Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Behind the Iron Curtain - Two Days in St. Petersburg, Russia

I never thought I would see the day where we touched upon Russian soil. I can't say that it was ever in the forefront of my mind or desire as a vacation must see. But when we decided to take this cruise, it was one of the primary reasons we chose this itinerary. It's the forbidden, the unknown and well, we were just incredibly curious!!

I had ideas in my head before we got there as to what to expect.  I expected a lot of gray.  I expected things to be a bit dilapidated.  I expected people to seem a bit "haunted" and nervous like they were being watched all the time.  I expected it to feel dreary and a bit forbidden.  I expected to have a feeling of foreboding and anxiety that something might happen while we were there, beyond our control.

I definitely have read too many spy novels and watched a few too many movies because I would say for the most part my preconceived ideas of what to expect where not anything like what I actually saw. If I had to describe our experience in one word, it would be "surprised".  We were surprised at how beautiful it was.  Yes, there were blocks where you could see the gray looking remains of the communist era, but there were also stunningly beautiful areas that were filled with buildings bright with color, gorgeous buildings and flowers everywhere.  It was much greener than we expected as well with trees everywhere and tons of open green space.  Not only that, we were unaware that St. Petersburg is a canal city and is comprised of 44 islands.  There were bridges everywhere and most of them were beautifully designed, not just some boring concrete structure - even a few reminiscent of those we saw in Paris.  There was gold everywhere as well.

Now while it was beautiful, we also understand this is a city with a complex history (previously known as Leningrad) and people who live lives very different than ours.  We also understand that since we were on a tour (required in order for us to get the visa) we were only seeing the good parts of the city as St. Petersburg is a massive area with over 5 million residents.  We didn't get any interaction with people beyond the tour guide so I can't say with any confidence what the people are like but they overall seemed normal.  A preconceived notion of mine that everyone lives in fear despite communism no longer being there.  We saw people sunbathing, walking around with ipods and doing every day normal stuff.  Does this mean that they live like you and me?  I honestly have no idea but it appeared more "normal" than I expected.

We also lucked out with the weather.  And I think the weather can take this city from stunningly beautiful to cold and depressing in a heartbeat, despite the gold and the colorful buildings.  Our tour guide told us that there are only 50 days of sun per year in St. Petersburg.  Can you imagine?  I get depressed after just a few days of rain or snow.  Can you imagine having the majority of your year in gloom?  I can understand where many of my preconceived notions came from based just on that one fact.  We were incredibly fortunate though and managed to secure 2 of those 50 sunny days during our time there and I think it made all the difference in the world.  On a side note, these are some of the palest people I've ever seen, I'm sure as a result of the lack of sunny weather - though their skin was absolutely gorgeous because of lack of sun damage.

However, with these preconceived notions in my head, I am thankful that we were on a tour.  This is not a city I would want to be lost in, especially since very little was in English and we obviously don't read Russian.  I also have these notions in my head about Big Brother constantly watching people (not that they aren't doing that in the US but at least that's home...not that that is necessarily reassuring) there which just made me feel a little uneasy.  Though admittedly there was never any indication that this was the case and we felt perfectly safe in our tour.  However, we were unable to wander from our tour (not that you would usually do so) and even the shopping was pre-planned to a certain location (literally a warehouse that said Souvenirs) so again, our interaction with locals was very limited.  Admittedly, I'm glad we aren't there this week with what I imagine is tension between the US and Russia after the MH17 crash.

Our tour guide was great.  She was very blunt as far as the reality of people there and what life is like for older generations versus younger ones.  For instance, during communist times, everyone was given an apartment by the government.  When communism fell, these apartments were grandfathered to those who already were in them.  However, with new generations, this is not the case and real estate is extremely pricey.

We also learned that as a result of the communist era ending, many at the time were afraid to have children.  There was too much unknown happening, no job security and there was a lot of fear amongst the residents.  And so there is a big gap in the population as a result and so now there are incentives given to have children.  Like a 3 year (yes 3 years not months like in the US) maternity leave - not 100% paid but 50% the first year and then it reduces down during year 2 and 3.  Can you imagine being an employer?  While it must be an incentive to have children, I would figure it would be hard for women of certain age groups to find jobs.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of what we saw, let me backtrack for just a moment.  As I mentioned before, because you need a visa to enter Russia, the only way for us to get off the ship was to have a tour in St. Petersburg.  We had arranged this prior to going on the cruise (the one thing I did plan in advance) and it was the only location where we had to go thru a formal immigration process as we disembarked.  This was probably the most annoying part of our travels, the very early mornings, especially in Russia.  As our tours started at 8 one morning and 7 the other morning, we had to be up no later than 6 since we had to go thru immigration before we could get to our tour group on the other side.  The first morning wasn't as bad as we anticipated but the line was still a good 30-40 minutes of waiting.  Plus we had to make sure we had breakfast before hand as there were no snack stops during the 9 hour tour day - lunch only.

And speaking of lunch, we had one seated lunch and one lunch on the go.  The seated lunch was in a preset location that very obviously is for tour groups only.  They served traditional Russian food like borsht and beef stroganoff, but the environment was very dark (as in lighting) and the service was at a bare minimum.  The food was decent though I wouldn't say spectacular but I guess you can't expect much on a tour like this.  Since it was an all day tour, there was no choice on our end as to where we would eat but it gave us a little sampling of what a typical meal in Russia is like.

Both days were incredibly long, especially for the kids.  They were the only kids on our tour but they did incredibly well and kept up for the very long days.  There was a meltdown or two and they definitely didn't appreciate all that we saw but hopefully this blog will one day be a reminder of how lucky they were to get a peak behind the Iron Curtain and see what life is like now in Russia and to learn a little bit about the history of what it was like during the communist era.  As neither has studied Russia in school yet, they really don't understand what an opportunity this was to see a country that has overall been the forbidden and that not many people have had the opportunity to visit.

Knowing that we saw so much over the 2 days we were in St. Petersburg, this entry is going to be a long one.  So I think my best bet is to break it down into places we visited and a little tidbit about each. Our tour guide threw facts at us left and right.  I wish I could have been better focused on listening to a lot of it as I missed things as the kids kept distracting me (shocker) but what bits I did pick up on were very interesting.  Josh and I often had to divide and conquer with the kids in order to keep things running smoothly but I have to say, it was long days for all of us and the kids overall were superstars - there were moments where I just wanted to scream out "enough already" too!!!

A Little History

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it's also been known as Leningrad and Petrograd.  Considered a young city at only around 300 years old but was actually the capital of Russia until the early 1900s when it was moved to Moscow.  2nd largest city in Russia, around 5 million people live there.

This first grouping of pictures are all kind of random, taken along the course of the two days but not necessarily at the various locations we were stopping at - those I've put with each subgroup... all the pictures can be enlarged if you click on them.

The boys sitting along the Neva River, the main thoroughfare thru St. Petersburg.

Neva River - it actually freezes in the winter and is impassable for several months.

If I recall correctly, these statues were donated by Egypt - there was one on each side where we stood.

The Hermitage Museum / Winter Palace

Not our best family shot, but regardless, it's a necessity to have a picture of us all together in Russia!

A pirate ship???  Nope, it's a GYM!  Yes, a gym!

Peter and Paul Cathedral from a distance

They are everywhere - even in Russia!  But apparently Burger King outsells them 
because BK has beer!

Another shot of Peter and Paul Cathedral

I found it interesting that the police drive Fords.  I was a little paranoid taking this picture and afraid the officer might see me and get upset and then all hell would break loose.  But thankfully all was well.

The Subway
Who would have thought that the subway would be a tourist attraction?  But with one of the deepest subway systems in the world, it is.  Plus it is meticulously cared for and decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles throughout.  It was a bit nerve wracking going down the escalators (don't trip, it's a long steep fall down) and the trains move at incredibly fast speeds - we only went one stop but I think it was traveling at warp speed!  I actually felt more nervous going up the escalators when we exited the subway as they are so steep - I can't imagine trying to balance a stroller or a toddler on these!  There were guard booths at each level as well which was interesting.

Mosaic tiles as we entered the subway

More mosaics - you will see that the Russian's really love their mosaic tile - this is going to be a recurring them in this entry.

Do you know any subways this pretty???

Or this pristine??

Picture in the subway - we're glamorous like that ;)

Subway tokens - everything in this system is automated, down to machines to pay your bills, but they still use tokens.  Apparently the people here have a fondness for them and don't want to replace them.

The name of the station we got on the subway at.

More mosaics

The trains themselves were pretty old considering how new the stations felt, though I guess the system has been around since the 1950s.

This was just one level - there were several we had to go up in order to get to the top.

The Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace)

Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum is made up of several buildings, including the Winter Palace and is located along the Palace Embankment.  It is one of the largest museums in the world and has a collection of more than 3 million items, not all of which are on display at one given time.

Josh and I are not big museum goers.  It's just not our thing.  We like to see art, but not to spend hours in a museum looking at painting after painting - it loses it's appeal.  So I wasn't surprised when the kids were bored because to be honest, so were we!  Don't get me wrong, the things we saw in this museum were beyond stunning, it's just that after a few hours, we're done.  But here are a few things we saw along the way.

While it's obvious, I'll write it too - this is the sign for the entrance to the Hermitage Museum

The entrance area of the museum - jaw dropping gorgeous isn't it??  

Tables with inlaid paintings

While not my style, this is all made of wood - while I may not be an art appreciator, I definitely appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating it.


Reminds me of the Hall of Maps in the Vatican Museum

The floors throughout the museum were intricate and beautiful

Old war armor

Ok, this was kind of creepy - pretty sure these were real horses that had been taxidermied (not sure that is a word but you know what I mean - stuffed!!!)

A painting of someone painting a painting...

The throne room of the original palace

Inlaid wood floors

The throne room

Outside the Hermitage

Another view

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

When we saw this church, all I could think of was the famous photos of Moscow with it's onion domed buildings.  The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood seemed to me to be set off in a slightly obscure location when driving but when we were on the canal tour the following day, it is set beautifully on the edge of the water for all to see.

The Church (as it show now be called as the rest is just a mouthful) was built in honor of Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated in the same location.  Building began in 1883 by Alexander's son, aptly named, Alexander III (keeping track of all the tsar's, kings, queens, etc on this trip was incredibly difficult!).  There is also a shrine located within the Church dedicated to Alexander II.

What we loved the most about this Church, aside from the outside, was the mosaics inside.  The entire church was filled with mosaics.  I do not think there was one inch of space on any wall that did not have a mosaic tile.  It was stunning.  According to my research there are 7500 square meters of mosaics in this Church. That is a lot of tile!!

I'm not sure if this is the front or the back, but both are equally stunning!

This is entirely mosaic

View from the other side

View alongside the canal

Saint Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isacc's Cathedral is the largest Orthodox cathedral in St. Petersburg and is the 4th largest in the world.  This cathedral is the 4th one to stand in this location, with this one being built (or I should say directed to be built) by Tsar Alexander I in the early 1800s.  During the war, the church was used as a museum.  During this time, the dome, normally gold, was painted gray to avoid detection by enemy planes.  After the war the museum was removed, but currently only half of the church is used for services and the other has once again become a museum.  Originally there were paintings inside the cathedral but over time they were not faring well and they were replaced with mosaics. While the mosaics weren't quite as impressive as those at the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, this too was a church full of incredibly detailed mosaics.

View from down the street - the dome is plated with pure gold.

These columns were way more massive than they appear here...

Ceiling before you go inside the Cathedral


There is a dove at the top, hard to see, but it symbolizes the Holy Spirit

Posing with St. Isaac himself...

Peter and Paul Fortress / Cathedral

Aidan had to pee so he and I missed the inside of this one so this one was entirely on Josh to take photos.  The Peter and Paul Fortress was actually the first official building of St. Petersburg, erected in 1703.  While the city had been inhabited before becoming St. Petersburg, when Peter the Great conquered the city in the early 1700s, he built this fortress first.

The fortress and cathedral are actually located on a small island, Zayachy Island, in the Neva River, one of many small islands that make up St. Petersburg.  It is home to the world's tallest bell tower which also makes it the worlds highest orthodox church.  Built in 1712, it is also the oldest landmark in St. Petersburg.  Starting in 1924, it became a museum, suspending services, however, as of 2000, services have recommenced.  As expected by it's name, the cathedral is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul.

What also makes this Cathedral special is that it is where the remains of some of the most famous Russian families are laid to rest.  Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II and his family (all massacred) all have tombs at the Cathedral.

As an interesting side note on this section, since Aidan had to pee, we weren't able to get inside the Cathedral and so had to wait on benches outside the church.  I could see he was getting antsy and saw that there was a kiosk with a coke sign on it so I gave him 10 euros (knowing that they are not on the euro but having been told that many tourist locations will take both the euro and dollar in addition to the ruble) and suggested he go get a snack.  I think we've been living in Barcelona too long and after he had been gone for about 5 minutes I started to panic, wondering what was I thinking sending him off on his own in Russia?????  In the end, he came back with a lollipop, 5 euros and $2 in change.  He said the woman at the kiosk wouldn't stop yelling at the customers - an interesting experience for him for sure!!

Tomb of Peter the Great

The bell tower

To my sigma sisters... 

Tomb of Peter the Great

Tombs of Peter and Catherine the Great

Part of the Peter and Paul Fortress - this helicopter actually took off while Aidan and I were waiting for the others.... and there were parachuters that jumped out!

More of the Cathedral


Getting ready to land

Copter returning...

Canal Tour

Neither Josh nor I were aware when arriving in St. Petersburg that it is actually a canal city and that there are 44 islands that comprise the city.  Like many others, it claims to be the Venice of the North (like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm).  The start of day 2 had us taking an hour long ride along the canals.  I have to say, it was impressive.  As I mentioned before, the bridges were beautifully detailed and reminded me of those in Paris at times.  The waterways were relatively clean for canals - certainly more so than those in Amsterdam or Venice!  And the buildings alongside were a sight to be seen, full of colors and ornate details.

View of Peter and Paul Fortress / Cathedral

Battleship museum... but apparently it's also ready to go into battle if it is needed.

Ornate bridge

Destroyer in front of the naval academy

Cathedral of Spilled Blood in the distance

Yusupov Palace

The name Rasputin was known to me, but I'm not really quite sure why.  I'm sure it's from high school history or something like that.  But regardless, we arrived at the Yusupov Palace and our guide immediately went into why this palace is famous - because it's where Rasputin died.  Apparently he was a bit of what we would call a witch doctor - it's probably more that he was an herbalist but back then they wouldn't have seen it that way.  He was treating the price who had some kind of debilitating disease but again, others didn't see it that way.  He was murdered on the site and his body thrown into the river nearby.

We entered the palace and at first I thought... hmmmm this doesn't feel very palace like.  And then we went into some "hidden" rooms, the rooms where Rasputin was killed.

Some members of the Yusupov family

  Wax figures of Rasputin and I think it was the prince.  Creepy... just creepy... 

Pictures of the crime scene - you can see his dead body in the second one... ugh!

 Hidden tunnels

So I thought once we were done with the hidden rooms and tunnels that we would be done with this tour.  It had seemed like a non descript kind of a place and nothing to write home about (and yet here I am doing just that).  And suddenly we were at a more formal entrance.  Apparently this is the real part of the palace which explains a whole lot more since supposedly the Yusupovs were more wealthy than the tsar and til then, I just wasn't seeing that.  But once we got into the heart of the palace we saw just that.  Wealth.  And extraordinary amount of wealth.  There was even a theater that seated over 100 in this palace!!!!

The palace itself is actually called the Moika Palace (as it's on the Moika River) but is better known as Yusupov for the famous family that lived there.  It was built around the 1770s but was not occupied by the Yusupov family until around 1830.  The Yusupovs were not actually royal but immensely wealthy nobility.  Today it is a government building and used as a public museum and theater.


Ornate ceilings with chandeliers

Happy Aidan

This is the reason we do all of this travel... so when we were in the Hermitage, we saw this tapestry.  Aidan commented on it there.  When we were in the Yusupov Palace he says to me, "we saw this same tapestry in the Hermitage".  Why yes we did... obviously one is a reproduction.  But I was so impressed that he was actually picking up on what we were seeing, observing and processing it all.  Go Aidan!

The beds are incredibly small because most of the men slept sitting up in case they had to rush out of bed for war or something... very odd!

Loved this fireplace!

You walked down a set of stairs and suddenly you were in this very ornate, beautifully detailed theater.  Apparently performances are still done here to this day.

Special seating

Ceiling in the theater

Back of the theater

A room of all wood including the chandelier

Peterhof Palace (Summer Palace)

Peterhof Palace was the summer home of Peter the Great.  It is technically located within the city limits of St. Petersburg but is in fact miles from the city center out into the country.  We actually took a hydrofoil to get there and were on it for a good 30 minutes.  You arrive to Peterhof and are immediately taken in by all of the greenery around you.  St. Petersburg was a much greener city with lots of flowers and trees than we expected but Peterhof took that to another level.  The pictures don't come close to describing it's beauty.

Once again, we found that the Russian's really like their gold.  It's everywhere.  So far everywhere we've been here has had a ridiculous amount of gold - from domes to bell towers to rooms lined with gold leaf - it is in every nobleman or tsars home.  I imagine it is significantly different than those that did not come from nobility.  Of course, we did not see any of that while we were in St. Petersburg.

Often times called the "Russian Versailles", Peterhof was constructed starting in 1714 based on designs by Peter the Great himself.  The palace was a work in progress over the years with various buildings and wings and fountains being built as needed up until the early 19th century.

Behind the boys you can see the sea in the distance.  When we arrived, we were just past the canal and could see the Palace in the far distance - a stunning sight!

Walking through the gardens

Fountains.... and I think this is my all time favorite picture of the boys on the right.

Another water feature

Some of the very ornate gardens

Green everywhere - you weren't allowed to walk on it though, only on designated paths.

View of the palace from just below - this did not include the gardens that you just saw above, you had to continue further away for those.

Shortly after we got off the hydrofoil - you can see the Palace in the distance.

The palace grounds go right up to the edge of the water

Palace in the background

This symbol was for Peter the Great

Cool water feature that Liam jumped through - the bench was actually a sprinkler!

Ahhhh nature!  Aidan was excited to find an acorn.  He's been in the city way too long!

One of the smaller palaces on the grounds

Any time you see a picture of the boys not together it's because they refuse to take one - and insist upon solo photos.  Usually it's Liam doing this... thank god for digital cameras.

Photo bomb - he loves doing this!

Liam's version....

Some of the fountains in front of the palace

Catherine Palace

Our final stop in this whirlwind 2 days in St. Petersburg was at Catherine Palace.  Like Peterhof, this was a summer residence and is located about 10 miles from St. Petersburg in Pushkin.  The Palace was originally built in the early 1700s for Catherine the I as her summer home.  Her daughter, Empress Elizabeth found the palace to be too small and outdated and had it demolished and rebuilt in the mid 1700s to the structure that is there today.  The palace is known for it's gilded gold rooms and the famous Amber room which was hidden during the war behind panels but stolen by the Germans nonetheless.  As a result, there is an amber production facility nearby and the room has been reproduced, better than the original and the Russian's have now become famous for their amber production.

The interior of the palace was mostly destroyed in WWII by the Germans and is still currently undergoing restoration.  It took many years to just remodel the rooms that were gilded in gold and it will take many more to get this palace back to it's original state but so far it looks promising based on what we saw.

Entrance to the palace grounds

End of day meltdown - can't say I blame them, it was a LONG day

Exterior of the palace

We all had to wear booties to protect the ornate inlaid wood floors

Gorgeous floors - weren't in every room but were in many of them

Look at all this gold leaf!

And the ceiling

The blue structures are heaters

I think they said it took 30 years to remodel this room after WWII

So in the end, St. Petersburg was way more than we expected.  I want to say we were pleasantly surprised but I think it goes beyond that.  It was more beautiful and more ornate than we could ever have expected.  It was much greener than we thought it would be too.  Yes, we saw cold gray structures in the distance that are obviously remnants of the Communist era, and we recognize that we saw the best of the best the city has to offer, but isn't that what any city tour would do?

Up next.... Helsinki!


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