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.