Do you know the saying that traveling is the best way to enrich yourself? Well, I’ve recently been proven once again that this is true. Last weekend, I was in Saint-Petersburg with fellow Erasmus students. The trip was organised by Timetravels, a travel agency specialised in trips for students. I can surely say that I do not regret going even if I had to miss some lectures because of it.
Russia is a country which is often discussed in the media and in history classes so I had heard many things about the country. In my mind, Russia was definitely unique, mainly conservative and old-fashioned. I also thought of Russia as an anti-west country.
Soon after arriving, I realised that I only knew a tiny tiny bit about the country. One of the first things Leo, our tour guide, said is that Saint-Petersburg is strategically built close to Scandinavia, Finland and the Baltic countries. At the time when Saint-Petersburg was built, this was important because the Great Nordic War had just happened and another conflict was possible. This connection to the Western world is still visible today: there are quite a lot of American/western chains in the city centre.
The contrasts within the city are quite striking. Of course, the time of the tsars is still visible in the palaces and churches of the city (more on those below). Some buildings still carry the signs of the revolutions and the communist period. Yet, it is clear the city has made an effort to appear more modern. The public transport network is well-developed and there is a huge shopping mall filled with international stores. However, the majority of the Russian population doesn’t speak English and most of them don’t even try to compensate when interacting with a foreigner.
So what did my travel mates and I do in Saint-Petersburg? On our first (full) day, we went to Catherine’s Palace ( also known as the summer residence of the tsars). The purpose of the palace was to impress everyone so the architects had to be quite strategic. The richness of the royal family is clear from how much gold is used (if you go there on a sunny day, bring sunglasses) and other fancy materials such as amber and porcelain from Delft. The rooms may be quite small (so beware of tourists on your pictures) but this is compensated by the fact that the palace looks like a huge gallery when all the doors are open. In other words, this palace makes it clear how much royals loved to play with money and power. The palace is also worth the visit because of the beautiful gardens. They are huge so it is actually possible to wander off and take pictures without any tourists and just walk in peace.
The next day we went to the Hermitage State Museum, also known as the winter palace of the tsars. I had dreamed of this since I was a little kid, even though I wasn’t quite sure why before going in. Once inside, I knew why. So many beautiful rooms! So many artworks! I had even seen some of them in my art history classes. Rembrandt! Titian! Michelangelo! Leonardo Da Vinci! All the most famous, and less famous artists, are represented! I must admit I got a little emotional when I saw “Danaë” by Titian. I was lucky the room wasn’t too crowded so I could truly take it all in. I hope I can go back soon to see some of the other rooms. I think one should spend about a week (or even two) to see everything.
That afternoon, we visited three of Saint-Petersburg’s many cathedrals. The first one was Saint-Isaac. I was surprised by how colourful the decorations were, even though I later found out that this cathedral is quite ‘simple’ compared to the next one. Saint-Isaac’s is also interesting from an engineering point of view. It took over a year to install the 48 columns around it! There is a whole space dedicated to this process close to the entrance. I won’t give spoilers so you’ll actually have to go there yourself 😉
The next church we visited was the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood. I promise you, it’s impressive, beautiful and, unless you have a heart of stone, it will give you goosebumps. When you enter the church, you are overwhelmed by the colours. Not one spot is left empty. On top of that, all the icons are made in mosaics (who even has the patience to make that?!). The church even looks colourful on the outside. On top of all this beauty, the history of the church is interesting. It was built in memory of tsar Alexander II on the exact spot where he was murdered. The cobblestones on which he died have been kept and you can see them in their original state inside the church –> goosebumps!
The third, and last, cathedral we visited was Kazan Cathedral. This was quite different from anything else we had seen, mainly because it is still an active church. I was surprised by how many people were there just to pray (and kiss the icon of the Virgin Mary). Statistics say that 80% of Russians consider themselves Christian, I guess this is not far from the truth. The atmosphere inside the cathedral is much more somber and serious, than in the other cathedrals. There are also less colours. The air was more heavy inside so I didn’t stay long. I just looked around, lit a candle in honour of my dad and went outside again.
In other words, Saint-Petersburg is a multi-dimensional city which can appeal to all kinds of people: the artists, the historians, the religious, the shopaholic, the fast food-lovers and even the sport fanatics (the football world cup will take place there in 2018). I definitely recommend to visit the city because only seeing it with your own eyes will let you capture how Saint-Petersburg truly is.