St Petersburg, Russia
It has been requested of me to write another update and so I oblige despite my weary state! Apologies in advance if this rambles and/or makes little sense.
Firstly, thank you all very much for all the birthday wishes, I was celebrating over two time zones because of the very strange and varied hours that I was receiving messages - I felt very loved!! :-)
Now, I am going to back track and tell you what's been happening since we arrived in St Petersburg at the beginning of the week. The Moscow weather was overall quite hot and summery so arriving at the St Petersburg train station was a rude shock when it was freezing, windy and raining. Again, we were picked up by a driver who dropped us off at our hotel and we checked in to a seriously cool room... the best part was by far the bathroom because of the shower. It was enormous. It wasn't a cubicle, it was on a split level and had a huge shower head that came directly out of the ceiling. I can't really explain just how excited I was by this. In fact I think it would be one of the major factors in our decision to ditch the hostel reservation at the end of the week and extend our stay here. Stuff slumming it on my birthday - I want the massive shower!
After our excitement had ebbed it was pretty late so we hit the hay on some ridiculously comfortable beds.
Buffet breakfast the next morning was excellent. I may have overindulged in pancakes covered in condensed milk but the mini croissants don't really count because they were mini...
Natalia, a very nice lady in her 30s was our guide for the day and she took us to see St Isaacs Cathedral, Peter & Paul Fortress and The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
First stop, St Isaacs Cathedral. It is the largest Russian orthodox cathedral in the city and took forty years to construct. Under the Soviet government it was stripped of a lot of religious icons, turned into an anti-religious museum and in 1931, a Focault pendulum was put in place as a way of demonstrating that God did not exist. During World War II the gold dome was painted grey to avoid attracting the attention of enemy aircraft.
We were pretty lucky to be the first people inside the cathedral that morning and for a good 15 minutes we actually had the whole place to ourselves. It was incredible being able to see it with no one else around, you could really appreciate its vastness and I was blown away by the elaborate interiors. I was definitely tempted to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling for hours but then our brief period of solitude was interrupted. Bloody tourists!
Next stop, Peter and Paul Fortress. It is the original citadel of St Petersburg, situated on Hare Island by the north bank of the Neva River and established in 1703 by Peter the Great. It was built during the height of the Northern War in order to protect the city from a Swedish counterattack although it never fulfilled this purpose.
Inside they have yet another cathedral, surprise, surprise! Although, they are all quite varied and beautiful so I can't really complain about cathedral overload just yet! This particular one is the burial place for all the Tsars from Peter I to Alexander III with the exception of Peter II (who died of smallpox on his wedding day and is buried in the Kremlin). The remains of the last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family were buried there on the 80th anniversary of their deaths (July 17, 1998 - we were actually there on the 94th anniversary although I didn't realise it at the time).
Last stop, The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. This is yet another seriously impressive Russian Orthodox creation and was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated.
On March 13, 1881 as Tsar Alexander's carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carriage and a second conspirator took the chance to throw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the tsar. The tsar was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died two hours later.
What I was most interested to learn was that one of Alexander II's last ideas was to draft plans for an elected parliament, or Duma, which were completed the day before he died but not yet released to the Russian people. In a matter of 48 hours, Alexander II planned to release his plan for the Duma to the public. Had he lived, Russia might have followed a path to constitutional monarchy instead of the long road of oppression that defined his successor's reign. The first action Alexander III took after his coronation was to tear up those plans. A Duma would not come into fruition until 1905, when Alexander II's grandson, Nicholas II, commissioned the Duma following extreme pressure on the monarchy as a result of the 1905 Revolution. Fascinating stuff!
I think I have mentioned before that for Russian weddings the couple go to the registry office first and then tour around the city going to popular sites to take photos. If not, I have mentioned it now. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is one of those popular sites and as we were leaving we saw three brides at different places out the front coming to get photos. They had all arrived in either a stretch limo or stretch hummer, so the parking situation out the front became a little sketchy.
That evening we had dinner in the hotel restaurant and the food was sooo good. I keep enjoying this hotel more and more! In fact, something I hadn't mentioned about it is that on the top floor they have something called 'The Chill Out Room' and its full of old style chairs, leather couches and two laptops (one of which I am using right now) as well as tea and coffee stuff, books in different languages and games. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday they have a jazz evening - see, this place is just too cool.
On our second day we had a new guide, this time a young lady of 24 whose name was Irina. She took us out to Peterhof Palace, sometimes referred to as the "Russian Versailles". There are a series of palaces and gardens with fountains absolutely everywhere. The Grand Palace and Grand Cascade are the centrepiece for it all and, as with everything else I've seen of Russia, seriously impressive! In the middle of the pool of the Grand Cascade is the Samson Fountain which depicts the moment when Samson tears open the jaws of a lion, representing Russia's victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. From the lions mouth shoots a 20 metre high vertical jet of water.
We were very tired this particular afternoon. We were dropped back at the hotel at around 3pm but after a day of walking around the palace and gardens we were so tired. We ended up going back down the hotel restaurant because we couldn't walk anymore to find somewhere else to go.
Day 3 and our last official day of the tour was spent at another palace, this time it was The Catherine Palace located in the town of Pushkin, just outside of St Petersburg. The palace itself is beyond enormous at 325 metres long and more than 100kg of gold were used to gild the facade and statues on the roof. Walking around the gardens we saw another 3 brides having photos taken.
Side note for my Disney girls: you'll be interested to know that this is the palace that 'Anastasia' depicts as the home of the last Romanovs. This is inaccurate of course because... it wasn't. However, I'm sure we can forgive this minor flaw in an otherwise entirely historically accurate film. When we went into the ballroom both Kairsten and myself had our 'dancing bears' moment/psychotic break and did a little dance around the room with figures from our imagination. So glad we watched it just before I left, it was the inspiration I needed!
After some time at the palace we went to lunch at a restaurant that is known to be the favourite of and frequented by Mr Putin. Well, we could see why it was his favourite, we were seated at a table that had a bottle of red wine, a jug of white wine and a glass decanter with vodka - for the two of us. It took Kairsten a little while to convince me that this was actually all for us. So we lined up our three different glasses and got stuck into it! There was an abundance of all sorts of traditional food and it was all soo tasty. We finally got to try borsch and it was very good. We didn't have all that much time considering the amount of food and drink they had on offer but we managed to finish the red, almost the white and had a decent stab at the vodka before Irina came to get us. We giggled our way out the car and my Russian improved markedly. We stopped off at some souvenir shop on the way home and lucky for them that the drink been supplied at lunch because I parted with just under 12000 rubles which is probably about $300. Thankfully I looked back at my purchases the next day and it was all things I liked. Phew!
It was only about 4pm when we got in to the hotel, I went to sit down on my bed briefly and then was out for about 3 hours. When I finally resurfaced we went for a walk down Nevsky Prospekt, which is the main street and found a supermarket where we bought some ice cream. When we got back to the hotel we consumed the whole litre and a half in one sitting. Great afternoon.
We decided to sleep in a bit yesterday for my birthday because we've been getting up early every morning and we had nothing organised. So at the pleasant hour of 9am I awoke and Kairsten surprised me with presents! I was particularly surprised because I've been with her the whole time and had no idea. Apparently while I was out like a light the afternoon before she'd walked down the street to pick up things (not sure how she managed it - quite impressed) and she got me my own little cake, champagne, macaroons, mini vodkas, chocolate and also a pendant that she'd bought way back in Siberia from the day we met with the Shaman.
So we got ready pretty slowly, went down for breakfast and then went for a walk through the city to the Summer Gardens and the Winter Palace. The weather was incredible. A perfect summer day with blue skys and bright sun but not too hot. We saw another lot of brides taking photos with the tally currently standing at 17!
On the way back to the hotel in the afternoon we stopped into a bookstore and a young guy who worked there tried to ask us something in Russian. I explained that we didn't speak much Russian and he was excited to find that we spoke English and before I knew it Kairsten had told him that she was leaving tomorow but I was staying on for 2 weeks and now he has my email address and wants me to meet with him so we can teach each other in Russian/English - thanks Kairsten!
We eventually made it back to the hotel and began the afternoon celebrations. We got into our bath robes, which both of us had wanted to do for a while, popped the champagne and settled back. It was lovely. We finished that bottle before heading out to the restaurant that Irina had made us a reservation at for a 7:30pm dinner. We felt very Russian because we were walking the streets in heels. We started with cocktails and a cheese platter - divine. Then moved on to the red wine and main meals. Also divine, such good food! Then it was time for dessert and another cocktail and before we knew it, it was after midnight and we were hoping to make it back up to the Neva River to watch the bridge opening which happens at 1am, as it was highly recommended and meant to be spectacular. So, off we went and made it with about 10-15 minutes to spare. There were so many people lining the embankment, we hadn't realised that it was going to be so popular! We found a good spot and then waited for it to open, it did, we ooh'd and ahh'd appropriately and tried to take selfies with the bridge in the background, we struggled a little. Lucky I'd brought one of my mini vodka bottles so we could have a little toast to... the bridge? Who knows. It was no longer technically my birthday but that didn't stop us (mainly me) singing the whole way home primarily to the songs from Anastasia but I think I whipped out a bit of The Swan Princess soundtrack for good measure as well.
The walk home felt like such a loooong way and our feet were burning, the singing helped although that was rudely interrupted by a very drunk man who insisted on following us for the last maybe 15-20 minutes home. He was babbling away at us in russian wanting us to go for coffee, tea or mojitos. We declined his offer repeatedly to the point where I was yelling at him in russian that we didn't speak russian and to go away but then he would say "You don't speak russian, but you just spoke russian!" and then laugh so apart from "nyet, NYET" every time he would come up and link arms with me or fall into me I yelled at him in english and we only managed to lose him at the hotel door.
It was about 2:30am when we got in and could finally take our shoes off. My feet burned they were hurting so much and I have 2 really big blisters, one on the ball of each foot which is a painful reminder of what really was a great birthday. Nothing outrageous but some good fun with good company!
Lots of love xoxox