St. Petersburg, 15th to 17th of May

After acquiring some roubles and managing to escape Vitebsky station via St. Petersburg’s rather lovely metro system, I headed off to find my hostel, which was not far from Moskovsky station and the top of Nevsky Prospekt. My host for the next few days would be Natalia, and she wasted no time making me feel at home – I was whisked in, fed breakfast, provided with maps and helped with train times and instructions for the next stage of my journey. Natalia also agreed to register my Russian visa for me once I explained my Moscow and trans-Siberian plans to her. Once I’d settled all my stuff in my dorm, I had a very welcome shower, put some laundry on to wash and headed out to investigate the city.

My first mission was to buy tickets for Moscow. Natalia very helpfully wrote a short script for me to show at the ticket office, but when I finally reached the counter the lady indicated that there weren’t any places left on the train I wanted. There were a few other, more expensive, options so I indicated a train that arrived in Moscow at around 7am and paid up, rationalising that it was still pretty cheap for a bed on a sleeper train. Faffing around at the station took much longer than I expected and left little of the day for serious sight-seeing, and I was also pretty tired from my erratic night’s sleep on the train, so I grabbed a coffee and a bite to eat and decided to have a walk around some of the main sights, check opening times and get my bearings. Nevsky Prospekt is the main shopping street in St. Petersburg and I walked down it towards the Winter Palace, shop-spotting and window-shopping. On the way I glimpsed such notable landmarks as the Singer building and the Cathedral on Spilled Blood.

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg
The tasty-looking Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

The Winter Palace is on the banks of the Neva river and looks like a very large mint-flavoured cream cake. It was almost closing time when I got there, but I managed to get into the atrium and check out the opening times and prices for the Hermitage and discovered that the English tours clashed neatly with an appointment I had for the following day. After I was shooed out of the palace by the information lady, I headed over to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (aka the Church of the Resurrection), which I’d spotted earlier and was very curious about. It was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was killed by the People’s Will terrorist group, despite introducing reforms. The cathedral itself is partially modelled on St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and has a similarly fairy-tale appearance from the outside.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, modelled on St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

Stupidly, I didn’t take advantage of the “White Nights” late opening, but instead wandered across the neighbouring Mikhaylovsky Gardens towards the Summer Gardens, which I thought would make a nice place for an evening stroll. To my dismay, however, they seemed to be closed for maintenance, so I headed back towards the Winter Palace through the Mars Field, then on towards the Russian Museum. After that, being knackered by this point, I headed back up Nevsky Prospekt to the hostel, checked my emails, sorted out my laundry and collapsed into bed.

Smolny convent
Smolny convent, also closed on Wednesdays.
Kresty prison
Kresty prison, by all accounts not a nice place to end up.

During my exploration I’d noted that many of the museums were closed on Wednesdays, which rather threw out my plan of doing a bit of tourist stuff before and after my vaccination appointment. I slept late despite being able to feel every spring in my bed, then made leisurely progress towards the clinic via a local supermarket and a hotel cafe. The appointment went ok, though it took me a little time to explain to the doctor that I hadn’t been bitten, but instead wanted the final part of my Rabies vaccination. Eventually he seemed to understand and disappeared to get the shot, which seemed to require two different vials to be mixed before injection. Very odd. I can only hope that I’m covered now, but I’m still going to be pretty cautious around strange dogs. After the vaccination, I walked some more around St. Petersburg and confirmed that pretty much everywhere of interest was closed, then grabbed something to eat and headed back to the hostel to call home.

The next day I was determined to be more efficient and actually see something before I had to catch a train to Moscow that evening, so I got up early and headed out, leaving my rucksack at the hostel for later collection. Luckily, I managed to get to the Hermitage just in time to join the English tour, which was well worth going on. The guide was a lady in her 80s who had worked at the Hermitage for 50 years, and she was delightfully enthusiastic about the building and its exhibits. We trotted around for a couple of hours viewing highlights and significant pieces, which helped me get a much-needed handle on the place – it’s huge and knowing where to start would be a nightmare otherwise. I also decided to have a look in at the Gold room, which can only be visited on a guided tour. It was quite interesting, especially the early exhibits that shifted in design according to age and the influence of different tribes and races, and the later exhibits were wondrously lush, but the tour seemed somewhat rushed and I would really have liked more opportunity to wander around and look at things myself, since there wasn’t time to look at highlighted items closely or examine something that wasn’t mentioned directly without missing what the lady was saying about something else. I couldn’t decide if it had been worth it or not, and went off to console myself with some Impressionists.

Mosaic, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
A mosaic in the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Once I felt that I’d seen as much of the Hermitage as I could reasonably appreciate in one go, I headed back to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. I’d found the outside very attractive and had learned that the inside was covered in elaborate mosaics, which is pretty much a guaranteed draw for me, and indeed it was so. Fantastic mosaic images of saints and religious figures covered every available surface, and the effect was breath-taking.

Iconostasis, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
The door of the iconostasis in the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

It was the first time I’d been in a Russian Orthodox church and I was interested to note differences between its general layout compared with the Anglican and Catholic churches I was more familiar with. Icons and relics seemed to play a much more important part and there was a large screen (the iconostasis) that separated the holy altar from the main body of the church. I didn’t initially appreciate it until it was pointed out to me elsewhere, but Orthodox churches do not typically contain any statues or three-dimensional representations of religious figures – something to do with avoiding similarities with pagan religions, apparently.

After a good wander round, I made my way slowly back to the hostel via a rather expensive supper on Nevsky Prospekt and took Natalia’s advice to have a shower and relax before catching my train, which wasn’t due to depart until around 11pm.

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