We headed to Russia for week's holiday spending the first half in St. Petersburg and the balance in Moscow. While in St. Petersburg we stayed in a nice hotel, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic Hotel, and in Moscow we stayed with a work colleague of Doug.
Erynn's main desire for the trip was to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg aside from just getting a flavor for the country. As Americans there is a deep rooted curiosity about Russia due to our countries shared history in the 20th century. In general, we found St. Petersburg to be extremely accessible and pleasant. The city was really lovely. Moscow was a bit overwhelming with the number of people, traffic, and general attitude of the residents. We spent four days in each place and still had more to see in St. Petersburg. While in Moscow we could only muster interest for two days of site seeing with the remainder just hanging out with other ex-pats.
Getting into Russia requires a visa. In typical Rathburn fashion we threw a little money at the problem and went through a visa service to ensure everything went ok. Since we were staying with residents and not a hotel or travel company the whole time securing an invitation letter is tricky. The visa service took care of all of that. Since we only applied for a single entry tourist visa it wasn't a big deal anyway. However, the entry/exit procedures in St. Petersburg and Moscow are different with St. Petersburg requiring you fill out an entry card. Moscow does not require this, which makes the process much smoother. Lufthansa, of course, didn't provide the cards on the plane so when we arrived in St. Petersburg we had to fill out three cards before immigration -- causing much delay.
For full resolution photos from the trip to St. Petersburg & Moscow click here.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral was right next to our hotel. So we passed it every day and took a number of photos each time from different angles and lighting conditions. It was obviously a cathedral at one point, but the Soviets turned it into the Antireligious Museum. It now does hold some services, but is mostly a beautiful tourist attraction.
The interior of St. Isaac's was unbelievably beautiful as you can see.
It wouldn't be a Rathburn vacation if there wasn't some sort of tortuous climb involved. One of the mornings it was pretty cool outside so the climb was bearable. Plus the views were worth it.
One of the best art museums in the world is the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great used her immense wealth to acquire art from around the world, and it is now all housed in the Tsar's Winter Palace in the city center.
Being a former palace, the building itself was amazing let alone the art contained within. For a small extra fee you could take photos inside the museum.
Some more of the display rooms...
Greta was doing well by sleeping through most of the museum. We were able to walk through most of the wings, but didn't have much time to really soak in the surroundings.
Some photos of the amazing sculpture.
We spent a lot of our time just walking around. The city felt really accessible vs. the mayhem that was Moscow. However, in Moscow the underground metro was pretty good, and it made up for a lot of shortcomings with the rest of the city.
All around St. Isaac's Cathedral were gardens for strolling. Down near the Neva River was the statue of Peter the Great on horseback. Looking across the river is the Academy of Arts and red Rostral Columns.
The Alexander Gardens wrap around the yellow Admiralty building toward the main Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad). The park also had a great play area for kids!
Left: Erynn in Palace Square
Right: Erynn in front of the New Hermitage Building Entrance
St. Petersburg is a relatively new city and was built on swamp land. Therefore, there are a number of canals running throughout the city.
Left: Preserved warning sign from WWII that says: "Citizens. At times of artillery bombardment this side of the street is most dangerous"
Right: Golden griffins of Bankovsky Bridge
Besides St. Isaac's the other beautiful church in town is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
Some photos from inside the church.
Pretty cool, huh?
Left: Kazan Cathedral Right: Mars Field is a cemetery and memorial for those that died in the 1917 February Revolution and features an eternal flame
Across the bridge spanning the Neva River from the Hermitage you come upon a small park (Strelka) in front of the stock exchange (left photo). In the park are two huge Rostral Columns, which were intended to serve as lighted beacons.
The park also afforded nice panoramic views of the city and of our destination for the day, the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Other than her parents, the one constant in Greta's life is Bear. Our walk from the Strelka to the fortress wasn't quite smooth, because I accidentally left Bear on a park bench. Thankfully he was still on the bench, but Erynn had to delay for over half an hour. By the time we were all reunited, it was time for lunch. So we grabbed a sausage from a stand just outside the fortress walls. Next to us were a bunch of people playing a game involving knocking down cylindrical pins by throwing a pole. The pins were arranged in progressively more difficult formations and the trick was to knock all of them off the mat with one toss. The game is called Gorodki, and aside from the spectacle of a new game, we were amazed so many locals were hanging out in the middle of a work day.
We sort of wandered all over inside the fortress. I will actually so the photos in an order that will make sense, but will have no relation to how we actually explored the place. I think we walked back and forth across the complex two or three times...
Most people come from the city center across the river and enter the fortress via the Ioannovsky Bridge on the eastern side. The fortress is on an island and the bridge above crosses what would be the moat section and leads through a series of gates and fortifications. The gate above is the Petrovskaya Gate, which is near the ticket office.
In front of the Commandant's House is this bizarrely proportioned statue of Peter the Great. The sculptor worked on it for eight years...
Turning left takes you to the Naryshkin Bastion and Flagstaff Tower.
You can buy a separate ticket and climb the stairs by the flagstaff and walk along the bastion walls. From there you get good views of the fortress and the city across the Neva River.
In the center of the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where many members of the Russian royal family were buried.
Some interior shots of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
On the western side of the fortress is the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Apparently the fortress itself never saw heavy action, but the prison inside housed countless enemies to whatever regime was in power. The museum was corridor after corridor of prison cells. On the outside of each cell there was an informational sign with the most famous prisoner to have occupied the cell. As you progressed through the different cell blocks the decor in each represented different periods of the prison and what the cells would look like over time. The above photo shows one of the more "modern" cells. Locking up dissidents goes a long way back in time...
Toto, we're not in Colonial Williamsburg anymore...
Just outside of St. Petersburg in the town of Pushkin is the Catherine Palace. It was the Tsarina's attempt to rival Versailles, and I'd say she came close.
We hired a private tour guide and transport via our hotel concierge, and it was worth it. Our guide took us through the palace and walked around the grounds with us. It was nice to just be us and have our own timetable.
Only the main rooms are fully restored. Apparently the gilded rooms required 25kg of gold leaf to re-create the scene. It was breathtaking and a bit over the top. You could play a football game in the Great Ballroom above.
In the left photo you can just make out the series of doorways repeated down a hall. Each is a fully gilded room like the photos above used for various public entertaining functions of the tsarina. It was built to impress.
The right photo shows the Amber Room. What you see is something like a $25 million replica of what existed up until WWII when the Germans spirited the amber panels away never to be seen again. It was not allowed to take pictures inside the room, but there was amber covering each wall floor to ceiling. Different patterns were created by different shades of amber, and the effect was awe inspiring.
After a stroll through the palace it was time to explore the gardens. Greta was not as excited as we were. The right photo shows the Cameron Gallery.
The main feature of the gardens was a large lake. We spent about an hour walking around the perimeter, which had various buildings with different themes sprinkled along the route. The left photo shows the Grotto (blue building) with the Cameron Gallery in the background. The right photo shows a few brick buildings known as the Admiralty - naval inspired buildings.
In the center of the lake was a small island with a bathhouse. You reached the island via a small rope barge. Then on the far side of the lake was the Chesme Column to commemorate some battle and a gilded roofed Turkish Bath.
Left: Marble Bridge, a nice place for breakfast.
Right: Granite Terrace
Erynn wanted to prove how tall she was.
Guess what the most exciting thing about the trip was for Greta?
The last stop on our walking tour was the Hermitage on the grounds. It was a pretty building, but not open on the day we were there.
We traveled to Moscow via the high speed Sapsan train. It was almost four hours on the train, but very comfortable. As I mentioned, we stayed in a friend's house who is also on an ex-pat assignment. They had a driver that could help us and a Western style house to sleep in. It was so nice we ended up just crashing there for a couple days and just relaxing.
We went into central Moscow on a Thursday. Our plan was to hit Red Square and the Kremlin. However, the Kremlin is closed on Thursdays, which of course, we didn't figure out until we got there.
We took the Metro from our friend's house to the stop next to the Bolshoi Theater left photo. We then made our way down to Red Square where we passed the two buildings in the right photo: Central Lenin Museum (left) and the State History Museum (right).
We didn't enter Red Square right away, but rather walked slightly right to Manez Square. Erynn's basically standing on top of a large shopping mall. It borders the Kremlin and has some impressive fountains running down the side. Of particular note was the Sbarro under our feet that was a perfect place for lunch with a toddler. We ate there are couple times...
After lunch we decided to visit Red Square. Our direction of travel had us pass the Resurrection Gate and the Iberian Chapel (left) and the Kazan Cathedral (right).
Erynn in Red Square!
Left: Red Square, the Kremlin walls, and Lenin's Tomb
Right: GUM - the State Department Store
The interesting thing about Lenin's Mausoleum is that it was his expressed wish to be buried. Anyway, you can see him now, and we did. We got there right as they were closing and had to check all our bags and no cameras were allowed. Lining the walkway outside the tomb were graves of other famous Russians. We were the only people in the tomb, but the guards shewed us along quickly anyway. They don't want people to get too close of a look to the preservation job, which had recently been re-done.
Some pictures of us at St. Basil's Cathedral. Personally, I would save the money and not go inside. It's much more interesting from the outside.
Since the Kremlin was closed we started walking toward Arbat Street. On the way we stopped along the Moskva River and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Arbat Street is a shopping and eating district. For some reason Wendy's sounded outstanding after a day of walking around. And it was... outstanding. Further along the street we happened upon a Cinnabon. Obviously, we bought some! How can they have this stuff in Russia, and not Germany?
Greta was a french fry dipping maniac at dinner. She too loves Wendy's fries. Then she discovered her ears and made us laugh for the rest of the evening.
Getting into the Kremlin is a bit laborious. You buy a ticket then go through security. But to get into the Armoury and see all of the cool stuff there are only certain time windows each day you can get tickets. The system beat us, and we were left with only the general admission ticket to the grounds. Upon entering the gate you can see the Supreme Soviet Building on your right and the Arsenal on your left.
Proceeding a bit further and you see a couple monuments to excess: the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell. Both of which never functioned, but were the biggest of their kind. Russia in microcosm.
Cathedral Square is exactly as it's billed. A square filled with major cathedrals.
In the foreground of the left photo you can see the Dormition (Assumption) Cathedral. The right photo shows the Annunciation Cathedral.
Left: Patriarch's Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles
Right: The Church of the Deposition of the Robe
Left: Ivan the Great Bell Tower
Right: Greta making a bunch Asian tourists laugh in front of the Archangel Cathedral
Phew. That's a lot of cathedrals in a relatively small area. Greta was a bit restless so Erynn and I took turns watching her while the other went inside each of the churches. Photos were not allowed inside.
Some nice photos from inside the Kremlin including a view of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (left) and President Putin's new heliport. He built he heliport to help the city's congested streets. Whenever he drove outside the walls the police would shut down large chunks of the city for security reasons, which brought the city's already terrible traffic to its knees.
It was a long, good vacation. But we were tired, and didn't muster any energy to see more of the city. Greta was like, "get me out of here you people. All done!"
We were staying in a Western-style home with Americans, and we just ended up crashing there for the last couple days. This turned out to be the perfect end to a great vacation. Thanks for reading this far!
© 2013 Doug Rathburn