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Saturday, September 10, 2011


St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the most romantic cities in Europe
Russia is a fascinating country with a rich cultural background and history.  If you read or write historical fiction, Russia is a vast source of inspiration.  It is also home to twenty-four world heritage sites, fifteen cultural, nine natural.  That makes it worth visiting.

Map of Russia
Central St. Petersburg is one of those cultural heritage sites.  St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia (population 4.6 million in 2002), is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea.  It was the capital of Russia from 1703 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918.  In 1914, the name was changed to Petrograd.  In 1924, again it was changed, this time to Leningrad.  In 1991, the city’s official name went back to Saint Petersburg after Tsar Peter the Great who founded the city in 1703.

Venice of the North
Before I traveled in Russia, the term “Venice of the North” meant nothing to me.  Color me dense!  A great deal of city’s charm derives from being built around a network of canals and rivers, and the most incredible bridges you can imagine bring pedestrian and vehicle traffic across those canals.  In addition to being the main lifeblood of the city, the waterways help define the unique atmosphere by creating eerie mists which rise from the frozen water in the winter and glimmering mirror facades in the summer.

Bridge on the Fontayka
Bank Bridge
The first buildings of the city were situated on ten islands to the north side of the Neva in the river delta, but as the city grew, the center moved south of the river.  Today St. Petersburg spreads over more than forty islands, with 342 public bridges cataloged, all sizes, types, and designs.  It’s impossible to walk more than a few hundred meters without crossing a bridge.
Tsar Peter the Great created St. Petersburg to be as much like a European city as possible.  While the older parts of the city have the definite “feel” of a European city, the buildings themselves take on some of the special expansive qualities typical of Russian architecture.  And nothing there is really old by European standards.

The Tsar expected residents of the city move around during the summer months by boat on the canals.  In the winter, when the canals are frozen, they were to use the canals with sledges.  I guess that didn’t work out.  After Peter’s death, they started building bridges.  The first permanent bridge of bricks and stone across the main branch of the Neva was constructed in 1850.

The climate in St. Petersburg is described as mild.  That depends on what you’re used to.  Winters, with freezing winds and snow, average around 9ºF to 10ºF  (-13ºC to -12ºC), and during those months the Neva River is frozen solid.  You can see in the photo that it is a big river.

Valsilyevsky Island in the Neva River
Spring ice breaking on the Neva River

Besides canals, what is there to see?
There is so much to see there, but don’t expect any of it to be ancient.  And there are many modern marvels to see as well.

The Hermitage is one of the most famous museums in the world.  Consisting of five buildings, it was initially the winter palace of the imperial family built in 1754-62.  It was opened by Nicholas I as a public museum in 1852 and houses nearly three million pieces.
The Hermitage Museum

Peterhof is a palace built by Peter the Great in 1714-21 which he wanted to rival Versailles.  Located outside St. Petersburg, it is known for its fountains and gardens.

The Resurrection Church of Our Savior, better known as Church On Spilled Blood, is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  This church, in the Russian Revival style, is one of the most outstanding structures I saw in Russia.

Church On Spilled Blood
Every day life in Russia
As a tourist, it’s often hard to get a true sense of the way people live in a country.  I went on a tour, so I went where they took me and saw what they showed me.  Still, we did get out on our own, and we talked to average citizens, not just in St. Petersburg but in Moscow and all along the Volga.

Many Russians speak English, and I found them very friendly and helpful.  I also noticed that most of the older Russians can assume at will a disinterested blank expression, and they don’t “step outside the box” much.  There were several instances when individuals could have been helpful and given information and done something but because it was not in their job description (and would have infringed on someone else’s responsibility), they only did/said what they were required to do/say.  You have to wonder where that comes from, and if it will change over time.  However, there were other instances of people going out of their way to be helpful.

The Parquet floors are a highlight of Russian craftsmanship, no matter where you go.  They are incredible.
A floor in the Katharine Palace

Russian Supermarket
We found no shortage of food, and the grocery stores and marketplaces seemed not only well stocked, had everything available.
Most people within the city of St. Petersburg live in apartments.  However, coming into the city on the river, we passed rather luxurious looking single-family homes along the shores.  Someone has money there.

Private houses along the river

I love the history and the architecture, but I also love meeting the people and finding out what life is like living in different countries.  And one of the best parts of traveling is coming home with a new appreciation for my own country and for living where I live.


Tina Donahue said...

How I envy you - I'd love to go to Russia, France, England, Australia...too many other places to count.

Great blog!

Molly Daniels said...

Love the pictures! My image of Russia has been changed. And 'mild' being 10 degrees F? Noooooo....that's WAY too cold for me!

Liz said...

nicely done. Thanks for sharing it.

Shirley Ann said...

Your photos of St. Petersburg were amazing. I was in Russia(Moscow) a bit over 20 years ago, just before the fall of the Communist rule and turned down a chance to go to St. Petersburg and am so sorry now. Unlike you, our group had to bribe the cook at the hotel just to get a boiled egg--$1.00 an egg. The floors reminded me of quilt patterns. I almost feel like I was there with you. Great blog. You could be Harriet!! Shirley Wilder

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Tine, Molly, and Liz,
Thank you for being kind. I was soo frustrated posting this. Russia is worth the trip, but don't go in the winter. LOL

Susan said...

Ann, thanks for sharing your images and impressions of St. Petersburg. Having just recently returned from Venice and fallen in love with that romantic city, you have now inspired me to add St. Petersburg to my list of travel destinations. Thanks!

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Venice, Italy, is one of those "most romantic" places on earth. Although, the last time I was there in 04, I was disappointed that it had become so "touristy."

Katalina Leon said...

Wonderful post Ann! It was well worth the extra fuss. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Sue Palmer Fineman said...

Lovely blog, Ann. I loved the pictures and the Russian architecture is really special.

desitheblonde said...

wow i do have friends that i write to in the area and then get postcard form all over thee and love it
me i love to go to ireland for the clan part of family

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