01.06.2017 - 06.06.2017
1 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
Today marked the last day that I could use my Petersburg Card and I had saved two of the best attractions for last: Peterhof and the midnight drawbridges tours.
Included with my Petersburg Card was free transport over to the palace of Peterhof by hydrofoil. The palace itself was to the west of the city center, right on the waterfront. I caught the first boat over at 10:00; the journey took around 40 minutes.
Upon arrival, I walked along the jetty and entered the Lower Gardens. The jetty itself was quite windy, but once in the gardens, the wind died down. The pathway into the gardens was along a small canal that was fed off the Gulf of Finland and was lined with small fountains, which were turned off. Trees were everywhere and the entire place gave off a regal vibe. There was a small bridge over the canal that provided a view straight up the canal to the palace itself. I was disappointed that the fountains were not turned on, assuming it was due to the cold snap that had been moving through the area.
I walked about the gardens for a little bit, enjoying the peacefulness of it all; admiring the various statues and smaller fountains, a few of which were functioning. The Peterhof Palace itself was perched atop a small hill; a long, but not tall, palace with gold-plated decorations everywhere and two very exquisite wings, capped by what appeared to be churches on either side. At the base of the hill were formal flower gardens and dotted along the hill were more fountains.
By this point I had noticed that a large crowd was forming around the central fountain, known as the Samson Fountain. I realized that the fountains were going to be turned on and, quite excited, I rushed over to the fountain. I managed to get a spot rather close to the railing and, soon after, classical music began to play as the fountains were turned on. The show was breathtaking and second-to-none.
The Samson Fountain sits in a small pool of water at the base of the hill; a golden statue of Samson ripping open the mouth of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden during the reign of Peter the Great (who built the original palace at Peterhof). Ascending the hill are several tiers of fountains, with dozens of golden statues on each one. A grotto area sits behind the fountains on one of the tiers. Surrounding the central pool were more gold statues, all leading towards the central canal with its rows of smaller fountains.
Peterhof is often described as the “Russian Versailles” and it is not difficult to see why (not to mention that the palace was built to replicate many of Versailles’ features). Having seen the fountain show at Versailles multiple times, I can easily say that the fountains of Peterhof are far superior (in my opinion).
I spent some time walking about the gardens once more, admiring the marvelous fountains. The music had ceased, but the fountains continued to run (thankfully). I returned to the bridge from earlier and was rewarded with some truly spectacular views of the palace. The clouds would briefly give way and the sun would sparkle in the water and gold. Around the grounds (and indeed, in many places throughout Petersburg), people were dressed in period costumes, most frequently as Peter the Great; they wanted money for taking photos, of course, which I declined to do.
The ticket office for the palace interiors was nearing its opening time (like the Catherine Palace, the entrance to the Lower Gardens was separate from the palace itself). The line was far shorter than at the Catherine Palace and buying the ticket took almost no time. The ticket office and the entrance were in two different locations and there was only signage in Russian indicating where to go, but I just walked about like I knew what I was doing and soon found myself entering the palace.
Sadly, photographs were not permitted inside Peterhof – the only Russian palace to have such restrictions. The marvelous state rooms were just as eloquent, opulent, and astounding as the other palaces that I had visited. The mail ballroom was out of this world: gold décor everywhere. Words truly cannot describe how amazing the palace was. It was the smallest of the palaces, being rather narrow, but long and only two floors. The path through the palace let visitors see the majority of the rooms. A particular highlight was an original room from the palace that Peter the Great built (future tsars and tsarinas added on a rebuilt many parts of the palace): it was a study with some of his original belongings, including a small travel clock.
Once my tour of the palace was finished, I spent some time walking around the gardens once again. I was drawn to the fountain show over and over, almost mesmerized by the beauty of the place. I could imagine the Imperial yacht being moored along the jetty and the Imperial Family walking along the canal as the fountains greeted them.
I soon exited the Lower Gardens and entered the Upper Gardens, which were much larger formal gardens, though without the splendor of the fountains. There were a few large pools with more modest fountains in them and my stroll through the Upper Gardens provided some great views of the palace.
The gardens exited onto the main street and I decided to call an Uber to take me to the train station. My card only provided free one-way transport by hydrofoil; to return that way would require re-entering the Lower Gardens (paying for admission again) and then buying the 700RUB hydrofoil ticket; meanwhile, the train cost only 50RUB. There were a few Uber drivers around, but none would accept my ride; one that did was over 30 minutes away, so I canceled it and decided to walk. The walk to the station took roughly 40 minutes and I was just in time to buy my ticket for the next train…
BUT, there was no signage at the station to indicate which platform the train would arrive at. I bought my ticket, scanned it and went out to the platform and found it deserted. Realizing I was on the wrong platform, I tried to find a way to reach the other one, but there was no walkway over. The train came and went without me.
The only way to get to the other platform was to exit the side I was on (completely exit the train station), go through the underpass outside, and re-enter the station from the other side. Only, I couldn’t get out of the station: to get through the turnstiles, you have to scan you ticket again, but they wouldn’t accept my ticket. I tried to call someone in the ticket office, but they ignored me (I saw them look over – I know they heard me). Finally, I simply jumped the barrier. Reaching the other side of the station, my ticket again would not let me through. I went to the counter and mimed my predicament to the cashier; she was surprised, but manually opened the gates to let me in. I was rather upset by the entire mess. I was now worried that my ticket wouldn’t scan once I reached Petersburg – thankfully it worked fine once I reached town.
I went back to my hostel to relax and then grab some dinner before heading over to Starbucks to do some reading. The drawbridges tour did not begin until 00:50, so I had quite a bit of time to kill (sadly, all of the museums closed at 18:00, so I couldn’t while away the time there). I walked back down to the Palace Embankment to join the tour, admiring the city by night as I did. Palace Square was magical at night, with the Winter Palace light up.
The boat left from the same pier as that morning’s hydrofoil. I was assigned a spot in the front cabin, but I spent little time there as I went out onto the deck to see the bridges during most of the tour. The boat provided blankets for passengers and I placed one under my coat, which kept me surprisingly warm. The tour was only in Russian, which was ok as I was still able to watch each bridge as it went up.
The Neva River in St Petersburg has several large bridges that cross it, but none are high enough to permit tall boats to sail underneath them. To allow them passage, the bridges are opened each night from roughly 01:00 to 03:00. The real spectacle is just how massive each bridge is and watching each one raise up is really interesting (I was quite impressed – it exceeded my expectations).
The first bridge was right next to the Winter Palace; it had lights along it and music played as it was opened; a large crowd was gathered on the Palace Embankment to watch and several boats were alongside us in the Neva. Once each bridge was opened, the boats would speed along to the next one, almost as though it were a race.
The tour of the bridges opening lasted about an hour before we turned back around. On the journey back, I went back into the cabin to rest. The front cabin was full – well, there was room, but none of the people were inclined to make room for me, so I was put in the rear cabin. With the city being so north, the night sky never got fully dark during the night; by the time the tour ended around 03:00, it was bright enough that many street lights were turning out.
I tried to get an Uber to take me back to my hostel, but, once again, I could not get a car to pick me up. With the metro not running at this time, I was forced to walk (I refused to pay the exorbitant rates the taxi drivers were charging). I reached my hostel just before 04:00 and was soon fast asleep.
2 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
I slept in quite late this morning owing to the fact that I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 04:00. I was still exhausted from the long day and late night before, so I spent the day being lazy. I walked around the city a little bit, but mostly I spent the day reading and working.
3 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
On today’s agenda: visiting some of the remarkable metro stations in St Petersburg. Russia – the Soviet Union, to be precise – spent a lot of money on the metro stations in both St Petersburg and Moscow, making them into true works of art. The story goes that the citizens, after the Second World War, were so tired of seeing destruction everywhere, that they asked the government to give them something beautiful to look at, which turned out to be the metro stations.
Most of the great stations in St Petersburg were along the primary Red Line 1, which was the closest to my hostel. There were a few walking tours offered in the city that took visitors through the metro, but I decided that I could do it best on my own. I walked down to the station and set off on my rather lengthy excursion on the metro.
Up first was Avtovo Station. This was one of the best stations of the day. At the end of the column-lined platform was an incredible mural; magnificent chandeliers hung from the ceiling; ornamented grates hung on the walls. The best feature of the station were the central columns that were made of glass; the glass was cut into 3-D shapes of Soviet stars and other symbols.
I rode back one station, to Kirovskiy Zavod. The station was covered with grey marble and each column was topped with a metal sculpture representing one area of the Soviet economy (or so I assumed): metal working, farming, etc. At the end of the platform? My favorite: a bust of Lenin himself.
Narvskaya was next and one could definitely feel more of a Soviet influence in this station. The hammer and sickle adored each column, accompanied by Soviet-style statues of workers.
The communist influence continued at the next stop, Baltiyskaya. It was a simpler station with grey marble, but the mural at the end of the platform was dedicated to the Revolution of 1917.
My final stop of the tour was Admiralteyskaya, the station closest to the Winter Palace and located right next to the Admiralty building. The theme of this station was, appropriately, the navy, specifically the founding of the Russian Navy by Peter the Great. Murals were all over the place, with Peter himself depicted in several of them.
Concluding my tour of the metro stations, I rode the metro across the river and excited at Lenin Square, where yet another statue of Lenin was standing high atop a pedestal. Fountains lined the square and a bed of flowers stretched out before him.
I had planned to walk from Lenin Square over to the Peter and Paul Fortress, but as I was able to leave, it began to rain quite heavily, so I decided to take the metro back towards my hostel. I spent the rest of the afternoon working and reading as the rain refused to let up.
4 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
I decided to revisit the Winter Palace and Hermitage museums again, this time hoping to get into the Diamond and Gold rooms. I left my hostel very early in the morning so I could get there when the ticket office opened. I had enough time to stop and grab a coffee on the way too, which helped give me some energy for the day.
When I reached the palace, I was happy to find the ticket lines rather short and, best of all, tickets for the Diamond and Gold rooms were available! My ticket to the Gold Room was for 13:00, which gave me roughly 90 minutes to explore the Winter Palace. I grabbed a museum map this time and made my way back through the various state rooms. I made a mad-dash run through the palace and museum; I remembered where many of the rooms where and soon the maze of rooms began to make sense to me! I’m not going to describe them in great detail again; for that, see my previous blogs. I’ll just share some of the photos that I took during this visit.
I did revisit the Malachite Room, which was luckily not crowded, allowing me to snap some great pictures of the entire room and then the adjoining dining room where the Provisional Government was arrested.
The Gold Room meeting point was in a small room on the ground floor; there were about six of us on the tour and our guide soon met us and took us to the entrance to the room. She spoke excellent English and provided very thorough and detailed explanations of everything we saw. Photos were not permitted in either the Gold or Diamond rooms.
The Gold Room was filled with gold pieces from early Russian history, mainly from the various nomads that had inhabited the area. The tsars, starting with Peter the Great, collected the various pieces during their rule. The displays were very interesting: rings, earrings, diadems; there were some pieces that were so small and so detailed/intricate, they needed to be placed under a magnifying glass to be properly seen (to this day, no one knows how they were able to create such intricate pieces).
The tour lasted just under an hour, which gave me another hour or so before my tour of the Diamond Room. After exploring and revisiting most of the state rooms once again, I met the ground for the Diamond Room tour.
The Diamond Room is a bit misleading as the majority of the pieces displayed are gold, many similar to what was displayed in the Gold Room. There were some very interesting diplomatic gifts that various tsars had received, including horse decorations with thousands of diamonds. The final room of the exhibit was the best part as it contained tsarist treasures: snuffboxes, rings, other jewelry, etc. Overall, I was disappointed in the Diamond Room.
By this time, it was late afternoon, so I grabbed a late lunch / early dinner and decided to call it a day.
5 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
Another uneventful day in St Petersburg. I first had to get some laundry done; I had found a small laundromat a few days ago and decided to revisit them. They only had three washing machines and the majority of the place was devoted to a bar. I had only one load of laundry to do, but it took me over two hours to get done! After that was done, I needed to get a late lunch as it was now past 14:00.
I spent the rest of the afternoon back at my hostel working before calling an Uber to take me to the Yusupov Palace. This place was where Rasputin was murdered in 1916. No one truly knows what happened that night and the story put out by Felix Yusupov himself seems so outrageous. What is known is that Felix and his co-conspirators lured Rasputin to the palace; they go him drunk in a basement room and then Felix shot him. Returning upstairs to share the news, he was shocked to find that Rasputin had survived and was trying to get away through a small courtyard. Rasputin was then shot several more time after which, his body was taken out of the city and dumped in a river.
Sadly, my visit to the palace was not to be. When I arrived, I found the ticket office was closed, despite the fact that I had already purchased my ticket online and was told to arrive at that time. I couldn’t find anyone to help me and I soon gave up. The palace was on the Moika River and I walked to the other side of the river so I could at least take pictures of the palace itself. Looking up the museum later, I was not terribly disappointed in missing it: the basement room is there, but there are several (rather poorly done) dummies representing Rasputin and Yusupov.
6 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia
My final day in St Petersburg! My 16 days in the city had flown by and I was not yet ready to leave; I had truly fallen in love with the city. I decided to spend my last day in town revisiting some of my favorite areas and sights.
I walked over to St Michael’s Castle, through the Summer Gardens and the Field of Mars, over to the Winter Palace. I had considered taking a free walking tour that morning, but decided against it as I wanted to do my own thing instead. I spent quite a bit of time in Palace Square, admiring the Winter Palace. I had dreamed of visiting it for so long and it was sad to be leaving.
I crossed the bridge over to Vasilyevsky Island, where I strolled around the riverfront park and the rostral columns once more. I then walked back across the bridge and walked back by the Bronze Horseman before heading back to Palace Square one last time. I reluctantly pulled myself away from the Winter Palace and walked back down Nevsky Prospekt one last time (though, to be fair, I would not miss that long walk!). I stopped back inside the Kazan Cathedral for a quick visit on my way back to my hostel.
That evening I went back to my favorite Starbucks to relax and do some reading.