Anyone who knows me knows that I love to plan, and the thing I love to plan above all is travel. Mapped out itineraries, color-coded Excel timetables, museum tickets purchased in advance – all this stuff gives me the special kind of tingles. So when an opportunity presented itself not just to go to Saint Petersburg – the city, which I hadn’t visited since childhood – but to show it to a friend who had never set foot in Russia, well, that was the kind of prime travel-planning experience I could not pass on.
I approached the task with gusto. The results were…intense. During a day that my friend had available for sightseeing we would cover all major sites via a 15-kilometer walking tour, with stop-overs in two museums and lunch in a cafe that specialized in Russian cuisine. Over the next three days, in-between meeting up with family and other friends, I would cover at least half a dozen museums including the massive Hermitage, and about the same number of churches and palaces, before venturing out to more obscure sights like the Smolny Institute. All of Saint Pete’s in 96 hours – I was totally going to do it!
And then I didn’t. That’s the thing about plans – the hardest part is carrying them out.
What went wrong? It started off with logistics, particularly my friend’s work commitments reducing and reshuffling his availability. That certainly ate away at my motivation. I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t just take off exploring the city on my own – in fact that was already The Plan for 3 of my 4.5 days there. But…it was cold outside, and I was tired, and Pirates of the Caribbean was on TV, and the bed was so comfy, and walking just didn’t seem like fun…I am almost as good with excuses and I am with making plans.
On my third day in Saint Pete’s, as I was leisurely reading celebrity gossip on my phone while enjoying my second beer during a two-hour solo lunch in a sun-lit booth, that’s when it hit me — just how good that felt. In my usual sightseeing frenzy I am always so concerned with checking off all the must-see/must-do points on my epic lists that afterwards I need a post-vacation vacation in order to recover. So it just felt SO DAMN GOOD to not do ANYTHING for a couple of days. A little (fine – very) strange, but really, really good.
Ok, ok, I did not spend that entire trip just lazing around with Belle-Vue Kriek and Orlando Bloom. My friend and I did cover a lot of ground and most of the main sites in a single afternoon, and then I filled in a lot of the blanks in my last two days in the city.
What I (sometimes ‘we’) saw and did in the course of this trip:
The Palace Square, the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum* — the heart of Imperial Saint Petersburg.
Taking in three of Stravinsky’s one-act ballets from the Royal Box at the Mariinsky Theater, thanks to a call to the Right People made just half an hour before curtain time. This was one of the highlights of the trip, especially as I had no plans for a theater outing, but last-minute schedule wrangling gifted me with this gorgeous experience.
Cruiser Aurora. This late 19th-century Imperial Russia’s battleship fired the shot that signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917, kicking off the October Revolution.
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood* – an architectural marvel built in the second half of the 19th century but echoing medieval Russian architecture.
The Russian Museum. Another highlight of the trip. I have already written how much I love the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Russian Museum is nearly on par with its Moscow cousin in terms of richness and variety of its Russian fine art collection. Plus it is situated in a beautiful Mikhailovsky Palace, which is a sight to behold in its own right.
A night out with a bunch of crazy Italians who would give any Russian a run for his or her money in ease of vodka consumption.
Kunstkamera*. Saint Petersburg’s “Chamber of Curiosities” is basically your average “Peoples and Cultures of the World” museum but with more pickled infants.
The Bronze Horseman. Saint Petersburg’s defining landmark – sculpture of Peter the Great on a horse, stomping over the snake representing enemies of Russia – was commissioned by Catherine the Great, and has inspired many an artwork, and a famous epic poem by Alexander Pushkin.
Miles of streets, Neva River & canal embankments* walked, hundreds of mansions, palaces and generally pretty buildings photographed.
*A full post to follow
The cost of getting most of this done in less than 48 hours? Lots and lots of gypsy cab rides, subsisting almost exclusively on street food, and epic blisters! Seriously, I had to bandage my feet to go to work on Monday. Totally worth it.
What I wanted but did not get to see, aka “time to start planning the next trip”:
- Saint Petersburg Botanical Gardens, formerly the Apothecary Gardens – the oldest ones in Russia, a country with the largest number of botanical gardens in the world! I know you were dying to know this fact, and your life is richer for it.
- Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and interior of The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood – said to be gorgeous, rendered in multicolor marble and granite and featuring amazing 19th century artwork and mosaics.
- Peter and Paul Fortress. What started off as a fortification against Swedish invasions, became the burial grounds for Russian Tsars, and a prison for pretty much every famous and politically inconvenient Russian between 1720s and 1917. Now it also houses the Mint.
- Pretty much all other palaces – Sheremetev, Stroganov, etc – and museums of Saint Pete’s – the city has dozens!