St. Petersburg (Day 1)
Our classes are over, most everyone is going home in two weeks, and we have been looking forward to this trip since our arrival here in Moscow on January 18. And finally here it is…our trip of rest and relaxation to St. Petersburg! Our train left Komsomolskaya Station at 11:00 PM. It was one of those sleeper trains where there are four people in a cabin. Since the train ride was eight hours long, covering over 800 km, we slept most of the time. Although, not until after a few games of pitch with Halsey, Weston, and Curt!
Our train pulled into the St. Petersburg Station at 7:00 AM as we gathered our belongings and ambled to the terminal to meet our guide. Sergei came along on the trip to be our "guide/translator", but it was still suggested that we do a guided tour of the city for at least one day of the trip…so we did. After breakfast at McDonald's, we drove down Nevskiy Prospekt, the main street, and our guide explained to us the history of St. Petersburg and the sights to see around the city. Our first stop was on the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island to take pictures of the Neva River and St. Petersburg harbor. It was terribly cold outside, maybe 5 degrees Celsius, which converts to a whopping 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so we did not stay long, only to seek shelter in the warmth of the tour van. We stopped once again for a photo opportunity at the famous battleship cruiser "Aurora", which fired the first shot signaling the beginning of the Russian Revolution.
The first sight which we actually toured was Peter and Paul's Fortress. Named after Peter the Great's two favorite saints, the fortress serves as the historical center of the city as all of the last Russian Czars are buried here. I learned so much about Russian history on this trip. Beginning with the founding of the city in the 1700's, when Peter the Great (I) the first of the Romanov dynasty, saw the advantage of having a port to the Baltic Sea. He conquered the lands at the mouth of the River Neva, and began to build his new capital there. The land was mostly swamps, so canals were built to drain the water, creating islands upon which the first buildings were constructed. The capital of Russia was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg soon thereafter, and remained so until the Soviets reinstated Moscow as the capital in the 1930's. The city's original name, St. Petersburg, is coined after Peter the Great's favorite saint and not after the csar himself, as most people think. It has had many names since then, including Leningrad, during the Soviet rule, and Petrograd.
The next sight that we toured was St. Isaac's Cathedral. This church was magnificent, and probably had one of the most beautiful interiors that I have seen so far here in Russia. Not to mention its shear size, this cathedral is definitely my favorite of the trip. Also, the tower provided some excellent views of the city, and even gave us some exercise, as we walked up all 264 steps to get to the top. Another interesting fact…you can tell which buildings in St. Petersburg survived the 900 day seige of the city during WWII, because during this time, they painted the roofs of all of the buildings green so that they could not be seen from airplanes. Most of them are still green today.
Finally, we spent the afternoon at the Hermitage, now the world's fourth largest museum. It consists of five main buildings which contain so many exhibits that if you were to spend at least one second looking at each item, it would take you 2 years to see them all. The main building of the Hermitage is the Winter Palace of the Russian Czars and dominates the façade of the palace embankment of the Neva River. St. Petersburg is famous for the many museums which are present within the city. Peter the Great himself began collecting interesting artifacts for his Museum of Curosities, and even the Hermitage meaning "place of refuge" is named so because of the original private art galleries of Catherine the Great (II). She would spend hours viewing her collection, allowing no one else to see them, using the gallery as a place of meditation and relaxation. When finally opened, the museums were not so popular at first, so Peter the Great mandated that all museums be free of charge and that every man be given a glass of vodka, and every woman a cup of coffee as an incentive to come to the museum. This tradition of free vodka and coffee is still followed in many shops and museums around the city, although few of them are free of charge nowadays.
After nearly three hours in the Hermitage seeing da Vinci, Raphael, Picasso, Matisse, and the world's largest vase, we were taxied to our hostel, where we checked in, and then headed right back out on the town for dinner. We took the metro, which is quite small, but still better than nothing, to an Italian restaurant near Dostoeyevskaya. Oh yeah, the Metro is cool, because you can still buy single ride tokens…not all technologically advanced like all the others with the magnetic cards and stuff. However, I always got them mixed up with my ruble and kopek coins...