St. Petersburg, Russia, June 2016

Life imitating art at the Hermitage Museum

We were told repeatedly that St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. This happened especially in Moscow where locals admonished us for even considering we might not go. So we researched and tried to make it fit into our schedule and budget, and we made it! We were daunted by the transportation and accommodations, all at peak tourist season. What I saw online showed overnight train tickets at a minimum of $38, not available the night we wanted to go, and hostel rooms above $50. But Mr. Fantastic worked his magic and found $17 train tickets and a $40/night hostel. We got in at 1am on the train, not ideal, but we had slept on the train and we were curious about the ‘white nights’ (late-night sun in summer due to being so far north) this time of year. It was dark when we arrived which surprised us, but it was cloudy and that could have darkened the sky. We didn’t stay up as late the other nights we were there but we did witness plenty of sunshine during night hours. I saw sunset reported at around 10:30 and sunrise 4:30 when I looked it up. 

above was taken around 11pm!

The big thing the night after we arrived was Scarlet Sails. This is a celebration for recent high school graduates to see them off into adulthood. In a reference to a Russian fairy tale, it involves red colored sails on ships that parade on the Neva River on a Saturday night in late June. We were excited at first but then saw that the boats and fireworks occurred at 1:00 am and though we tried, we were unable to stay up that late. We did walk through crowded streets that were closed to vehicles for the night and we hung around by the waterfront- and at a busy playground for the late hour!- until after 11:00. We walked home in twilight through boisterous, celebrating locals. It reminded us a lot of the Philadelphia Mummers minus the men in drag!  Joining the crowds in streets without cars

Our hostel was unusual and kind of fabulous. It was in one of the neat old buildings that comprise the city center and its entrance within a large courtyard. Much of the courtyard was part of a large outdoor produce market with all of the color and bustle of any open-air market. An indoor market, full of meats, cheeses, and pickled vegetables of every kind, adjoined the outdoor portion. The rest of the courtyard was dominated by a produce depot with trucks delivering and workers with dollies moving cherries, melons, apples, potatoes, onions, many types of berries, and many other kinds of produce including some I didn’t even recognize. Other workers picked through mounds of cucumbers or strawberries or whatever to sort out the spoiled ones. We were beckoned to buy produce every time we came and went, given many samples and sometimes given whole pieces for free. 

Twins making bracelets on the couch at the hostel

Inside our hostel, which had opened only a month before we stayed there, was just adorable. There are about 8 rooms, several with four beds (2 bunk beds). We had one of these with a sofa as well. Each had a theme and fresh, brightly colored paint. The ‘music room’ had a guitar and vinyl records on the wall, and our ‘fashion room’ had fashion photos and a dress dolly silhouette painted on a wall. The windows looked out on the courtyard. The owner Oksana seemed to live there and was incredibly friendly and spoke passable English. She has traveled to 39 countries and had many stories as we stayed up late one night playing guitar with another guest and talking. There was a grocery store in the building and a kitchen in the hostel so we cooked several meals. 

Throne at Hermitage

The Hermitage was quite simply the largest, most wonderful art museum I have ever visited. It is also one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, having been started in 1764 by Catherine the Great and housing over one million artifacts. It was once a palace and looks it, with velvet curtains reaching from 20+ foot tall ceilings all the way to the floor and richly colored ornate wall friezes and stunning parquet wood floors. The ballrooms are now filled with works of art from the eighth millennium BC to modern times. 

Line outside in the rain, fanciness inside 

We spent several hours here and could have spent more. I heard a comment from someone in the crowd that it is best to visit in winter and I would love to do that, looking out at the icy Neva River and the rows of snow-covered historic architecture through the vast windows as I wander in the vast, nearly empty museum…But here in the present, it was peak tourist season and extremely crowded. No matter, the place is so large it can accommodate many visitors, and we were able to avoid entrance lines by buying tickets online. I highly recommend this; we got information from –wikitravel Istanbul page, Hermitage section. We didn’t even know it had started raining while we were in the museum until we looked out at the massive lines we had avoided and saw all of the umbrellas. St. Petersburg, by the way, is absolutely lovely in the rain, especially through the wavy glass in the lushly curtained windows of the Hermitage. 

We saw gorgeous paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi, Byzantine works, prehistoric tools and petroglyphs, and collections of armor and weaponry, just to name a few things. Entering every room was breathtaking and sometimes brought tears to my eyes. I feel very lucky we were able to tour parts of this museum, and next time I will come in winter to enjoy it and other indoor spaces of St Petersburg because there was so much light and outdoor spaces beckoning us. 

Even the doorknobs are fancy (below)

An area outside of the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral had benches and some unusual goings-on. We saw a few Korean tourists standing still by the fountain, their arms outstretched. It soon became apparent why. 

Pigeons here will land on your arms and open palms, even if you have no food for them. We all succeeded in being a perch for the birds and fed them as well, probably not a great idea since they are likely overpopulating the area and harming the structures, but really irresistible. 

Outside and inside the Kazan Cathedral (below)

We went on a city bus about an hour to Peterhof Palace, built by Peter the Great in 1714, embellished by succeeding tsars, bombed by the Germans in WWII, and ongoingly restored since the end of that war. After entering the huge gates and walking past meticulous landscaping and several fountains, we toured the lower gardens. The tiered gravity -pressured fountains behind the building were outrageous, festooned as they were with golden statues; they were comparable to Myanmar temples in terms of the expanse of glittering golden surfaces.

The subway in St Petersburg may be the deepest in the world. The escalator going down takes 2.5 minutes, we timed it! The decorations are as nice as those we saw in Moscow, and the service just as fast. Great people-watching, buskers in the corridors, cleaning ladies holding a rag to the moving escalator railing. 

Two of the many beautiful metro stations below- glass columns, ceiling mosaic 

We ate at the cafeteria-style restaurants we had liked so much in Irkutsk and Moscow. We ate meat sometimes and a lot of potatoes and salads. The grain kasha is very popular here too. We also enjoyed a few of the cozy cafes and their decadent coffees and desserts. Once we tried a fast-food chain that had borsch, blini, and kvass on tap, and though we were amused that borsch could be fast food (can’t see that catching on in the US!), we were disappointed at the higher prices and the amount of trash the place generated. They did serve tea in ceramic tea cups and saucers with real spoons, though, which was interesting. 

We finally made it to a local banya! It was too pricey in Listvyanka and we didn’t have time in Moscow. On our last day in St. Petersburg, Oksana helped us make an appointment. I don’t know how we could have done this without her- the only English-speaking banyas seemed to be high-end spas despite the fact that going to a banya is really common, affordable thing in Russia. Oksana actually took us on the subway to the location, navigating side streets, alerting the owner to allow us to enter the locked gate, and following him with us into an underground entrance to the place. It had a definite speakeasy feel, long dim hallways and a small bar tucked into a corner of a room with vinyl couches and a loud TV showing some type of Russian Jerry Springer. Oksana made sure we were clear on prices and timing, and left us with the beefy owner who spoke no English. It was so excellent to go to a real Russian banya in Russia, but in general we all felt the one we had been to in the Philadelphia suburbs was nicer with its large swimming pool, steam rooms, and sunny main room. But here we had a private sauna room, just fired up for us and very hot, and outside the sauna room was a cold pool and shower. There was also a changing room with towels, sheets, plastic sandals and peaked felt hats, as well as a few toiletries and a hair drier. All of this was behind doors and all for our use for an hour. Back on the big couches near the TV was all the tea we could drink. The use of the room was about $15 total and we were charged about that amount as well for the sheets, towels, and two bundles of branches (venik) for hitting ourselves with-it’s a banya thing believed to improve circulation. I would like to have experienced a public banya but I could not figure out the options and the older daughters (ages 12 and 15, who ended up bucking local norms and wearing their swimsuits in our banya) had zero interest in getting naked with a bunch of random Russians. Oh well, I felt wonderfully relaxed as we left and it was a great way to end our time in St. Petersburg, especialy since we were going to spend the night in a rather uncomfortable way- a twelve hour night bus to Moscow, on two different buses actually, since we could not get six tickets on one bus. We packed, checked out of the hostel, said goodbye to the wonderful Oksana, and headed for the bus.

Last glimpses of St.Petersburg: well-dressed ladies crossing the street, lovers locks on a bridge railing, Church of The Savior in Spilled Blood, bridge supported by winged lions


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