St Petersburg, Russia - January 2018
Ever since visiting Moscow, back in 1986 (first UK tour in after Chernobyl), we’ve always said we’d like to visit St Petersburg and go in the winter, to see it in the snow.
Palace Square, St Petersburg, January 2018
Spurred, I think, by our trip to Jordan in 2017, Mandy said “We’ll go to St Petersburg in the winter”. She didn’t do anything about finding a trip, though, but I spotted a 4 day deal on Expedia, staying in a hotel on the Nevsky Prospekt and only costing about £300 for the two of us (flight included).
It seemed a perfect deal, so we booked. What I didn’t do was check the visa situation and, to be honest, knowing it would cost £108 each, plus a trip to London to submit the application, I might have thought twice about booking. Maybe, then, best that I didn’t!
The application form extended to about 20 pages, wanted to know my parent’s place and dates of birth and death (where applicable) as well as every country I’d visited in the previous 10 years.
The online form only allows for 10 places, so I added a list on a separate piece of paper, at their recommendation.
Fortunately, the trip to the application office only took us about 20 minutes and the visas were issued without any issue a few days later.
January rolled around and there was no snow in St Petersburg. We were getting worried that we’d be walking down murky wet, chilly streets, but the day before leaving they had a reasonable fall, which continued while we were there, and we got what Mandy called “The Dr Zhivago experience”.
We flew from Heathrow at 9:30 on a Thursday morning, so it wasn’t too early a start, but that meant with a 3 hour flight and 3 hour difference that we weren’t in Russia until around 4.
With just hand luggage, we were quickly at Passport control, but we had little trouble or delay here, with very few people there and plenty of open desks. The young woman on the control was fairly stern, but managed a small smile when handing me back my passport, something you’d never get from a US Immigration official!
I’d planned to take a bus and Metro to our hotel, but Mandy hassled me into a taxi ride in a Focus reeking of petrol, that cost us north of £60.
The ‘Nevsky Forum’ hotel was right on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street leading through the city centre to the Winter Palace/Hermitage complex. We went up to the reception, two floors above street level, and were then taken back down, outside to a shabby looking gate and courtyard and then in through a doorway leading to a distinctly Soviet looking staircase, where, two floors up, we were let into our ‘apartment’.
Bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt
Fortunately, despite the rather unpromising way in, the apartment was clean, roomy (for two) and, being off the street, nice and quiet. With a kitchenette it was easy to have a coffee or tea in peace. It was incredibly hot and it wasn’t until the final night that we worked out how to shut off the radiators and get it to a comfortable heat to sleep in!
Other than that, though, for the price, it was perfectly acceptable accommodation and we quickly found out that it was well positioned for seeing the sites. We were right next door to a Metro Station, so we could have hopped on that, but it was only about a 15 minute walk to the Hermitage/Winter Palace and less to St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Spilled Blood.
There were plenty of places to eat on Nevsky Prospekt and even more in the side roads leading off.
Mandy had heard of horror stories of long queues for the Hermitage, but we just walked in at 10:30 and bought a ticket for 70 Roubles, about £10. This entitled us to stroll around the Hermitage, Winter Palace, Peter The Great’s Winter Palace, The General Staff’s building and a few other places, but realistically you’d need more than 3 days just to do the Winter Palace justice.
The large Palace Square was covered in snow and the Winter Palace and other buildings looked great.
The Winter Palace
Inside, we first passed through the Winter Palace itself, with exhibitions on the 1917 revolution (You sense the Russians have a bit of unease at their history now - Proud of the end of serfdom and poverty that the Revolution heralded, but less comfortable with the resulting Communist era’s widespread deprivations) and the downfall and death of the Tsar’s family (I was interested to learn that the official line was that the Tsar was executed, but that his family were to be reported as killed in an ‘evacuation from counter revolutionary forces’, despite all being executed together - Clearly the killing of women and children, even Imperial ones, was a bit much for the Communists to think the Russian people would stomach at that early stage of their control).
Relics from the Revolution
Upper part of staircase
Beautiful wood floors were commonplace
The Tsar's Library - One of our favourite rooms
The building is incredibly sumptuous and as you stroll around them, Versailles comes to mind in terms of excess and luxury. Each room is now filled with artefacts, mostly related to the Imperial Tsars, but as you move through, some rooms are filled with statues, paintings or porcelain or other artefacts.
They like gold!
At times, there is too much to take in and, whilst we saw the majority of rooms, we could only look in detail at a small percentage of the items on display.
Quite a large bird bath - We have no idea what it really was!
Lavishly decorated corridors link grand rooms.
Moving into the Small Hermitage and then New Hermitage, the displays become more focussed - Roman, Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Siberian, Near East and so on, even, down in a far off corner, almost seemingly forgotten, artefacts from 22 and 23 Millenia before Christ!
The museum is incredible and easily worth the entry fee for a 100th of what’s there!
We decided to move on to visit Peter The Great’s Winter Palace, expecting something similar, but this is in fact, just a small house, now buried within a much larger, imposing building next to the New Hermitage, and the contrast of the simple life with the excess of the main Winter Palace is nearly impossible to comprehend!
Peter I's sleighs
Peter I's living room - Rather different to the Winter Palace!
It seemed that Peter 1 lived a simple life, although I’m sure it was grand by the standards of the time. Mandy seemed most impressed by a pair of Pince Nez with clear lenses which Peter used when wood turning (a popular pastime amongst the wealthy of the time, presumably widely as some of the equipment was from England).
The museums stay open late on a Friday, so we headed to see the exhibitions of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the General Staff building. This building, featuring a double arch leading on to the Palace Square, and forming the opposite side of the square to the Winter Palace/Hermitage complex, is actually very like the British Library inside, with old buildings and squares roofed over to form a modern exhibition space.
Inside the General Staff Building
Faberge's scale replica of the Imperial Crown Jewels
The exhibition featured many pieces by the most famous of the artists, including Picasso, Manet, Monet, Matisse and Cezanne (to name but a few), although most weren’t paintings I knew from memory.
We also saw some of Faberge’s work in an exhibition about him here.
Winter Palace by night
Pretty exhausted we headed back in the dark towards our hotel, eating Russian food at Abrikosov (We’d succumbed to the convenience and cheapness of a KFC the first night, right across the road from our hotel!), Mandy having Mushrooms in Cheese and I had a Strogonoff with mashed potato. The food was tasty enough, but the portions were quite small. We had room for Dessert!