All roads around Nevky Prospekt in St Petersburg lead to Neva River embankment and on one evening I had turned up there as well. The gorgeous Russian city had been gearing for yet another scintillating autumn sunset and vivid colors had splashed all across the sky, bathing the buildings, bridges, people and the river in warm gold. It had been a breathtaking golden hour and bridal parties had scuttled around to catch the glorious light for their wedding photos. I had always liked watching the lovely spectacle of Russian brides and in my eyes, they are one of the prettiest (and bravest). Beautifully made up with gorgeous wedding attire, they had made pretty pictures even when shivering in the severe cold of North Russian winter. That evening too, I had watched them as they had posed, preened and smiled for the cameras while basking in the golden rays. The Admiralty had been right behind me and on the other side of the Neva River, rows of pastel coloured beautiful neo classical mansions had glowed warmly. It had been a soul soothing evening and I had felt happy just to be there. That guileless happiness had swelled my heart with so much of positive feeling that I had gone ahead and bought an impromptu tour of Peterhof from one of the agents wandering nearby. The tour had seemed promising and had offered transfer along with coffee. The reality however had turned out to be disastrous as the transfer had been in a freezing cold poorly maintained boat in which the coffee vending had broken down years back.
TRAVEL TIP – There are numerous agents selling such tours around Hermitage and on Neva Embankment. It is best to hunt around a bit, see the condition of the transfer boat and the inclusive as some offer complete all inclusive tours (which are cheaper) along with bundle offers (for e.g Gulf of Finland Tour, Canal Tour etc).
Now to leave St Petersburg without visiting the Peterhof is like not going to the Versailles on a Paris trip. An opulently exquisite estate, Peterhof Palace had been worth the cold uncomfortable transfer and it had been filled with serene parks, gilt fountains and palaces. Laid out on the orders of Peter the Great, Peterhof Palace had been an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the evening autumn colors had made it all the more beautiful. I had reached the park a little too late to explore the palace interiors and had just about enough time to walk around the gardens and the famous Cascades. The gorgeous sunset had been over and the sky had turned into a sulky grey blue. Cold winds had blustered in from the Gulf of Finland and the resident Egyptian geese had huddled together for warmth. Fallen golden leaves of autumn had speckled the grounds like bits of gold and they had matched with glittering golden fountains of Peterhof.
One of Russia’s most renowned tourist attractions, the fountains had been a cherished part of Peter the Great’s original plans for Peterhof and the most famous ensemble, the Grand Cascade had comprised of 64 different fountains and over 200 bronze statues, bas reliefs and other ornamentation. Running from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, the centerpiece of the Grand Cascade had been Rastrelli’s spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, had been my first sight of Peterhof and it had been truly breathtaking. That had been my first and last impression of the gorgeous Peterhof and I had left for St Petersburg soon. The trip back had been colder and I had splurged on a hefty meal of good borsht, pelmeni with sour cream and a massive steak with potatoes immediately upon arriving at St Petersburg. The hearty Russian food had warmed me up and I had walked around the streets until it had been time for opening of the gates.
One of the most romantic experiences of St Petersburg, the opening of the gates had happened around midnight when the bridges spanning the Neva River had started opening up one by one to allow barges in. Lit up with fancy lights, the bridges along with the entire embankment had thrown glorious shadows on the inky dark water and the Neva River had hummed with busy tour boats. It had been one of the most popular things to do in St Petersburg and I too had been in one of them to experience the gorgeous phenomenon. Warmly tucked under a pile of blankets and with a glass of champagne, I had stared in awe as the bridges had yawned open in synchronized manner and magic lanterns and fireworks had dotted the black cold sky. It had been an unforgettable sight and one which I had carried in my heart as the boat had crisscrossed through St Petersburg’s famous maze of canals. Gloriously lit up, the old stone bridges had looked grander against the quietness of the night and I had gotten off near Church of Savior on Spilled Blood.
Incidentally, it had been the exact spot from where I had started my St Petersburg day and it had seemed as if my trip had come to a full circle. I had arrived at St Petersburg Ladozhisky Vokzal that morning around sunrise and the city had been wrapped in bitter cold. In that really early morning hour, St Petersburg had disappointed me at first sight and I had checked into Sunny Hostel with some regret. The train journey from Barnaul in Siberia to St Petersburg had been both expensive and long and I had wondered if my decision to visit there for the weekend had been a smart one. The afternoon, however had turned out to be brighter and I had left the hostel soon to explore Russia’s cultural capital. The hostel being located in the glitzy Nevsky Prospekt, walking around had been like a pleasant dream and apart from a brief snack of spiced beef pastry with hot fruit punch, I had wandered along every street and canal of the area.
Super touristy, beautiful and exciting, Nevsky Prospekt had been filled with street performers, high end stores and restaurants, stylish cafes, awe struck travelers and swish local people. The minty green Hermitage had stood at its one end and the fancy domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and Kazan Cathedral had been around there too. It had all been breathtakingly beautiful; the people, the wide avenues with the jangling trolleys, the exquisite neoclassical buildings with the flowery friezes, cherubs, winged angels and gargoyles, muscular larger than life statues, the twisting canals, bustling awed tourists and the local bohemian spirit. Flower sellers, woolen gloves sellers, tour agents and lolling students had filled the city with human excitement and the westernized glamour had been very much on your face. Touted as Russia’s most westernized city, St Petersburg had been built from a scratch by the west inspired Peter the Great and it had been a grand urban display of imperial Russia’s growing importance in the world.
Embellished and decorated further by Peter’s successors, many European architects had been hired to add fabulous palaces and cathedrals to the city’s layout, Thus, the much cherished St Petersburg had morphed into the Romanovs’ window display capital and it had gone to become Russia’s first great, modern city. Though, post revolution, the Russian capital had got shifted to Moscow, St Petersburg had remained a gorgeous imperial city largely frozen in time. There had been something about St Petersburg that had gotten under my skin and I had hopelessly fallen in love with its colours, incredible light and heritage. The city’s flourishing art and music scene had been hedonistic and pleasurable and it had seemed as if great many exciting things had been happening at the city at the same time. From the exquisite traditional ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre to the karaoke bars around Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg had been a potpourri of fun and needless to say, that had been an autumn well spent in the gorgeous westernized Russian city.
TRAVEL TIP – St Petersburg bubbles with cultural activities during the White Night Festival where thousands of national and international attendees flock to enjoy series of ballet, music,opera and plays performed by renowned Russian and international musicians, dancers, actors and singers. The legendary White Nights, when the northern sun barely sets, begins in May. It is also springtime at St Petersburg and the trees get decked up with flowers. The nights peak in mid-June, when the sky doesn’t get dark at all and the entire city seems to be partying nonstop.
Architecture lovers are forever mesmerized with St Petersburg and the city is indeed a crown jewel of imperial Russia. Often compared with Venice, elegant canals, 342 bridges and grand neo classical mansions, baroque palaces and striking plazas criss cross the city into one fine architectural delight. For those looking for most fun and cheap tours of Russia, check out https://www.facebook.com/sptnik.travel Organized by locals, these tours are a great way to enjoy Russia and meet interesting people. Personally tried and trusted I would recommend the rooftop and pubbing tours. Trolleys, matrushtkas, buses and walking tours around are the most fun and economical way of enjoying this amazing city especially if staying near Nevsky Propekt. Otherwise its easier to take the Metro to the city center and then explore from there.
Hermitage easily takes one whole day and it is difficult to cram all the sights in 2-3 days. To save on food, try out the small eateries spread all around by lanes of Nevsky Prospekt which serve cheap and delicious serve Uzhbekh, Kazakh, Serbian or Tajikistani food. Many underground bakers dole out some delicious really cheap freshly baked pastries and there are plenty of local hole in the wall groceries where you can buy heat and eat meals or get your food stash for long train journeys. Hostels are a great way to stay in Russia and all of them have kitchenette facility. It saves quite a bit of money too which you can splurge occasionally on lavish ballet or opera performances for which the city is famous worldwide. There are some interesting ballet school tours and ballet lesson tours as well to experience this fine art up, close and personal. Wandering around St Petersburg is a delight, but if you don’t want to walk, just hop in any of the canal or bus tours (English tours are hard to find and more expensive but you can always read up about the places visited).
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE