Saturday, November 10, 2012


"We should probably go soon," said Kyle. 

I looked up from my scrambled eggs, which contained every last morsel of perishable food from the refrigerator, and asked, "What time is it?"


"Oh, crap!"

What a great start to the trip; we had planned to leave at 5:00 am.  I shoveled all that could fit into my mouth, tossed the unwashed dishes into the sink, and covered them with a layer of hot, soapy water.  I fell into my last-minute, traveling habit and started grabbing any object I thought I could possibly use over the weekend.  Into my bag went three extra pairs of socks, some jewelry I didn't even know I owned, and a dozen more Q-tips.  You never know, right?

We hurried out the front door and walked the 2 kilometers to the subway station.  When we finally arrived, I swiped my subway pass and pushed through the gate.  I glanced back briefly before heading down the stairs.  An 80-year-old woman with 10 bags and a coat that could fit two more humans was scanning her card at each gate.  A resounding tone indicated her card was not valid. Kyle was waiting behind her.  I watched him tap her on the shoulder, scan his card, then gesture for her to pass through.  Wow, he really is in a good mood today, I thought.  When he scanned his card to allow himself to pass, the familiar tone sounded again.  "Shyest minooti!" the guard called out to him.  Let's add six more minutes to our already late status...

Finally we climbed onto the empty subway car and rolled several stops to our train station.  Somehow we made it to the correct platform and into our seats aboard the Sapsan train.  Nodding off, we rode comfortably for three and a half hours into St. Petersburg. When we stepped out of the train some outrageous orchestral song was blaring from the speakers.  We were just stopping in for the weekend, but the music made us feel like we were returning home from a hard-faught war.

Downtown St. Petersburg

We searched for our hotel like true tourists, our necks straining to gaze at every gorgeous structure, while constantly referring to our crisply folded map. I tested my Russian at the hotel front desk, asking the man if he spoke English.  His furrowed brow first showed confusion, then clarity, "English? Oh yes, of course!" Did I mention how good my Russian is getting?

We dumped our belongings into our room at the Comfort Hotel and set off in search of lunch.  We wound through the streets in the drizzling rain until we finally settled on Jerome's cafe.  With our dinner reservation only hours away, we enjoyed a light lunch of soup and bread.  The setting was gorgeous, with exposed brick ceilings, sturdy wooden tables and chairs, along with spurts of fresh gray decor. My only complaint was the $10 bottles of water. Honestly.

With full stomachs and desire to find the Neva, we returned to the drizzling gray weather.  A student of mine scored a deal at a hotel in the center of St. Petersburg, so we were able to travel the entire weekend on foot.  We walked through a narrow park covered in fallen leaves. 

The trees began to thin until the park opened to a sprawling green field.  At the end of the field stood the famous bronze horseman statue.  The deep gray color was striking against the bland clouds and sunshine-yellow building beside it. 

Me with the Bronze Horseman

Just across the way, the Neva River rocked gently.  We followed a bridal party along the river, snapped photos of more buildings and statues, then unexpectedly came upon the Winter Palace. 

Across the Neva River
Our first sighting of the Winter Palace
We made our way back to the hotel, where I slipped into a pair of heels I hadn't seen in months.  Our dinner reservation was at a place called Teplo, loosely translated to 'cozy' or 'comforting' in English.  It quickly became the most quaintly unique restaurant I've ever visited.  We weaved through some buildings until an empty, but well-lit and decorated patio awaited us.  I clambered down the steps in my heels, and a hostess led us to our table.  Candles flickered on every table, a collection of slippers were available for guests to borrow, and blankets were draped over nearly ever edge.  There were varying degrees of formality in each room.  We passed groups dining at mismatched wooden tables and chairs, a father and son competing in foosball, and couples sipping tea at a counter overlooking the kitchen.  The restaurant was essentially a house turned into a restaurant, with the original rooms preserved.  We entered what would be the living room.  A pair of families sat on a sofa and loveseat and ate at the coffee table.  Another group nibbled at their desserts over a game of Jenga.  In the back corner through a shorter-than-average doorframe, I saw several children sprawled on foam mats building castles with blocks.  Each menu was handmade and a cross between a scrapbook and photo album.  We tasted each other's Russian borsch, pumpkin soup, and beef tenderloin.  The most delicious vanilla rooibos tea rounded off the meal.

The main event of the evening was a performance of Carf Orff's Carmina Burana at the well-known Mariinsky Theater.  We saw Carmina Burana performed for the first time by Toledo's syphony and were blown away.  If you're interested, the most recognized part of the piece can be found here.  The theater was gorgeously decorated, with ornate golden molding among marble and soft velvet. 

The interior of Mariinsky Theater
The performance was just as amazing the second time.  It lasts just over an hour but felt vastly shorter.  The soloists were stunning and displayed masterful dramatization.  During one portion, an unnoticed children's choir seated in on of the balconies stood and joined the singing. 

Mariinsky Theater
Sitting in a famous Russian theater in St. Petersburg gave such an overwhelming feeling that even a performance of 'Hot Cross Buns' by my sixth grade band would have sounded great. We left the theater on a high and spent the rest of the evening walking along the canals of the city.

Monument to Nicholas I

On a footbridge over one of the many St. Petersburg canals

Famous composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov across from Mariinsky Theater

A tribute to the Russian author Vladmir Nabokov

The next morning we enjoyed a simple meal provided by the hotel in the adjoining restaurant.  The most awaited part of the weekend, a visit to the Hermitage, was the only mark in our agenda for Sunday.  Though the museum opens at 11 am on Sundays, there were already two large lines at 10:15 am.  The museum is one of the most celebrated in the world, high in the ranks with the Louvre of Paris.  It consists of four or five buildings and holds millions of pieces of artwork. 

The main entrance to the Hermitage
With our short visit, we decided to spend the day in the Winter Palace, the portion holding some Russian artifacts but mostly Western artwork.  The collection was started by Catherine the Great and has been preserved ever since.  Some of the rooms were arranged to display the living style of historic Russian royalty. 

The Room of Malachite, where Tsarist officials met for the final time before being captured
Kyle's dream room
Other rooms held classic Greek and Roman statues, Russian antiques, and Baroque artwork. The top floor is dedicated to Modern and Impressionist art. We spent a little over four hours in the museum and still felt there was plenty more to see. We were most impressed with the top floor, where entire rooms were set aside each for Van Gogh, Picasso, Pissarro, and Matisse. The palace was a museum in itself, so even when the art seemed redundant, the windows, floors, and architecture provided entertainment.

Pablo Picasso's The Farmer

Van Gogh's Portrait of Madame Trabuc

One of Henri Matisse's most famous- The Dance
For the last site before our departure, we stopped at St. Isaac's Cathedral.  Alexander I ordered the construction of the church following the defeat of Napoleon.  It took nearly 40 years to complete, and the architect died soon after it was finished.  Perhaps the most fantastic part of the cathedral is its enormous golden dome, which was painted black during WWII so as to not attract enemies' attention.  The cathedral is now a museum, where you can walk inside as well as up the 200+ stairs to the collonade.  We decided to see both.  Somehow, the only 30 minutes of sunlight of the entire weekend corresponded with our visit to the collonade.  We were able to see for miles across all directions of the city where colorful spires of various cathedrals poked through the skyline. It was truly breathtaking.

Kyle atop St. Isaac's Cathedral

The view of southern St. Petersburg

The Hermitage, Palace Square, and Alexander Column in the distance
Palace Square with the Alexander Column up close
Our final stop was the cathedral's interior, which was immensely overpowering.  Every inch of the ceilings, arches, and walls were covered with religious artwork.  We gawked at numerous murals of saints and Biblical figures.  There were maybe hundreds of different sculptures.  Even the two main doors boasted intricate carvings.  The colors from golden trim, malachite ornaments, and marble columns was almost blinding.

St. Isaac's Cathedral altar

This one's for you, Sister Catherine

A weekend has never flown by so quickly.  We made idiots of ourselves trying to track down the correct train car but returned to Moscow blown away by all that we saw in St. Petersburg.  The city exceeded our every expectation.  The people were kind and relaxed.  Every alleyway held hidden treasures.  St. Petersburg contains too much to see in one month, let alone two and a half days.  Everything about it was entirely charming, from our first long-distance train ride to the dozens of free hot cocoas I slurped down in the hotel lounge.

No comments:

Post a Comment