Wednesday, September 23, 2009
st petersburg - day 1 - the hermitage
Church of the Spilled Blood from Nevsky Prospekt
OK, time for a trip report, now that I've managed to make a sort of selection of the gigabytes of photos we took ...
I'll start by saying it was a fantastic trip, which quite exceeded my expectations. I mean, I read all the travel guides, poured over maps and researched the net for all kinds of suggestions, but in the end I never had a clear picture of what to expect. Which in hindsight was a good thing, because we were both quite pleasantly surprised.
In brief summary, we fell in love with St. Petersburg at first sight, which I'd been told would not be difficult. We also loved the Baltic countries, especially Estonia where we spent more time, and regretted not having more days in Latvia. Trakai in Lithuania wins the prize for the most romantic spot and the castle in Rakvere was probably where we had most fun. We found delicious food everywhere, which was lucky since half the time we couldn't understand the menu.
When we arrived in St. Petersburg it was already past 10 pm so we didn't have much time except to take our transfer back to the B&B and crash in bed. Some useful tips: there are ATMs everywhere in this city and also in the Baltic countries and I never had any problem using any of my cards, so exchanging currency beforehand is not really worth it (I actually tried to get some Latvian and Lithuanian currency here in Lisbon, since we would be driving into those countries and eventually we might need money before finding an ATM, but there was none to be found); although we booked a transfer from the airport to the city center because we were arriving so late, it's way cheaper to catch the mini bus that would leave you directly on Sadovaya Square if you arrive during the day (costs 1 or 2 euros compared to 30).
Our first day started with a nice long chat with our hostess Natalya, owner of the Assembly B&B. During our stay she prepared traditional Russian breakfasts for us, and I highly recommend staying at this B&B if you're looking for reasonably priced and centrally located rooms. Actually, even if the rooms were bad (which they are not) I would still recommend it because Natalya is what makes this place so special. She told us a lot about life in Russia, what to see in St. Petersburg, where to eat, and helped us take care of several details that otherwise are not so easy. Hotel prices are quite expensive here, I had looked into some of the so called mini-hotels but even those were not that reasonable so a B&B was the perfect choice.
We only had 3 days, which I now realize is just too short for such a city. We tried to see all the highlights, and for that first day we had planned to start with the Hermitage. Not the best of ideas, since although the day started rainy it soon became quite sunny and I was sorry to be visiting the museum when it was such a splendid day outside. Oh, and the next day it was pouring rain so yes, the weather here can be quite unpredictable.
From the B&B it's about half an hour walk to the Palace Square and the Hermitage, so although it only opened at 10 am we decided to walk there slowly. This is a city that was definitely made for walking and we walked all around it during our 3 day stay. We didn't even take the subway although we've been told it's quite an experience. We passed by our first canal (this is the Venice of the North, after all) and quickly reached Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous street in the city. It's a huge avenue, filled with shops, restaurants and some magnificent buildings. On the corner where we came from stands Kazaan Cathedral, another landmark. We entered just briefly, but it was definitely more impressive on the outside.
We arrived in Palace Square and there was some sort of navy (we think) parade going on.
I had bought the museum tickets online, which is a must, because the lines can get really, really long ...
With the online voucher we were able to get our tickets quickly from the group tickets cashier (which is located on the right side before entering the courtyard) and enter through the "exit" door (just show the ticket to the security guard). I really wanted to see the "Scythian Gold Rooms" so once inside we were lucky to find a ticket booth that had just opened and were able to buy tickets for the first tour in English. This was only scheduled for 13:45 and we had arrived at 10:00 when the museum opens which I thought would give us plenty of time to look around. Now the Hermitage has 3 floors, and more rooms to see than you'd think possible. A good advice is to try and not see everything and just concentrate on your favorites. For us that was the whole of the first floor so that's where we started.
Although the pieces in exhibit are obviously priceless and very beautiful I have to say that the true beauty of the Hermitage are the rooms themselves. This is, after all, the Winter Palace, several times decorated and re-decorated by the tsars and tsarinas that lived here. I'm afraid I must've missed admiring a lot of paintings and sculptures because I was so busy looking at the walls and the ceilings.
Oh, and did I mention the floors ? I loved the floors here. I probably took a photo of the wooden floor of every room we went by ...
Anyway, here are a few of my favorite rooms ...
The great entrance hall and staircase
One of my favorites ... just look at the floor design, it's made up of tiny, tiny tiles
The Raphael Loggias
This gallery was quite impressive. It's a reproduction of the famous gallery painted by Raphael in the Vatican (which we didn't see because apparently you need a special permit)
The Canova gallery
The portrait gallery of the 1812 War, featuring all Russian officials. The blue holes are spaces for the portraits that could not be completed.
We actually had time to see the second floor as well. I went looking for some Kandinsky paintings that I was sure were there, but couldn't find them. We rushed through most of the rooms, but stopped once in a while to admire a few known paintings ...
The downstairs floor we just saw in passing and very briefly. They were the least interesting for us anyway, and we needed to get some lunch before the tour. Getting to the tour meeting point was another adventure (be sure to ask for instructions in advance) and then the tour itself took a little over an hour. Our guide (a nice old lady that spoke quite fast) was very knowledgeable and guided us through the most important pieces. The design and intricate work of the smaller pieces was the most impressive (no photos allowed inside, I'm afraid)
After that we were ready to go out and finally enjoy the sunny day. So we walked around to the back of the Hermitage and caught the hydrofoil to Peterhof, a nice trip that took about 30 minutes. Although expensive, I think it's the best option to get there, especially on a nice day. Peterhof deserves a post of its own, so I'll get to that next.
On our way out we caught a couple taking their wedding pictures in the main staircase ... I thought that was quite original
More Hermitage photos here