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From the plushness of Puskin to the heights of St Isaac's and shopping at Gostinyy Dvor

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Thursday 29th October
Up reasonably early again, to be breakfasted and ready for our trip to Pushkin by 10. We have discovered that by taking the 'dietary breakfast' option, we get a huge breakfast; a glass of orange juice, a coffee, yoghurt, a good portion of muesli, a large fresh fruit salad and a triple decker cheese sandwich, we can take the sandwich with us and have it for lunch!

A pretty cold, grey day with the wind whipping occasional tiny flurries of sleet against any exposed skin, rasping it with an icy touch. We had asked our guide yesterday if she had many other visits booked for the week and she was non-committal.

We were therefore slightly surprised to have her taking us to Pushkin (I am still not clear if the name has reverted to Tsarscoe Selo) and the Catherine Palace. We were anticipating another whirlwind tour but either the crowds were less stressful to her or she was more interested in the palace but Irena took more time to show us around and gave us more information about the palace than she had done with Peterhof. The town had been occupied by German forces during the siege of Leningrad and had totally destroyed the palace; the pictures of the place immediately after the war were incredibly sad and it was amazing at what had been done to restore the Palace. It is still ongoing and the Alexander palace is still not open as it undergoes restoration. The German nation has a proud reputation of appreciation of the arts; it is incredibly sad that the local commander, even in a war situation saw fit to destroy rather than to retain. Mind you in a war situation, rape and pillage to the benefit of the winning combatant is always going to be attractive; only the parts that were not to be transported back to Germany were destroyed. The Amber room was carefully dismantled and removed and despite extensive searches after the war, has never been found; presumably it now languishes in a Nazi vault in Geneva or in South America or possibly quietly in someone's private collection. The rest of the palace was stripped, shelled and set alight. I don't know what reparation was made by the German government after the war but somehow, I doubt if it was enough to meet the cost of the work carried out to repair the sheer vandalism. As we came out of the palace, we wandered over to the statue of Pushkin, a graduate of the academy set up by Catherine, next door to the palace. By this time we were seeing the first flakes of snow and as they brushed exposed skin, borne on a brisk breeze, it was like being brushed by a chilled feather.

We wanted to get a souvenir guide book to the palace but Irena counselled against this and said she knew a bookshop where we could get something. We were slightly galled at being taken to another souvenir shop on our return to St Petersburg, plied with coffee and liquers again and then being tailed around the shop by an anxious salesgirl, describing why we should buy anything we were unwise enough to stop at.

We bought a nice book that contained some information on the Catherine Palace, together with some lovely pictures. We had hoped that our change would contain some 100 ruble notes, to help with our tipping but there was little between a 50 and 500 ruble notes. We asked if they would change the 500 note for smaller amounts but were told 'nyet'! We therefore had to give a higher amount of tip than we would have liked which left a slightly unpleasant taste after what had been an interesting visit.

After getting back to the hotel and having a quick bite of lunch, we were off again. This time to St Isaac's cathedral. We got tickets to go up to the dome as well as look around inside.

The 350 steps up to the dome go up a circular staircase in one corner of the cathedral, through a tiny doorway which was a little difficult to negotiate with a daybag, then up an exposed fire escape for the last 30 feet or so to the dome itself. By the time we had reached this point, we were pretty exhausted and needed to get our breath back, as well as get some feeling back into the muscles. Neither of us is good at heights and it was a little nerve wracking up the final climb – but what a view!! The city is built on what had been marshland and so is quite flat. Peter the great had ordered that no buildings were to be taller then the churches so as not to spoil his view of the city. As a result, from the dome of St Isaac's, the city is spread out before you without much obstruction. It was bitterly cold and very breezy on the exposed side of the dome and I had to hold on to my hat to avoid loosing it. Thoughtfully, the planners had arranged that there was one way up and the way down was on the diametrically opposite corner, so there were no problems with meeting on staircases. The planners had also thoughtfully made similar arrangements with the Cathedral entry and exit; however, they clearly hadn't thought that anyone may want to do both on the same day as both entries were on one side and both exits the other, meaning that you had to walk half way round the cathedral to complete the tour.

Inside the cathedral was incredible; capable of holding 5000, it is a huge space and once again, very richly finished with the most exquisite artwork. The front doors are huge wooden doors covered with cast iron and weighing 2 tons. I have enough of a problem fitting doors at home that weigh very little, I couldn't contemplate the problems of fitting anything so vast and heavy. It was notable that yet again, the cathedral was nice and warm after the icy blasts we had endured on the dome.

Venturing out again, we made for St Nicholas's Cathedral and the Mariinski Theatre for a walk back up the Griboedova Canal to Gostinyy Dvor, a huge covered shopping complex with small boutiquey stores along its aisles.

Sue had been looking for a suitable Martrushka and it duly revealed itself here. Crossing the road, we went into another covered arcade more along the lines of Burlington Arcade, where we got some sweets to take home.

By now we were feeling somewhat tired and as it was approaching 6, we decided to try and find somewhere for dinner on the way back to the hotel, walking down Nevskiy Prospekt.

We found a super place rejoicing in the name 'Бухарин' pronounced, I think Boozhareen. This place is tucked away in a semi-basement and inside is decorated as a log cabin. Sue chose Borscht and I chose a green cabbage soup. Both were full of meat and a meal in themselves, we also had garlic bread which was the nicest bread we have had in our stay. Our main course was a pork loin steak shashlik cooked on a barbeque. This was an absolute delight although it was very highly salted and we found ourselves drinking a lot of water later. Refreshed and with batteries recharged, we managed to persuade our aching limbs to carry us back to the hotel.

8 kilometres today

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 31, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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