White Nights and White Swans

From late May to early July, St. Petersburg is literally the city that never sleeps — because it never gets dark! The city is situated at a latitude where, during this time, twilight lasts all night. The atmosphere is lively and bustling 24/7 (more so on weekends).

These “White Nights” are not unique to St. Petersburg but here they take it to another level. The St. Petersburg “White Nights” are also a two-month cultural celebration featuring the “Stars of the White Nights,” a series of opera, orchestral performances and classical ballet.

Did I say classical ballet? Tonight we attended Swan Lake at the famous Mariinsky Theatre! For me, this was a true highlight of our trip. To see a Russian Ballet, particularly Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in Russia? Just WOW! The theatre, the sets, the costumes — all stunning. Most impressive, however, was the spellbinding performance. The male leads were strong, seemingly suspended in the air leap after leap. The corps de ballet as swans were beautifully synchronized as they floated across the stage. When they perform as maidens, we were awestruck by their precision, lining up like statues in difficult ballet extensions in what seemed like forever. Oxana Skorik as Odette/Odile? Frank and I were awed. The grace of her arms, her long stretch and elegant athleticism, all unworldly. Her pliability and energy had Frank scratching his head, “How can she do that?” An amazing, truly magical performance!

Did you know that the first time they performed “Swan Lake,” it was a flop? The show premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The critics panned the choreographer and lead dancer so bad that no one dared bring it back to the stage again until 1893. The score and choreography were reworked and the rest is history. “Swan Lake” and the White Swan are symbols of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian Ballet.

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A Window to Europe

Over and over, we’ve said to ourselves that St. Petersburg doesn’t feel much different than Europe. There’s a reason for that. This weekend, the city celebrated its 317th birthday. That’s relatively young compared to most European cities (and just a little older than Washington DC). When Peter I (later Peter the Great) came to power, Russia was pretty backward after decades of famine and political turbulence. There was much distrust of foreigners. His reign was a turning point. 

Peter I was determined to make Russia a great European power. Early in his reign, he set off to Europe to gather knowledge and develop a plan for Russian prosperity. He recruited military and technical experts who would share their skills with the country.

The city of St. Petersburg was Peter the Great’s grand legacy. His new port city opened a gateway for trade, business and cultural exchange. Art forms that had been forbidden by the medieval Russian Orthodox Church (i.e. portraiture, instrumental music, and dramatic productions) soon became part of the nation’s cultural life. By the mid-18th century Russians were producing ballets, operas, chamber music, baroque architecture, and novels. Under Peter I’s rule, artists were sent abroad to study, and painters from Western Europe were brought to work in Russia.

I was on the hunt for Kandinsky paintings and was excited to explore St. Petersburg’s wonderful art museums. The State Russian Museum houses an amazing collection of Russian artwork with a half dozen of the artist’s paintings. The Hermitage is the city’s largest museum with three million pieces(!) and 120 rooms. Two of its most famous artifacts are the silver sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky and the gold Peacock Clock. It has an impressive collection of Russian and international masterpieces. Here, I was thrilled to find a full room of Kandinsky! (Yay!)

The Faberge Museum had a fabulous collection of famous Faberge eggs. I was surprised to see the jewelry, china and silver pieces — most of them gifts to the royal family.

Another place we found particularly interesting was the Alexander Nevsky Lavra (or cemetery). Here we found the ornate graves of many famous Russian poets, composers and writers. Thankfully they had an English map, as all the gravestones were naturally in Russian!

When Peter the Great founded the city, he wanted to create the “Venice of the North.” The River Neva was intended to be Main Street. We took a boat ride with our hostess Sasha and some of her family and friend. It was fun to see the city from a new perspective.

The first building built in St Petersburg was the Peter and Paul fortress. The Cathedral inside is the city’s oldest church and the burial place of most of the royal family, including the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children. The fortress prison was used up until the 1920’s for political prisoners. Now, the area is a popular hangout when the weather finally gets warm.

Although their system is good, we rarely used the St. Petersburg public transit. When we did, we noted the depth of some of the stations. This is due to the swampy soil. We saw thick, metal recessed walls that could close off the metro tunnels in the event of disaster. (Some had been used in the past for bomb shelters.)

We walked almost everywhere as our apartment was centrally located. The streets were kept very clean and there were underground walkways at busy intersections. When we went further, we used Yandex (who purchased Uber). Rates were so cheap at only USD 1.50 to 3.00 per ride!

St. Petersburg offers countless shopping options. There are lots of little souvenir shops. All the major luxury chains are here, as well as some mass market (i.e. H&M, Zara).

And the food? St. Petersburg is SOOO much more than borscht and caviar! Restaurant options are countless, including many classic white table establishments, coffee shops and new concept restaurants. Frank and I especially enjoyed a little “old school” chain called Soviet Cafe. They played Cold War movies while you ate! Yes, we ate Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff and Russian dumplings! Desserts are a must, either at the restaurant or from the many cafes and bake shops. In some restaurants, the bill (which you must request, they don’t rush you) comes in a little box and you place your cash inside.

So yes, St. Petersburg feels very European — fashion, art, architecture, restaurants, shopping — very international. But the city has it own vibe and, like every place, a unique backstory. A part of you is very aware that you are someplace very special and historically significant. Peter the Great’s vision for a “window to Europe” is actually a doorway, one that I am so happy we could pass through . . .

“Za Nashua Druzjbu!” or “To our friendship!”
(We learned that Russians don’t usually say “na zdarovje” which means “bless you” as when someone sneezes or thanks you for a nice, cooked meal!)

36 Hours to Moscow

Could we come to Russia without seeing Moscow? Of course not. Our journey began on the overnight train from St. Petersburg. Our two person cabin was cozy and comfortable. We left at 11:30pm and arrived in Moscow at 8:30am.

Although one cannot get a true feel for a place in a single day, we did our best to see what we could. We zigzagged Moscow with our new friend Yuri, utilizing the city’s public transport, along with lots and lots of walking.

Moscow is the capital city of Russia, as well as the country’s largest city. In 2016, the estimated population was about 12 million. Being a warm, sunny Sunday, it seemed many of those 12 million were out and about. The main sights were buzzing with tourists (as to be expected) but we saw countless young families, older couples and lots of young people enjoying local parks, festivals and restaurants. The atmosphere was lively and friendly. Honestly, we felt like we could have been in Toronto or Minneapolis.

We were surprised at the distance between the various areas we visited. Moscow is the eleventh largest megacity by area but remains, however, surprisingly navigable. Frank was super impressed with the city’s mass transit; the metro, trams, monorail and buses are interconnected and well-marked, not to mention extremely affordable. The metro itself has 200+ stops, with plans to add another 60 stops by 2020. (See more fun facts about the Metro below.)

Downtown Moscow is modern and clean with impressive skyscrapers. We visited the observatory of one, which was mobbed with school-aged Muscovites celebrating the end of exams and taking advantage of unlimited free ice cream! We passed numerous shopping centers, restaurants and theatres.

To say we were pleasantly surprised with our whirlwind snapshot of Moscow would be an understatement. Although it does not have the charm of St. Petersburg, as a major metropolitan city, Moscow offers much to be appreciated.

The Kremlin is an area in the Moscow center, overlooking the Moscow River to the south, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square to the east, and Alexander Garden to the west. The area contains five palaces, four cathedrals, and an enclosing wall.

Additional Fun Facts About Moscow’s Metro System

Moscow Metro System: 200+ stops and growing

Frank was fascinated by the Moscow’s metro system. Here are a few fun facts pulled from an article he found:

  • The Moscow Metropolitan is one of the busiest subways in the world. The system transports 9 million people A DAY! It holds the world record for on-time departures and arrivals. According to the Moscow transport department, its accuracy equals 99.99 percent.
  • During the airstrikes of World War II the Moscow subway, as well as the subways in some other cities, became bomb-proof shelters. Half a million people found shelter underground. Women and children slept in the carriages of trains that were parked overnight next to the platforms.When German airstrikes were especially frequent, there were shops and hairdressing salons in operation at the stations. The Kurskaya metro station had a working library.
  • There is a legend concerning the appearance of the circle line, which had not been planned in the original project. Legend has it that at a session devoted to its construction Stalin put his cup of coffee on the metro map leaving a brown spot around the city center. Stalin showed the circle to the builders and ordered the construction of such a line. Supposedly that is how the circle line appeared and that is why it now has a brown color on the map.
  • Over the past five years underground concerts have been held every May 15 in honor of the subway’s anniversary. The wonderful acoustics of the stations made the situation too good to pass up.
  • While traveling on the radial lines of the Moscow Metropolitan to the center the stations are announced by men’s voices and while going from the center women announce them. On the circle line men’s voices announce the stations while going in the clockwise direction, with women’s voices used when going counterclockwise. This is done to simplify the orientation for blind people in the subway.

“Russians like to do everything BIG!”

Our guide’s quote from the first day “get-acquainted tour” frequently echoes back to us as we navigate St. Petersburg. From the massive expanse of the public squares to the grandeur of the cathedrals to the opulence of the palaces, we can’t help but be blown away!

Palace Square

Palace Square is the primary gathering spot in St. Petersburg. Although you may catch a political rally or celebration of some kind, you are more likely to catch a concert or performance.

The Churches

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest orthodox chuch and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The exterior features a total of 112 red granite columns, each hewn from a single block. The main dome rises 333 ft and is plated with pure gold. There is an accessible outdoor walkway around the top. The Cathedral survived Nazi shelling in World War II and briefly served as a museum of atheism under the Soviet regime.

The Church
of the
Spilled Blood

Alexander III built this church as a tribute to his father, Alexander II, who was assassinated on this site by revolutionaries. Aside from it’s unique and colorful outside, the inside is just as impressive. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics — figures and scenes from the Bible.

The Palaces

Catherine Palace

You’ll have to wait until the end to see why this palace was on Frank’s must-visit list of sights(!). The Catherine Palace, known until 1910 as the Great Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, is a tourist favorite. It was the summer palace of Catherine the Great and is in the nearby town of Pushkin. We were unable to get tickets (sold out until July online!) so we joined a small group tour. The museum owes its beauty as much to the original architects as to the restorers who returned the palace to life after WWII. Of the 58 halls destroyed during the war, 32 have been recreated. The garden grounds go on forever. There are a few small “cottages” (a retreat from the summer retreat?!!) and a lake.

And the reason Frank wanted to see this palace?

The
Amber
Room!

The Prussians gifted nine Amber Rooms to the Russians. The panels were stolen from the palace by the Nazis in WWII and they have not been recovered. It took 28 painstaking years to recreate one of the rooms and they did it with real amber! It is absolutely jaw dropping!

Peterhof

Versailles was the inspiration for Peterhof, Peter the Great’s imperial summer palace just outside St. Petersburg. Often called the Fountain Palace, there are 144 fountains and over 200 statues in the 500+ acres of beautiful gardens! The palace, as Frank said, was “way over the top.” Gold gilding, fancy staircases, expansive murals — this palace was amazing. Interesting story. Hitler was planning to have a big victory party here, even going so far as to send out fancy invites. Stalin and his cronies didn’t care for that idea so they bombed it before they could have the party. Fortunately, the staff packed and hid away many of the valuables before they demolished it. This was probably the prettiest of the palaces we saw.

St. Petersburg – settled in

Today marks the end of our first week in beautiful St Petersburg. We have settled into our apartment, centrally located near the city’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, along the Fontanka River.

Like most Russian apartments, the space is small. After the Revolution, the government confiscated aristocratic apartments and divided them into multi-family units. I read that 64 percent of Russian families live in apartments smaller than 60 meters (or about 600 sq feet). The space, however small, is well utilized. We have everything we need, our decor is very artsy and most important, the bed is comfy!

Our welcome snack – pickles, smoked fish and, of course, vodka!