WARNING: This post is a biggie …. make yourself a vat of coffee!
Day 41: We think…..and Friday
Tram into Helsinki to retrieve repaired bikes – James punctured pride will take a little longer….Our new neighbours on the campsite are a lovely Australian family, Nick, Liz, Tye and Shay – I hope the boys names are correct guys… We led Nick and Liz astray supping wine until midnight last night – but they did not take much persuading :). K somewhat dehydrated in the morning! They like us are off to St Petersburg by cruise ferry today – another adventure…
Cruise ferry Princess Maria – enormous – 10 decks ! We decamped to cabin 6629 and dropped our bags – quick deck tour and then drawn by some kind of magnet – to the Funny Rabbit bar! Nothing to do with sex aids! Thought we would down a minor glass of wine pre-prandial….. but the Lady K spotted that there was a Happy Hour just starting – but only for cocktails! We forced ourselves to imbibe x number of cocks tails – or was it tocks sails! Or even socks tails … my socks could tell tales after walking for 3 days with blisters !s Suffice to say, we sailed to our cabin, had some food and were in medieval sailors bunks by 8.30 pm!
42. Saturday: Sunny St Petersburg at 9.30 am in the morning, walking tour and the Hermitage
The route into St P passenger dock is through numerous islands with aging and semi scuttled ships. Evidence of fortifications from the wars with Sweden and Finland. Then a narrow channel through the largest commercial docks we have ever seen. The horizon filled with dock side cranes and ships for scrap metal, wood, containers … you name it.
We stood on deck and watched the dockside fork lift trucks manoeuver the heavy guys / stays / ropes as we docked.
Shuttle bus to St Isaacs Cathedral after going through Russian Passport and immigration control – not too onerous even with 5,000+ tourists from the Occident…. K foot navigated to our apart-hotel near the Kazan Kanal – nice bedroom, shared kitchen and bathroom facilities – good and cheap. Now to meet our tour guide, Natalia – lovely lady. She met us outside the hotel and we started on a quest for Rubles! Having nearly purchased £200 worth of phone top up and several bank queues later, Euros were exchanged for Rubles. Despite us expressing surprise that ATMs would not work for Euro bank cards, we did establish later that they do; our guide just did not know how or where – surprisingly 😦
Once we got going on the walking tour, Natalia was extremely knowledgable about facts of construction, why, who, height etc. We started with the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan. Inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and built in 1811. Constructed to house the icon of our Lady of Kazan, which disappeared during 1917 and was repatriated from New York – people queue up to kiss the icon …. needless to say, we did not. During the Communist era, sac-religiously it was used as a museum of atheism!
Saw the Church of the Spilled Blood, a cacophony of colour with over 7000 sq m of mosaics and numerous types of coloured marble covering the exterior and interior. Built in 1881 as a memorial to Alexander II who was assassinated on this site. During WWII and the siege of Leningrad, which lasted a phenomenal 900 days, this and many (most) other buildings were heavily bombed / destroyed by the Germans. St Petersburg / Russia has spent billions on restoration works … all done, as our guide would say, by ‘Russian master craftsmen’! This opened to the public in 1997 after 20 years of restoration. The icon stand in the nave, a glow of gold, had only just opened.
The final church of the day was St Isaac’s Cathedral. This is not the original one – the one commissioned by Peter the Great in 1710, and several of its successors, slid into the river as a result of flooding and the whole of St P being built on marsh land. This version was opened in 1858 and was the design of a French architect, de Montferrand, who won a competition and was the chosen architect based on a book of drawings and little experience. Whilst he may have had the vision and made it his life’s work, he was not technically good: work had to keep stopping and be redesigned to deal with his mistakes. Hundreds of serfs lost their lives, crushed by huge chunks of falling marble. The gilding process of large dome, where 60+ died from inhaling mercury fumes, must have been worth it as it has not needed re-gilding since!
We also walked up the Field of Mars, named after the Roman God of War. Used for military parades previously, it now has the eternal flame 1957, dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1917 revolution.
It is adjacent to the Summer Garden, which was one of Peter the Great’s projects … he imported all sorts of trees and shrubs, which was then lost to flooding. Catherine the Great then had it redesigned as an English garden.
It was close to Mikhaylovskiy Castle, built for Paul I in 1797. He feared for his life and had a moat, drawbridge and a secret tunnel, but was murdered only 40 days after moving in!
We also walked several bits of Nevskiy Prospekt: the main artery with shops and some interesting buildings. There remains a blue warning to inhabitants that this side of the street is more prone to bombings; a relict of the siege of Leningrad. Interestingly, this long street is also home to numerous churches of different faiths – all restored!
And onto the Hermitage. This museum is housed in 4 huge buildings … they had to keep extending to accommodate all the artifacts! Apparently, it would take 11 years to see every exhibit. We had 2.5 hours and it was whirlwind to see what we did. The blue Winter Palace was built for Tsarina Elizabeth from 1754 and all the Romanovs lived here – opulent does not half describe it. The use of white and gilt and mirrors makes a dazzling display. Particularly of note were the main staircase, a throne room and a room with 100s of portraits of the officers who successfully overcame Napoleon’s invasion (if they could not obtain a portrait, the picture frame is left blank). There are also the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the General Staff Building make up the other buildings around the Palace Square.
Some of the key works of art that we saw were:
- Leonardo’s Madonna Litta
- Rubens’ Baccus (only sold after his death as he liked it so much)
- Michelangelo’s marble crouching boy
- Houdon’s statue of Voltaire
- Peacock clock
We missed out on the Impressionists due to lack of time 😦
The Palace Square is also interesting. The Alexander Column, dedicated to Alexander I and erected in 1834, is the world’s largest free standing single piece of marble. The square is the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre January 1905, when ordinary people in their Sunday best had a peaceful protest about their living conditions and were gunned down on the orders of tsar Nicholas II. About 1000 died. The aftermath led to the 1905 Revolution. The square is now used for political meetings and concerts.
Having walked our socks off … J developed a massive blister underneath his foot and needed a pain killer … we found a bar / restaurant near our hotel and had a beer and a SMALL meal … cheapest options. Picked up some more sustaining food items in a tiny corner shop and ate these back in the hotel, with the litre of red we had bought with us.
43. Sunday: Peterhof and Peter and Paul Fortress
9.00 start and met outside the hotel by Natalia and the driver. 30 mins or so and out of St P. Interesting to see more of the architecture, such as a Triumphant Arch (Napoleon’s defeat), Metro buildings that could pass for classical temples, ordinary apartment blocks (few semis or detached houses) and the Palace that Putin uses when in town.
Peterhof is an extravagant collection of palaces, fountains and landscaped gardens. Having come across the site in 1705, Peter the Great commissioned the building of a palace here in 1714. He intended the estate to equal, if not rival, Versailles. Elizabeth altered much of the interiors. Although her changes were nothing to the Germans, who occupied the Palaces and then left them as charred ruins, merely walls half standing. This is another example of the massive restoration spend that has been completed by ‘Russian master craftsmen’ and it is still on-going, as more fountains, rooms and buildings are opened up to the public. It is so busy that the rooms are by timed ticket, and when not being crushed by tour groups, you have to keep shuffling forward … no time to stand and stare as the Room KGB move you on. No interior pix allowed.
The cascades are just amazing … the Grand Cascade alone has 37 gilded sculptures, 64 fountains and 142 water jets. There are fountains and cascades everywhere, all very different to each other. Some are almost comedic. There are buildings to entertain with elevating tables, baths etc. Peter the Great mostly used to come by boat, but the main Peterhof / St P road had entertainment along it length for the nobility who had to follow the court. It is a massive complex and you could easily spend a day, however, when I suggested that the grounds would be a lovely place for a family picnic, I was told absolutely NOT allowed!
And this is just one of the Romanov palaces outside St P – all just as sumptuous.
Our driver was quite a character… he had lived in the States for a while and spoke really good English, and as more open about the post USSR / Communism era. He explained that people now had mortgages they could not afford and that many had gone credit buying for goods mad … the Communist era had some merit.
We were dropped at the Peter and Paul Fortress. First built from wood in 1703 and then reconstructed in stone. It was Peter the Great’s protection for the new St Petersburg against the Swedes, however, they were defeated before it was completed so it became a garrison. Again, 100s of serfs and Swedish war prisoners perished in the swampy build. Most of the centre of St P is built on swamp: timbers were laid down and then stone on top … the Hermitage is on St Basil’s island and this was raised 15 feet.
The main interest at the P and P Fortress is the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral. Peter commissioned it to be a burial chapel for the Romanov family. The design is Baroque, rejecting traditional Russian architecture … so no onions here. The whole complex is vast; the Mint still produces coins and medals and many buildings with temporary and permanent exhibitions.
One museum here we did go into was the Trubetskoy Bastion: two floors of intact prison cells and the the isolation room with information about the prisoners, including Aleksey d.1718, as accused of treason by his father Peter the Great. Others were from uprisings such as Maxin Gorky, Lenin’s bother and Leon Trotsky. Most that came through the doors were hung and they are now finding mass graves in the Fortress complex from opposers to the 1917 revolution.
It was here that we parted from Natalia, our guide. She was worth every penny (paid in Euros!) as we would never have found our way around, pre-booked the tickets when needed and found the obscure entrances … we just would not have seen anything like what we did …. just wish she had a little more soul and would have been more prepared to talk about Russia today more.
Blisters, tired feet, hunger and thirst made it imperative that we stopped for respite, so we tumbled into a restaurant. With wine at £40/bottle, we had vodka shots and a tasty small dish. The nearby Information hut was very helpful and told us what time the hop on / hop off bus went, where from and where to find a cash point. We were a little lost getting to the cash point, BUT found buzzing Aleksandrovskiy Park with its street performers and brass models of the main St P’s buildings. Finally, we saw police men (not evident when you see motorbikes and cars racing at 60 mph + down Neviskiy Prospekt), no English but pointed us in the right direction to the Metro and the ATM … how easy to get cash when you know how!
Onto the hop on / hop off bus. Did a 1.5 circuit to get back to near our hotel. Covered much of what we had seen but filled in some of the more mundane and fun detail.
Supper was a tourist restaurant, but K got to eat Russian Soup and tried a meat pie and J had a burger and it was close to the hotel. On the walk to the hotel we spotted a booze shop: vodka and a bottle of 7Up 🙂 Bed at 1.00 chatting to our fellow resident, John from Oz who shared pretzels and travel stories. J spotted skinny dippers from our bedroom window into the canal … too dark to see!
44. Monday: Greeter and Russian Market
Up and out – to meet our Greeter (Greeters.com – free local people who welcome you to their city), Victoria – definitely the star of the St Petersburg trip! It was bound to go well as she met us with gifts of a Griffon <our hotel was by the griffon Bank Bridge> magnet and local (delicious – did not last long – chocolates). She took us on the Underground to the Macken Russia – the escalators in the Underground are miles steeper than the London Tube – James managed to stay upright! Macken Russia is housed in a long warehouse style building – it is a scale model of all Russia – accurate down to the last detail. We walked from St Petersburg in the west, through Moscow, via the Urals, Siberia, Steppes – all the way to the east coast – 9 hours of time zones!!! Using a large wall map, Victoria was able to indicate where different areas are, and explain the industry, mining and agriculture of each area. She also helped us to understand more about living in apartments, Dachas, the industries etc. We loved her openness and warmth.
Victoria recommended a restaurant specialising in traditional Russian meat pies – delicious and nothing like the one K had tried in the tourist restaurant.
Running out of time, V guided K through a ‘hidden courtyard’ to a local supermarket and recommended items for our evening ferry picnic and which brand of Vodka to buy.
We checked out of our aparthotel, Tatiana was our host, we made our way circuitously – well K is the master navigator (NOT always!) – to the cruise ship Princess Maria. On board in cabin 6017 this time – the Funny Rabbit bar was screaming for our business – we had rabbit pie for lunch after all… Guess what K made us drink ? Tocks Sails again….
45. Tuesday and back ‘HOME’ in Helsinki
Slightly fatigued and outwalked in St Petes, this was a down day – that is to say we – K mostly, cleaned our vanhome – spit and polish like you never saw in your life… BBQ in the evening – and all is well. A nice Turkish man let us use the remains of his BBQ coals – he seemed to be in charge of about 30 young men on a tour…
46. Wednesday: Limited walking and ‘free’ tram tour
A leisurely start …J just managed to see our neighbours, Liz and Nick, off and exchange blog addresses … they are heading for Turkey, Croatia etc … so may be a useful info source!
Decided to start using our transport cards today, which we had bought with the help of Irmeli, our Helsinki Greeter. Metro into the main station, walk to Tourist office to get the route for the trams 2/3 tour. Basically, these trams do a figure of 8 and cover some of the main areas. Picnic by the main market place and a visit to the main Lutheran Helsinki cathedral (sadly seems very plain after St Petersburg excessive opulence).
Then a random tram (making the most of the transport card) on Line number 6 … stopped at a small shopping centre and found chain Cinnabon: coffee and Finnish cinnamon buns …. Beth told us to hunt them out and these were bloody good … warm with melting frosting! We watched some being made …
Back to the campsite for K’s minimalist packing for her trip back to see her Munchkin … can’t wait…..