Russia Diary #3: Saint Petersburg part II

For our third day in Saint Petersburg, we took a day trip to Catherine Palace, aka the Summer Palace, which is located in the small town of Pushkin (also known by its old name, “Tsarskoye Selo”, meaning “The Tsar’s Village”), located about 30km away from Saint Petersburg. We could’ve taken public transport there (you’d need to take the metro, then a bus), but it was cold, so we decided to book a Yandex taxi. Divided between the four of us, the cost of a taxi was not that much higher than public transport and it got us there in half the time.

The drive was unremarkable, just passing through bleak industrial land, but Pushkin itself seems like a pleasant little town. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would’ve loved to walk around there and see more of Russian life outside of the big cities. But as we were freezing, we hurried into the Palace.

The Palace’s front gate (the entrance is in the back though)

Inside, we found the same resplendent and luxurious interior as the Winter Palace – perhaps even more so, because at the Winter Palace, the artworks take the spotlight, whereas here, it’s just gilded carvings and glittering crystals everywhere.

Russia’s answer to Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors

The famous Amber Room (this is a reconstruction, after the original was looted by the German Army during WWII and went missing)

The one thing I don’t like about these palaces, though, is that they don’t give a clear impression of how people used to live back then – as opposed to say, the palaces in France (like Fontainebleau and even Versailles), where the rooms are set up as if they were still in use. Here, some rooms do have furniture and stuff, but the furnishings feel more like decorations than actual things used by actual people. I don’t know, perhaps the decorations are so dazzling that I can’t imagine them being really used.

Like this dining table, for instance

Afterward, we took a stroll around the park. In the summer, you’ll need a separate ticket (costing 150RUB) for the park, but in the winter, since all the outbuildings in the park are closed, entrance is free. Still, there is a certain kind of beauty about it, with all the barren trees clipped to an impressive symmetry and standing out against the snow. Plus, we practically had it to ourselves, which was awesome. There is also Pavlovsk Palace about 7km away, but we were getting tired, so we went home and took the rest of the evening easy.

The symmetry really is ridiculous

The next day, which was our last day in Saint Petersburg, we checked out the inside of all the churches we haven’t managed to see in details during the walking tour – St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and Kazan Cathedral (Kazan Cathedral is still a working church so no photography is allowed inside.)

If you think that the interiors of the Winter Palace and Catherine’s Palace are resplendent, then these churches are resplendence on steroids. My friends and I soon dubbed the trip “A Pain in the Neck” because we were forever gazing up at ceilings and murals and mosaics. I’m a staunch atheist, but even I felt awed by these churches.

St. Isaac’s

… and the interior

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

… and the interior

Afterward, while we were on the colonnade on the roof of St. Isaac’s, the sun came out – the first sun we’d seen in four days! So we spent the rest of the day walking along the Neva River to soak in some vitamin D. There are still tons of sights to see (like Peter & Paul Fortress, the Faberge Museum, and the Kuntskamera, a museum of curiosities), but we’d had enough of gold leaf, so we just walked around until it was time to return to the apartment, pack up, and head to the airport. Like I said, you have to save something for next time, and I hope there will be a next time in Saint Petersburg for me.

View from St. Isaac’s colonnade

The Kunstkamera (center)

Peter & Paul Fortress

Up next is our Northern Lights adventure in Murmansk, so stay tuned!

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!

Russia Diary #1: Overview

This trip came about in a rather roundabout way. See, my friends and I had the idea of going on a trip to hunt for the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. However, when we looked at usual Aurora destinations, like Iceland and Scandinavia, they’re all expensive, and other than Aurora hunting and winter sports, there isn’t much to do there (and I’ve been to Iceland already.)

Then, during our searches, we stumbled upon Murmansk, a Russian city in the Arctic Circle that is growing in popularity as a destination for Aurora hunting due to its cheap prices and close proximity to big cities (it’s only a 2-hour flight away from Moscow). So I thought, why not go to Russia? Even if we didn’t see the Aurora, there would still be tons of things to do and see and we would still have a memorable trip nevertheless.

The idea of traveling to Russia in the depth of winter was a little daunting at first. The funny thing is, this is Russia’s warmest winter since 1886 (!!!), so we didn’t get a lot of snow. For us tropical dwellers though, their warmest is still pretty effing cold, but we got through it, and I’m glad we did, because I feel we got a more authentic experience. Lower prices and fewer crowds are always a plus too.

Besides, you can get scenes like this…

Or like this (it kinda looks like a horror movie, but still beautiful)

Or this

Since Russia is such a big destination, it took us some planning (the shopping for winter clothes alone took a lot of time, which I’m going to talk about in the packing post.) There is plenty of information on Russia travel out there, but here’s my experience:

– Visa: You probably need a visa to travel to Russia. The application requires a letter of invitation from Russia, which can be provided by a travel agency. We just did everything through an agency. It costs more, but it’s much less hassle.

– Money: We exchanged our money before leaving, but exchange places can easily be found in big cities. Our budget came out to about $50/day (about 3000RUB), but with transport and accommodation, it’s actually closer to $120/day. Russia isn’t that cheap.

– Accommodation: Since there are four of us, we decided that Airbnb would be easier than hostels (also, being old ladies at heart, we’re not keen on hostels anymore.) In Saint Petersburg, most of the attractions are around the town center, so it’s easy to find a place within walking distance. Moscow is more spread out, but the city is linked by an extensive metro network, so it shouldn’t be a problem either. Still, I recommend staying within the inner ring (the main roads of Moscow form a series of rings surrounding the Kremlin) because that’s where most of the restaurants and shops are. The center of Murmansk is tiny and as long as you stay around Lenina Prospekt (Lenin’s Avenue) and the Murmansk Mall, you’ll be fine.

Near our Moscow Airbnb. It’s a pedestrian street lined with restaurants and pubs

– Getting around: To save time, we traveled in a triangle (Saint Petersburg – Murmansk – Moscow) so we didn’t get to travel on Russia’s legendary railway. Instead, we took domestic flights between cities (we booked on, which has cheaper prices and also shows flights with free checked luggage – important, as we couldn’t travel carry-on only during the winter.) Within the cities themselves, we did a combination of walking, taxi, and public transport (I will talk more about this in my Moscow posts.) The Yandex Taxi app is the Uber equivalent of Russia; it’s much cheaper than traditional taxis and easy to use.

– Food: Luckily, food in Russia is relatively cheap. We ate pretty well, with a mix of fast food (mostly Russian fast food, like Teremok, which specializes in blini), sit-down meals, and home-cooked food. Russian restaurants usually have lunch “sets” – combo of soup/starter + main dish + drink – for 300-500RUB, which is a great deal. There are also cafeteria-style restaurants where you pick and pay for the dish you want. Out of all the traditional dishes I tried in Russia, my favorites are vareniki (dumplings), borscht (beet soup), blini, and honey cake. Also, make sure to keep warm with a lot of tea (not vodka!)

A very Russian lunch with borscht and vareniki

Georgian food is also a favorite – like these pork patties with mashed potato

Blini from Teremok

A cafeteria-style meal with a slice of honey cake

Coffee break – hot chocolate and pavlova

– Language: Other than the Metro, you won’t find a lot of English signs in Russia, so it helps to learn the Russian alphabet (I used a pretty fun app called Russian Cyrillic in 3 Hours). Some words may look totally foreign in Russian, but when you sound them out, you can actually recognize them (for example, “ресторан” is pronounced “res-to-ran”, and yes, it means “restaurant”.) English speakers are rare (in fact, we encountered more English speakers in Murmansk than anywhere else!) but Google Translate and body language can take care of it, so we never had any problem with communication.

The sign for Arbatskaya Metro Station

Stay tuned for more detailed posts about each city!

A Night At The Ballet

So here’s my outfit for this week’s SIA, inspired by Degas’s sculpture, “Little 14-Year-Old Dancer.” The outfit itself is pretty self-explanatory – I simply took inspiration from the neutral colors and ballet theme of the sculpture, hence the ballet flats and the skirt (which I think should be called my “ballet skirt” from now on.) However, you may notice that this is not the usual background for my outfit photos. In fact, it is very unusual – it’s the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, Russia!!!

That’s right, I just came back from a 2-week trip in Russia, during which time I had the wonderful opportunity to watch a ballet at the prestigious Mariinsky (I originally wanted to go to the Bolshoi in Moscow, but their schedule didn’t quite line up with my travel plan.) I had to admit, this was the reason I picked this sculpture as the inspiration for SIA, because I knew I’d have the chance to take my outfit photos at the theater itself. I’m still kicking myself for not getting a picture of me in my seat, but I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I barely even remembered to take pictures at all (I snatched these quickly during the intermission.) So here are some pictures from my seat instead – our seats were not the best, but they’re the best we can afford (we were in the 3rd box on the 1st tier, and they cost about $70 each). The ones with a better view of the stage are naturally more expensive.

As for the show, we saw La Bayadère, which, while not as well-known as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, is actually one of the most famous classical ballets in Russia. It’s good that I knew nothing about it beforehand, because that means I could fully enjoy the experience and understand the story from the dances alone – and it’s truly amazing how the ballet manages to tell the story so clearly just with music and dance moves. Of course, this being the Mariinsky, the technique, music, and costumes are all top-notch. And the three leads are perfectly cast too – I’ve seen photos of other productions, and while I have no doubt the other dancers are all experts, their looks are not as well-matched to their characters as the ones I saw (being a filmmaker, I can’t help but notice these things).

(You’re not supposed to take photos during the performance, so all of my photos were during the curtain calls.)

Stay tuned for my travel posts, and don’t forget to come back on Wednesday to see other outfits inspired by this sculpture!