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by Ruth Murdoch  |  October 2018  | St Petersburg, Russia

We wake up on the ferry which has now steamed into St Petersburg, Russia and we are excited to see the buildings on shore.  Interestingly they are not at all what I expected.  There are tall high-rise buildings more akin to Dubai than how I thought Russia would look. The ship sails onwards up into the river mouth for another two hours before finally coming to a halt.

With a 10am ‘Introduction to St Petersburg Tour’ booked (a ‘rare for us’ paid guided bus tour of a city), we are among the first to disembark and make our way down the gangplank to the waiting and oh so serious passport and customs officers. The somber atmosphere makes me stand up straight, take note, and behave myself.  As if by some unspoken rule I whisper instead of talking in a normal tone, just in case I draw undue attention to myself and get into trouble.

Being processed through customs and immigration was an interesting exercise.  Only one person at a time and don’t try to make small talk.  They are there for a job and it’s not their job to engage you in idle conversation.  The lady in front of us in the line was four foot nothing high and was a sweet old lady.  The officer had to stand up to peer over his booth to ensure it was the same lady he could see on the documentation in front of him. Given I was up next I was expecting the same treatment, although not quite that short, I’m still ‘fun sized’ as my husband of six foot says.

We sailed through the official part and onto Russian soil.  I look down as if to find something different. I didn’t.  All soil, or at least concrete, looks the same the world over.

Standing on the ground in St Petersburg is for me like being a kid in a candy shop with an empty tummy, big eyes, and unlimited money.  I have to keep pinching myself to see if this is real.  My mind takes me a million miles away back to my childhood in NZ when the thought of being here was out of reach and beyond comprehension.  I smile and let the wave of realisation wash over me like a warm blanket. I smile again and feel the butterflies of anticipation start to take flight as I consider what is about to be revealed to me after all these years of dreaming.

We climb on the bus and I opt to sit at the back with the naughty children, I mean husband.  Before long the half empty (or should I say half full) bus takes off on our three-hour guided introduction to St Petersburg.

The day is somewhat overcast and we soon find out that this is a typical day for St. Petersburg.  In fact, according to our guide, the city has just 60 days of sunshine a year and for this reason and in an attempt to be more cheerful, many of the buildings are painted in bright, happy, sunshine colours.

We don’t worry, however, as we have a strong belief that the sun follows us and so we are expecting weather is on the way.  Our faith in the sun proves to be well founded in the days ahead.

Driving from the ship into the city we encounter the industrial side of St Petersburg.  It’s grimy, dirty, and run down.  We are told the factories are slowly being moved out into the countryside to make way for beautifying the city on this valuable land.

Once we leave the industrial zone we are blown away by the sights of this outstanding gem of a city.

OMG! I’m so glad we are not driving Betsy through these streets.  For your information, don’t ever try to bring a motorhome, (at least the size of Betsy, 7.5M) into the wee streets of St Petersburg.  Even in the bus I cringed as the driver hit a (flexible) sign on our very first corner!  I am so grateful I am not a bus driver.

That said, he actually did an awesome job, however not without administering several blasts on the horn (I’m assuming deservedly so).  The drivers here seem to have zero tolerance for hesitation and even as pedestrians you have to make your intentions crystal clear, take the bull by the horns, and step out on the pedestrian crossing!  It appears that even if the crossing light is green for go, the drivers will see an opportunity to cross in front of you, so beware.

Sights & Attractions From Our Bus Tour

Ancient Sphinx

The first place we stop is at the two Ancient Sphinx by the Neva River. Not many people know that the northernmost location of an Egyptian Sphinx is actually in Russia.  This makes the Sphinx of Saint Petersburg, probably, the only place in the world where you can see a three thousand year old sphinx covered in snow. (Thankfully not on our watch).  These Sphinx were actually purchased by the city, not gifted as if often the case with monument such as these.

Egyptian Sphinx

Rostral Columns

Rostral Columns – these two columns are famous landmarks that were used as navigation beacons for the many ships sailing down the four rivers, Neva, the Volga, the Volkov and lastly the Dnieper.  Used in the 1800s these beacons were gas lit and are still lit on occasion for certain ceremonies.

St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral

The entrance to the church had three elderly ladies sitting begging for whatever the tourists could spare.  I always feel sad when seeing beggars and give them a few dollars.  The church was stunning inside; unfortunately for you, there were no photos allowed, meaning I cannot share the majesty with you and unfortunately for me, as the visual memories fade oh so quickly.  I deeply respect their request as the church is protecting those who come to worship, without the concern of being photographed.  There was in fact a service going on and I noticed everyone was standing.  I trust, or at least hope, it wasn’t a long service because the average age of the congregation was not exactly youthful.

Just being allowed entry into this church was a gift.  A rare chance to stand and drink in all the colours, decorations, artifacts, and bright colours was something of a sensory overload.  I really didn’t want to leave in any great hurry.  This is one of those times I wish I had a photographic memory, oh well, that’s why we return to these places I guess.

Isaakievskaya Square

Also known as St Isaac’s Square, this was our final stopping point where the monument to Nicholas I was depicted above his horse.

From here we left the bus to head towards our hotel.  I found out from a fellow American tourist that they, and others on the bus tour, were to spend the next two hours in the Hermitage Museum before boarding the ship and heading back to Helsinki.  Having just one short day in St Petersburg seemed a shame to me and once it became apparent just what this city had to offer, they were agreeing with me.  Also to be limited to only two hours in the Hermitage Museum was almost criminal as our five-hour meander on Day Two proved.

It didn’t take long to find our hotel, The Pushkin Inn Hotel.  We couldn’t have booked a better location (thanks Alan), for its proximity to the city, the sights and the best attractions available in St Petersburg, Russia.

On arrival they had champagne waiting for us (to celebrate our anniversary) and had very kindly given us the only standard room with a bath.  When you’ve been living in a motorhome for 15 months you will understand the importance of that!

Our Accommodation For The Next Two Nights

Kazan Cathedral

Once settled in our room, we headed out again with the intention of making the most of our short stay here. Our first stop was The Kazan Cathedral.  This is one of the biggest Cathedrals in St Petersburg.  It took ten years to build from 1801 to 1811 and was modelled off Rome’s Vatican’s Basilica of St. Peter.

The cathedral was intended to be the country’s main Orthodox Church. After the war of 1812 (during which Napoleon was defeated) the church became a monument to Russian victory.  The cathedral became a museum housing the collections of the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, which displayed numerous pieces of religious art and served anti-religious propaganda purposes.  It was only a couple of years ago that regular church services were resumed in the cathedral, though it still shares the premises with the museum, from whose name the word “atheism” has now been omitted.

Inside the architecture is once again impressive, boasting large marble columns, huge chandeliers, gold picture frames and the heavy use of gold throughout the cathedral, domes, and numerous statues.

I was surprised at the significantly long line-up of worshipers waiting to pay their respects and kiss a picture that I couldn’t quite make out on the far wall.  The line moved slowly and continued to grow during our hour-long visit.

The Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral Columns

Worshippers Queue to Kiss the Picture

Kazan Cathedral Dome

Church of the Savior on Blood

The final tourist destination for us today was the Church of the Savior on Blood (also called Church of the Resurrection of Christ).  This is one of the most significant churches in St. Petersburg, for its more than 7,500 square metres of famous shimmering mosaics and marble patterned floor.  This Church was my favourite and compelled more wow’s from my mouth than any other.  It was simply breathtaking and whilst you can enjoy our photos, the church has to be seen to be believed.  We stood for an hour just admiring skill, artistry and craftsmanship that went into constructing and decorating this church.  It wasn’t large inside, but it took a long time to take it all in.  Plus there were lots and lots of people also enjoying the sights (and keeping dry due to the howling rain bomb happening outside).

The church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated, following an attack on March 13th, 1881.  He actually died in hospital from his wounds, however there is a shrine within the building marking the actual place where he was struck down.  The construction of the church began in 1883 during the reign of Alexander III (son of Alexander II) and was finished in 1907, under the reign of Nicholas II.  Extensive damage occurred to the interior due to looting and ransacking immediately after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the church was later closed by the Communist government.  It was used as a temporary morgue during the Seige of Leningrad in World War II and thereafter as a vegetable warehouse.

An interesting fact I only learnt after our visit was that during the war, a bomb fell on the highest dome but did not explode, and it remained in place for 19 years.  When the workers went up to the dome to patch some leaks they found and removed the bomb.  It was then that they decided to begin the restoration of the Church, which after 27 years, was inaugurated as a state museum where visitors can appreciate the building and learn the history of the assassination of Alexander II.

This church has to be one of the most photographed in St Petersburg both from the outside and inside.  See what you think of these pictures.

The Church of the Saviour On Blood

Outstanding Dining Experience

We are now officially exhausted from a full-on, but satisfying, day out and about in St Petersburg.  We retire back to the hotel for a well deserved soak in a hot bubble bath accompanied by a wee vino that helps me wind down and reflect on an amazing first day in this stunning city.

In the interests of not walking any further today in order to preserve our feet for tomorrow, we pop next door to the restaurant attached to the hotel.  We find ourselves served a delightful dinner, the likes of which have eluded us for the past 15 months (bar one exception in Italy), however the prices here are incredibly reasonable, if not cheap.

Alan ordered the beef cheeks, served with green mashed potato, honey carrot and local cranberry sauce.  He chose, as usual, the pick of the dishes tonight.  It was roast duck for me (a dish I can seldom go part), served with pear stewed in wine.  We then ordered a salad of caramelised pumpkin with beetroot, shevre cheese and pecan nut.  A great accompaniment to a superb meal.  With food this good, we can’t leave dessert behind, so I ordered Honey Cake topped with red berries and Alan dove into the Sharlotka Apple Tart, which is a traditional Russian apple tart with almond crust and orange zest served with vanilla ice cream.

Bellies full and smiles on our faces, we retire for the evening to prepare for day two in St Petersburg.

Other Blogs in this Series on St Petersburg, Russia

Follow my series of blogs below to find out how we filled in our three days in St Petersburg and more…

Introduction To St Petersburg, Russia includes how we arrived into St Petersburg and from where, about the 72-hour visa-free visit, motorhome parking in Helsinki, Finland, Currency, Internet, Water, Our Expectations and Top Attractions

Day 1 St Petersburg you are reading now includes the Ancient Sphinx, Rostral Columns, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Isaakievskaya Square, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Blood 

Day 2 St Petersburg includes The Hermitage Museum, Swan Lake Ballet, and photos of St Petersburg by Night 

Day 3 St Petersburg includes Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Peterhof Gardens, Kronstadt Naval Cathedral

Summary: Hiring a Guide, History and Interesting Facts, and Costs

 

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