Tuesday, August 05, 2008

St Petersburg on foot - 28 July 2008

St Petersburg church dome A city tour of St Petersburg was the morning's scheduled entertainment with an optional canal tour or visit to another palace in the afternoon. The city tour primarily consisted of a bunch of photo opportunities without enough time to actually stop and visit anything. St Petersburg was founded in 1703 and was the first European planned city; with long straight streets and canals laid out in an area that was originally swampy marshlands. There are 44 islands connected by hundreds of bridges across the 60 rivers and canals.

Church of the Spilt BloodIt became the de facto capital after Peter the Great moved there and the government and officials had to follow. With the Romanovs falling from grace, the German sounding name was changed to Petrograd until the communist era when it became Leningrad and finally, with a popular vote of over 80%, reverted to the original St Petersburg after the fall of the Soviets. Architecturally, the city is not a world-beater with many buildings that were destroyed in WWII having been replaced by ghastly "Soviet issue" structures.

Church of the Spilt BloodNevertheless we eschewed the optional tours and decided to explore the city on foot, returning first to the Church of the Spilt Blood. Built in 1907 over the spot where Alexander II was assassinated, it fell into disrepair after it was decommissioned by the Soviets and turned into, variously, a potato warehouse and set storage for the theatre. Now a museum rather than a church, it has recently been restored, a process which took longer and cost more than it did the first time around and is now absolutely stunningly beautiful, both inside and out. Apart from the marble patterned floor, every other internal surface is covered with mosaic tile Biblical images.

Church of the Spilt BloodThe church is on the banks of one of the canals so we followed canals though the city to the other main tourist church/museum, St Isaacs. This is the fourth highest domed structure in the world and, again, richly decorated throughout - although in a much more reserved style than the first church. For an extra 150 roubles one can climb to the outside of the dome. The number 201 is painted on the bottom step and every 10 steps thereafter the number encouragingly decreases until finally you get to step 0 only to find that they lied as at this point you leave the spiral tower and move outside to climb another 50 steps to the colonnade. Because St Petersburg was built on a swamp the maximum elevation is 3m above sea level which means that there is nothing to interrupt the panoramic view from the colonnade.

St IsaacsLeaving the city we joined the commuter throng on the Metro where they could learn a thing or two from London Underground in terms of signs for finding the line you want and then recognising the stations along the way. In spite of their best efforts to confuse us, we made it back to the river port in good time for our 7 pm sailing and the Captain's champagne reception.

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