8 August 2014

St Petersburg, Russia: Where Nice Things Happen To Nice People

I never imagined I would like this city this much.

Like a dreamy illustration from a fairytale storybook, this palace-strewn ex-swampland is up there on my list of most beautiful cities, beating Paris, Madrid and London! It’s a definite on my want-to-go-back–there list.

We flew into Pulkovo Airport in the late afternoon, and I planned my tourist geekery from our hotel on Nevsky Prospekt in what feels like the heart of St Petersburg. Laying out the map, I pinpointed the must-sees; the Church on Spilled Blood, Neva River boat cruise, Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Summer Gardens.

I confidently strode out of my hotel lobby, armed with a map, a big-ass camera and a hair donut (yes it gets windy on the river and I’m not about to have dodgy tourist hair in my pics, okay?).

Aiming for the Anichkov Bridge over the Fontanka River, I spent so much time looking for a damn cash exchange that I missed the boat. It is illegal to accept US$ as payment in Russia, and I found their cash-exchanging cash machines exceptionally confusing. My profound learning outcome from said confusion? Next time, buy the Rubles before you go genius.

Lesson learnt, I drowned my sorrows with a sook (Russian for juice), wandered the pastel streets and waited an hour and a half for the next boat. Eurgh. For someone who’s always late, I sure do hate waiting.
Boarding the boat, which I later heard someone describe (fairly accurately) as a barge that had seen better days, I sat at the back and got comfortable. It wasn’t too busy so I had about four plastic seats to myself to stretch out. If you’re seated at the back, it’s a lot easier to hear the commentary from the speakers either side of you.
The barge faking it as a boat cruised steadily out onto the Neva River, past summer palaces, extravagant winter homes, sites of sin and mysterious murders, under bridges and alongside a beautifully smooth sunset which made me entirely glad that I’d missed the previous boat.

As the sun skimmed across the back of Peter and Paul’s Fortress, its flickering fingers pointed out golden domes and spires that speckle the city. Architectural proof of one man’s dream to build a new capital inspired by Europe’s finest. Baroque, Greek, gothic, Roman - you name it, every style is woven into a web of absolutely breathtaking buildings around every turn.

As I listened to the stories of St Petersburg’s conception, it actually echoed the very city I live in today. Dubai. That’s not to say they resemble one another, or even that they have many similarities. Rather, there are some parallels in the ambition that founded the grand expansion of what used to be not very much. The titled Peter The Great wanted to create something like Venice; he envisioned man-made canals and rivers throughout the city. He sought to impress those who entered the city by boat with majestic palaces, tall spires and fabulous structures engineered by Russia and Europe’s best architects and artists. The elements were against him as the weather in St P is either cold or wet, or both, 300 – 330 days of the year; and much of the land was marshy swamp. And yet, he achieved his goal. Over 300 years later, the rest of the world is still blown away by the beauty of this incredible place.
It makes me wonder, as Dubai continues to rise from its sandy foundations, what will the world think in 300 years from now? Will they be awed by the cloud piercing Burj Khalifa? The man-made palm-shaped islands? The detailed interiors of hotels glittering on every corner of tree-lined boulevards? Will this beauty endure for three more centuries? Built on a plan of wild dreams and ambition, Dubai’s rulers have seen the potential in their land like Peter The Great saw in his… just some food for thought!

Back to Russia, and my hair donut and I were getting along fabulously as the wind picked up and the sun slowly began to sink behind the old Stock Exchange building.

The tour aboard el barge took about an hour. I got back to my hotel at 11pm and it was still light outside (I forgot how much I love long summer nights). By this point I was walking dead having only slept 3 hours the night before (downside of wanting a social life and cool job) – bedtime for me.

The next morning, the plan is to hit the big fat touristy red bus. Running along Nevsky Prospekt, a blur of coloured brickwork whizzed past and I only just made it (thanks to the long queue giving me a 3 minute late window). It cost 600rubles for a day pass on the bus, but given that the bus pulls up only once an hour, you'll have to be on the ball, get off and spend an hour at the stops you like, and then hop back on again. Note to self: be early next time and you’ll get a window seat from the start of the tour.

I stayed on the bus for close to two hours, and thanks to the audio guide, which can be heard in 11 different languages, I didn’t feel a minute of it. Sitting on top of the bus, I had this perfect balance of morning sunshine and summery breeze to accompany some class sightseeing.

I’m not going to recount the entire tour, but I will share my favourite moments:
  • The dry humour from the man narrating the audio guide. Like.
  • The view from the top of a double-decker; it’s nice to see a city without having to dodge ice cream-wielding children and tons of tourists.
  • An interesting recommendation to check out the many metro stations. I wouldn’t have thought to look, but many are decorated with stained glass, marble and intricate designwork. Thanks Mr Audio Guide.

  • A cracking view of the Church on Spilled Blood. Wish I’d sat on the right side of the bus for an amazing photo opp. A great way to get a shot from high up, with no unsuspecting bodies poised to photobomb your snaps.
  • Learning that proper bridges to cross the wide Neva River were only commissioned after the death of Peter the Great, as he had insisted on citizens using boats to get from one side to the other – it was prettier that way!

  • Hearing stories of scandal, from the days when aristocrats made outrageously expensive demands, and held super-posh parties. The audio guide gives you all sorts of gossip pertaining to the Russian rich folks. Something like an 18th century Russian version of today’s Hello magazine.
  • The gorgeous gold-plated copper dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, so carefully constructed that it has never required any work since the mid-1800s. I would have liked to look around inside, but I was Pushkin-ed for time. Sorry.

Hopping off the bus, I wandered up to the Church on Spilled Blood. As I admired the trippy turrets from the edge of the canal, a French man stopped me to ask if I might take him a photo. I obliged, and then asked him to return the favour using my slightly broken Nikon.

Upon noticing the state of my mightily cracked lens (see the lines in my photo above^^^), he offered me a spare lens of his own, saying he never used it anyway. And although I refused the offer/tried to pay him for it, he insisted that nice things happen to nice people. Then he handed me the lens, and off he went.
Needless to say, this was a very sweet cherry on my little cake and as I made my way through the gardens adjacent to the CoSB, I said a prayer of gratitude for all the beauty in St Petersburg, for the sunshine and blue sky, and for the random act of kindness that had made my day.
I can’t wait to go back.

Love from Russian dolly x

P.s. Most of the photos above are taken with my Samsung S3 except the last one with my cracked lens... and below, taken with my new lens, my favourite shot of the day!

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