After visiting St Petersburg this week, I am reeling from the delightful range of experiences and exhibits that make this such an enthralling Baltic Sea port. This UNESCO World Heritage City has an altogether different feel to the Russia being screened through our TV sets, which are dominated by news of Crimea and Ukraine.
Whether walking the streets, riding the trams or negotiating the Metro, you will be aware of how diverse and vibrant the city is, with its mix of modern Russian, and old-style Soviet, lifestyles. At this time of the year, particularly during the recent sizzling September sunshine, people are out and about as if winter belonged to a distant Wonderland. In the evening, motorbikes top the ton between the traffic lights on Nevsky Prospekt boulevard, and open air terrace bars chatter to the backdrop of baroque, rococo and neoclassical buildings. Three hundred years of history are crammed into a city which lives with legacies from the Tsars to the Soviets and Perestroika.
For me this has been a particularly exciting week; I was returning to Russia for the first time since my initial visit, when I crossed from Siberia to Moscow on the Trans Siberia Express in 1985. Needless to say I hardly recognised it. Times have certainly changed.
Since that trip I have always had half a mind to visit Saint Petersburg, but it has not been until this week that I have had the chance. Staying at the excellent Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, I have enjoyed the opportunity, briefly, to get under the skin of the city with trips in and around the centre, as well as passing through the newer outer housing development regions en route to Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland to the south, and Pushkin 50 miles inland.
Indeed travelling with an experienced group of travel industry companions – guided by Maria Hrosheva (one of the city’s most welcoming, knowledgeable and charming guides) – I have been so overwhelmed by the buffet of amazing destinations, venues, exhibits and experiences that it has been a job to decide quite what to blog on. I have been spoilt for choice.
The reason I eventually chose the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood to write about is as much for the fact that it is probably the city’s most recognisable landmark, as for its artistic exuberance, historical significance and perfect location in the heart of the city.
This Church, or Cathedral, was built (1883) on the spot that Tsar Alexander II was assassinated; indeed it is a memorial to him. As a result, it is used not as a place of worship, but as a venue for memorial services. Ransacked during the Russian Revolution, and used by the government as a morgue during the Siege of Leningrad in WWII, it later functioned as a warehouse for the city’s precious supply of vegetables.
Locals will also tell you that during the Soviet era the building was shut away, covered in scaffolding and that few were aware of quite what magnificence sat below. Reopened in 1997 after 27 years of painstaking restoration, the extraordinary exterior with its exuberant coloured domes (resembling the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) draws the eye from wherever it is viewed across the city. Whether appearing above parks, over the tops of buildings or from the adjacent canal below, it is splendid and surreal.
As these photos show, when bathed in sunshine, the exterior is magnificent.
What any visitor is totally unprepared for however, is the interior. Designed by some of Russia’s most celebrated artists (Vrubel, Vasnetsov, Nesterov and the chief architect Alfred Alexandrovich Parland) the whole of the inside is covered in intricate biblical mosaics. An immaculate 7,500 sq m of mosaics which lift your eyes up the soaring walls and the soft, yet brightly coloured, crescendo of images, biblical scenes and bright patterns which cover them. The soft sunlight from outside bathes the whole inner wall from top to bottom in a myriad of blues, greens, reds, indigos, and of course gold.
Whether viewed during the day or at night, this amazing landmark, hidden at the end of a canal, yet within walking distance of the mouth of the Neva River and central Saint Petersburg, draws you in like a magnet. You can’t help but stop and gawp.
The current international political situation has affected visitor numbers to Russia (local travel industry colleagues reported an approximate 30% drop), providing an opportunity to visit not only the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, but also every other St Petersburg attraction, without the crowds.
I urge you to visit, not least as the people of Saint Petersburg, like their Church of Blood, will welcome you with their colourful past, as much as their restored sense of pride and their zeal to embrace all things new.
And don’t forget… the ability to down a few shots of vodka is also essential.