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Our April/May 2003 holiday


  • Introduction
  • History
  • City Tour
  • The Hermitage
  • The Palaces
  • Entertainment
  • Conclusion


    "There are few more grim, harsh and strange influences
    on a man's soul than in Petersburg".

    Character in "Crime And Punishment" (1866) by Fyoder Dostoevsky

    After more than 30 years of travel, Roger & Vee had seen many of the countries of Europe - but not the largest, Russia. We had little wish to see the place during the repression and drabness of the Soviet era, but the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg in May 2003 seemed the right time and a good place to experience the country - the 34th that Roger has visited.

    We travelled in a group with the company Voyages Jules Verne [click here]. The Monday flight from London Gatwick to St Petersburg was so early in the morning that we spent the previous night at the Gatwick Hilton Hotel and we still had to rise at 4 am. The flight itself was with a charter company called Astraeus [click here] in a Boeing 737 and took two and a half hours.

    We then found that the arrangements for passport control at St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport were so chaotic that it took the same period of time as the flight - another two and a half hours! Roger passed some of the time on his mobile texting relatives and friends with the four-word message "From Russia With Love". At last, we met our main VJV representative, the witty and helpful Regina Peterburgsky (really!) - a fluent Russian speaker who was born in the Ukraine, brought up in Australia and now works out of London. Since the time difference between London and St Petersburg is three hours, it was 4.40 pm when we reached our hotel, so that any plans to reconnoitre the city had to be abandoned.

    We chose to stay in a three-star hotel close to the city centre, rather than a four-star hotel on the outskirts. So our accommodation was in the Hotel St Petersburg located on the Vyborg (north) side of the River Neva with - when the weather is clear - fine views to the centre. Directly opposite the hotel, moored on the other side of the river, is the historic cruiser Aurora. At 9.45 pm on 25 October 1917, a blank round from the ship signalled the start of the Bolshevik revolution.

    View from our room of the "Aurora"
    - decked out with May Day flags

    Hotel St Petersburg was built in 1970 for the Olympics and has 410 rooms. It has recently undergone a refurbishment which had not actually been finally completed by the time of our stay, so that our view was obscured by scaffolding and at regular intervals a gantry with four workmen on it would appear outside our window.

    In any event, the hotel is not three-star in terms of service. The rooms are basic and poorly lit, the brownish water is undrinkable, and there was no plug for the sink. Breakfast was served at tables of 12 with the basic fare - bread, rolls, cheese, ham - already at the table and the dish of the day (Vee especially liked the porridge) being brought by waiters. Dinner in the hotel restaurant involved very slow and unsmiling service and payment had to be in roubles, but the food was reasonable (Roger particularly enjoyed the pancakes with apple and honey in orange sauce).

    We had tended to think of St Petersburg as basically due west of London, but of course it is significantly further north, putting it on a latitude with the Shetland Islands and making it rather cold (not more than 10C/50F) even in early May. Worse than the cold though was the wet and wind which unfortunately were frequent features of our four days in the city. Then there was all the scaffolding as workmen struggled to complete a major programme of renovation and refurbishment before the 300th anniversary celebrations in a couple of weeks time. So, while we had a fascinating time, we probably did not see St Petersburg at its very best.

    Unlike Roger and Vee's trips to places like India and China, this organised tour involved large numbers. In all, Voyages Jules Verne had about 150 customers in the city and around 90 were in our group. However, since all the tours were optional, any given excursion might comprise one or two coach loads.


    The history of St Petersburg is a rich tapestry inextricably interwoven with the modern history of Russia itself.

    At the start of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Tsar Peter I (the Great) captured the Swedish outposts on the River Neva in an area which at the time was little more than a swamp. As a child, Peter had witnessed the murder of his family in Moscow and was keen to move the capital elsewhere. The date 27 May 1703 is considered to be the official birth of what is now called St Petersburg, with the laying of the first stone for the Peter & Paul Fortress, and in 1712 Peter made the place his capital.

    Peter I's tomb at the
    Peter and Paul Fortress

    Established in honour of Peter the Great's Dutch patron saint, the city was originally called Sankt Pieter Burkh but the name was soon changed to Sankt Peterburg. By the time of his death in 1725, Peter's city on the Neva had a population of 40,000. Peter's immediate successors moved the capital back to Moscow, but the Empress Anna Ioannovna, who reigned from 1730-1740, returned it to Sankt Peterburg.

    Between 1741 and 1825, three Russian leaders - Empress Elizabeth, Empress Catherine the Great and Tsar Alexander I - developed the city into a great cosmopolitan centre. Nicholas I succeeded Alexander and, by the time of his death in 1855, the capital was the fourth largest city in Europe.

    Alexander II, who reigned from 1855-1881, was actually assassinated in Sankt Peterburg. More violence was experienced in the city when, on 9 January 1905 (known as 'Bloody Sunday'), thousands of protestors for better living conditions were shot by the Tsar's troops.

    On the eve of the First World War in August 1914, anti-German sentiment led to the city being renamed Petrograd, making it the city of the man and not the saint. By this time, it had a population of 2.1 million.

    Most countries content themselves with one revolution, but Russia had three - all centred on this city. Following the previously mentioned bloodshed of 1905, there were two further revolutions in 1917 - one in February, which resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, and the other on 24 October 1917, when the Bolsheviks occupied key positions in the city in what was subsequently called the 'Great October revolution'.

    The Tsars Of Russia
    Name Reign
    Peter I (the Great)
    Catherine I
    Peter II
    Anna Ivanovna
    Ivan VI
    Elizabeth Petrovna
    Peter III
    Catherine II (the Great)
    Alexander I
    Nicholas I
    Alexander II
    Alexander III
    Nicholas II

    Fearing attacks on Petrograd from counter-revolutionary forces, in 1918 the Bolsheviks moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, after the city on the Neva had been the capital for some 200 years.

    After Lenin died in 1924, the Petrograd Communist party leader Grigory Zinoviev decided to rename the city Leningrad, although Lenin had spent little time in the place and reportedly did not like it. By the start of the Second World War in 1939, the population of Leningrad stood at 3.1 million.

    Plaque to mark Lenin's address at
    the Nikolaevsky Palace in 1919

    The city's finest 'hour' - it was actually 872 days - was the blockade of Leningrad by the Germans from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million people died from shelling, starvation and disease, but the city never fell. However, it took until 1960 for the population to exceed its pre-war levels.

    A public referendum in June 1991 registered a bare 51% majority for the restoration of the name St Petersburg. It is now a city of some 5 million with no less than 2.5 million cars. One of its former residents is the present President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin who used to be a KGB official and then Deputy Mayor of the city.

    Throughout all the name changes, to the citizens of the city it has always been known affectionately as 'Piter'. St Petersburg officially celebrates its 300th anniversary on 27 May 2003. In preparation for the event, some £450M was set aside for 59 building projects but, not unsurprisingly, not all of this money had gone where it should and not all of the work has been completed on schedule.


    Having flown into St Petersburg on Monday, most of Tuesday was devoted to a tour of the city in a comfortable coach accompanied by our most informative local guide Anna.

    Like Amsterdam and Venice, St Petersburg is a city built on water. Straddling the River Neva delta, it is made up of 42 islands connected by some 340 bridges. One of its distinguishing features is that it has no high-rise buildings - nothing is allowed to be higher than the Winter Palace which makes for an aesthetically smooth skyline along the river.

    Crossing the Neva by the nearest bridge (Liteyny most), we turned right and proceeded along the splendid Palace Embankment which took us past the Summer Garden & Summer Palace, the Field of Mars, the Marble Palace and finally the Hermitage Museum. We then turned right to cross the Neva again, this time across the Palace Bridge, to visit the eastern tip of Vasilyevsky Island - known as the Strelka (Tongue of Land) - where we made our first stop.

    Here, in 1805-1816, Thomas de Thomon designed an architectural complex including a granite embankment, the white, temple-like Stock Exchange, and two, copper-coloured Rostral Columns almost 32 metres high (the word rostra is Latin and refers to the prow of a captured ship). "The Lonely Planet Guide" states that "the Strelka has one of the best views in the city", but sadly it was overcast and drizzling. As we drove round the area, we passed a variety of museums and university buildings, including the Twelve Colleges building. This elegant 400 metre construction is one of the city's oldest buildings, originally intended for Peter the Great's government ministries but now part of the university.

    Crossing over the Neva river once more, our second stop was at Decembrists' Square (named after the uprising of December 1825) to view the most famous statute of Peter the Great, immortalised as the Bronze Horseman by Pushkin. His mount rears over the snake of treason and the whole thing stands on a huge stone base in the form of a sea wave. The statue was sculptured over 12 years for Catherine the Great by the Frenchman Etienne Falconet and its inscription reads "To Peter I from Catherine II - 1782".

    Equestrian statute of Peter the Great

    On the other side of the square and the occasion for our next stop is the huge St Isaac's Cathedral. Construction of this cathedral started in 1818, to a neo-classical design from the Frenchman Ricard de Montferrand, and it was eventually completed in 1858. During the Communist era, it was a museum but, since 1990, some religious services have been held here.

    After St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London, it is the tallest cathederal in the world, reaching 101.5 metres into the sky with over 100 kg of gold leaf used to cover the 21.8 m high dome. We did not see inside, but there are huge pillars of Finnish stone each weighing 120 tonnes and the interior of 4,000 sq metres - which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers - includes 600 sq metres of mosaics, 16,000 kg of malachite and 14 types of marble.

    On the opposite side of the square from the cathedral, across the Blue Bridge (the widest in the city), is the Mariinsky Palace which houses the city hall. It was erected in 1839-1844 by Andrei Stakenschneider. Today it flies the Russian tricolour flag and at the top it is still adorned with five badges of honour including two Orders of Lenin.

    It was only a short drive past the Mariinsky Theatre (which some of us would visit later) to the wonderful St Nicholas' Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox church was built between 1753-1762 in the baroque style and remained as an operating church throughout the whole of the Communist period.

    View of St Nicholas' Cathedral

    Outside, the cathedral is a gorgeous collection of spires and five domes (representing Christ and the four main Apostles) set off with blue and white decoration. Inside, it is in effect two churches, a ground floor winter one and a first floor summer one. When we visited, a service was in progress in the upper church and the beautiful choir in the balcony gave the whole thing a mystical air. Orthodox churches are so different from Catholic or Protestant ones, since the congregation stands throughout the service and icons provide a focus for much worship.

    Next stop was for something entirely different: shopping. By the English Embankment, there is a place called "North Way" [click here] where we were greeted with a sample of vodka and given the opportunity to buy souvenirs. One of the many items on sale was matryoshka - the set of painted wooden dolls within dolls - and the largest sets were an amazing 23 items. Roger and Vee bought some glass paperweights with representations of local sights created inside them.

    After this shopping stop, we had our first glimpse of one of the most famous sites of St Petersburg, the Palace Square behind the Winter Palace. Then we drove down the northern-most section of the main shopping street of the city, Nevsky Prospect. This thoroughfare runs four and a half kms (three miles) north-west to south-east from the Admiralty to Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

    It was laid out in the early years of St Petersburg and a century ago it was one of Europe's finest boulevards. Today, as well as shops and offices, it features many splendid buildings, such as the pink-painted Stroganov Palace (where the famous beef dish was created), built between 1753-1754 in baroque style, and the Kazan Cathedral, built by Andrey Voronikhin between 1801-1811 to a design influenced by St Peter's in Rome with an 111 metre semi-circular neo-classical colonnade and 80 metre high dome.

    When we stopped for lunch, the coach parked in a square properly called Ploshchad Ostrovskogo but popularly called Catherine Gardens. In the centre of the square is a large statute of Catherine the Great, at her heels renowned statesmen of the 19th century including several of her lovers. At the south end of the square is the Pushkin Theatre, like the square itself created by Carlo Rossi.

    Roger and Vee ate lunch in a restaurant on the opposite of Nevsky prospect from this square. Service was no quicker than in our hotel, but the food was fine: borshch soup (beetroot, garlic, and sour cream) and wild berry cake. There was just time for a quick call into the Yeliseevsky food shop, a sumptuous store built between 1901-1903 in what locally was called style moderne but we would call art nouveau. We bought a set of five tins of tea with pictures of old St Petersburg commemorating the 300th anniversary of the city.

    Roger with Russian friend
    outside a "pectopah" (restaurant)

    Back at the coach, we turned right into Nevsky prospect and drove past Anichkov Palace (1741-1750) across Anichkov Bridge which spans the largest canal in the city known as the Fontanka (the four corners of the bridge carry 1840s statutes of rearing horses).

    The seventh and final stop of the city tour was at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

    Located on Zayachy Island on the north side of the Neva, this citadel was started in 1703 by Peter the Great as a stronghold to control the river. The dominant building within the fortress is the Peter & Paul Cathedral which was built in Dutch style between 1712 and 1733 by the Swiss architect Domenico Trezzini. Its 122.5 metre needle-like spire, covered with gold leaf and topped by an angel bearing a cross, is one of the city's landmarks. Sadly, on our visit, the spire was almost entirely covered by scaffolding.

    The magnificent baroque interior of the cathedral houses the white marble sarcophagus of Peter himself. Indeed all of Russia's pre-revolutionary rulers (except Peter II and Ivan VI) are buried here, the latest being Nicholas II and most of his family who were added in 1998. In all, there are 32 tombs of various royal and noble personages. The most important decorative figure of the cathedral is the iconostasis, the carved screen bearing icons.

    Interior of Peter & Paul Cathedral

    The island also houses the prison cells where Peter had his son tortured to death for plotting against him and where other troublemakers, such as Dostoevsky, Gorky, Trotsky, Bakunin and Lenin's older brother, were incarcerated.

    This completed Tuesday's city tour, but there were several other occasions to take in various sights.

    So, on Wednesday on the way to visit the Hermitage, we stopped at the Field of Mars. The field is so named because it was the scene of 19th century military parades. Today an eternal flame burns to commemorate the victims of the October 1917 Revolution and the ensuing civil war. From the field are picturesque views of the Cathedral of Spilled Blood, commemorating the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded. Across the field on the other side, one can see the Engineers' Castle where Tsar Paul I was strangled just 40 days into his reign. Russian history features lots of blood.

    Then, on Thursday on the way out of the city to visit Pushkin and Pavlovsk, we saw the Moscow Triumphal Arch. Looking like a green version of Berlin's Brandenberg Gate, this was originally built in 1838 (the present version was rebuilt between 1959-1961) by Vasily Stasov to mark Russian victories over Turks, Persians and Poles.

    Finally, on the Friday morning before our afternoon departure from the city, we had three hours to wander round the Nevsky Prospect area. This would have been an excellent opportunity to look at further sights and create a final lasting impression of the city, but the driving rain and biting wind certainly put a dampener on those plans.

    Our coach parked in Arts Square which contains a 1957 statue of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and is next to the Russian Museum housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace. A determined Roger dragged a reluctant Vee up Nevsky Prospect to the triumphal double arch that leads into the magnificent Palace Square.

    Arch leading to the Palace Square

    Even on a rained-lashed day, one cannot fail to appreciate the history of this spot where tsarist troops fired on workers on Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905) and where Bolshevik revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace on 25 October 1917. In the centre of the square is the 47.5 metre (154 feet) Alexander Column designed by Auguste de Monferrand in 1834 to commemorate the 1812 victory over Napoleon. The pillar is said to be held on its pedestal by gravity alone - a sobering thought on such a windy morning.

    We battled through the rain along the Moyka Canal which in other weather would have been so picturesque. Our destination was the quixotically-named Church of Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood on the bank of the Griboyedov Canal. The blood in question was that of the 63-year old Tsar Alexander II who in 1881 was mortally wounded by the terrorist Ignaty Grinevitsky who exploded a hand-made bomb (Alexander died on the same day in the Winter Palace). The church was built over 24 years (1883-1907) and then between 1930-1970 the Communist authorities used it as a storehouse. It took 27 years to restore before being reopened as a church again in 1997.

    The artistic concept of the church goes back to the famous St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow which it resembles and the architect for the work was Alfred Parland. It is quite simply an architectural masterpiece that makes it the most magnificent building in the whole of St Petersburg. The Russian Revival style onion domes, decorated with swirls or spikes, plus the multi-coloured roofs, over 1,000 square metres of mosaics, and the 81 metre high steeple make the church an unmistakable landmark for the city. We did not have time to go inside, but the interior boasts another 6,000 square metres of mosaics.

    Onion domes on the Church of
    Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood

    As we made our way to the airport for our departure, there was just time to visit one more site on the southern outskirts of the city: the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. The monument was unveiled in 1975 and is centred around a 48 metre obelisk with sculptured ensembles of bronze statutes representing the soldiers and civilians who held out against the German siege for almost 900 days (the frontline was only 9 km from this spot).


    One of the highlights of our trip to St Petersburg was the Wednesday morning visit to the Hermitage Museum. The word 'hermitage' means a secluded dwelling. However, the State Hermitage is in fact a vast collection of five linked buildings: from west to east, the Winter Palace, the Little Hermitage, the Old and New Hermitages (collectively known as the Large Hermitage) and the Hermitage Theatre.

    The Winter Palace was designed by the Florentine architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. It was started in 1754, during the reign of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, and basically completed in 1762, when Catherine the Great was on the throne. A fire in 1837 destroyed most of the interiors which were restored under the supervision of Vasily Stasov and Alexander Briullov. This beautiful baroque/rococo structure is basically white with gold and blue features. It is a huge building: 200 metres long, 10 metres wide and 30 metres tall, with 1,057 rooms, 117 staircases, 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows.

    One of the ornate ceilings inside the Winter Palace

    The Little Hermitage was built between 1764-1768 by Yury Velten and Vallin de la Mothe. It was intended for works of art amassed by Catherine the Great. However, the growth of the collection required the construction of the Large Hermitage between 1771-1787 by Velten. Next in line along the river is the Hermitage Theatre built in 1783-1789 by Giacomo Quarenghi. Finally, opposite the Small and Large Hermitage buildings is the New Hermitage constructed between 1742-1851 by the German architect Leo von Klenze.

    The Hermitage's art collection is contained on all three floors of the Winter Palace and the main two floors of the Little and Large Hermitages. The museum receives some three million visitors a year and foreign visitors pay an entrance fee 20 times that of Russians.

    As much as one can actually see, there is 20 times more stored in vaults. In all, there are over 3 million works of art. Indeed we were advised that, if one spent a minute looking at each piece, it would take almost six years to view them all. Of course, we did not have quite that long. In fact, our local guide Anna gave us a two and a half hour introduction to the treasures of the place which was both breathless and breathtaking ("And in the next room ..").

    The stunning rooms of the Winter Palace included:

    The Boudoir in the Winter Palace

    The Pavilion Hall of the Little Hermitage on its own is a sight to savour:

    The priceless works of art in the Small Hermitage (the Large Hermitage was closed) and the New Hermitage included:

    Finally, in some ways, the most impressive feature of the Hermitage is the Main Staircase which is alternatively known as the Ambassadors' Staircase (for obvious reasons) and the Jordan Staircase (a reference to the River Jordan). This magnificent creation features prominently in the final scenes of the new film "Russian Ark" [for review click here].

    Vee on the Main Staircase
    of the Winter Palace

    Everyone in our group left the Hermitage intoxicated with what we had seen. Richard and Janie Anderson, though, were more discomforted than others because his wallet - complete with cash and credit cards - was pick-pocketed. Roger and Vee came to the rescue with some notes. [Back home, the loan was immediately repaid with the addition of a hard-back version of Roy Jenkins' 1,000-page biography of Winston Churchill.]

    Link: Hermitage Museum click here


    Beside the Winter Palace (part of the Hermitage), we visited three palaces during our time in Russia. In each case, we had to put slippers over our shoes to protect the woodwork floors.

    First, on Wednesday afternoon, we went to see the Yusopov Palace in the centre of St Petersburg.

    Originally built in the 1860s by de la Mothe, this palace was purchased by Prince Nickolai Yuspov in 1830, following which it was refashioned by both Andrei Mikhailov the Junior (1830-38) and Hyppolito Monighetti (1858-59). During the wartime seige of Leningrad, the palace served as a military hospital. Today, among the 120 rooms are some wonderfully rich interiors, such as the Dancing Hall, the Banqueting Hall, the Roman Hall and a private theatre seating 190.

    One of the many beautiful rooms
    of the Yusopov Palace

    On the night of 17 December 1916, Prince Felix Yusopov and four co-conspirators organised the murder of the monk Grigory Rasputin in this palace and today there are two waxworks tableaux to represent the gruesome event. First, Rasputin was fed poisoned food, but this seemed to have no effect, so Yusopov shot the monk. Like a tsarist-era version of the Terminator, Rasputin refused to die and, when Yusopov knelt over him, he grabbed the noble by the throat. Yusopov then fled and brought his co-conspirators to help him, only to find that Rasputin had dragged himself outside. Another of the plotters shot him a second time and together they beat him with sticks, before transporting his body down to the frozen river and stuffing him under the ice.

    Rasputin at his last supper

    Second, on Thursday morning, we went to see the Catherine Palace at Pushkin - until 1937 called Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar's Village) - 25 km south of St Petersburg.

    The Catherine Palace was named after Peter the Great's widow Catherine I, but later Catherine II developed the building which is a wonderful rococo structure reflecting the enterprising and contrasting styles of the Italian Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli and the Scot Charles Cameron. The beautiful white, blue and gold façade is 300 metres (1,000 feet) long and the interior contains sumptuous rooms such as the enormous and glittering Great Hall, the Cavaliers' Dining Room, the State Dining Room, the Picture Room, the Green Dining Room, the Blue Drawing Room, and the Chinese Blue Drawing Room.

    Roof of the Catherine Palace

    During the war, the Germans occupied the area for almost three years and systematically looted the palace and dismantled all the rooms. There are photographs in each of the major rooms to show the devastation of the interiors in 1945 and the comparison with the restored versions today. Most infamously, the magnificent Amber Room - which originated from a gift of amber from the Prussians - was taken to Germany and lost in the chaos at the end of the war. However, at a reputed cost of £3.5M, the Amber Room has been totally reconstructed and is once more one of the Catherine Palace's brightest jewels.

    The magnificence of the Amber Room

    Roger was so overwhelmed by the spendours of the Catherine Palace that he managed to take an amazing 33 photographs of the exteriors and interiors, while Vee considered what features she could incorporate into the planned extension of our living room at home.

    Third, on Thursday afternoon, we went to see the Pavlovsk Palace at the village of the same name 29 km south of St Petersburg.

    This is a Palladian mansion designed originally in 1780-86 by Charles Cameron for Catherine the Great. She subsequently gave it to her son Paul who hated her because he believed that she was complicit in the death of his father. So Paul had the whole place remodelled for himself and his second (German) wife Maria by the Italians Vincenzo Brenna (1786-99) and Giacomo Quarenghi (1802-05).

    During the war, the Germans did an even more devastating job on destroying the Pavlovsk Palace than the Catherine Palace, but again a marvellous feat of restoration has taken place. Paul's Hall of War, Maria's Hall of Peace, the Picture Gallery, Paul's Throne Room, Maria's State Bedroom, and the (Carlo) Rossi Library all make one wide-eyed with wonder.

    Interior of the Pavlovsk Palace


    Excluding the first evening (when we were all tired from our early morning start at London's Gatwick airport and protracted queueing at St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport), we had three evenings in St Petersburg and most of us were determined to take advantage of the range of optional cultural events.

    On the Tuesday evening, while some went to an opera at the Mariinsky theatre, Roger and Vee went with others to a folklore show at the Nikolaevsky Palace. The palace itself was worth seeing. There was a plaque outside commemorating a 1919 address by Lenin at the building and inside the staircase was a grand affair. The show itself - called "Feel Yourself Russian!" - was an exuberant display of Russian song and dance with traditional musical instruments (including the balalaika) and brightly-coloured costumes. In the interval, we were served with champagne and caviar canapés.

    Music at the Nikolaevsky Palace

    Link: Nikolaevsky Arts Centre click here

    On the Wednesday evening, while some went to an opera at the Mussorgsky Theatre, Roger and Vee went with others to a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. Again the palace itself was a delight and world famous as the home of the Kirov ballet. We shared a box with four others from our group: Patrick & Charmian Huggins and Graham & Charlotte Smart. The ballet was one rarely performed in the west: "The Fountain Of Bakchisarai". It is based on a Pushkin poem of 1822 and the score is by Boris Asafiev. The harem setting made for some exotic sets and costumes and the dancing was superb.

    Vee & Roger enjoy the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre

    On the Thursday evening, Roger and Vee joined a crowd for a cruise on the River Neva. It was billed as an opportunity to enjoy the architecture on the embankments, but it was raining heavily and we could see little. However, there was a folklore troupe on board who enlivened things with singing, dancing and much (amusing) audience participation. We sat with Mike and Charlotte Gregory and we invited 82 year old widower Tony Ashforth to join us - he had a grand time, making full use of the complimentary champagne and vodka.

    Folklore group on Neva cruise


    Our first experience of Russia was, in some ways, a sobering affair. There is not the level of service that one takes for granted in Western Europe or North America or even the colour and friendliness that one finds in India or South America which are at least as poor. Thanks to political and economic mismanagement, the transition from communism to capitalism has gone far less smoothly in Russia than in the Czech Republic, which we have visited both pre- and post- the fall of communism, and the country is still one in rapid and uncomfortable transition.

    One of the few Russians to whom we managed to speak said of the communist era: "It wasn't so bad".

    Our four days in St Petersburg came weeks before the official 300th anniversary celebrations when many buildings were still obscured by scaffolding as workmen struggled to meet last-minute deadlines for completion of massive renovation programmes. Also the weather was far from ideal - quite chilly (which we expected) and wet and windy (which we did not anticipate).

    Having said all this, the trip was utterly fascinating and very enjoyable. St Petersburg reeks of history - both tsarist and communist. Its buildings are simply magnificent - one glorious palace after another. The boulevards and canals and the statutes and monuments create a city of regal splendour and tourist dreams. One minute one recalls the storming of the Winter Palace in Eisenstein's film "October" and the next minute one thinks of James Bond driving a tank through the city streets in the movie "GoldenEye". Just try to visit when the sun is shining ...

    Roger & Vee very wet in front of the
    Church of Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood

    St Petersburg at your fingertips click here
    "St Petersburg Times" click here

    Architectural Footnote

    Compared to Western churches, Orthodox churches have extra horizontal bars on their crosses. Why?

    One explanation is that the top bar on the cross represents the mocking sign that the Roman soldiers put above the head of Christ proclaiming him king of the Jews, the longer bar is for Christ's outstretched arms and where his hands were nailed, while the lower bar is where Christ's feet were nailed and it slopes to remind us that two other men were crucified that day - the upper part of the slope representing the chance of salvation as won by the 'good' criminal and the lower part representing the path to hell of the 'bad' criminal.

    Cross on the Church of
    Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood

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