Saturday, 2 July 2011

Russia - 2011/06

After postponing it for years finally we got our act together, applied for the Russian visa and headed to Russia with busy schedule - 3 days in St Petersburg and 2 days in Moscow. Timing wasn't perfect as we had to move 4 days after our return but we were desperate not to miss the white nights and left for Russia.
Writing this post is long overdue which made it very hard. I need to learn the lesson and try to do it straight away.

St Petersburg had few names in the past, in 1914 it was Petrograd, then in 1921 called Leningrad and in 1991 back to St Petersburg. It was set up in the beginning of XVIII century by Tsar Peter the Great on the swamps on the banks of river Neva . Today with population of 4.6M it is 2nd largest city in Russia with lots of channels and architecture heavily influence by Italian architects.

Pushkin known previously as Tsarscoe Selo is impressive residence in baroque style designed by Rastrelli for Empress Elisabeth and Catherine the Great. It demonstrates the extravaganza and richness of the Romanow tsars.It has been destroyed during the war but today it is impressively restored.

The most famous room in Tsarscoe Selo is amber chamber - decorated by amber panel gift from the king of Prusia, which have been stolen by Germans during the war and exhibited in the castle in Germany. The mystery of the amber room is still unsolved - some believe they are buried in the ruins of the German castle other believe they survived and are hidden away. In 2004 after long restoration process sponsored mainly by Germany new amber room has been open to public again.

Interiors of the palace are as spectacular inside as outside. Rooms are heavily decorated with golden ornaments and mirrors, it is a perfect remembrance of what the life was like for Romanov.

All the doors across are in one line so the grand of the rooms could be seen

Grand Hall is impressive, it occupies entire width of the palace with the view over the gardens

Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland on Baltic Sea is knows as "Fontaines" or "Russian Versailles". The palace garden is decorated with over 100 fountains fed by underground springs - the most impressive is the Grand Cascade with Samson Fountain placed in the pool. It depicts the moment when tears open the jaws of a lion, representing Russia's victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, and is doubly symbolic. The lion is an element of the Swedish coat of arms, and one of the great victories of the war was won on St Samson's Day. From the lion's mouth shoots a 20-metre-high vertical jet of water, the highest in all of Peterhof.

Interestingly, the fountains don't use pump. Water is supplied from natural springs and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens. The elevation difference creates the pressure that drives most of the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade. The Samson Fountain is supplied by a special aqueduct, over four km in length, drawing water and pressure from a high-elevation source.

When the Germans invaded during WWII, everything in the palace was removed and the fountains were buried to prevent the Germans from finding or taking them. Although the palace was heavily damaged in the war, the majority of items in the palace are original.
Hitler decided that he would celebrate New Year's eve at Peterhof when he realized that he wasn't going to be able to celebrate victory at the Astoria hotel in St. Petersburg. He went so far as to draw up invitations. Stalin responded to this by heavily bombing the area and successfully prevented Hitler from holding his party there.


White Nights are not unique to St Petersburg but are probably best publicised. At the end of June and beginning of July the sunsets are very late, sunrises are early and darkness is never complete and the twilight last entire night.

Neva bank with Hermitage in the background at midnight

Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been opened to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise nearly 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
It occupies 6 big building, out of which Winter Palace is the best known.

In front of the Hermitage (Winter Palace) at midnight

one of the halls in the Hermitage

In terms of the restaurants we struggled a bit (we usually are so no surprises). There seem to be a lot sushi i pizza places, not so many are serving traditional Russian food (except bars). Definitely the best time we had in restaurant called Idiot - not sure if this is called after Dostoevsky novel.
"Idiot" factor effected us straight away when we asked waiters whether she spoke Russian (meant to say English). She started laughing and said the she knew Russian very well.

The most impressive church in St Petersburg without any doubt is The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. This marvelous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. After assuming power in 1855 in the wake of Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean war against Britain, France and Turkey, Alexander II initiated a number of reforms, he freed the Russian serfs (peasants, who were almost enslaved to their owners) from their ties to their masters and undertook a rigorous program of military, judicial and urban reforms, never before attempted in Russia. However, during the second half of his reign Alexander II grew wary of the dangers of his system of reforms, having only barely survived a series of attempts on his life, including an explosion in the Winter Palace and the derailment of a train. Alexander II was finally assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage.

After taking overnight train, Moscow greeted us with rain and refusal to early check in (doesn't happen very often). Determined not to be upset we headed to see Kremlin.

On the main square in Kremlin there were graduation festivities, which were extra attraction.

There are still long lines to Lenin mausoleum today. Despite his will and family wishes Lenin to be buried in St Petersburg behind his mum, his body remains in mausoleum since 1924. For 8 years (1953 to 1961) he shared the tomb with Stalin until during the party congress one of the activist announced that Lenin appeared to her insisting that Lennin didn't like spending time with Stalin so Stalin was moved to the grave behind the mausoleum (there was lots of red carnations on his grave).

On Sunday we saw the procession of the older people heading with Lenin photo and flowers towards the mausoleum to pay their respect.

Nothing can prepare you for seeing St Basil Cathedral at night - the shapes and colours are like taken from Disneyland cartoons.

Red Square at night

We found the Russia expensive but I guess this was to be expected as we only visited the most known, touristy places. Surprisingly we still remembered some Russian we learned at school which made our trip more satisfactory.

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