My perception of Russia was dispelled very quickly when I reached St. Petersburg. My vision of a grey country with ‘downtrodden’ people went right out the window. At least this is my first impression. It wasn’t only that we arrived for the Victory Day celebrations with music and bands and lots of people, or the fact that we had beautiful sunny days, but there is a vibrancy here and people are friendly and seem normal and open, even though there is a language barrier. St. Petersburg supposedly only gets 60 sunny days a year and we stole four of them!! Another thing I noticed was how clean it was. You see very little garbage lying around the streets or countryside.
St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and was Russia’s capital from 1732 to 1918. The name was changed to Petrograd in 1914, and then to Leningrad after the Bolshevik Revolution and then changed back to St. Petersburg in 1991 after the break up of the Soviet Union. Today Moscow is the capitol city of Russia.
St. Petersburg has a population of 5.6 million people. It is the cultural capital of Russia and said to be the Venice of the north, with all the water, rivers and canals running through and around the city. The canals were created to allow shipping to get up to the city from the Baltic Sea via the Gulf of Finland. There are many bridges (500+) built over the canals and rivers.
There is also an interesting concept, during the day the roads must be open for vehicular traffic, but at night it is much quieter, so they have a system of opening the bridges to allow the ships to navigate the canals. At 1:35 am precisely the first draw bridge opens and then every five minutes after that, the next bridge opens and the next and the next, and stay open until five am. If you are out and want to be able to get back home at that time you may have to scramble between bridges. On the other hand, if you need an excuse to stay out late…..
Our second day in St Petersburg started with a visit to the Peter & Paul Fortress built on the banks of the Neva River, facing the Hermitage across the water. The establishment of this fortress by Peter the Great is considered to mark the founding of St. Petersburg. The beautiful cathedral located here is considered the symbolic centre of Russia and the burial place for the Romanov family and many Russian rulers over the centuries.
Our visit to the Hermitage was of course the highlight of our day. It is hard to imagine let alone explain the opulence and beauty found here. There is gold everywhere. And beautiful art. And marble. It was the winter palace for former emperors. Today it contains one of the world’s largest and most illustrious art collections, thanks mainly to Catherine II who was a huge collector. I saw masterpieces by Leonardo a Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, Gainsborough, Monet, van Dyck, Gauguin, Picasso and many many other well known painters.
Most of the art was saved by taking it out of the palace and hiding it in various places outside of St. Petersburg. Many of the beautiful buildings and palaces were taken over and used by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, during the revolution. However it was during WWII that so many of the buildings were destroyed or damaged by German bombs over the city. Today the restoration work done on these buildings and palaces throughout the city is remarkable and has brought them back to their full grandness and beauty. One definitely could use more time here there is so much to see and so much history to learn.