St. Petersburg and Leningrad are the same Russian City. Before communism took the reins in 1922, the city was named St. Petersburg. During communism times, the city was renamed Leningrad after the most “loved” communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Since the fall of Communism in 1991, St. Petersburg has returned. O.K. Whatever!
Oh what a beautiful city, but let’s first ramble on a bit about how I got to town. St. Petersburg is 13 hours by slow train from Moscow. Railroad between Moscow and Peter was first opened in 1851 and is 405 miles long. Train travel today takes between 3 ½ to 9 hrs, depending what type of train you go on. I didn’t have a ton of time, so I took the fast train pictured below. The fast train was first available in 2009 and can soar along at a cool 180 mph.
And here is the awesome, beautiful Moscow train station – now I’m not really into train stations, but they just don’t build them like this in the good old USA.
Inside the Moscow train station every corridor different and beautiful and its own work of art.
Once in the train, the Russian countryside looked a bit bleak to tell you the truth – it was a cloudy day, which probably didn’t help. I saw a lot of mule driven carts and women in long dresses and scarves hoeing the beets and potatoes no doubt. Most houses in the country were not painted and looked gray and drab, but to be fair, what can a passenger on a super fast moving train actually see?
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Cool Old Russian castle-like looking places dotted the rural landscape. These types of structures are called a Russian Dacha. Basically, a Dacha is a summer vacation home. Dachas are used today for fishing, hunting, and other leisure activities, and growing garden crops remains popular, and still seen as an important part of dacha life. Dachas originated as small country estates gifted by the tsar, and have been popular among the upper and middle classes ever since. During the Soviet era, many dachas were state-owned, and were given to the elite of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Dacha’s do not all look the same, but below is one I saw.
As we whizzed by, I could really get the flavor of how modest the little communities were. I saw many little groups of tiny houses. I did not see electric poles attached to very many of these tiny little houses and was told there is no electricity in a lot of rural houses, but was told most have running water.
I got a good look at the backyards. Every house included a big, big garden. Most even had an outhouse. I bet the outhouse is a lot of fun in the extreme cold and long Russian winters.
The barns were mostly the nicest buildings I saw from my train window. In most all cases, the barns looked far better cared for then the people living quarters and some barns were even painted.
As we continued to whizz by the Russian countryside, I could see tall churches dominating every little village we past. I would have liked to have gone into a village – the “onion domes” looked interesting from the train window.
The train made numerous stops along trip and seemed to be a very popular way for the local folks to travel. Train travel was very fun in Russia as the trains are barely ever late, and we were offered lunch including vodka (no caviar) for a fairly hefty price.
And finally, just as I got good and settled in, our arrival into St. Petersburg was announced over the loudspeaker in Russian. But somehow I figured it out when the train attendant yelled in a husky authoritative sort of voice and pointed at me, “You! Out! Now!” Who was I to argue?
Locals just leave off the “burg” part and call the city “Peter” but I am not a local so I will spell out the entire name. There are 5 million inhabitants in town. St. Petersburg is the most westernized, cultural capital and European looking city in Russia. Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703.
Super cool, mostly marble train station in St. Petersburg.
Arriving in St. Petersburg, the first thing that is obvious is how clean and shinny new the place looks. The 2nd largest Russian City, St. Petersburg is filled museums, sidewalk cafes, water canals, status, and all-around happy people. Oh and did I mention that the sun was finally shinning. Compared to Moscow, it does not look as gray or “military” or “political.” I left most of the onion domes back in Moscow, but there are a few scattered around to remind me I really was still in Russia. St. Petersburg is Russia’s greatest historical and cultural treasure. St. Petersburg was unharmed by the 1930-50s period of Stalinist reconstruction. Downtown St. Petersburg is crowded with splendid restored palaces, impressive historical monuments, tree-lined avenues and beautiful bridges. Although not yet 300 years old, St. Petersburg is a city crammed with historical and cultural associations and a refined air of mystery (St. Petersburg.com).
St. Petersburg sits on the banks of the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. There are numerous canals. St. Petersburg is called the “Venice of Russia” for very good reason. Believe me, the picture below is NOT Venice.
Tourist boats, water taxis, sailing ships, and cargo boats are just a few of the many boats in the St. Petersburg waterways and canals. Using the public transportation on the canals is a great way and inexpensive way to get around town.
Another picture from a different angle shows the Church of the Savior on Blood in all its glory. Construction to build the church began in 1883 during the reign of Alexander III. On March 13, 1881, as Tsar Alexander’s carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carriage and started to remonstrate with the presumed culprit. A second conspirator took the chance to throw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the tsar. The tsar, bleeding heavily, was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later. The church is literally built on the tsar’s blood (Wikipedia). This church was mostly destroyed in World War II, but has been restored as close to the original as humanly possible.
Please! Just let me ramble about one more small building. Located on the banks of the River Neva, the stunning blue-and-white Smolny Monastery was originally built to house Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, when she was pushed to become a nun after being denied succession to the throne. Though political situations prompted a change in her plans and allowed her to ascend to power, construction of this Russian Orthodox convent continued for several years with the help of the royal family. The complex was built at the site of Elisabeth’s Palace and named after the tar (smolny) used to seal the hulls of ships in the nearby docks (aviewoncities.com). Locals folks call this building, “The Birthday Cake.” I wouldn’t mind a birthday cake like this.
Another very amazing place to visit, sit a spell, and have awesome coffee, drinks, pastries, cheese, or whatever your taste bud fancy is the Eliseyev Emporium. This is a big top-notched retail complex consisting of 3 buildings, but 1 of the buildings houses a famous food hall, constructed in 1902. Today, the food hall has been restored to its former glory and includes display counters of exquisite delicacies from mouthwatering French pastries, cheeses of every variety, smoked salmon, caviar, exclusive wines and spirits, teas and coffees. To complement the fresh food displays, 12 mobile etageres hold over 3000 varieties of exclusive products. Each department is beautifully decorated with gilded stucco ceilings and glitzy chandeliers and many of the original features and equipment used in the golden era remain intact. It’s a site to behold and the food offers are unbelievable. I was told that this “deli” did not close when the bombs of WWII were bursting in air. Boy, I would sit out the war in this place.
And who can possibly leave St. Petersburg, Russia without visiting one of the top museums in the world. Now I did not mean to get all touristy on you, but if your thrill is visiting museums and even if museums are not your thrill, you must visit the Hermitage Museum. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace (pictured below), a former residence of Russian emperors (Wikipedia). If you don’t even look at one painting or sculpture it will be well worth the time to see the palaces.
I did not expect any of this when I first thought of visiting Russia, and all I can say is WOW, WOW, WOW! There is much to learn and see in Russia, and I just barely touched the surface of the 2 largest cities in Russia. I will leave my reader and Russia with one last picture of the fantastic night picture of the Hermitage (winter palace) museum on the left and some government buildings on the right.