OK after being absent for quite some time and have had some health issues, after having uncompleted text on my hard disc for months and with a little pushing from my friends it’s a high time to sit and finally finish part 3 (the last one) of my Northern Adventures.
(in this post there are 29 small photos and they are clickable for enlargement. If you don’t see (and want to) all 29, refresh the page)
I should say that St Petersburg is a place I was dreaming to visit for ages and to be honest I didn’t expect I’ll have a chance for this any time soon. Naturally when that chance appeared I just couldn’t miss it. Therefore St Petersburg supposed to be the pearl of this voyage.
Everyone who has read Dostoyevsky (and I presume that readers of this blog have read at least few of his books) have one image of St Petersburg and I was truly hope I’d have a chance to see the other ones. After having mostly fantastic weather in Finland (something that quite surprised Finns as well) my hopes were quite high that it will be the same case in Russia. However weathercast wasn’t promising whatsoever: first day – rain; second day – heavy rain; third day – heavy rain. I was on hot line with my friend in Belgrade who were informing me everyday of the trip if there’ll be some changes. The answer has been always the same. I do love rain indeed but you REALLY don’t wish rain in place you are dreaming about for so many years.
When we crossed Russian border and enter in Leningradska Oblast (!) it was early in the morning, morning where sun was struggling with clouds so I thought “OK, hope dies last” and while we were approaching to St Petersburg through kind of spooky Karelia the weather was moving from bad toward worse until finally it didn’t appear in all his beauty that Dostoyevsky wrote about. I couldn’t believe; I’m finally here and it’s raining and everything is gray. In the distance we could see church towers trying to break grayness with their bright domes (not very successful I’m afraid). In the end I decided I’m not allowing rain to spoil my dream!
After arriving in hostel we had to make a plan very fast. Spend only 3 days in St Petersburg is a sin but it was take it or leave it. We selected as a main destinations of each day Pushkin, Peterhof and The Hermitage. So we decided to go first in Pushkin. It was mostly cloudy so we thought to leave day with heavy rain for museum. Majority of my fellow travelers have noticed how my friend and I are organized so they decided to do whatever we do. In one moment we noticed one huge group of familiar faces are expecting from us to show them direction. I must say I wasn’t too happy with that. I mean I do have one “rule” on the trips which is going alone or with someone who has the same interest as I do. After not too long we heard “Wait for us! Can you slow down?” grrr! But we finally filled some kind of small bus. I didn’t pay the ticket at all, actually I didn’t have a ticket. Chauffeur was selling the tickets on the entrance of the mini bus and since we were big group with members who just had to put their butts on the seat (as if 8000km of sitting is not enough) he took some amount of rubles (without giving any ticket I believe but I’m not sure), closed the door and start the engine. Those mini buses are actually kind of cool stuff cause it’s much easier for maneuvering through the big city. However, finding right stop is small adventure. It seems there is one area where the stops are and you just have to find right line. I did have a guide where I checked for the number of the lines but the situation on the ground was quite different. Namely there were much more busses we could use than what guide listed. Curious thing was that the ticket price varied while all buses looked almost the same *shrug*
Anyhow we didn’t have time to experiment so we entered in the first mini bus with the note Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo.
First day: Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo
The original estate at Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) was a gift from Peter I to his wife Catherine in 1710, and from around 1725 she started to spend more time here. It was under Empress Elizabeth and Catharine the Great that the place began to take shape being expanded and aggrandized.
The centerpiece is the vast 1752 to 1756 baroque Yekaterininsky Dvorets (Catherine Palace), designed by her favourite architect Rastrelli. It gradually became the favourite country estate of the royal family. In 1837 Russia’s first railway line was built between St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo to shuttle the imperial family back and forth.
When you enter the complex you’re finding yourself in a magic park full of sculptures and lovely small buildings in which you can see exhibitions, concerts and that kind of events. The magnificent parks and gardens of Tsarskoe Selo were created out of dense forest by thousands of soldiers and labourers. The park’s outer section focuses on the Great Pond. During summer it is possible o take a ferry to the little island where is Chesma Column that commemorates the Russian victory over the Turks in the Aegean.
And then suddenly you’re finding yourself absolutely speechless before lavish imperial palace. I knew it’s beautiful and saw many photos but standing there was just as if I’m dreaming…
Oh and awaking was quite abruptly: the line to enter was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen! Even thought to stand there and wait, quite possibly for hours was terrifying so *blush* I didn’t. I took my friend and just stand some 50m from the entrance (behind us there was a line of hundreds of meters). However after 15-20min we noticed that nothing was happening; no one was entering in the palace and no one is exiting. I still don’t understand what was happening but apparently organized groups were entering without problems while others were waiting for Godot. OK I tried to enter saying that I saw my friend from the groups enters the palace (which was not complete lie; she was going in exchange office) but a KGB-looking man asked me about my guide’s name. I’m an idiot! Why I didn’t say Elena? (there MUST be some Elena who works as a guide) I said “I don’t know her name” and got the answer “In the line!”. I tried to explain but all he was saying was “In the line!” (generally speaking I’m stunned how many people don’t speak any foreign language. Here even grannies know some (very rudimental but still) English) so I was in the line. At least scenery was breathtaking, that grayness has started to disappear so we all hoped that weathercast will be wrong!
Eventually line started to move and then inside it was absolute chaos with buying tickets, again standing in line, groups with guides have had priority (just like outside) etc. I don’t know, but there must be some better solution than “In the line!”. Anyway we managed to pass all barriers and entered into another world. The palace was indescribable. After third or fourth room you’re starting to feel dizziness with all that light, gold, luxury. Interesting thing is that rooms actually have been beautifully restored (!). Palace has been devastated by the Germans and there are photos showing rooms (and the exterior of the palace) prior and after the Germans. It was almost completely destroyed!. There are numerous (but really numerous) rooms with all sorts of themes and colours but The Amber Room was something really special. Room is completely covered with gilded woodcarvings, mirrors, agate and jasper mosaics. The exquisitely engraved amber panels were gifts from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. But these treasures were plundered by the Nazis and went missing in Kaliningrad in 1945, becoming one of the art world’s great mysteries. In 2004 the strange hoax was revealed: the Amber Room was destroyed in a fire in Kaliningrad while under Red Army actions. Those responsible for the loss were so terrified of Stalin’s reaction that an elaborate myth was created of its disappearance. In 2004 president Putin and German Chancellor Schröder presided over the opening of a new Amber Room, restored largely with German funds.
Oh the curious thing was that there were lack of organized groups which spoken English. Majority were in Russian and then there were several in Spanish (evil grin). Naturally I joined one and silently translating to my friend what guide were saying. Guide was so sweet, Of course she noticed I’m not from her group but she didn’t mind. I had some question as well and she was quite happy to answer them. Moreover when they were moving into other building she mimicked me “Are you going?”. And then one (big) lady from the group who, I can bet wasn’t that interested in the story guide was telling, approached me and told me how she can’t listen properly because I’m in between her and guide. I started to laugh “What, my presence is so deafening?” She wasn’t pleased with my answer. Of course I remained with her group and she started to pointing my presence to others in the group but they didn’t find that annoying whatsoever. I wonder how would she react if she knew I’m not even Spanish (because my Spanish professor (who is Spanish herself) said that I looked completely as her compatriots)?
Second day: Peterhof
This most stunning of the tsarist palaces around St. Petersburg was first built by peter the Great (and it is also known as Peter’s Palace). Over the years his successors continued to build and expand to create the astounding ensemble seen today. It all started after the victory over Swedes at Poltava in 1709 when Peter decided to build a palace “befitting to the very highest of monarchs”. After his visit to Versailles Peter expanded his ambitions and employed more than 5000 labourers, serfs and soldiers, supported by architects, water-engineers, landscape gardeners and sculptors. Work proceeded at a frenetic pace until Peterhof was officially opened in 1723.
Indeed Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg for visitors. And that has its price, sometimes quite huge and I’m not talking about money but about nerves! Namely again we faced with “In the line” (it seems that’s the most used phrase in English) so we were obedient (sheep) and after a while we noticed that there are two lines: one to buy a ticket (some 300m long) and equally long line for entering the palace after (!) you buy the ticket. It was unbelievable. So my friend and I decided to split roles: I’ll wait in line to buy ticket and she’ll be in line to enter the palace and after I buy the tickets I’ll join her. And so we were standing in unmovable lines for ages. Eventually when I reached the girl who sells the tickets she spoke with her lovely voice: “No ticket!”; “No ticket!!! What on earth that suppose to mean?” and she explained: “Now only Russian people”. “I’m Serbian! It’s the same! Serbs-Russians-Brothers!” It was pointless. Oh, she can’t be serious!!! But she was! She was painfully serious! Apparently we were late some 30 min to catch time that allows us, non-Russians to get inside and therefore we had to wait some 90 minutes. The catch is maybe there are some note about that but ALL bloody notes were in Russian!!! So what’s the point inform in Russian people who are not Russians and therefore probably don’t speak Russian that they have special term to enter the palace! Gosh I was furious! We lost almost an hour waiting in the line to find out that we have to come in about 2 hours!
Oh well we used those 2 hours in best possible way. We were marveling Peterhof’s park and fountains. I’ve never been in Versailles so I can’t compare but Peterhof left me speechless. Of course the most impressive is magnificent Grand Cascade, a symphony of over 140 fountains engineered by Peter himself. The central statue of Samson tearing open a lion’s jaws celebrates (as so many things in St. Petersburg do) Peter’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava. Shooting up over 60m it was unveiled for the 25th anniversary of the battle. From the Grand Cascade goes a canal, Water Avenue crisscrossed by bridges and bedecked by smaller sprays, leading from the palace (Grand Cascade is in the front of the palace) to the ferry dock in the Baltic.
The grounds at Peterhof include Upper, Lower and Alexandria parks, covering vast area of more than 600 hectares. As well as the numerous palaces and fountains there are three-lined avenues, wooded paths and the Baltic shore. The grounds next to the Great palace have been designed to be laid out in the French style with geometrically arranged flower beds, sculptures, summerhouses and pergolas. As I said fountains are just amazing and countless, there are so many that you really have to think hard not to repeat a wish if you wanna make one with each fountain! Beside magical Grand Cascade there is an imaginative variety mostly concentrated in the Lower Park, includes triton and lion fountains, dragon fountains with checkerboard steps, and smaller fountains with fish-tailed boys blowing sprays through conches. Most playful are trick fountains such as the Umbrella which “rains” on those who come too close.
So those 2 hours of waiting weren’t that bad after all.
Grand Palace is an imposing edifice, although with 30-something rooms it’s not nearly as large as a typical tsarist palace. It has been transformed during the reign of Tsarina Elisabeth when a third storey and wings with pavilions at either end have been added. I don’t know what more I should write about royal palaces. Basically the story is pretty much the same as the one about Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo: luxurious and breathtaking…
Third day: The Hermitage
The Winter Palace which is located in the historic center of the city used to be the Imperial residence. Several rooms in the palace were used to house unique works of art, and these rooms came to be known as the Hermitage. Later more buildings were constructed for the growing collections – the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre and the New Hermitage. All these buildings now make up the State Hermitage – an enormous museum of art, history and culture.
Someone told me years ago if someone wants to see all what is in the Hermitage (and spend reasonable amount of time for each object) one would have to spend two years in the museum. The museum is a monster! My friend asked me “How can you use such a word for something so magnificent?”; well I don’t mean in negative way. I mean it’s horribly demanding, you literally need to be physically prepared as if you’re going to compete in the Olympics but also you have to know what you wanna see; you must have prepared priorities because there’s no way you can see everything. I was in shock when I completely accidentally peeked into some secondary, even tertiary corridor far away from the main halls and in the moment I was turning away my head I froze: “Have I just saw Van Gogh there in the corner?” It was Van Gogh, and then Gauguin , etc they are placed somewhere where I never thought they would. Of course there is a special room for them as well but that part on the lower floor is so easy to be missed. Then the next thought raised “Gosh! What have I missed so far in those countless other hidden corridors?!” So you can imagine what’s in the main halls!
I’m not going to write about how I felt; I don’t think I could. I mean just to write the names like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael, Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin ….. should be breathtaking (and those are only painters and few sculptors and there are so much more!).
If you scroll down you’ll se an image of my computer and “The Dance” by Matisse. It’s one of my favourite paintings and I was so eager to finally see it. It’s was on third (last) floor… I knew it’s big but I couldn’t imagine how big until I finally enter in the hall where it hangs! It was on opposite wall of the huge hall and it occupies the entire wall. It looked like a mural. I really couldn’t believe I was standing there, even now while I’m writing this (tomorrow will be) exactly 9 months later I’m shivering.
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In between those main daily destinations I was cruising through the city hungry to see as much as possible. When I said cruising I meant literally: the best way to see St Petersburg in all its beauty is from the river (which mostly doesn’t look like a river but the sea). Neva is enormous and I can only imagine how the city looks when the river is frozen. St. Petersburg is built on 42 islands at the Neva delta where the river flows into the Gulf of Finland and it has it has over 300 of bridges! That’s why its most famous nick is “Venice of the North”.
I’ve never been in Moscow but I saw St Petersburg as an example of Orthodox Christianity splendour! It is very different from what we have here in Serbia and I was little stroked, it reminded me on those cathedrals in Western (Catholic) Europe. Indeed we have the biggest Orthodox Temple in the world here in Belgrade but it’s not nearly like those churches in Russia. I’m not saying this in any negative way, I was just surprised. And when I saw how impressive churches are I was thinking “Oh God, please make they have candles inside instead of those machines where you put the coin and the small light turns on” (First time I saw those machines in Spain and I was shocked, even disgusted. At first my mind refused to believe they’re replacing candles. I mean even duration of time when the light bulb is on depends on the amount of money you put in. I found them utterly non-religious). Honestly I was deeply happy when I saw candlelight in those magnificent temples of St Petersburg. I was surprised that someone who is accustomed on different kind of religious beauty was so emotionally overwhelmed in those temples.
There are countless number of churches in the city but the most important are the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (The church is known as “The Saviour on the Blood” because on that place Alexander II of Russia was mortally wounded and the church is erected as a memorial to him), the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (that was modeled after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church was dedicated to the victory over Napoleon in Patriotic War and General Kutuzov is buried in the cathedral), the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St Isaac’s Cathedral (The largest cathedral in the city and the larges church in Russia when it has been built. During Soviet Union it served as a museum of atheism!!!).
Of course only three days for city like St Petersburg is not nearly enough to see all what is offered. But it was surely enough to say that this is the most beautiful place I ever visited. Hopefully I’ll be back one day…
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From Russia we continued our journey and the next stop was Riga, capital of Latvia.
It’s really cute town, especially its old part with lots of cobbled streets and lovely architecture. Sadly we spent only few hours there before we continued journey to Krakow once again.
The roads were horrible and we arrived in Krakow few hours later than it was planned and therefore I was late to visit Auschwitz. I really wanted although my friends who were there advised me not to go because I would be so horribly moved that the feeling will gloom all positive emotion I’m having from past three weeks. Some of them still have that feeling in the stomach only when they heard I was aiming to go there and they visited the camp years ago. Anyway since we arrived late I had to modify my plan and go in “Wieliczka – Salt Mine”, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s absolutely incredible, it reaches 327 m depth and is over 300km long. Everything there is made of salt: passages, staircases, tunnels, statues of historic and mythic figures and the new ones (like Pope John Paul II) or scenes from the Bible like Journey to Egypt or replica of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. We had great guide, she was fantastic and beside she gave us incredible amount of information she was enormously funny. I had to mention her here because she was really very nice memory from that visit. Oh and indeed everything is sculptured in the salt rock – I licked it *blush*.
And that was almost everything I have to write about my fantastic Summer 2008 journey.
I hope you who were brave (or crazy) enough to read the entire story will find it interesting. I know I will keep coming back to these three posts to refresh my memories.