A Gem in the North

St. Petersburg (Russia), 30.10.2013

Moscow was supposed to be the northernmost city on this journey before heading south, but somehow I started reading about St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, and then a friend strongly recommended me to go. So on a sunny morning (obviously the sun came out the day after I needed it to tour the city) I left Moscow to go see the former capital of imperial Russia. The 700km road between the two major cities of the worlds largest country was not a motorway, but a normal countryside road with pedestrian crossings, red lights, police stops. An endless flow of trucks populated it, and I played truck overtaking for 10h straight.

Along the road many villages were partially or totally abandoned. Wooden houses were falling to pieces, burnt down, or just badly kept. Some I thought empty but then saw signs of life, a car in the garden, a new TV antenna on the roof or the likes. This article is a well written and nicely presented account of the route (thanks Anna Skaya for sharing!). The last 50km the road got broader, traffic increased, and it started to rain on a road with no lights, on a pitch black night. The first piece of St. Petersburg I saw was Pobedy square, with its huge monument to the defenders of the city in WWII during almost 900 days of siege, the most brutal one in recent history. From there the huge Moscowsky prospekt lead straight into town for some km, with monumental buildings left and right. As the pre-Soviet part of town started, I crossed two canals. I didn’t know the city had so many of them, and they reminded me of Berlin. The embankments, bridges, buildings and barges were strikingly similar. In the night, the roads lit in yellow lights, the ground wet from the rain, I drove through this jewel of a city through empty roads, amazed by the beauty of the mostly refurbished buildings. I had zero expectations before arriving, expected some layers of Soviet tristesse. But nothing like that, instead tons of baroque and neoclassical splendour, and on a grand scale that encompassed Berlin and pretty much all other cities in Europe. Avenues were broader, buildings bigger and higher, renovation work seemed perfect.

DSC_0002 DSC_0004 DSC_0003The next morning the sky didn’t promise well for the day. As I walked through the Admiraleyskaya district to the river first the sun briefly broke through the clouds, offering an amazing light scene for some minutes, then it started to rain. I fled into the Hermitage, where I spent two hours between admiring the richness of the building itself as much as the art on display. I’m not a big fan of dark, apocalyptic religious paintings, so I skipped several rooms. Much more interesting were the lavishly decorated and gold laden halls. I imagined the balls and social events that might have taken place here in imperial times, as for example described by Tolstoy in “War and Peace”. The ubiquitous paintings of battles fitted the memories of that book. I was surprised to see many school classes being shown around. In some rooms the kids were sitting on the floor and painting, surrounded by the works of many of the finest artists this world has ever produced.

DSC_0005 DSC_0014 DSC_0022 DSC_0030 DSC_0031I had left the Hermitage for just a few moments when it started to rain again. Grabbing a coffee, I walked back to the hotel, got into the car and continued my sightseeing on four wheels. I stopped at the Peter and Paul fortress and toured the small island. On my way back a building with plenty of artillery pieces in front caught my attention: a military museum that had even more to show in its courtyard. Mortars from the XVI century lined up beside tanks and rocket launchers of the last years of the Soviet Union. It is incredible how mankind manages to boost its creativity and technical perfection when it comes to killing other human beings. From small guns to mass destruction in a few centuries, everything needed was on display here in the rain. And outside the building stood the biggest weapon, a rocket I had already seen in Baikonur, the SS17 that carries atomic weapons.

DSC_0039 DSC_0046 DSC_0047 DSC_0054Driving through this beautiful town I would have wanted to stop and see many more places. The way traffic was directed made me loose a lot of time to reach close by sites, forcing me to take huge detours. And the increasingly heavy rain killed the last impulse to check out churches, parks and other attractions. Also a walk along the many romantic canals would have been lovely, but was impossible in the bad weather. In the last daylight I drove back to the hotel, along Nevsky prospect, a piece of Moskowsky prospect and then through small streets between canals. After chilling out for a while my stomach reminded me it was dinner time, and since the rain had stopped I tried my chances for a walk around the hotel’s area by night. On this sort of farewell tour of the old town I once again admired the area around St. Isaaks cathedral, shining in the street lights. This city really was a gem, and I’m happy I made it up here do discover it.

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Trip data (29.10.2013)

– Km driven: 729

– Hrs on the road: 10h

– Diesel l/100km: 9,4

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