The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Tsar is Born

I like walking. Despite my increasingly decrepit feet and knees, that hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to. I still believe that the best way of getting to know a city is to get out and walk down its streets, be they grand central thoroughfares or narrow alleys in the old quarter.

That said, I’m still not sure whether my decision to walk from the St. Petersburg ferry port to my hotel by the Neva River was driven by a desire to get to know Russia’s former imperial capital as soon as possible or a desire to avoid having to expose my utter lack of Russian to the unforgiving eye of bus or taxi drivers.

(Who am I kidding? It was the latter.)

My first sight of Russia: a fine piece of Soviet concrete brutalism.

This is something of a habit on my travels, I’ve found. I won’t avoid human interaction, but I generally won’t seek it out either, and my favourite activity in any city is just to roam on my own until my feet start complaining. I do my research and generally have an idea of where I’m going, but it’s the moments in between and the serendipitous discoveries that tend to provide the most memorable moments.

Ten years ago, lacking any form of mobile internet access as I roamed, all I took with me was a shoulder bag containing some ID, a camera, and a heavily annotated guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway (still several days in my future). My travels up to this point had been entirely Western European (Tallinn was too brief to count), but St. Petersburg was my first encounter with the world’s largest country. It proved to be an oddly familiar experience.

Not familiar: a hydrofoil on the Neva River (with bonus Cyrillic signage).

St. Petersburg is, as noted, a former imperial city. It was built expressly as such, in fact, by Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great and his successors, and it has a scale and opulence to match. However, it’s also of a specific era. Dublin, where I’d been living for close to half my life when I visited St. Petersburg, is of a similar age, but whereas Dublin was an outpost of empire, St. Petersburg was an imperial capital with a scale to match. Buildings were taller, streets wider, and decorations more ornate. I lost track of the number of times I was fooled by the similarities between the cities into thinking I had a shorter distance to walk than I actually did.

Roaming St. Petersburg was a pleasure, due mostly to its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. Much of the architecture took its design cues from Western Europe, reflecting the need of the Tsars to not only be a part of, but also outdo that world. At the same time, the presence of Russia bled through in everything. From the scale of the streets and buildings, to the genuinely Russian architecture of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination.

Old school (old church?) Russian architecture.

There’s almost too much to recount about St. Petersburg, and any attempt to do so would turn this post into a list of “I went there, I did that.” The Winter Palace museum has an Indiana Jones feel, with locked-off cellars full of artefacts, and the streets around are crammed with streetside stalls selling babushka nesting dolls of every celebrity you’ve ever heard of. I came across rows of stretch limousines and fairytale Russian weddings, and I watched an untranslated movie in a cinema converted from a baroque opera house.

For the three days I was there, there was far too much to take in. Roaming and venturing into one of the many museums or churches, and taking a canal boat tour around the city (the Venice of the north, if Copenhagen can be ignored) was the best I could do. The one big planned venture I had was on one of the aforementioned hydrofoils, out along the waterfront to the Peterhof. There, gilded statues and carefully tended gardens were signifiers of a lost era, of lavish excess and imperial disdain. For the many tourists and locals enjoying the sights, it was just a nice day out.

Grottoes, fountains, gold, and porphyry. The display is the point.

I admit I was probably overwhelmed. There was never a point during my period in St. Petersburg when I was lost for something to do. Even venturing out from my “B&B” in a massive old apartment building (where I had early encounters with Russian bureaucracy) for dinner of pelmeni Russian dumplings was an appreciated delight. But my itinerary was carefully laid out and especially in Russia didn’t admit of any deviation.

So I enjoyed my final day with all of its attendant distractions, and made my way at last to Moscow Railway Station at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Not as grand as many stations I’d come to know, and not yet the Trans-Siberian (that left from Moscow itself) but a start to my Russian odyssey. With St. Petersburg I began the process of leaving Europe behind. There would be a long way to go before I saw the last of it.

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