“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an Enigma.”
My Wanderlust took me to the country this time which was once known as the fatherland for my better half who was then serving the Indian Navy and had made a trip to the Fatherland the erstwhile Soviet Union or USSR in 1985.It was a well known secret that all our defence needs were met by the Russians and we were close to the Socialist Bloc than the Capitalist Bloc.The World was divided into two blocs as an aftermath of the Second World War.Newly married I was separated but was happy when he returned with sturdy Russian goods some of the utensils I am still using. 🙂 I had heard about the beautiful Metro and the Majestic Kremlin and Red Square.The desire to see this majestic country was very strong so when a friend inquired if I am interested, I grabbed the opportunity and booked ourselves with Veena World.
I was visiting the country long after the Soviet Union collapsed on 26th December 1991.The eighth and final President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and handed over power to Boris Yelstin.”Glasnost” & “Perestroika” was brought about by President Gorbachev to reform the existing policies of the Soviet Union.
Perestroika refers to the reconstruction of the political and economic system established by the Communist Party. The term “Glasnost” means “openness” and was the name for the social and political reforms to bestow more rights and freedoms upon the Soviet people. Glasnost and Perestroika eventually helped cause the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which had lasted from 1945 to 1991.The change from a closed to an open economy was difficult and the Russian economy was in bad shape.The Russian people struggled a lot and slowly the economy picked up.
Finally the D-Day arrived we had packed and prepared ourselves for the cold weather.My better half had taken the legendary Aerofloat direct flight to Moscow.However we were not so lucky as Veena World had booked us in Air Arabia.Our Flight was at 0455 and we had to change our flight at Sharjah.Veena world’s reporting time was 1 am as they wanted to hand over some goodies.I picked up my friend at 12 am and we were soon on our way to the Airport.
We reached well in time after picking up the goodies, from the Airport Representative of Veena World and also meeting the Tour Manager Nilesh.We checked in, followed by immigration and security.We were soon at our gate and met the other members of the group.Time passed quickly as we(My friend and Myself)chatted with each other.
We got seats together till Sharjah we slept for sometime and we chatted for sometime We landed at Sharjah at 0620 hrs.(duration 3 hrs) Our connecting flight was at 0920 so we freshened up at the airport and had our morning cuppa.We boarded the flight for Moscow this time both of us got window seats and we slept the entire duration of 5 hours.We landed at 1320 hrs local time at Domodedova Moscow Airport.
Total flying time was eight hours and a three hour lay over at Sharjah. We are two and half hours ahead of Moscow.
Our Local guide Michael was waiting and after buying the local sim card for 1000 roubles(which turned out to be a waste later) we proceeded to the bus.Chilling winds greeted us as we walked out of the comfort of the airport.We were delighted to find that we had fixed allotted seats in the bus through out the trip, allotted according to the booking date of the trip.This is a very good arrangement by Veena World as one does not have to worry about the seat in the bus and hence not rush early to catch a seat in the bus.I would request all travel companies to apply this rule.Our seats were comfortable 17 & 18 in the middle of the bus. After securing our luggage(no porters)in the bus, we made ourselves comfortable in the bus.We thereafter proceeded to Leningradsky railway station to board the Sapsan Bullet train to St Petersburg.Our train no was 775 and the coach no was 4.
It is the fastest train and takes 4 hours to cover 634 kms and costs about €80 for a 2nd-class one way ticket.The train departed at sharp 5.30 pm as scheduled.The experience of traveling in the train was very fascinating,the dining car has ample seating arrangements.One can choose snacks and beverages from the menu card.One has to shell out 200 roubles for a cappuccino.
As the train sped past I admired the Russian countryside which was not as green as the European countryside but we enjoyed the various colours of the fall and also the quaint houses.
We reached our destination at 9.20 pm and met Anna our guide for St Petersburg,We went straight to have dinner at an Indian restaurant named ”Tandoor”.
After dinner it was time to head to Hotel Holiday Inn our home for the next two days.All of us got rooms on the seventh floor.It was 11 pm by the time we settled in our room. I found this Holiday Inn better than the one in Cape Town.After a quick shower it was time to crash into the bed.
St. Petersburg is a Russian port city on the Baltic Sea. It was the imperial capital for 2 centuries, having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, subject of the city’s iconic “Bronze Horseman” statue. It remains Russia’s cultural center, with venues such as the Mariinsky Theatre hosting opera and ballet, and the State Russian Museum showcasing Russian art, from Orthodox icon paintings to Kandinsky works.The main street in St Petersburg is the Nevsky Prospekt.This stunning 2.5 mile avenue is adorned with Russian history.Beautiful buildings,breath taking bridges,the Palace square, the Winter Palace and the Kazan Cathedral.
The first day was spent in traveling so the sight seeing started from the second day thankfully it was not a very early start as we got up quite late refreshed from the long journey.Our starting time was 9.30 am.We had a leisurely breakfast from the large spread out(I always enjoy the continental breakfasts).We eventually started at 0945 and reached at 11 am to see the Hermitage Museum.
On the way we stopped for currency exchange, I was prudent to carry only roubles to save myself from the hassles of exchanging currency.Before getting down from the bus, Anna distributed the tour talk transmitters and ear phones.We tested the equipment and found it very comfortable.We didn’t have to chase the guide as we could comfortably hear her explaining the various arts and artefacts of the museum.We were particularly delighted to see the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the sculpture by Michelangelo.The two popular paintings by da vinci are the Madonna Litta and the other is the Benois Madonna.The Crouching Boy Sculpture is the only work by Michaelangelo in the Hermitage Museum.The return of the Prodigal son by Rembrandt.The Conestible Madonna by Raphael,The Death of Adonis by Mazzuola Giuseppe.(The young boy killed while hunting a wild boar) are some of the famous exhibits in the Museum.
About Hermitage Museum The collection of the State Hermitage includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture
Exhibits at Hermitage Museum
The State Hermitage Museum is one of the largest artistic and cultural and historical museums in Russia and one of the largest in the world.The museum starts its history from collections of works of art which were gained by Russian empress Catherine II in private capacity.The Hermitage is also known as the Winter Palace.
The main expositions of the State Hermitage are placed in the Main Museum Complex, which is situated in the historical centre of Saint Petersburg. It is represented by the Winter Palace, which is a former emperor’s residence, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage, and also Hermitage Theatre.
In the Main Museum Complex of the State Hermitage are the monuments of culture and arts of the ancient world, Europe, Russia, the East, archaeological and numismatic collections. In the Hermitage collection there are two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and a sculpture by Michelangelo, which can be found nowhere else in Russia, as well as the largest collection of Rembrandt’s paintings outside Netherlands.
We left the Hermitage Museum at 12.45 pm after spending about an hour and half we made our way to our next destination the famed Peter and Paul Fortress.
The Peter and Paul Fortress is named after apostles Peter & Paul.The Complex consists of the main Cathedral, a multi tiered belfry 122.5 m high with a gilded spire crowned with a rotating angel weather vane.It serves as the lightening rod for the cathedral.The spire is visible from quite far away locations of the city.There are also the Imperial rooms,,Commandant’s House, Trubetsky Bastion Prison, Neva Panorama and Foundation Stone,Secret Passage and Casemate of Gosudarev Bastion, Neva Curtain Wall,The Mint, Ioannovsky Ravelin,Statue of Peter the Great, Engineering House, Sun Dial and 12 Chairs and The Beach are some of the iconic structures inside the Fortress.The first structure was built by Peter the Great in St. Petersburg he chose the small Hare Island.It never served its intended defensive function. Instead it has had a rich, hugely varied, and sometimes sinister history as a military base, a home of government departments, the burial ground of the Russian Imperial family, the site of groundbreaking scientific experiments, and a forbidding jail that held some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners.
The Russian Imperial Romanov Family was clubbed and shot to death and the bodies were buried in an undisclosed forest, discussion regarding the fate of the family was suppressed by Stalin and the burial site was discovered in 1979 but the remains were not made public before 1989 during the glasnost period, the identity of the remains were confirmed by forensic experts and DNA investigations and they were then reburied in the Peter & Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg in 1998, 80 years after they were killed.The funeral was not attended by the key members of the Russian Orthodox Church who disputed the authenticity of the remains. At present the remains of 50 people are buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, including 46 members of the Romanov dynasty.The Romonav dynasty ruled from 1703-1917.
We toured the Peter and Paul Cathedral, Anna gave us a glimpse of the history of the place.This is the burial place of all Russian emperors from Peter the Great to Nicholas the II We saw the tombs of the imperial family and were impressed by the grand interior, the beautiful ceilings and chandeliers,the symbol of the Russian Military and the flags of the Red Army on the Wall.
We also had a glimpse of the tombs in identical marble caskets.It was as impressive from inside as it was from outside. The interior of the cathedral reminds one of the inside of a palace and is completely authentic and pristinely preserved. Inside you will find antique paintings and icons, carved iconoclasts in the form of a triumphal arc and an altar canopy, in front of which is situated a magnificent gilded chair adorned with two statues of the apostles Peter and Paul.
The royal seat is carved and decorated with gold and crimson velvet. Several of the valuables of the Cathedral were lost after the revolution of 1917.Besides the cathedral we did not have time to visit the other places in the fortress.Outside we found Russian Soldiers visiting the fortress and took some quick photos of the group and also of the Russian tanks opposite the fortress placed in front of the Naryshkin Bastion.Everyday a cannon fires from here at 12 noon
We spent about half an hour which I feel was not sufficient time.We proceeded at 1330 hrs to have lunch at an Indian restaurant Namaste
After Lunch we there after proceeded to St Issac’s Cathedral. On the way we passed Field of Mars a war memorial for the revolutionaries of the february revolution of 1917 and also of the soldiers who lost their lives during world war II against Germany. St Issac’s Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral.It is dedicated to St Issac of Dalmatia,a patron saint of Peter the Great.The dome of St Isaac’s has dominated in St. Petersburg’s skyline for 150 years. Its elaborate mosaics make it one of the most impressive cathedrals in Russia.
The cathedral’s facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns (made of single pieces of green granite), while the interior is adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli.
Inside the Cathedral
A large, brightly colored stained glass window of the “Resurrected Christ” takes pride of place inside the main altar. The church, designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers, was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Today, church services are held here only on major ecclesiastical occasions.
We were enamoured by the grandiose interiors of the cathedral.The green granite columns were very impressive.We spent about an hour in the Cathedral and thereafter we proceeded to a nearby mall for shopping.Most of the people picked up Beluga Russian Vodka which is the best brand as told by Anna our guide Some of us also bought the famous Russian wooden dolls.After shopping we enjoyed a cup of coffee/tea which was on the house.It was 6.30 pm by the time we left the mall, for another round of Masala Chai at Namaste restaurant.After the refreshing tea we waked to the Rostral Columns
The two Rostral Columns were built on the Vasilyevsky island in 1805-1810. They were installed as two beacons indicating two channels.The large bowls at the top of the columns were originally designed to hold hemp oil for burning. Later electric lamps were installed as beacons but this soon became too expensive. In 1957, the columns were connected to gas supply and only lit up on holidays.After taking many photographs we proceeded to the legendary Aurora. Aurora is a 1900 Russian protected cruiser, currently preserved as a museum ship in Saint Petersburg. Aurora was one of three Pallada-class cruisers, built in Saint Petersburg for service in the Pacific. All three ships of this class served during the Russo-Japanese War.
The ship became a cadet training ship for some years later the ship was turned into a Museum maintained by nearby Navy School.Admission is free to the public.The Ship is also famous for firing the first shot that signaled the attack on the Winter Palace.After taking photographs of the legendary ship it was time now for the most awaited event the world famous Russian Ballet.
We reached the Hermitage Theatre at 7 pm the show was to start at 8 pm after sampling some tasty rather expensive snacks we got seated for the show.“The Swan Lake” is a magnificent Ballet performed by the Russian Ballet dancers.The show was at the Aurora hall.
There are three Acts.The story of the ballet is – a prince and his friends are celebrating his coming of age when they see a flight of white swans.At a lake in the depths of the forest white swans are swimming they are actually beautiful maidens turned into swans by the wicked magician.They can only assume human form at night, no power can change them except the power of devoted love.The prince raises his bow to shoot the swan but the swan turns into a beautiful maiden, this is the queen of the swan maidens Odette.The prince falls in love but Odette is scared of the magician and looses herself in the dance with the other maidens, soon dawn breaks and they all turn into swans.In the second Act the Queen organises a ball in which the prince has to choose his bride the magician brings his daughter who resembles Odette the prince is about to ask her hand in marriage when he sees a vision of Odette standing on a window, he realises he has been tricked.In the third Act the prince rushes and apologises to Odette by then the magician also comes the prince grapples with the magician and in the tussle his wing breaks, his power is gone and he dies.So love triumphs and that is how all the maidens are rescued.We were enthralled by the beautiful performances of the Russian artistes. Photographs were not allowed during the show.The show ended at 10 pm thereafter we proceeded for dinner at Tandoor an Indian restaurant.We reached the hotel at 11 pm, after a very eventful day and we were looking forward to our third day in St Petersburg.
After a scrumptious breakfast we started at 10 am to Pushkin it took us about 40 minutes to reach Pushkin
Pushkin is a Russian town south of St. Petersburg. It’s famed for the Tsarskoye Selo complex of parks and palaces, once home to the Romanov imperial family. The Baroque-style Catherine Palace, contains ornate staterooms and stands within the landscaped gardens of Catherine Park.Pushkin has the Alexander Park, featuring decorative bridges and a cemetery for royal horses, is home also to colonnaded, 18th-century Alexander Palace.Population of Pushkin is about a lakh.The Catherine Palace is also known as the Summer palace
The attraction in Pushkin is the Catherine Palace the entry ticket is 900 roubles.The timings of the palace differs in Winters and Summers and it is closed on Tuesdays.
Catherine Palace is often mistakenly called Catherine the Great Palace.The true name comes from Catherine I, who had originally received a small 2-storey palace as a gift from her spouse Peter the Great. It later became a grand baroque summer palace and one of the descendant owners was Catherine the Great (Empress Catherine II) who turned the palace into the most grandiose summer residence in St. Petersburg and all of Russia. It is a remarkable edifice in the Russian Baroque style, with richly decorated interiors including the world-famous Amber Room, which was restored by the Tercentenary of St. Petersburg in 2003.
The jewel of the palace is the Amber Room, rightly called a wonder of the world.The Amber room is totally decorated with Amber mined locally.During second world it was stolen by the Nazis but it never reached Germany got lost on the way ! It is now restored to its previous grandeur.
The Exhibits inside the Catherine Palace
We were inside the palace at 11 am wherein we met another local guide who was the guide for this palace.Her commentary helped us to understand the history of the Palace.
Every corner of the palace spelt opulence and grandeur, to the paintings on the walls to the ceilings, the beautiful marble chimneys and the chandeliers.The Palace has extensive manicured gardens.
The Beautiful handle of a Door and the Marble Chimney
We spent about 2 hours and were out of the palace at 1.15 pm.We had lunch at Tandoor an Indian restaurant.We either ate at Namaste or Tandoor the two famous Indian restaurants in St Petersburg.
We finished lunch by 3.15 pm and then proceeded for a city tour.Our first stop was the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.The Church is under restoration so we took some photographs from outside.It was very cold the temperature must have been around a degree.
The Church of the Resurrection, also known as the “Savior on Spilled Blood”, was built in memory of Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881. The church stands in the very place where a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a young man who opposed the Tsar’s reforms. The Cathedral of the Savior on Spilled Blood attracts people for its five onion-domes exuberantly decorated and covered in jeweler’s enamel. It has a similar façade to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Its peculiar multicolored exterior makes it stand out from St. Petersburg’s typically strict architectural proportions and color combinations.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood took 24 years to construct and, after early Soviet vandalism took 27 years to restore. The highlight of both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral are its mosaic collection based on the paintings of Vasnetsov, Nesterol, and Vrubel. With a total area of 23130 square feet, it is one of the largest mosaic collections in Europe.
The Cathedral is decorated with Italian limestone and various semiprecious stones like jasper, mountain crystal, topaz, and others.On the outside, there are twenty granite plates which tell the most important events of Alexander II’s reign.
Across the road is a beautiful Church, we ran quickly to have a closer look.It was the Museum of Stone, we took a quick look of the museum at only 100 roubles(the entry ticket) and saw some beautiful pieces of art.
At about 4.30 pm we proceeded to the Statue of Peter the Great.The Bronze Horseman – an impressive monument to the founder of St Petersburg, Peter the Great – is one of St Petersburg’s most famous monuments. Standing on Senatskaia Ploshchad (Senate Square), it faces the Neva River and is surrounded by the Admiralty, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the buildings of the former Senate and Synod (the civil and religious bodies that governed pre-revolutionary Russia).The monument was built by order of Empress Catherine the Great as a tribute to her famous predecessor, Peter the Great. She ordered that an inscription be placed on the monument that reads in both Latin and Russian: Petro Primo Catharina Secunda (To Peter the First from Catherine the Second).This equestrian statue of Peter the Great, created by the famous French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, depicts Peter the Great as a Roman hero.
The pedestal is made of a single piece of red granite carved into the shape of a cliff. From the top of this ‘cliff’, Peter gallantly leads Russia forward, while his horse steps on a snake, which is believed to represent the enemies of Peter and his people.After clicking some pictures we rushed to the bus to escape the chilly weather.At about 5 pm we proceeded for a cruise on the river Neva.We knew its going to be very cold during the cruise so we covered ourselves accordingly.We sat on the upper deck (braving the cold) which gave a fantastic view.
Photographs with jumps and the classic titanic pose were also clicked.The amazing cruise gives a totally different perspective of the city.As we glided along the river we passed under 6 of the 300 bridges of the city.We admired the 18th century palaces,cathedrals and churches the most prominent one being the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
There are many architectural landmarks along the banks of the river. Affectionately known as the Venice of the North, the city rivals Venice and Paris in its romantic atmosphere.We took some spectacular shots of the sunset and the shimmering and glittering buildings.
We had a unique experience while cruising, a young boy ran to every bridge we crossed and waved us from the bridge.He was well versed about the route the boat would take and also the time to reach each bridge he did not miss a single bridge there was a lot of excitement in the boat, to see if he would reach the next bridge in time and he did not disappoint us, he was there at every bridge to wave at us.The cruise was a very pleasurable experience in spite of the chilly weather and I would recommend everyone to take the cruise.It was an hour long cruise, after the cruise we found the boy waiting for us, his name is Alexander and we all collected some money and gave it to him which he happily accepted.
A Russian folklore Show was a perfect end to our exciting day at St Petersburg.We had tickets for the show named “Feel Yourself Russian” at the Nikolayevsky Palace.The Palace is a fine specimen of the architecture of the 19th century built for emperor Nikolay’s first son Grand Duke Nikolay.The show is divided into 3 sections.The show offers an illuminating look at Russia’s past as well as contemporary allure.The show begins with melodious Russian melodies performed by a quartet who specialize in songs of longing,romance and heartbreak.Then tap a foot to the beat as a Cossack dance troupe performs traditional strains that date back to the 14th century in Ukraine. In the intermission we enjoyed canapés with caviar,salmon ,local cheese and to wash it all down with delicious champagne,vodka or soft drinks.We downed four glasses of champagne.Two before the show and two during intermission 🙂 The delicious pink champagne was so delicious that I clicked the picture of the bottle named Lumiere and searched it in almost all the 24 hour shops near our hotel but couldn’t get one.
In the final act we saw performances by artists from Northern Russia. Giggle when a Siberian group tickles your funny bones with their humorous acts.Then watch entertainers dance, twirl and leap their way across the stage in a dazzling acrobatic display.The show started at 7 pm and lasted for two hours with a 20 minute break.Photographs were not allowed during the show.We ended our day with dinner at Namaste and reached the hotel at 11 pm, next day we were traveling to Moscow by the Sapsan Bullet Train.
“St Petersburg is a gem of World Culture and Russia’s most European city.”
To be Continued……………..
Read about the majestic city Moscow in the concluding part of the article.