How to become enchanted by Skt. Petersburg

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How to become enchanted by Skt. Petersburg

Haven’t you always wondered what Putin’s Russia is really like? What is hiding behind the well-guarded borderlines of one of the world’s biggest countries? Growing up with Hungarian parents I have been inaugurated with, not so much a hate, but more like a disdainfulness of Russia and everything that’s Russian. Maybe I should highlight that this disdainfulness was not the making of my father, as much as it was of my mother. Having been exposed to Soviet influences and restrictions on Hungary in her childhood has left her with many bad memories and most of them too strong to shake off. Her interest in the world lays anywhere else than in Russia. Her life experiences rubbed off on me to some extent, but I also quickly found that the dynamics of having a mother who despises Russia and a father who loves it (perhaps a little too much than the ordinary Hungarian) left me with a growing curiosity of the country. This curiosity has throughout the years been further enforced by our visits to my brother who lives in Kirkenes, Norway, just next to the Russian border.

canals in Skt. Petersburg

canals in Skt. Petersburg

Two years ago I was contemplating a month long adventure to Russia with my boyfriend at the time. We would begin in either Moscow or Murmansk and make or way to the other. It never happened and the idea had sprung out of plain spontaneity. But that was the closest I had ever gotten to plan a trip to Russia. Well, until I received an email about my expiring bonus-points at an airline about a year ago. I browsed through the destinations they were valid for, and Skt. Petersburg was the only one that caught my interest. I consider myself as a rather courageous person especially when it comes to leaving behind my familiar settings. But going to Russia alone was more than I could adjust to. So I called the only person that I could see myself going with: Daddy.

As I would find, going to Russia requires careful planning and administration. There were a lot of practicalities. Invitation vouchers, visa applications, personal meeting at the Embassy and what not. But when I stood in front of the Winter Palace all of the struggles had been forgotten. Because that is what Russia did to me: enchanted me.

Catarina Palace, Skt. Petersburg

Catherine Palace, Skt. Petersburg

I honestly didn’t know what to expect. But before we had put ourselves to bed the day of the arrival I was already positively surprised.

Maybe it was the taxi-driver, who was very chatty and very friendly, even though his English skills were just as limited as my dad’s Russian skills (which, by the way, improved during our stay). Maybe it was the tiny cozy café, just like one you would find in Copenhagen, where we enjoyed a delicious vegan meal. Maybe it was the sight of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood that was lit up for the night. I can’t tell, but the fascination didn’t stop there. It continued.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood night

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood night

Our first experience was at the Hermitage museum at the Winter Palace. I remember I entered the gigantic square to admire the beautiful colorful building with the Russian flag waving in the wind on the top of it. And when I saw that, I think I really understood just where in the world I was. I remember when I was in Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. A place where I had never thought I would ever visit. It was sort of the same feeling that hit me as I stood there admiring the gorgeous building.

There are heaps to see and do in Skt. Petersburg. Luckily, we had almost a week to explore everything. Of the more outstanding sights I recall the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, the Peter and Paul fortress where Lenins brother was once imprisoned, the Nevsky Prospekt, which is the main avenue of Skt. Petersburg and the Smolny Cathedral.

I guess that somehow unconsciously maybe, I have always expected Russia to be packed with history, which was definitely confirmed by all of the beautiful places and monuments we visited. But I had never imagined that it would be so atmospheric. All along the Nevsky you find cafés and restaurants, of course these are followed by the inevitable souvenir shops that you find in every big city you venture off to. And even though Skt. Petersburg is very much tailored to all of the cruise ship guests that come for a daylong stay (hence touristy), there is something about the city that is so enthralling that you forget that you have landed in a tourist mekka.

Smolny Cathedral, Skt. Petersburg,

Smolny Cathedral, Skt. Petersburg,

Skt. Petersburg is amazing, because you are aware that you are in Russia, but as a European (and especially as part Eastern European) you feel that you have never left your home. Because of the city’s proximity to Finland and the rest of Northern Europe, it has adopted some of the architectural features that you often find here. Even so the city maintains a unique vibe unlike other cities I have experienced in Northern Europe. Perhaps it’s the vivid cultural life lightening up the Nevsky. Street musicians, painters, dancers and more, seem to be an integrated part of the street view, and I guess that is what makes Skt. Petersburg so special, because unlike many other cities their presence is not staged for tourists, but simply for their own pleasure, which was especially seen in the faces of the teenage boys who were overly thrilled to perform in front of their friends on the Nevsky.

Walking down the Nevsky and gazing at the beautiful buildings made me wonder if this was everything that Russia was really about. Fortunately, it was not. One day, daddy and I decided to walk a bit further down the Nevsky than what we had done before. And then we ended up in a part of Skt. Petersburg that was in no way designed for tourists. The buildings had probably not been touched since the time of the Soviet Union. Even though it wasn’t particularly beautiful and yet there was something appealing about it. Maybe it was because another part of Russia’s history closed in on me.

Winter Palace, Skt. Petersburg

Winter Palace, Skt. Petersburg

The moment that left me completely breathless was not in Skt. Petersburg itself, but in the suburb of Pushkin. In Pushkin you find one of the most beautiful palaces in the entire world: the Catherine Palace. It’s not the original palace, as it burned down and was restored. But everything has been restored by hand, which has resulted in a breathtaking light blue wonder, which I think everyone ought to experience. I was too overwhelmed while walking around the gardens around the palace to do any more thoughts about it. We arrived fairly early during the day but even so we had to queue for little more than an hour, while we watched the time slots for visiting the palace vanish one by one and leaving us with one of the latest time slots available. Even so, this mattered very little because the park encircling the palace is vast and even an entire afternoon wasn’t enough to explore every corner of it.

The inside of the palace is simply amazing and I am positive, it will leave every visitor stunned. We didn’t have an audio-guide, as the rental had closed when it was our turn to visit the palace, so make sure you do some reading on it before you go. I had my private tour guide who knew about the entire history of the palace, but I won’t expect that you will find a person with the same enthusiasm for Russian history.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - Skt. Petersburg

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Going to Skt. Petersburg was an amazing decision. I found that, contrary to my belief, most Russians are friendly and helpful (excluding the guy at the intersections who opened my bag and tried to steal my wallet, but was outspeeded by me). At times you might feel too overwhelmed with the number of cathedrals and palaces, but even I, who is not a Russian history nerd, found that it was worth it to visit every one of them. They each represent a different part of Russia’s long and bloody history. But make sure you don’t get hung up on all of the old sights. Take time to wander down the Nevsky, have a coffee from one of the little coffee-wagons, make sure to taste piroq’s from one of the little food stalls and then I am sure you will experience all sides of Skt. Petersburg.

Barbara Jeszenszky

1 Comment

  • Claudio

    Will go to Russia in 10 days and enjoyed this article!

    12/11/2015 at 11:38 pm