Venice of the North

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Friday, September 1, 2006

Seventh Pit Stop: St. Petersburg, Russia (Sankt-Peterburg, Rossiya)
Local Time: 12:22PM, Friday
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 3 AM, Friday

Opulence, Grandeur, Majesty. These are the words to describe how beautiful St. Petersburg is. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as "The Window To The West," St. Petersburg soon became the capital of Russia for almost 300 years until 1918 when Moscow was elected as the new capital of the Soviet Union. Disdaining Russian culture, the rulers at the time preferred the more refined cultures, languages, and architecture of Italy and France. Therefore, St. Petersburg bore no resemblance to any typical Russian city. Dissected into hundreds of small islands by the Neva River and its tributaries, the city of St. Petersburg is surrounded on all sides by water and the huge Gulf of Finland.

Arriving to Moscow Station on Thursday morning (August 31, 2006) at around 8AM, my traveling companions and I were exhausted but excited to explore this charming port city of Russia. Before the establishment of St. Petersburg, Russia really had no direct access to any major ocean. The principal port town of Murmansk, located on the Arctic Ocean, was only open 4-5 months a year during the short summer months. The streets and buildings of St. Petersburg were built by the great Italian masters, hence, my first impression of St. Petersburg was that of a cute Italian city. I remarked to my tour guide that it bore a stark resemblance to Milan, Italy with its colorful pastel-colored neoclassical buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, circular street intersections, wide sweeping plazas, chic outdoor cafes. In contrast to Moscow where the boulevards were more spacious, the avenues of St. Petersburg were small labyrinthine alleys.

After checking in at our hotel (Hotel Rus) where my Australian roommate Paul and I got a relatively luxurious suite, we joined the others for a three hour walking tour of this port city. We stopped first at an Italian-Russian cafe where I relished in my first great tasting cappuccino with tiramisu. Our tour guide Misha spoke perfect English with either an English or Australian accent. The weather was dispiriting and rainy; however, it made the city more romantic. Imagine strolling in the light sprinkling rain and being surrounded by images of canals draped in the autumn colors of gold and red foliage. During the tour, I discovered that St. Petersburg was and still is the cultural center of Russia, not Moscow. It was here that the powerhouses of Russian literature and music either were born or had adopted as their hometown: Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov (literature); Sergei Rachmaninov, Dmitri Shostakovich, Modest Mussorksy, and Peter Tchaikovsky (music). Vladimir Lenin also called St. Petersburg his native city. The city squares, boulevards, and parks were all named after these giants in humanities. One aspect of Russian culture that I greatly appreciated was their assiduous training and production of some of the best modern musical performers in the world. Their instruction in classical music and ballet had always been internationally renowned.

With that in mind, my friends from New Zealand (Graeme and Ange) and I had already booked tickets to go see Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" ballet at The Palace Theatre right in the heart of St. Petersburg's theater district. Earlier in the afternoon, I went with a group of friends from the US (Dick and Eileen), England (Roy), and Australia (Emil) on a walking tour around St. Petersburg. We strolled along the Neva River and witnessed such palatial refinement and opulent charm in the juxtaposition of neo-classical architecture alongside baroque designs. The riverside charm of St. Petersburg reminded me more of Scandinavia (Copenhagen) while the canals had an alluring atmosphere of Holland (Amsterdam) intermixed with Italy (Venice). Water was an omnipresent theme in the city, as reflected in the rivers and canals as well as the precipitation. The weather in St. Petersburg also was very wet, akin to Seattle or London.

At around 5PM, I arrived back to the hotel and got changed into proper attires for the ballet. Excitement was brewing inside me, especially for the fact that I would have the opportunity to appreciate the performance of a Russian ballet composed by a Russian composer right in the heart of the city where it was first performed more than 100 years ago. Getting to view this classical performance from its authentic provenance and origin was almost surreal to me.

At around 6PM, Graeme, Ange, and I went to the hotel bar for an apéritif drink. The Martini Bianco tasted divine. Then we strolled down Liteyny Prospekt (Boulevard) towards the heart of the theater district at Pushkin Square. We stopped at a very nice restaurant for a pre-performance dinner. I decided that tonight, I would try to have a full effect Russian experience. Instead of ordering international cuisine in this chic restaurant, I opted for Russian crêpe pancakes (called Bliny) filled with meat and delicate mushrooms topped with a white creamy sauce, complemented by Solyanka, a soup with beef, sausages, cabbage, and beets. The waitress was very accommodating and efficiently fast compared to others in the past.

When we arrived at the Theater, there were groups of foreign tourists from Germany, Japan, Greece, France, etc. mostly dressed in nice suits and dresses. The theater itself was very elegant, and its history was very poignant. During World War II when St. Petersburg was under siege by the Nazis for 900 days, this theater was one of the few places that decided to remain open so that a sense of normalcy was sustained among the suffering masses.

The music began, and the orchestra passionately played the haunting opening melodies of Swan Lake. The set design and costumes were also very opulent and majestic. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the ballet, performed by one of Russia's most famous ballet troupes. After the performance, the three of us walked to one of the cafes adorning the Theater District for some late night coffee and dessert. It was a magical evening and a marvelous, unforgettable cultural experience.

Today, I am visiting the Hermitage Museum, the second largest collection of European artwork after The Louvre in Paris. The Impressionist section is something to marvel at. Later tonight is the farewell dinner on fashionable Nevsky Prospekt (Boulevard). I cannot believe that my three week trek from Japan to Russia is about to end. Tomorrow on Saturday, I am looking forward to returning to Germany and the beginning of many special reunions with old friends. Then next Saturday (September 9) will be Lucia and Carlo's wedding in Italy. The next two weeks will be very precious, and the remaining time after that will be equally special with more reunions. I really cannot fathom that my journey started out in the Far East (14 times zones ahead of Houston), and now it will return to Western soil (7 times zones ahead of Houston).

Please stay tuned for more adventures in the heart of western Europe....
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