We arrived early on a Sunday morning, after taking the overnight train from Moscow. It was quiet and comfortable, so while we were a little tired, we were still ready to tackle our last city in Russia. Stepping out of the train onto the platform of the Moscow Station in Saint Petersburg, it was like we’d travelled to another season. Instead of sweating in our shorts and t-shirts, we were reaching for our jumpers and jackets.
The day started with a quick ride on the Saint Petersburg Metro, which was unsurprisingly quite similar to Moscow, especially how deep underground the system is. The single stop on the subway didn’t save us that much walking, but mentally I think it helped Risa for our short walk to the hotel, Fontanka 5, by the Fontanka River. We managed to find the building quite easily, but trying to get through the security doors on the ground floor was more of a challenge – we had to ask a waitress of the restaurant next door.
It was close to 9AM by the time we’d arrived, but it was still far too early to check in. We thought they might let us take a shower, but sadly that wasn’t possible. We dumped our luggage, Risa put on all her warm clothes, and we stepped out into a cold, windy and overcast day.
I didn’t have much planned for today, other than walking around town to get a feel for the city, and for what there is to see. We followed some of the canals north towards Saint Michaels Castle (which was under heavy renovation). I thought about taking a boat tour along the canals, but after seeing the passengers looking miserable under their layers of blankets, we decided that maybe today wasn’t the day for that. The walk was pleasant, through parks and small streets lined with beautiful pastel-shaded buildings.
We soon ended up at gruesomely titled The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – named for the grisly death that occurred to Tsar Alexander II in that location. Outside the church had more than a passing resemblance to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, except without the range of colours. It also looked out of place here in Saint Petersburg, where the architecture seemed more European. The area was completely packed with large groups of tourists in tour buses, so we decided to wait for a mid-week opportunity to view the inside.
Following the canal south, we made our way through a busy tourist market, with all sorts of tacky (and some not so tacky) Russian souvenirs for sale. The range was nothing compared to the Izmailovsky Markets in Moscow, (not to mention the prices), making us feel like we did well picking up a few very small gifts in that crazy market.
Risa made the most of any opportunity to duck inside buildings and shops to get out of the cold and the wind, even if it happened to be a Russian bookstore. Since we were woken early to have breakfast on the train, we were quite hungry by lunchtime. We were as indecisive as ever, and eventually settled for a cheap kebab, which turned out to be one of the best we’d had. There was something amazing about the spices and marinade used on the meat that truly set it apart.
Even though it was on the opposite side of (central) Saint Petersburg, we decided to walk back to our hotel to check in properly. I’d read that sometimes guests here were upgraded to some of the large luxury suites, however sadly we had no such luck. While there was nothing wrong with our room, and after our unpleasant hostel in Moscow it was actually very nice, I was hoping to get a free upgrade.
Risa filled up her tea flask and we made our way back out, further North this time, towards Saint Peter and Paul Fortress. We crossed the Neva River, giving us a great view back of the waterfront of the city.
As we walked across the small bridge to the island fortress, we could see that there was some sort of fair taking place on the grounds outside. Curiosity took over, and we went to go explore. We were both quite surprised when we realised that it was a medieval fair, with loads of people dressed in costume, fighting, dancing and singing. Though, it was the kids playing with their wooden weapons that really caught our attention!
Inside the walls of the fortress we followed the crowds for a while, until we came to a statue with strange proportions, surrounded by people taking photos with it. I did a quick bit of research, and found out that it was Peter the Great, and supposedly touching his right index finger brings good luck, so Risa with her eerily similar skinny fingers did her best E.T impersonation. As always, I feel a little bad that we don’t take things so seriously, especially when we see the way locals come here seeking something.
This feeling is even worse in churches, where I come to view the building, and they come seeking something spiritual. I viewed an exceptionally slender 123m tall golden tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which was visible from across the river through the streets of town. In a city where most buildings are four or five stories tall, this golden spire really stands out. There was an active service taking place when we arrived, so we didn’t intrude – I don’t think we were able to anyway.
We continued walking around the island, including a little sandy beach that I can just imagine to be filled with sunbathers during a sunny day in July and August. Today, on this chilly last day of May, we didn’t see anyone without a jacket on. We did however get a great view back over Saint Petersburg, including the mint-green Hermitage building, and the large golden dome of the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
We kept walking on our loop back towards the Palace Square just outside the State Hermitage Museum. Central Saint Petersburg is quite a compact city, however we were exhausted from being on our feet all day. Everyday.
The Palace Square was a lot larger than I thought, and it actually felt larger than Red Square in Moscow, however it lacked the impressive buildings surrounding it. What it didn’t lack was people on bikes, scooters, roller blades, skateboards and mopeds. It was a little chaotic trying to cross this enormous plaza.
I let my appetite get the better of me, and ended up at a fancy looking pizza restaurant. When the pizza actually arrived, I realised that it wasn’t a great decision, and I probably should have not listened to my cravings. The pizza was technically good, just flavourless. I also shouldn’t have expected the prosciutto to be anything other than plain ham. It was a tough sell to get Risa to have pizza for dinner, and she was quick to point out how rubbish my pizza was (she stuck with pasta, which was much less rubbish).
It was nearly 9PM, but the sun was still well and truly up, and the skies were still quite bright as we dragged ourselves back to the hotel. We’d walked past the Kazan Cathedral a few times already today, but we decided to be bold and to go inside for a look. It was probably one of the best things we did that day, as the interior of the building was truly phenomenal. This was like no church I had ever seen, and the combination of the marble columns, golden gilding and domed apses truly won me over. You weren’t meant to take photographs inside, and as a rule, I obey those wishes. However, there were large (Russian speaking) groups inside taking self portraits and all manner of other photos (including flash!!), so I didn’t feel too bad joining in their poor behaviour and snapping a quick shot for my memory. Of course, being an active church, there was a large gathering of the devout praying, and doing churchy things…
We caught a glimpse of The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood gleaming and golden as as the sunlight was breaking through the clouds, low on the horizon. There was so much detail to take in, and we took a few minutes just searching out bits and pieces.
Then it really was time to go get some well earned rest in preparation of another big day tomorrow.