Uncovering history, art and good food in St Petersburg

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St Petersburg, like Canberra was a planned city, the design of Peter the 1st, or the Great as he was commonly known, in the early 18th century. Peter was keen to build trade links with Europe and so he relocated the country’s capital to a former swampland and encouraged visitors to the city to bring stone with them, which was lacking in the area, for building.
We had a sketchy start to our arrival in Russia’s former capital after Air Berlin cancelled our direct flight, rerouted us through Moscow with only an hour to connect and re-check in our bags, so we missed our connection and eventually arrived at 2.35am, about 14 hours later than anticipated. Fortunately our hostel organised a taxi for us and he sped us through the empty streets whooshing through the puddles and delivered us to our door.
We stayed at Soul Kitchen Hostel which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It’s in a fantastic location in the centre of the city next to a canal and our four bed dorm had a double bed each(!) with curtains enclosing each bed for privacy and all of the extras useful for travellers. Most amusing was the toilet cubicles which had a sensor and played classical music!
History of the City
Despite our late arrival we got up in time for the free walking tour led by local lad Vlad the following morning. The tour started in the enormous Palace square with the imposing column honouring Alexander I for leading the victory over the French in 1814. At 47m it was deliberately designed to be higher than Napoleon’s column in Paris!
I was struck by the number of beautiful, imposing buildings on nearly every corner we passed on the tour. Apparently it was typical of the Baroque period to design large buildings with the purpose to impress. They certainly succeeded and the city is a visual delight.
You can’t visit the Palace Square without noticing the Hermitage which stretches along one side. It was the former winter palace of the Romanov Royal family and so alongside the opulent rooms is one of the world’s greatest art collections.

Atlas statues - original hermitage

Atlas statues – original hermitage

The original Hermitage is a smaller building next door which got its name as it was intended to be Catherine the Great’s ‘little escape’ and housed her private art collection.
Some other highlights of the tour included learning more about the history of Catherine and Peter ‘the Greats’. The Bronze Horseman Statute (so named after a Pushkin poem) was my favourite as the most impressive in the city.

Peter the Great statue

Peter the Great statue

It depicts Peter as the strong military leader atop his horse which is rearing over a serpent symbolising the crushing of Russia’s enemies. The statue was built 6 decades after Peter’s death and was commissioned by his granddaughter in law, Catherine. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter III (the Great’s grandson). He only ruled for a few months before some statesman who disliked his leadership, politics and heavy drinking backed Catherine for the throne and she overthrew him in a military coup. Peter was imprisoned and died ‘mysteriously’ a few months later while Catherine was empress for more than 3 decades. However, she wanted to be remembered as the legitimate ruler and heir of Peter the Great which is why she commissioned the statue in his honour but with an inscription to Peter and herself underneath.
We also learned about the underground metro system which goes deep under the city to navigate underneath the Neva River and some stations are up to 86m deep, involving a 7 minute journey down the escalators!
I also thought the history behind the name of the city was interesting. The original name, St Petersburg, combined Latin and German and continued until 1914. During World War One Germany and Austria were Russia’s enemies so it was decided to change the name to the more Russian sounding ‘Petrograd’. This only lasted a decade until 1924 when it was changed to Leningrad after the revolution. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a referendum was held and it resumed its original name. I found it fascinating how the country’s wars and history determined these name changes.
Surprisingly Foodie City
We also learned about the story behind stroganoff. Count Stroganov was the head of a wealthy family and lived a long life, well into his 80s. He’d always appreciated good food but at such an age found himself missing a few teeth. He asked his chefs to create a dish that he could still enjoy and there was born stroganoff!
We had a tasty lunch of cabbage soup (much nicer than the stuff my mum ate for days as part of a diet some years ago) and some delicious Russian schnitzel pancake (I don’t know the actual name) which was like a veal schnitzel covered in egg and fried so it resembled a pancake.

Church of our Saviours Blood

Church of our Saviours Blood

After lunch we visited Our Saviours Church of Spilled Blood, a stunning Russian Orthodox Church with colourful facades and chimneys. It is named because it lies where Alexander II was assassinated by early Marxist radicals.
Making the most of the rare sunshine we continued exploring the city by foot for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed a stroll through numerous gardens, the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress and alongside the river. Feasting on the Russian cuisine

For dinner we ventured to the recommended Soviet Cafe to sample some more local cuisine in a restaurant decorated and furnished in 1970s soviet style. Of course we had to try borscht (beetroot soup) which was lovely and quite different from how I’ve had it before. Not a thick purée but a meat stock, packed with vegetables but still retaining the purple colour. It was complimented nicely by a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Mitch washed this down with a glass of Kvas, a mildly sweet drink which is essentially a non alcoholic beer made from fermented rye bread. It is the old proletariat drink that the farmers and workers used to drink instead of water. I opted for birch juice, which was lightly flavoured and slightly sweet. This was followed by two Russian dishes whose names I have forgotten – a sizzling plate of roast potatoes, pork, onion and tomato, and crispy ham and mushroom pancakes with sour cream which were somewhat lacking in flavour and a bit greasy. We were tempted to carry on and find out what ‘drunken checkers: horseradish vs cranberry’ involved but after our late night opted to keep that a mystery.
Getting Arty
We visited the Hermitage the following afternoon with a tour guide organised through the same free walking tour company. Our guide, Tania, was fantastic. We were able to skip the long queues and actually find some of the more interesting pieces on display.

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage - a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great'so lover's

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage – a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great’so lover’s

The Hermitage is an enormous labyrinth and although we’re on a budget it was a great decision to go with a guide. She was also full of lots of anecdotes about the artists and the paintings and some of the myths and legends behind them. I was hesitant about visiting the Hermitage as I’m not a big art buff and was concerned we’d get lost in amongst the huge collection. Having been I can’t believe I considered skipping it. The palace rooms at the beginning are incredible. Many are lavishly decorated with gold and marble (interestingly they mixed the marble so as to create a warmer affect given the chilly Russian climate) and must be seen to be believed.
We had a short break after 3 hours with Tania and then visited the General Staff building across the square which houses a fantastic collection of the 20th century masters – Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Van Gough, Picasso..
We were tired and hungry after our arty afternoon but we joined the hordes of shoppers on the main avenue Nevsky Prospect and battled our way through until we found Pelmenya, a restaurant recommended for delicious dumplings not only Russian but with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian varieties.

Dumplings!

Dumplings!

We enjoyed sampling most of these and particularly liked the varenky, both sweet (cherry and sour cream) and savoury (filled with melted cheese served with a yogurt, garlic and dill sauce). The Russian variety – pelmeni, were ok but were filled with an unidentifiable minced meat (perhaps chicken) and not as tasty as the varenky or pumpkin and carrot manti. We also had a side of three varieties of sauerkraut: traditional, Georgian and Korean – all delicious! My only regret invisiting this restaurant was that we weren’t with a larger group to try more!
We had some time to kill before the infamous White Nights opening of the draw bridges which commences at 1.25am throughout summer so found ourselves a craft beer bar and sampled some of the local brew. They had some tasty pale ales but Mitch unwisely choose a cherry stout which was a little hard going! The draw bridge opening was as anticlimactic as expected and although it draws a large crowd both on land and from tourist boats I’d only recommend it if you happened to still be up and close to the river at that time.
On our last morning we loaded up with some snacks for the high speed train to Moscow. Highly recommended are the deeply filled pies from chain baker, Stolle (we had one mushroom and one green onion, really tasty and filling) and the traditional pyshka, Russian donuts.

I loved St Petersburg. Admittedly we were very lucky with the weather but I felt like the city had a really positive atmosphere, I was wowed by the architecture and surprised by how tasty the food was. After our flight hassles we only had two full days but I would highly recommend at least a long weekend in St Petersburg.

22-25 July 2015

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