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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Wandering the St. Petersburg Streets

First off, let me apologize for being so long between posts.  No good excuses, just the ones that everyone shares: life, busyness, laziness, etc.

That being said, I've decided to spend Saturday morning catching up on some of my blogging and to get some of the information about and inspiration of St. Petersburg on paper before it fades completely away.  So here goes!

Like many tourists we spent most of our time within the inner rings of the city, that is, the part that was really developed by Peter the Great and his immediate successors.  Being someone who HAS to have a visual to make sense of any city, here's Lonely Planet's simplified map of the heart of St. Petersburg. (The Grand Hotel, GHE, is at the "r" in "Nevsky pr.")  For us foreign tourist types, one of the things that makes this part of the city so impressive is its relative architectural uniformity.  It's a beautiful city in part because the extremely powerful, absolutist rulers of Russia were able to make it a political and social necessity for their nobility and bureaucracy to build palaces there, and once the Russian nobility started building, with their enormous wealth, the city just took off.  In other words, St. Petersburg is filled with 18th- and early 19th-century palaces, and even the buildings between the palaces share the architectural style in the city center.  As a planned imperial city, it's really quite striking.

When you walk out of the Grand Hotel on of the many impressive and nearby sights is the tower marking the seat of the Duma, that is, the town administration.  If you look to the left, you'll see this other building--today I think it's part of a series of stores--modeled on a Grecian temple.  I must admit that one of the things that amused me was the number of buildings in St Petersburg that were modeled on famous buildings elsewhere.  While I realize that much 18th- & 19th-century architecture was derivative, as you'll see, there's a difference between derivative and a copy.  You'll see what I mean when we get to the mini-St. Peters.

This is one of the many palaces lining Nevsky Prospekt, which is today one of the main and more fashionable streets in St. Petersburg.  While I'm probably wrong about this, to me, it really seems like a "typical" St. Petersburg palace: imposing facade with high windows (that is, it can be defended if necessary), neoclassical style with perhaps just a bit too much gingerbread to make it truly neoclassical, and this amazing pastel color.  The colors, in particular, really surprised me, although they shouldn't: I mean, the Romans painted their buildings and I'm always telling my students how the "simple" interiors of Gothic cathedrals were riots of color in the past--we just seeing their structure, their bones, if you will.  Still, it's funny to see your words in practice.  And I just don't get the pastel fetish.

On our first full day there, Jaime and I went for a long walk down Nevsky Prospekt, around and past the winter palace, out to the Peter and Paul Fortress (across the river), through the Fortress to its far (left-hand) end, across two bridges alongside the naval school and Botanical Gardens, and meandering back towards the GHE on Nevsky.  It took about 3 hours in weather in the teens, but since we were decently dressed and it was sunny, it only felt that bad the last 1/4 mile.  I mention this because you'll see snow in most of the pictures.  Those were the ones Jaime took and reflect how it really looked when we were there.  Don't I plan things well, traveling with people who are both good at and like to take pictures? :-)

Just down Nevsky Prospekt from where we were staying (towards the Neva river) was the Griboyedova canal, one of 3 main, semi-circular canals that mark the old part of the city.  Like Venice, St. Petersburg was built on a marsh for military purposes, so it has tons of waterways running through it, all designed to control overflow.  Unlike Venice, these canals freeze in the winter.  No night-time canal tours for us!

In the distance is a famous sight that we walked past almost everyday: the Church of the Spilled Blood.  (It was named because Czar Alexander II was assassinated here, and the church was meant to honor him.)  It's an amazing confection in blues and gold with, not surprisingly, imperial eagles everywhere.  More specific pictures are coming in a later post; Jaime had a field day with the details and the lighting, like any photographer would!

Here's a picture from a few days later when it was brighter.  Even this doesn't give you a sense of the detail and glitter in this amazing church.

Right behind the GHE and between it and the Church of the Spilled Blood was the main branch of the Russian Museum.  The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is much like the Smithsonian in DC: although there is ostensibly a central building, there are actually many museums and even a few palaces in the city under its curatorship.  It holds a really astonishing collection of early Russian history, and I'm sure it's Revolutionary materials are outstanding, given what happened in St. Petersburg, but I ran out of time to see them.

This is the Stroganoff Palace, famous and very prestigious Russian noble family, family for whom especially yummy dinner is named!  If you want information about the city's MANY palaces and about the city in general, I recommend two websites: and  Several Russian colleagues recommended the former, while I found the latter a great resource about a whole series of impressive but less prestigious palaces scattered around the city.  Both also have great photos!

Just behind us was one of the main renovation projects going on in the city.  To be honest, one of the more striking things in SP was the variation in restoration.  Some buildings were in great shape, while others were missing huge chunks of plaster.  Then there were the differences between what was visible publicly and what was in the inside courtyards; the latter was STRIKING at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  While some of it is understandable given the difficulties of maintenance in SP's climate, it was also a testimony to the way capitalism run rampant underlies so much of modern Russian society.  Basically the buildings that were in good shape were ones that people, companies, or the government could make money on.

Here it is, the Russian St. Peter's, otherwise known as Kazan Cathedral.  Impressive church, but when you've seen the real thing, it becomes more impressive as a statement of imperial aspirations and resources--and that isn't necessarily flattering.

A great bookstore and a good, if overpriced, cafe is housed here in the Singer building next to the canal pictured above.  And, yes, it's now called Singer based on the Singer of sewing machine fame.

One of the things I've liked about architecture both in SP and here in Helsinki are the details on the buildings.  The next few pictures show the type of decoration that was found all over the buildings in the heart of SP.  And, by the way, look at the bright turquoise building across the canal from the Singer.  See what I mean about painted buildings.  (While it does look odd to me, I must admit that it really brightened up the place on cold and gray winter days.)

Did you really think I'd leave out the Hermitage/Winter Palace?  (Yes, they're officially two different things, but it's too complicated to explain and, in the modern world, doesn't really matter.)  Yep, the reason I went to SP for the art collection--most of which isn't on display.  When Jaime gets his more detailed pictures of the Hermitage loaded, I'll post separately about it, but let's just say it is quite impressive, although, funnily enough, not as grandiose as I expected.  I think part of the reason it seemed more understated than I expected was because of the huge public square in front of it, one that was clearly designed for staging entrances, performances, etc.  Another reason is that because, in many ways, all of SP is an imperial stage, and there are so many other impressive palaces in close proximity that it simultaneously blends in and stands out.  The blue-green paint is odd to see in person, too, although I'd see it in tons of photographs.  It makes it stand out, but it also makes it homier, too--probably not an impression the czars were going for. :-)

Once we walked across the huge square we slipped into one of the side streets that now exist between wings of the palace.  Is it just me, or does this look like something straight out of Venice (minus the ice, that is)?

And, remember, don't try to moor in the ice!

You can imagine what fun these cobblestones were to walk on, although SP was actually much easier to navigate than Helsinki at that time.  By early March, the ice was off the main walkways; it helps when you have a MUCH larger population.  Some side streets and all the parks were still treacherous, but it didn't keep the Russian women from running around in 3-4" heels!

I dealt with the issue by slipping and basically genuflecting in front of the Winter Palace.  I'm sure someone was wondering why I was so overcome.  Jaime had another problem; his boots just couldn't take the pace!

I've always thought "walking my shoes into the ground" was a metaphor.  Yes, we learned all about Russian shoe repair!

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