Russia is dodgy. Stunning architecture, fascinating history, but let’s get it out of the way first, it is dodgy. When a tour company has a budget for bribing officials at the borders, you know something is not quite right. Not even 20 minutes into the country and our Top Deck bus was pulled over by the Police, a pay-off amounting to AU$20 settled any potential prison visits and we were back on our way to St Petersburg.
Welcome to Russia!
That aside, Russia is absolutely beautiful. It is not like any other country in the world (besides the ex-Soviet States that have since claimed independence.) The bright colours of Cathedrals and Palaces provide a stark contrast against the grey concrete of the many communist apartments. When the sun peeks out, the gold highlights on buildings reflect the opulence of the country’s varied past.
I had come onto the Top Deck ‘Red Star’ tour in Tallinn, Estonia, a beautiful, cobble-stoned city, but my main reason for choosing this tour was because it spent most of its time in Russia. Onion-domed churches and vodka are among my interests and I liked the fact that it wasn’t a tourist hot-spot in the leagues of Paris, Rome or Prague.
I admit to being a bit hesitant at leaving the safety of the tour bus in St Petersburg on our first full day in the land of the Red Star. The previous night saw a fellow tour-mates wallet swiped at the hotel bar and in my mind I imagined a hoard of vagrants rushing towards us once we stepped off our bus. Fortunately all the tales of being asked to hand over passports by dodgy policemen and ‘friendly’ locals taking advantage of innocent tourists never eventuated for us from that moment onward.
My first impression of St Petersburg wasn’t the best, it may have had something to do with the streets full of building sites and concrete blocks of flats as we drove into the city, but once in the centre of town, the City showed its wealth of history and beauty.
Peter the Great created the city of St Petersburg on a muddy marsh and intended it to be the greatest port in the region. He wasn’t a fan of Russian architecture and much of the city has a distinctly Western European influence. Often known as the ‘Venice of the North’ with its numerous canals snaking through the city, many lined with old palace facades. In the centre of the city lies the Winter Palace which nowadays houses the Hermitage Museum, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world holding over 3 million pieces of art. Many artists are represented here such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso and Monet, but it is their bank of Fabergé eggs that really excites me. These bejewelled eggs were designed for Russian royalty along with a number of gem-adorned jewellery pieces. Many of the eggs contain a surprise miniature piece inside such as a crown, train or statue and were given mostly to family members at Easter. Ninety-six were made from 1885 to 1917 but there are a few that were never seen again when during the war, revolutionists looted the Tzar’s Palace.
One of the best attractions I visited in St Petersburg was actually just out of the city near a town called Pushkin, named after Russia’s equivalent of Shakespeare. Here you will find Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace and nearby Peter the Great’s Summer Palace, Petershof. Catherine’s abode was nearly completely destroyed during World War II but the government went to great lengths afterwards to reconstruct it to its former glory. The colossal turquoise and white palace resembles one giant, long, frosted cake for all its exterior decoration, but it is nothing compared to the blinding glints of gold on the inside. During the war, it was rumoured that the Nazi’s raided the place and stole an entire room. The walls in this room were completely made out of amber, being abundant in the Baltic region, and in this room even the paintings were made out of the orange-hued stone. It has never been recovered but the room has been restored from photos and descriptions found in old records.
Petershof is about a half hour drive away, situated on the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great was an avid fan of anything to do with water, his pride and joy being the Russian Navy. This interest extended to fountains which cover the grounds of Petershof, front and back. The Palace here is beautiful, but most people are here to see the gardens. The fountains in them, surprisingly hundreds of years old, are all operated by gravity with water flowing from nearby mountains. The estate is beautiful, especially in spring when the trees are green and little pastel wildflowers dot the grass. There is so much to look at that a whole day is recommended, although most tour groups will do Catherine and Peters Palace in the same trip.
Back in town and our last day before moving on, we were able to spend a few hours at the Church of the Spilled Blood. This church is modelled on St Basil’s Basilica in Moscow and possesses the same similar red brick exterior and bright, multi-coloured onion-domed spires. Visitors can inspect within for a small price but the view from the outside is free and 10 times better.
Across the street are markets catering for the tourists. Here you can buy the usual faux Fabergé eggs, fluffy Russian hats, navy and army curio’s and the many, many varieties of the popular Matryioshka ‘Babushka’ dolls, with some containing as many as 15 wooden clones within.
From here we set out for our next destination, a little town called Novgorod, in the Russian countryside. I’d had my first taste of Russia and I quite liked it, it carried a certain challenge you do not get with many other European destinations and the Cyrillic language is only the beginning! Russia takes a few moments to get used to, but you’ll gain a more memorable experience for it.