Our visit to St Petersburg started in Moscow, where we boarded the Sapsan for our trip northwest. The name Sapsan is derived from the fastest bird in the falcon family, and with a top speed of 250km it took us less than four hours to cover the approximately 700km. With modern comforts such as internet available, and plenty to watch out the window, the time went quickly.
On arrival at Moskovsky Station in the late afternoon, we walked to our hotel via Nevsky Ave. Sunrise the next day was 9.08am and sunset at 4.21pm, so we started our walking tour at 10am, with the late autumn daytime temperature hovering around 0 degrees centigrade.
St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia, formerly named Petrograd (1914 – 1924) and Leningrad (1924 – 1991). With over five million people, it is regarded as the cultural capital, with its many canals, imperial palaces, churches, statues, museums and strong European influences. For more than 200 years it was the seat of government of the Russian Empire until 1918, after the Russian Revolution. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, he designed the city like Amsterdam and Venice, with the romantic idea that in summer citizens would move around the city canals in boats, and in winter they would use sledges when the water froze. However when Peter died new bridges were built for easier transportation.
One of the Horse Tamer statues on the four corners of the Anichkov Bridge.
Russian Orthodox Church built between1801 and 1811, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The statue of the celebrated Russian poet, novelist and playwright Alexander Pushkin was erected in 1957. It stands in front of the State Russian Museum. Pushkin was born in 1799 and died in a duel in 1837.
From 1732 to 1917 the Winter Palace was the official residence of Russian monarchs, though not always inhabited by them. The storming of the palace in 1917, as depicted in Soviet paintings and in the 1927 film ‘October’, became an iconic symbol of the Russian Revolution. Bolshevic-led revolutionary forces beseiged, then stormed the palace and in the ensuing anarchy some of the palace riches were ransacked.
Intended to reflect the might and power of Imperial Russia, the restored palace now forms part of the complex of buildings housing the Hermitage Museum. In front of the palace is the Alexander Column, designed by a French-born architect and built between 1830 and1834, it is topped by an angel holding a cross. The face of the angel bears a resemblance to the face of Tsar Nicholas 1st.
The Winter Palace has been the scene of many renovations and influences by various architects, and also the scene of a fire in 1837, which destroyed nearly all the palace interiors but was reconstructed within a year.
Every night during the navigation period from April to November, 22 bridges across the Neva River and main canals are drawn sequentially to let ships pass in and out of the Baltic sea. The Neva River connects via lakes and canals into a myriad of inland waterways. These link to Moscow and much further west and south as far as the Caspian Sea via the Volga and other river systems.
Completed in 1811, this is one of two Rostral Columns with ships’ prows and seated sculptures. These sculptures represent four of Russia’s greatest rivers – the Neva, Volga, Onieper and Volkhov. In the 1800s the columns were oil-fired beacons but are now gas-fired. They are still lit on some holidays and special occasions.
This is a galleon ship replica built in 1903 of cast iron, as a copy of the Dutch flute ‘Amsterdam’. It was built in the art nouveau style, to a French design. Now it is a high-end restaurant and fitness centre with river views
Throw money on the logs in the river before you enter Hare Island, for good luck!
The Peter and Paul Fortress was established in 1703 on Hare Island, on the banks of the Neva River. With its curtain walls, Peter the Great intended the fortress to protect the capital from a counterattack by Sweden, but it never fulfilled this purpose. From 1720 it served as a base for the city garrison and for housing for high-ranking or political prisoners.
The eastern entry to the fortress is via the Petrovsky Gate, erected to commemorate Russian victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. The impressive two-headed eagle and Russian Coat of Arms weigh over a ton. Statues of ancient Roman goddesses Minerva (left) and Bellona are in the niches, and above are wooden bas-reliefs.
One of St Petersburg’s first buildings was the Peter and Paul Cathedral. In 1998 the remains of Tsar Nicholas 2nd and his family were sent here, 80 years after they were executed by the Bolshevics. In the background (red roof) is the St Petersburg Mint, constructed 1800-1805 in strict classical style. The Mint continues to produce coins, state awards and other official medals.
With its tiny head and massive torso, it is hard to believe it is a true representation. However he is said to have been 2 metres tall, making him significantly taller than the average male of the time (European average was approximately 1.6 metres). According to the sculptor, Mikhail Shemyakin, the statue is based on the death mask and wax figure of Peter. It stands in front of the Main Guardhouse building within the Peter and Paul Fortress. He was interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
The boathouse was built between 1762 and 1765 in a style that marked the transition from baroque to neoclassicism. Built to house Peter’s dinghy, a small sailboat previously used by the young tsar to learn naval principles on lakes in the Moscow area. Peter the Great is often hailed as ‘the Grandfather of the Russian Navy’. After his death, the boat was kept in the boathouse from 1767 until 1931, its place now taken by a scale replica. The building is now used as a ticket office for exhibitions in the fortress.
European design influence is evident on the wrought iron of theTrinity Bridge, built by a French firm between 1897 and 1903.
The building of the church was started in 1883 on the orders of Tsar Alexander 3rd, dedicated to his father Alexander 2nd who had been assassinated two years before. The architecture is in the spirit of romantic nationalism, intentionally resembling St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging the interior. It was re-opened in1970 after 27 years of restoration. It is in another phase of restortation until 2025.
Our walking tour also included a visit to the Fabergé Museum, which contains the famous Fabergé Eggs. That visit is in a separate post – click here.