Monday, 18 July 2011

St Petersburg

St Petersberg is quite an amazing place. Set on the delta of the Neva River where it flows into the top of the Gulf of Finland. It was established by Peter the Great in the early 18th century after a war with Sweden to gain sea access to the Baltic Sea. The whole top of the gulf is fresh water which freezes in winter, though apparently not sufficient to stop bigger shipping.

The city was laid out to be like Amsterdam or Venice, with canals forming over 100 islands. Much of the architecture and was by leading Italian designers at the time. The lattitude given the designers led to statues adorning the cathederal, despite not normally being allowed in Orthodox churches. A boat trip for two hours on the canals and out to the port was a treat, showing us quite a variety of landscapes, including parklands, palaces, the Peter and Paul fortress, the cruise ship terminal with 7 ships in port, and a glimpse of the high rise dormitory districts further out.

The main city is remarkably consistent in design, often with yellow or other bright paint colour, a 4-story building height restriction, and stone frontages, meaning long rows of buildings and almost no plate glass windows in the whole city centre. Makes finding shops of any description quite hard for a visitor. We did stumble across a string of cafes offering cafeteria-style self service selections of meals, which saved many grey hairs from trying to decipher a Russian menu written in Cyrillic.

We have had great fun deciphering the alphabet, prompted by the 90 minute queue for immigration at the airport, and some interesting advertising signs, plus a 90 minute car ride from the airport to our hotel. To our great surprise, a good percentage of signs became readable once the code was cracked, with a little help from google. Like other European languages, the words themselves often either have the same root, or have been imported, so our obsessive deciphering of the signage often revealed significant information. It also allowed us to navigate the Underground and the street signs with some degree of reliability.

Palaces are all the go here, with a claim to have around 500 of them in the city. This is the largest, the Hermitage. No wonder the peasants revolted. There were probably as many churches, but many were blown up during the Soviet times. In fact, as with many places in Europe, many public buildings are either replicas of what was there before, or replacements. Particularly so in St Petersburg, which was under siege for 900 days during WWII, damaging or destroying much of the city.

The trams were used to take troops to the front line, which shows just how close the front line was. However, some of the rolling stock does look like it has not been replaced since.

Two decades of painstaking restoration work on the churches, which were closed or used as museums or storerooms for over 60 years, has produced some remarkable results. The Peter and Paul Cathederal domes alone consume 12kg of gold leaf, which apparently needs to be redone every 10 years or so. The love affair with gilding also extends to the interiors, with widespread use on statues, icons and relief work.

The statue of Samson in the fountain at Peterhof garden apparently requires regilding every 3-4 years. I reckon there’s a lot of gold sitting in the bottom of that fountain.

Particularly impressive is the Church of the Spilled Blood, erected at the site of the fatal stabbing of Alexander II in 1881. Although used as a storehouse for theatre props during the Soviet period it has seen intense restoration.

The interior is intricately decorated entirely in glass mosaic above the lower 2 metres. While a bit gaudy on the outside, it is still a beautiful piece of architecture.

There is so much more to say about St Petes, but I do not want to bore you just yet, so we will leave it there for now.

1 comment:

  1. Am loving the interesting and amusing, they will also be a good record for yourselves when you get back home and you find you have forgotten some of the "stuff" you did because you did so much of you both all the best and hoping the rest of the trip is as interesting and as much fun...Take care and look after yourslves....Janette