Russia Diary #2: Saint Petersburg part I

We arrived in Saint Petersburg late at night, and after a good night’s sleep, we set out for a free walking tour (with, which I always recommend for your first day in a new destination – it’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. While the tour was great fun – we learned a lot about the history of the city and got some good tips from our guide – it was marred by two things:

One, the weather. It wasn’t because it was cold (though yes, it was freezing, “warmest winter in 133 years” or not), but rather, it was depressing. There wasn’t much snow; there was just gray slush on the ground and gray clouds in the sky. Against such weather, the stately architecture of Saint Petersburg ends up looking gloomy and menacing instead of imposing, and it’s understandable why the city is nicknamed “City of Sadness” (according to our guide, it only has 62 days of sunshine a year!)

The Kazan Cathedral, which is just opposite our Airbnb

Two examples of Saint Petersburg architecture – Neoclassical and Art Noveau

You can see how dirty the streets are by looking at the white car

Statues of two of the most famous Russian monarchs – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

Two, I accidentally dropped my camera and damaged the lens, so after the tour, I had to scramble around trying to get it fixed, which ate up precious sightseeing time. But I was determined not to let it ruin the trip and eventually sorted things out (and don’t let the stereotype about the cold, unfriendly Russians fool you – the people at all the different camera shops I went to were so considerate and helpful, even if they couldn’t fix my lens.) We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets, and I must say, under the twinkling lights, Saint Petersburg looks a lot prettier.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (so named because it was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II), back and front

The Mikhailovsky Palace

The next day, we started out early for the Hermitage – pretty much the #1 thing to do in Saint Petersburg, and perhaps in Russia as a whole. I’ve been obsessed with the Hermitage ever since I saw Russian Ark in college, so this is a dream come true for me. Upon arriving, we realized we’d made the right decision to travel in winter – there was no crowd at all, as opposed to the summer, when the line can stretch around the block (you can always skip the line by buying tickets at the ticket machines just inside the main gate, but then you’d have to deal with the crowd inside.)

The Winter Palace

The Palace Square, with the Winter Palace on the one side and the General Staff building on the other (both belong to the Hermitage Museum)

Once inside, we soon discovered what the Russians did to combat the depressing weather outside – they gilded the shit out of everything. I’m not kidding. Everything is carved to within an inch of its life and covered in gold leaf.

Like so

Or so

The interior is so jaw-dropping that I almost forgot about the artworks themselves. Almost. We were there for half a day and only managed to see a fraction of the museum (a well-known rumor goes that if you spend one minute at each of the displays, you’ll need 11 years to cover the entire museum), but we did see all the important ones – the Jordan Staircase (you can’t miss it, as it’s the first thing you see upon leaving the cloakroom), the Raphael Loggias, the Italian Fine Art rooms (the Red Rooms), the Peacock Clock and the Pavilion Hall, and the Malachite Room.

The Jordan Staircase

Me being touristy at the Raphael Loggias

The Red Rooms

The Armorial Hall

The Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting and the October Staircase

The Peacock Clock

The Pavillion Hall

View of the Neva River from the museum

The Peacock Clock was supposed to be wound that day (it’s wound every Wednesday at 7 PM), but as we had to leave for the ballet, we missed it. But then again, you have to save something for next time, don’t you? We ended our day with a night at the ballet, which I’ve described here.

And that concluded our first two days in Saint Petersburg. More to come next week!

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