Archive for the 'Russia' Category

October 29th 2008

Posted under Russia

For a taste of something different, we decided to take a day trip from Saint Petersburg. Petrodvorets, or Peter’s Palace, was located 30km west of the city, overlooking the Gulf of Finland, and reachable by a suburban train. Negotiating the Cyrillic-labeled signage in Russia has been challenging and the train station was no exception. There was no English-language signage but we had figured out the Russian word for tickets: Kacci. The ticketing agents did not speak English but, through trial and error (getting shooed away in curt Russian by several window dwellers), and with a series of gestures that resembled a hopeless game of Charades, we secured a couple of round trip tickets.

The highlight of our one-hour journey was the steady stream of vendors who arrived at the head of our car, recited a brief commercial, and sauntered down the aisle hoping for a sale. In addition to the magazines, pirated DVDs and snacks being sold by previous vendors, one man was selling an odd assortment of dish-washing sponges, drill bits and hand-held back massagers. Capitalism is alive and well in Russia.

We arrived at our train station knowing only that Petrodvorets was a long walk away and that local buses ran frequently to the palace complex. We stood in the cold at a bus stop near the station until one of the friendly locals helped us find the right bus.

Petrodvorets is a vast estate containing several stunning palaces, manicured gardens, and an impressive array of fountains and bronze statues. It was founded in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, who, on a visit to France, was impressed by Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles and aspired to build his own, grander version. We entered the upper gardens at the rear of the estate and strolled through the clearly out of season gardens. The magnificent Grand Palace, its beautiful white and yellow façade flanked by two golden-domed chapels, was an impressive sight in the distance. The original palace was almost totally destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Russia in WWII and the Palace that is seen today is a reconstruction of the original.

As we approached the front of the Palace we saw the water features for which Petrodvorets is most famous. The Grand Palace sits atop a hill, overlooking the magnificent Grand Cascade – a multi-tiered fountain stepping down the hill, enabling the water to cascade brilliantly downward into Water Avenue, a canal extending all the way to the Gulf of Finland. Petrodvorets has more than 150 fountains adorned with gilded statues but, unfortunately for us, none of them were working. I tried to envision the grandeur of Petrodvorets, but fountains without water are simply not very impressive. Disappointed by the fountains and uninspired by the photos of the interior that we saw in the gift shop, we decided not to go inside. Instead, we strolled leisurely around the palace grounds and then headed for the bus stop, stumbling upon a beautiful onion-domed Orthodox church along the way.

When we finally reached the train station it was late afternoon. We had just missed the hourly train back to St. Petersburg. We had an hour to kill and we were starving. Our only option appeared to be a small restaurant/bar/discotheque just outside the train station. Unable to decipher the Russian menu, we ordered the few things that we recognized: shawerma sandwiches, a blini (Russian crepe) and beer. Our cashier, as uncomfortable with the language barrier as we were, eagerly obliged. We sat down at a table in the smoky, circular room (complete with dance floor and disco ball), watching and being watched by everyone else in the room. It was an educational hour.

As we sat there eating, our surrealistic day began to take focus. Russia is such an interesting place. It’s a place where there is no tourism infrastructure for foreigners, but friendly locals will still do their best to help. It’s a place where you still struggle to visit a top tourist destination – the “Russian Versailles” – as an independent traveler. It’s a place that has been open to the West for nearly twenty years, but remains shrouded in mystery. There is so much that we do not understand and so much more than meets the eye. Communism may be dead, but the intrigue remains.

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October 28th 2008
Searches for Churches

Posted under Russia

By Russian standards, the gray windy, drizzling, cold weather of late October is a mild prelude to a harsh northern winter but, to two traveling vagabonds who have spent the past fourteen months chasing the warm weather around the globe, it’s freezing! While the initial blast of cold wind in your face may invigorate you, walking around in it for extended periods of time quickly depletes your energy reserves. We have already noticed how much less we can see and do in a day before retiring early to hot drinks and comfort food.

On day three in St Petersburg, we bundled up and set out with an ambitious program of sightseeing. We intended to walk quite far across the river to the historic St Peter & Paul Fortress and then catch the metro back to Nevsky Prospekt. Not realizing how far the fortress was when we had spotted it in the distance the previous day, we decided to check out some of the beautiful old churches around our neighborhood on the way.

Heading toward the Church on the Spilled Blood, we stopped at the Kazan Cathedral, built in the early 19th century. From Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street, the cathedral’s long colonnaded arms reach around into a semi-circle, creating a lovely courtyard with a green space, park benches, and a fountain. From this angle, you can hardly tell that it is a church since the chapel extends from the rear.

Behind the Church on Spilled Blood is the city’s best souvenir market and we wandered through the colorful stalls to check out the matryoshki (Russian nesting dolls) and wood-carved figurines for which Russia is famous. The wares were lovely, though priced to haggle. Not surprisingly, it was here that we heard the most English spoken. Each vendor had a small cart and wanted to show me every detail of every item that I glanced at, whispering so many things into my ear that I couldn’t think straight. Finally, I went berserk (but kept it on the inside) and high-tailed it out of the souvenir market with pockets full of rubles and no treasures. We have been in Europe for so long that I wasn’t prepared for the high-pressure sell.

St Isaac’s Cathedral, built between 1818 and 1858, was the largest church in Russia at that time. It was built on the plan of a Greek cross with a tall gold dome that later inspired the design of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. During the Soviet era, the church was closed down and re-opened as a museum of atheism. The gold dome was painted over in gray during WWII to conceal it from air raiders. Today, part of St Isaac’s is used for regular church services while the main chapel is only used for feast days. I suspect that this is largely due to the fact that, while the vast majority of Russians classify themselves as Orthodox Christians, only a small fraction reportedly practice their faith.

After St Isaacs, we finally headed to the river, across the bridge toward the St Peter & Paul Fortress. It was a Thursday afternoon so we were pleasantly surprised when we came upon several small wedding parties on the Strelka (tongue of land) on Vasilevsky Island. The young brides wore pristine white furs around their otherwise bare shoulders. The happy couples were surrounded by musicians and boisterous revelers. We observed two interesting wedding traditions as we discreetly watched from above. At the river’s edge are several granite spheres and the couple must simultaneously throw two glasses against the sphere, smashing them to pieces and inciting cheers from the crowd. Then they light the wick of a small cannon, which shoots firecrackers over the Neva to the sound of more applause.

From the Strelka, we walked another half-hour or so before finally reaching the walls of the St Peter & Paul Fortress. It was built in 1703 to protect the city but was mainly used as a prison until 1917. We walked around the sandy shore of the Neva River, along the tall fortress walls, looking for the entrance. The grounds of the fortress were free to visitors and, inside, we saw many people enjoying a stroll around the quaint old buildings. The primary attraction is the St Peter & Paul Cathedral – a small yellow baroque church with a needle thin spire. It houses the tombs of all of the Russian tsars since Peter the Great.

Tired and cold after our busy program, we walked briskly toward the nearest metro stop. On the way, we spotted some blue mosaic onion domes protruding above the tree line. We detoured a few steps to get a closer look and realized that we had stumbled upon the Saint Petersburg Mosque – the most northerly mosque in the world. When it was built in 1913, it was the largest mosque in Europe.

When we finally reached our metro stop, we were beyond ready to get back to our warm cell at the hostel. Imagine our disappointment when we found that our metro stop was closed. Our hearts sank but it was simply too cold to dwell on our misfortune so we quickly headed in the direction of the next closest stop as drizzling rain began to fall. The metro stops in Saint Petersburg are very spread out and, by the time we reached the vicinity of another stop, we were already at the river and determined that walking the rest of the way would be just as easy as navigating our way through Russian signage to the metro stop.

By the time we reached the door of the hostel, I was overcome with love for our little communist era cell. We don’t need much these days, just a warm place to lay our heads so that we can recover enough from the day’s exploits to run ourselves ragged yet another day.

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October 27th 2008
The Hermitage

Posted under Russia

On a gray day in Saint Petersburg, we found ourselves walking toward the city’s premier fine arts museum – the Hermitage. Located in Palace Square and partly housed inside the Winter Palace, the Hermitage dominates the impressive skyline along the southeast bank of the Neva River. The green-and-white baroque façade blends seamlessly with the city’s massive baroque and neoclassical architecture, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Since the weather was mild and our legs were fresh, we decided to walk over the bridge to check out the view from both sides of the river. Again we found a frustrating lack of crosswalks over many-laned streets, buzzing with traffic. We ended up taking quite a detour just to cross the street safely and once played Frogger with speeding traffic. The river views were superb. The Neva was wide and industrial with beautiful old buildings lining the banks on both sides.

Back at the Hermitage, we bought our tickets, checked our backpack and coats in the cloakroom (every place has a cloakroom and its usually free), and began to explore. We had a list of recommended highlights and decided to search them all out before concentrating the bulk of our culture-absorbing energy on the European paintings.

The Russian Culture wing of the second floor included some opulent rooms of the Winter Palace and a portrait collection of both the royals and important military men. There were some other Russian paintings, though the country’s most famous collection of Russian art resides at St Petersburg’s Russian Museum. One room – a richly decorated hallway – was an exact replica of a hall, painted by Raphael and his pupils, inside the Vatican Papal Palace.

The Hermitage is remarkable for the sheer size of its collection, the number of well-known paintings, and particularly for the number of works by famous European painters. The collection was mostly amassed by Catherine the Great. Among the famous artists represented are Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rubens, Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Picasso, Pissarro, Gauguin, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rodin and Michelangelo. In the Hermitage’s collection, you don’t see one or two Picassos or Matisses or Rembrandts but rather entire rooms full of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. The works, themselves, are brilliant, of course, but we were simply gobsmacked by the volume of famous work in the museum. It was impressive.

That said, while the collections of art and artifacts were on par with other world class museums, the Hermitage fell short of the bar in the “user-friendliness-for-foreign-citizens” category. The best example of this is the lack of English-language captions in almost all galleries other than the European paintings. In this age of globalization, in which English is the international language of business, we found it both disappointing and telling that such a prestigious national museum has failed to modernize. The European paintings were the highlight for us – they did have English captions – and Hermitage was still a great experience.

In many ways, Russia is still very raw and that makes it an interesting time to be here. Eventually, travel to Russia will become easier and people will rush to visit – because there are amazing things to see and learn here – but, for now, we are fascinated by the little differences. However frustrating they can be sometimes, they are all part of the adventure.

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October 26th 2008
Mother Russia

Posted under Russia

Famous for vodka, oil communism and gangsters, we felt confident that Russia would be a powerful conclusion to our round-the-world adventure. With our knowledge of the world’s largest country limited to its political history, its reputation as a bureaucratic abyss, and its recent cameos in the world media, and, of course, Hollywood, our illusions of Russian culture were mysteriously opaque.

Finding our way from the airport in Saint Petersburg to our hostel in the city center was, ready or not, our first opportunity to test the infrastructure. We caught a bus from the airport to the city center and quickly concluded, as we looked for our stop, that Russia has less English-language signage than any other country that we have visited. The Russian alphabet, known as Cyrillic and adopted from Bulgaria, seems to be a hybrid of Greek and Roman characters. Though most of the signage is in Russian, one can, with a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet, decipher just enough of it to survive.

From the bus stop, we struggled a bit to find the metro station but eventually found ourselves descending into the cavernous recesses of the underground railway system. Disconcerted by the lack of metro maps around the stations, we did find one map that listed the stops in both English and Russian characters. We were astonished by the frequency of the trains – arriving every minute-and-a-half or so compared to the five-to-seven minute intervals in other busy international cities – and also by the masses of riders on each train.

Our hostel was located a few blocks off of Nevsky Prospekt – Saint Petersburg’s main shopping thoroughfare. It was several blocks walking from the metro stop, during which we immediately noticed the inadequate number of crosswalks over the busy six-to-eight lane streets. By the time we reached the wrought-iron security gate of our building, I was cursing the albatross on my back. Once inside, we climbed a single set of filthy cement stairs that reeked of sewage and stepped into a tiny, warm reception area. Thankfully, the check-in process was brief and we were soon shown to a small cell with two metal twin beds and some other plain furnishings. The place screamed communism and seemed both frighteningly and delightfully appropriate. It didn’t take us long to spread out our meager but warmly familiar possessions and make ourselves at home. It was already late afternoon but, as it has been on our first day in almost every new city, we were anxious to get out and explore.

Often called the “Venice of the North”, Saint Petersburg has a super-sized European feel with large Italianate mansions and juxtaposed buildings along wide canal streets. It is Europe on steroids.

People-watching on Nevsky Prospekt was fascinating! Largely due to the “pain-in-the-ass” factor of getting a Russian visa, there are very few foreign tourists on the streets. Add to that the fall-that-feels-like-winter weather and you have Saint Petersburg almost all to yourself. Upon first walking around the city, one cannot help but admire the beauty of the young Russian women. They all seem to have gorgeous long hair, ice-blue eyes, and never-ending legs with tall stiletto-heeled boots. You don’t see an athletic shoe on anyone – only black or brown leather dress shoes. Fashion is highly embellished with stones, studs and shiny accessories. P.E.T.A. supporters beware: fur is very much in vogue. Everyone who can afford to wear it, does.

There is a noticeable military and police presence in Saint Petersburg. We must have seen five different types of uniforms on our first day alone. Naturally, I wanted photos of all of the officers but their cold, serious facial expressions and rumors of corruption have so far left me uncharacteristically timid. We have already heard stories from other travelers about police harassment and, for the first time in fourteen months, we are wearing our passports on our persons. So far, we have not received even a sideways glance but are keeping our heads down nonetheless.

That afternoon, we were headed toward the Church on the Spilled Blood, constructed on the spot where Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, was mortally wounded in 1881. Built from 1883 – 1907, the colorful, onion-domed church contrasts the city’s overwhelmingly baroque style though it manifests the quintessential style of Russian Orthodox churches of the 17th century.

As we turned the corner from Nevsky Prospekt onto the canal street that ran along the church, we spotted a handgun sitting unattended on the outside window sill of a gift shop. We looked around, suspiciously, but no one else seemed to notice it. We certainly were NOT going to touch it! “Welcome to Russia!” we laughed, as we walked on toward the church.

The sun was already setting and a third of the church’s magnificent façade was already cast in shadow so we snapped a few quick pictures outside and then walked around back to the entrance.

At first glance, the interior walls looked to be covered in soft, golden murals but we soon realized that the medium was mosaic. Scenes from the New Testament in beautiful, bright-colored mosaic ran from the semi-precious stone base to the ceiling, covering every window frame, support beam and arch. The arrangement of the subjects in the mosaics corresponded to the canons of Orthodox iconography. The southern wall portrayed the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ. The northern wall was devoted to scenes of the miracles performed by the Savior. The western wall featured scenes from the Passion. The iconostasis was a masterwork of lace-cut Italian marble. The floor, made from various kinds of Italian marble, was designed to look like a mosaic carpet.

Prior to 1917, the church was used solely for commemoration services for the departed Alexander II. In 1917, it became a regular parish church but, in 1930, it was closed and used for storage. For forty years, this magnificent church was used to store potatoes! Oh, the humanity. Finally, in 1970, restoration work began and the church was opened as a museum in 1997. The Church on the Spilled Blood is truly an awe-inspiring masterpiece and it is unfortunate that a place of such divine beauty is not used for religious services, though, in judging by the admission price, its current use is the more lucrative one.

So far, Russia is every bit as intriguing as we dreamed it would be. With five more nights in Saint Petersburg – the country’s cultural capital – there is just no telling what other discoveries lay in store.


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