I don’t really want to clog up this post with even more photos, so it will have a dedicated post.

Once free time came to an end, we were bused to our traditional Russian dinner and show. Dinner was amazing, and the show consisted of live music and “competitions” – short games pegging chosen exchange students against one another. There was plenty of delicious Russian food and definitely lots of laughs, and I felt that I got a great taste (literally) of Russian culture. Another wonderful ending to a night in St. Petersburg!

I probably won’t have a chance to upload this and my pictures until I get home on Monday (I’m actually posting this from the ship on Sunday night), but I am writing this on Saturday. I’ll probably write my final post tomorrow night or on Monday. Russia’s been amazing (and snowy!) and I’m just so glad that I have been able to come. There are lots of pictures to follow (including quite a few panorama shots), so enjoy! I have given Catherine’s Palace and my tour on the metro their own posts. But I have included a few pictures in this post just you can get an idea of what they were like.

Click on the pictures for a larger view.

Princess Maria, the ship which ferried us from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. The trip was a bit rocky, but we all got there in one piece.

Princess Maria, the ship which ferried us from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. The trip was a bit rocky, but we all got there in one piece.

A view from the front of the harbor. It looks quite industrial here, but the city center really looks nothing like this.

A view from the front of the harbor. It looks quite industrial here, but the city center really looks nothing like this.

We're in Russia!

We’re in Russia!

A pillar at our first stop on the city tour.

A pillar at our first stop on the city tour.

From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love

The main cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress, our next stop!

The main cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress, our next stop!

A view of the Winter Palace.

A view of the Winter Palace.

A bit grey, but after living in Helsinki, it was just more of the usual.

A bit grey, but after living in Helsinki, it was just more of the usual.

The pathway down to the water.

The pathway down to the water.

A view of the St. Petersburg waterfront during the day

A view of the St. Petersburg waterfront during the day

The Winter Palace is the green building to the very right. It makes up one-quarter of the buildings in the Hemitage Museum, which I would visit on the third day.

The Winter Palace is the green building to the very right. It makes up one-quarter of the buildings in the Hemitage Museum, which I would visit on the third day.

It was cold in Russia! Who would have known. It actually snowed during the second day. But for the most part, it was just windy, rainy, and cold.

It was cold in Russia! Who would have known. It actually snowed during the second day. But for the most part, it was just windy, rainy, and cold.

Anchor man?

Anchor man?

Another view of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Another view of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Part of the inside of the fortress.

Part of the inside of the fortress.

Each church I saw was really different from each other. Hard to believe, but it's true.

Each church I saw was really different from each other. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

If you rub the index finger of the right hand and the pinky of the left hand, you are supposed to become rich. Here's to hoping!

If you rub the index finger of the right hand and the pinky of the left hand, you are supposed to become rich. Here’s to hoping!

Plaques indicating water levels at the fortress.

Plaques indicating water levels at the fortress.

The outside stone walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg's unused military stronghold.

The outside stone walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg’s unused military stronghold.

One of the art pieces inside Peter and Paul Fortress. The middle piece is a depiction of one of the churches in St. Petersburg.

One of the art pieces inside Peter and Paul Fortress. The middle piece is a depiction of one of the churches in St. Petersburg.

Some of the art inside the fortress. The pieces looked like thrones.

Some of the art inside the fortress. The pieces looked like thrones.

The 12 o'clock canon. It historically was used to signal lunch time for the sailors. It still fires a blank shot everyday right at noon. It was once pointed in the direction of one of St. Petersburg's many museums, but the museum director complained that it was making him deaf. It has now changed directions.

The 12 o’clock canon. It historically was used to signal lunch time for the sailors. It still fires a blank shot everyday right at noon. It was once pointed in the direction of one of St. Petersburg’s many museums, but the museum director complained that it was making him deaf. It has now changed directions.

One of the buildings inside of the fortress. It's weird to think that some people still live within the walls of the fortress. "Forever prisoners," as my tour guide said.

One of the buildings inside of the fortress. It’s weird to think that some people still live within the walls of the fortress. “Forever prisoners,” as my tour guide said.

One of the churches inside of the fortress.

One of the churches inside of the fortress.

You can see a bit of the gold topping one of the churches inside of the fortress.

You can see a bit of the gold topping one of the churches inside of the fortress.

The St. Petersburg city council. There's a bit more of a description in the photo I took there at night.

The St. Petersburg city council. There’s a bit more of a description in the photo I took there at night.

City Council selfie

City Council selfie

A view of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Bronze Horseman.

A view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Bronze Horseman.

Another picture of the front of St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Another picture of the front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

And, of course, one with me in it.

And, of course, one with me in it.

The Bronze Horseman was huge and extemely beautiful (as were most things in St. Petersburg)

The Bronze Horseman was huge and extemely beautiful (as were most things in St. Petersburg)

A panorama view of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the surrounding area. I took a lot of panoramic photos, but only because there was so much to take in.

A panorama view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the surrounding area. I took a lot of panoramic photos, but only because there was so much to take in.

Day 1's lunch: Borscht!

Day 1’s lunch: Borscht!

This was located right outside of Hotel Dostoevsky, the place where we stayed.

This was located right outside of Hotel Dostoevsky, the place where we stayed.

The stage for the night's ballet, Swan Lake! Right below it were the musicians in the orchestra pit. The double-headed eagle on the curtain is the symbol of Russia.

The stage for the night’s ballet, Swan Lake! Right below it were the musicians in the orchestra pit. The double-headed eagle on the curtain is the symbol of Russia.

The theater was really, really beautiful. Basically everything was marble. There were statues along the walls, beautiful chandeliers -- only the best and most beautiful decorations. I found out after the show that the theater was once the private theater for the Russian tsars.

The theater was really, really beautiful. Basically everything was marble. There were statues along the walls, beautiful chandeliers — only the best and most beautiful decorations. I found out after the show that the theater was once the private theater for the Russian tsars.

Max and I preparing for one of the acts of the ballet.

Max and I preparing for one of the acts of the ballet.

Alex and I before the start of the second act of the ballet. The ballet itself was in three acts.

Alex and I before the start of the second act of the ballet. The ballet itself was in three acts.

It's not every day that you get to see world class Russian ballet.

It’s not every day that you get to see world class Russian ballet.

A view of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the surrounding area, but at night!

A view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the surrounding area, but at night!

The first stop on the limousine ride. The building used to be one of the 600(!) palaces in St. Petersburg, but it was eventually turned into the city council. The two flags on top of the council building are the Russian flag (left) and the St. Petersburg flag (right).

The first stop on the limousine ride. The building used to be one of the 600(!) palaces in St. Petersburg, but it was eventually turned into the city council. The two flags on top of the council building are the Russian flag (left) and the St. Petersburg flag (right).

Our group in the limo.

Our group in the limo.

A view of the Russian waterfront at night.

A view of the Russian waterfront at night.

The St. Petersburg waterfront at night. Simply beautiful.

The St. Petersburg waterfront at night. Simply beautiful.

One of the pillars that we visited early on during the day. The night tour allowed us to see some of the places we first visited in a whole new way.

One of the pillars that we visited early on during the day. The night tour allowed us to see some of the places we first visited in a whole new way.

Selfie with a statue (and it wouldn't be the only one either). You're welcome, dad.

Selfie with a statue (and it wouldn’t be the only one either). You’re welcome, dad.

The group inside of our limousine. Small group means lots of space!

The group inside of our limousine. Small group means lots of space!

The rest of the group and our tour guide, Dmitry.

The rest of the group and our tour guide, Dmitry.

Metro Club, the largest and most popular club in St. Petersburg. It has three different levels, each with different music

Metro Club, the largest and most popular club in St. Petersburg. It has three different levels, each with different music

The gates of Catherine's Palace. I will have an entirely separate post with the pictures from Catherine's palace, but here are a few just to give you a taste.

The gates of Catherine’s Palace. I will have an entirely separate post with the pictures from Catherine’s palace, but here are a few just to give you a taste.

The outside of Catherine's Palace. Absolutely massive...

The outside of Catherine’s Palace. Absolutely massive…

...and filled to the brim with gold. This is only one room, and it had more gold than I had seen in my life. The entire palace was like this, for the most part.

…and filled to the brim with gold. This is only one room, and it had more gold than I had seen in my life. The entire palace was like this, for the most part.

All of that is gold!

All of that is gold!

The two blue decorations are actually fireplaces. Of course, they didn't actually function as heating for the palace. They were more of a display of wealth.

The two blue decorations are actually fireplaces. Of course, they didn’t actually function as heating for the palace. They were more of a display of wealth.

The amount of detail in every room was simply ridiculous.

The amount of detail in every room was simply ridiculous.

One of the two gardens at the palace.

One of the two gardens at the palace.

Not a terribly great photo, but all of that is marble. It's a metro station! Like Catherine's Palace, I took enough pictures to have a separate post.

Not a terribly great photo, but all of that is marble. It’s a metro station! Like Catherine’s Palace, I took enough pictures to have a separate post.

Each station had their own theme, and all of the art in each station was different.

Each station had their own theme, and all of the art in each station was different.

Most stations had beautiful mosaics like this one lining the walls.

Most stations had beautiful mosaics like this one lining the walls.

And this one.

And this one.

This was what you saw as you were descending onto the queue of one station. Traveling by metro was super affordable. A token cost 28 rouble (or roughly 50 cents).

This was what you saw as you were descending onto the queue of one station. Traveling by metro was super affordable. A token cost 28 rouble (or roughly 50 cents).

Another one of the mosaics. Amazing.

Another one of the mosaics. Amazing.

The first course of our traditional Russian dinner. It was a seafood-based dish with tuna and crab, I believe. Of course, a shot of vodka couldn't be forgotten if you're in Russia.

The first course of our traditional Russian dinner. It was a seafood-based dish with tuna and crab, I believe. Of course, a shot of vodka couldn’t be forgotten if you’re in Russia.

The second course, a kind of creamy onion dish.

The second course, a kind of creamy onion dish.

There were songs and performances to accompany the meal. Everything performed was traditional Russian folk music.

There were songs and performances to accompany the meal. Everything performed was traditional Russian folk music.

Chicken Kiev!

Chicken Kiev!

There were also competitions pitting exchange students against each other. This competition involved trying to steal the other person's hat without getting your taken off of your head.

There were also competitions pitting exchange students against each other. This competition involved trying to steal the other person’s hat without getting your taken off of your head.

The dessert course, crepes with berries and syrup

The dessert course, crepes with berries and syrup

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