Tuesday, December 7, 2010

St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace of the Hermitage
It is not surprising to me that some travel groups shun Moscow and head directly to St. Petersburg. This former capital is as different from the current capital as a peasant is from a prince. Founded by the czar Peter the Great on the northern banks of the Neva River in 1703, it is today Russia’s cultural capital.

To reach St. Petersburg, we boarded the ultra modern train at the Moscow railroad station for the five-hour ride. As the train sped along, we passed forests and groves of birch trees, small hovels, and occasionally saw a babushka carrying her tote along the muddy unpaved roads toward home. The train made a few stops at rundown stations.

Stanlislav, our St. Petersburg guide, met us at the station and drove us to the modern Park Inn Hotel that overlooks the Bay of Finland. For the next few days we visited all the major attractions within the city, driving over dozens of islands with their hundreds of bridges. No wonder St. Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North.

The most well-known of St. Petersburg’s attractions is Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage,  one of the most famous museums in the world. Because of its immensity, it is impossible to see it all in one visit.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. Everywhere you look, it seems, are former palaces once owned by of Russia’s wealthiest citizens. As we descended our tour bus to enter the grounds of Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace on the outskirts of the city, our group of Irish men and women (plus me) was serenaded by a group of musicians who -obviously tipped off - played the Irish National Anthem.

Catherine the Great’s summer palace is just what you’d imagine a palace to be, with all the gold and artifacts and residue of its former resident. The wood floors in each of the rooms differ in design from each other. To keep them beautiful, visitors must don paper slippers to wear throughout the tour.

The St. Petersburg tour allowed a lot of free time to wander along Nevsky Prospekt,  the most famous street in all of Russia. The shops, hotels, churches and historic buildings draw crowds similar to those on New York’s Fifth Avenue: stylishly dressed women wearing the latest fashions, especially beautiful boots. The Nevsky Prospekt website offers views of its buildings and their histories.

The name alone, St. Petersburg, tells you something about the history of the country itself. In 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, it was changed because it was thought too “German sounding.” It then became Petrograd and was known as the “Cradle of the Russian Revolution.” Then, after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, the city’s name was changed to Leningrad. To many, the name recalls the German invasion in 1941 which was called the Siege of Leningrad. Leningrad became St. Petersburg again 67 years later when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

There’s so much to be said for and about St. Petersburg. Anyone considering a visit will find it immensely helpful to get a good guide book.

I’ve been fortunate to visit practically all of the places on my “to-see” list and although Russia had never made an appearance on the list, I am glad I had the opportunity to see two of its most historic cities.