Venice of the North

After a somewhat grueling 36-hour journey in 3rd class train car, we arrived in Saint Petersburg.

And oh, what an amazing place it is!

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Seriously, that was my face all through our two days there. I just swooned over the buildings, the architecture, the art, the colors, the European-ness of it all. Mongolia doesn’t really have architecture–and that’s okay, because buildings and cities aren’t why anyone visits. We didn’t stay long enough in Beijing to form an impression (beyond “the Forbidden City is huge“). And Korean architecture is…well…lacking. Their temples (and buildings in Seoul) are lovely and ornate and interesting and colorful. But everything else is boxy, flat, and fully functional. I honestly got very tired of walking around Korean cities because nothing pleased my Western-conditioned aesthetics.

But Saint Petersburg! I don’t think I blinked once, so intent was I to see the mansions and gilded gates and Orthodox cathedrals. Jordan and I walked 10 miles the first day we were there because we didn’t want to take the metro and miss out on seeing beautiful buildings.

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For anyone interested in seeing how Cyrillic looks:

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Guess what coffee chain that is!

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Saint Petersburg, founded in 1703, is built on marshland. To combat the sinking earth, architects and reluctant nobility formed canals that cut through the city. A few have been filled in, but even today the city is famous for its bridges and canals. In the summer tourists usually take a canal tour to see the mansions lining the water. Most of the canals when we visited were already frozen over, but we still enjoyed the beautiful sights.

Our first stop was to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

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It cost quite a few rubles to get in (300, I think per person?), and we hemmed and hawed, not wanting to pay the cost. Jordan decided we should just do it, and we paid the money and walked in.

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And this is what we saw!

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The church is now a museum (hence the cost to get in) and dress code and hats aren’t enforced. This Russian Orthodox church was built on the grounds where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. He came to power in 1855 and rolled out massive reforms across the entire country. Most of them were (in our modern, democratic opinions) excellent. He abolished serfdom and made education for the poor easier to attain. Although he made dubious decisions in his personal life (like his mistress), he showed a real passion for helping orphans throughout the country. He was killed by radical liberals who wanted a democratic parliament to check his power.

After Alexander II died from the terrorist attack, his heir, Alexander III decided to build a church in his honor–specifically in the “Russian style,” as he thought St. Petersburg had too much of a Western influence already. Unfortunately, Alexander III also erased many of his father’s reforms and doubled-down on anti-Semitic oppression._mg_2540

The Soviets closed the church in 1932, and it was further damaged in the Siege of Leningrad and WWII (we saw a few scars across the building, despite it being recently renovated). In 1996 the church opened again, and underwent massive renovations and reconstructions.

After reveling in the gold and beautiful colors, we walked on to the Hermitage.  One of the largest art museums in the world, the Hermitage is considered to be founded in 1764, when Empress Catherine the Great acquired many of the paintings now on exhibit. The complex is made up of five main buildings–the Winter Palace being the most iconic. Other branches of the museums are in other aristocratic homes across the city. They have so many artifacts that one of their storage facilities has been opened for touring. I’ve never been to the Louvre, but surely this rivals that museum.

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We went down a side street and came to the formal entry-way to the Winter Palace, where the Romanovs used to live. The yellow arch is a part of the General Staff building, where Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings are displayed. During imperial Russia (pre-1918), ministries of the government had their offices there.

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And once passing through the arch, we came onto the palace square, complete with the Alexander Column. Raised in triumph after winning against Napoleon (their “War of 1812”), it is named after Emperor Alexander I, who led Russia during the war.

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The focus point, of course, was the Winter Palace. From 1737 to 1917 it was the official residence of the Romanovs, the Russian tsars. The last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra, had their primary residence away, at a summer retreat. But this was still used as the official residence. The provisional government took it over as their headquarters  in 1917, and it is here the Bolsheviks stormed the government. Further damaged in the Sieg of Leningrad, the Hermitage was declared a museum. Extensive renovations did not occur until the 90s, though.

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Jordan on the “Jordan Staircase,” so named for a religious ritual the Romanov family did once a year.

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A wider image of the Jordan Staircase.

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A grand stateroom, part of the Great Enfilade suites. Called an armorial hall, the chandeliers have the coat of arm of all Russian provinces engraved on them.

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The formal “throne room,” named St. George’s Hall.

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This was a small sitting room in the private suites of the last Romanovs. The furniture is a display of 19th century styles.

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Probably one of my favorite rooms in the whole palace–the library. Nicholas II spent a lot of time here. Many of the books are from his personal collection.

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We wound our way upstairs, downstairs, through the annexes connecting the different buildings, and oohed and awed at the amazing artwork.

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“Lady in Blue” from the British collection.

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They had a few da Vinci pieces!

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Jordan and I particularly enjoyed the Rembrandt Room.

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Jordan especially liked this painting, which he “recreated” from a college assignment to learn about light and shadows.

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The first floor of one of the buildings showed artifacts from the ancient world.

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Nicholas I (I think) collected armor, and there’s an entire exhibit on knight-and-steed armor. We both really liked those. Best part? We went on Thursday, the museum’s free day!

By the time we left the museum, the sun had set (it was about 4:30 in the afternoon) and we had walked for three hours straight. We took a bus back to our hostel, located in an old aristocrat’s house (I thought of Anna Karenina the entire time we were there!) and collapsed, eager to see more tomorrow.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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