Russia’s “Window to the West”

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Pete is called Russia’s “Window to the West” and it’s not difficult to see why. The city, with its boulevards, canals and Baroque buildings, feels like Europe. Street signs are in English and the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop this morning could actually explain what was in each pastry. We love it here.

With most of the country on a national holiday, and many sights holding erratic hours, we had an aggressive schedule. Our first stop, Kazan Cathedral, was literally across the street from our hotel. The neoclassical church is atypical of others in this city; surrounded by a colonnade, it looks more like a government building. Inside the dark interior, a service was in progress.

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Modeled after St. Basil’s in Moscow, the strangely named Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was our next stop. Built over 24 years in the late 19th century, the church fell into disrepair during the Commie years when it was incredulously used to store potatoes and theater sets. After a 27-year restoration, the church reopened in 1997. The interior, with 7,000 square meters of Italian mosaics, is unreal.

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The third stop on our morning church tour was St. Isaac’s, one of the largest domed buildings in the world. More than 100 kilograms of gold leaf were used to cover 60-foot high dome alone. Construction, which was completed in 1858, required the use of special ships and a railway to transport 120-ton granite pillars from Finland.

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Interior highlights included an 2,400-square foot painting on the ceiling by Karl Bryullov and intricately carved doors with various saints and other religious figures.

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From the top of the bell tower, there were some great views of the surrounding city, including the Mariinsky Theater, Admiralty and Hermitage Museum. Meanwhile, less scenically, dozens of factory smokestacks sat off in the distance.

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We walked over the Neva River to Vasilevsky Island, which Peter the Great originally intended to be the heart of his city. As such, it is one of the oldest neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, home to the Kunstkamera, the city’s and country’s first museum.

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Founded in 1714 by Peter himself, the Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography is famous for its incredible ghoulish collection of deformed fetuses, odd body parts and mutant animals — all collected by Peter with the aim of educating the notoriously suspicious Russian people.

There were no photos allowed inside the exhibit and the babushkas were on serious patrol, but while they weren’t looking, we were able to snap one of this two headed calf. How bizarre.

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Down the street was an equally strange restaurant, Russky Kitsch, a completely over the top example of Soviet kitsch. With mismatched Victorian furniture and walls plastered with photo collages, the restaurant’s centerpiece was a ceiling fresco of Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev entwined in a passionate embrace.

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The khalia soup – a spicy beef stew served with a piece of flat bread — was quick to warm us up. It was followed by the best beef stroganoff that we’ve had, creamy, thick and delicious with a side of mashed potatoes.

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Properly fueled, we cabbed it to the last stop of the day, the Peter & Paul Fortress, which built in 1703, is the oldest major building in St. Pete. It was built as a defense against the Swedes but they were defeated before the fortress was finished. Since then, it’s served as a prison and is also home to the SS Peter & Paul Cathedral, where all of Russia’s pre-revolutionary rulers are buried, including Peter himself.

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Exhausted from a big day, we returned to the Grand Hotel and hit the spa. Downstairs, while sitting in the sauna, a very serious looking Russian man joined me — wearing my Vineyard Vines bathing suit that I’d left outside. It can’t be, I thought. But sure enough, it was. Instead of even trying to communicate with him, I went out to talk to the attendant. She didn’t seem to understand – “He’s wearing your bathing suit?” she asked perplexed. “Um, yes,” I replied. “I don’t understand,” she said. Me neither.

She came into the sauna and talked with the man, who looked at me, looked at her, and then curtly took off the bathing suit, handing it back to me without a word. “Spasiba,” I said.

He didn’t reply.

Back at the hotel bar, we weren’t able to make sense of the incident. Several shots of chilled vodka didn’t help. Next we knew, the night was late and we hadn’t moved. And our dinner had consisted of some olives and the small pieces of smoked salmon on brown bread that are traditionally served with vodka.

All drink, no food. Now, this was the true Russian way.

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Comments

  1. russian in a VV, you should have taken a picture and sent it to shep and ian. at least email them the story. SO WEIRD 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. LottieBlog says:

    […] plural or what?) and a two headed fox. Totes weird, I was too grossed out to take any pictures, see MZ’s blog for a few of […]

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