St Petersburg Day Two

Up early and off the ship for a canal cruise on the Neva River through some of the city’s waterways. We took a short drive from the port to the canal pontoons and boarded our canal boat by 8:15 am and thankfully, this morning, the weather turned out so much better than yesterday!  Cool and clear, blue skies and a lap rug… what more could you want.

The canal cruise left from right near the Kunstakamera, which is the St Petersburg science museum, also known as the Cabinet of Curiosities.  It was established by Peter the Great (he seems to have done a lot of establishing), in 1727 and it hosts an enormous collection of over 2 million items of anthropological and ethnographical importance.Directly opposite is the amazing Winter Palace, also known as the Hermitage Museum, which has been on my bucket list for some time now… but more on that a bit later.  🙂 Further down the canal, we finally got a better look at the unique lighthouses that we tried to see last night in the rain – they are known as the Rostral Columns and they are placed on the square directly in front of the Stock Exchange building.  At 32 meters tall, the red brick towers were used as lighthouses from 1727  until the mid 19th century, at which the Spit of Vasilyevsky was a functioning port still.  They are decorated with prows of conquered ships and mythical sirens.

The ‘Little Mansion’ built by Catherine to entertain her private guests along side the enormous Winter Palace. St Peter and Paul’s Fortress from the canal…St Petersburg has many beautiful bridges – over 500, according to Maria, and the widest is  a huge 99m wide.  St Petersburg has so many canals and bridges, that many have dubbed the city, ‘The Venice of the North’… though we are reliably informed that Russians prefer to think of Venice, as ‘The St Petersburg of the South’, because SPB has far more bridges than Venice!
Some beautiful 18th century buildings… the names and purpose of each, now completely escape me barely 12 hours later!The Stock Exchange building.
One of the many statues lining the canal.

Next stop was the State Hermitage Museum, which is one of the largest and most prestigious museums of art and culture in the world, let alone just Russia.  It was started in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired an impressive number of paintings and objet d’art from a Berlin art merchant by the name of Johann Gotzkowsky.  The museum has been open to the public since 1852, and other than the taint from it featuring heavily in an unfortunate and completely traumatizing piece of cinematic ‘art’, “The Russian Ark”, the Hermitage has been somewhere I have been wanting to visit since studying visual arts in the mid-90s.

The Hermitage gets its name from, a ‘dwelling of a hermit or recluse’… Because naturally, this elaborate palace is the type of place you build when you want to withdraw from society and spend some time on your own!  The building was originally given this name because of its exclusivity – Catherine only allowed her family, and her favourite grand duke courtiers to visit.
Of its extensive collections (Egyptians antiquities, classical antiquities, pre historic artworks, jewellery and decorative arts, Italian Renaissance paintings, Spanish fine art, Dutch Golden Age works, Flemish masters, Russian Art, French Neoclassical art, Impressionists, Modernists, German Romantics, and Lord knows what else!), only a very small portion is on permanent display.  The collection, which contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, is comprised of over three million items, of which one-third of that is made up of coins, historical documents, and medals. The palace itself is spectacular… The Military Gallery – contains 330 portraits of generals who took part in the Patriotic War of 1812, all were painted by English artist, George Dawe and his assistants. Regalia of a member of the Order of the Garter. German herald’s tabard, c.1520. 11th century ivory mirror case. Limoge enamels. Mosaic floor panel, done in the Italian style copied from the Vatican. The private courtyard of Catherine the Great.Medieval chairs, 12th-13th century.

A Raphaelo here…

Another one there… As we gallop on through the museum, Maria points out a ‘disciple-ah of zee school-a ova fine-a artses’ who ees painting-a zee copy-a of one-a of zee paintings’, but somehow she fails to mention that the lady is painting from an original van der Weyden as we skip on by!  Masterpieces at every turn!Some 16th century textiles…Games box. Ebony, with silver and ivory inlay. c1620. Passageway elaborately painted in the style of the Vatican’s Passeto di Borgo… seriously, this is uncanny.  I was at the Vatican in July last year, and the style is very very similar. Skipped through an entire room of Majolica ware (can email more pics to anyone who is interested). Michelangelo’s, ‘Crouching Boy’ Malachite urn in the Spanish masters room. I simply include all the photographs of individual artefacts, so I have focused here on including the spaces in the Palace. I have already determined that I will have to come back to St Petersburg one day and do the Hermitage at my leisure.  They say that if you stood in front of every piece on public display at the Hermitage for barely one minute, it would take you three years to see everything – and I well believe it.  I imagine a week in St Petersburg is probably going to end up on the schedule at some point in the next few years. Oh and look, here is one of the twenty-four Rembrandts in the collection!  If but one of them were appropriated? relocated? to an Australian museum, it would probably cause an entire wing re-named, the “Northern Renaissance Gallery”… and here?  Here they have twenty-four.  Greedy, if you ask me.  😉  They could share them around with the rest of the world, don’t you think? Stunning sweeping central staircases are a feature of all the palaces it would seem.

The Malachite Room.

I took many, many more photographs of items in the museums, but they are too numerous to include here, I may make a separate post on the Hermitage when I get home (ship internet is dreadful for blogging… it’s dreadful full stop really, but particularly so for uploading images and blogging).

The Menshevik party, (literally meaning, ‘the Minority’, who were moderate socialists) had formed a Provisional Government after Tsar Nicholas abdicated in 1917.  They maintained power for only eight months but were apparently moving too slowly for the Bolshevik party (hard-core lefty communists) with their prevaricating over the electoral processes and legislation associated with elections – so the more radical Bolsheviks decided to depose them. Below is the actual dining room in the Winter Palace where the Bolshevik party overthrew the Menshevik Provisional Government which started the Soviet era. On temporary display – these ‘flowers’ are entirely ceramic.

After we left the Hermitage, we bundled back into our little bus and head over to the most iconic of St Petersburg landmarks – the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (aka the Church of the Spilled Blood, or the Temple of the Spilled Blood or the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

Construction began on this church in 1883, during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, it was intended to be a memorial to his father, Alexander II – as this was the exact site where Emperor Alexander II was killed by political nihilists in March 1881. Maria claimed that the construction cost was somewhere in the realm of 4.5 million rubles, funded by the Imperial family and many wealthy donors. The Cathedral was not completed until 1907 during the reign of Nicholas II.

Being in a Medieval Russian style, the Cathedral is very different from the rest of St Petersburg’s other architectural wonders, which are mainly baroque and neoclassical.  The Church of the Spilled Blood was created in the Russian romantic nationalism style, and with its onion domes and ceramic tiled roofs, it deliberately mimics the 17th century Yaroslavl churches and the famous St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (Been there!).

The interior is inimitable… it contains over 7500 square meters of detailed mosaics, which according to the restorers, is more than any other building in the world. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in mosaics depicting biblical scenes and figures, surrounded by decorated borders and motifs. The central altar contains the Holy Gates, which were lost in the 1920s during the Soviet era, but were recreated and replaced in 2012, on the 129th anniversary of Alexander II’s assassination.  Gate detail: The main dome must easily be 100 feet high.  Easily. After the Russian Revolution (which saw the end of the Tsarist autocracy and the rise of the Soviet Era), the church was ransacked, looted and badly damaged – Maria described the Bolsheviks as ‘people who destroyed everything, and they build nothing’. The Soviet government actually closed the then very damaged church in 1932.  During WWII, when many people were starving due to the Seige of Leningrad at the hands of Nazi Germany, the church was used as a morgue for people who died in combat, and from starvation or sickness; bit gruesome.  The Church suffered, even more, damage during this period.  After the war, the buildling was so little thought of, that it was used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the name, The Saviour of Potatoes!  I just can’t imagine what led people to use a building like this to store vegetables!  I guess when you are starving though, you don’t have much use for gold mosaics.    

It was not until the 1970s that the management of the Church of the Spilled Blood was handed over to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and it was turned into the mosaic museum that it is today.  Proceeds from the profitable St Isaac’s Cathedral were used to fund the restoration of the church, and it was eventually reopened in 1997 after nearly 27 years of extensive restoration work.  The church was never reconsecrated and is now a major tourist destination as a mosaic museum and monument to Alexander II. Just outside the Church of the Spilled Blood is tourist central…  we were told to watch for pick pockets, but I think they are all working stalls here – souvenir prices were ridiculous!

After our amazing visit to the Church of the Spilled Blood, we walked across a lovers bridge (yes another one covered in locks), to a local restaurant to have a bite for lunch.  Lunch consisted of pumpkin soup, beef stroganoff (how unsual for Russia!) on mashed potatoes, and some honey cake.  We had forgotten about the Russian honey cake we tried in Moscow, but I am going to have to hunt down a recipe for it, it is super sweet but quite nice.

Lunch done, we made our way to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (aka Isaakievskiy Sobor) which is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city, and the largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the world, and the fourth largest cathedral of any denomination in the world (apparently – something to do with the volume of the cuppola).  It is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, because Peter the Great (who seems to have built nearly everything in St Petersburg) was born on St Isaac’s feast day, so he adopted him as a patron saint.

The church was built on instructions by Tsar Alexander I to replace an early chruch that had been built by Vincenzo Brenna, and it is the fourth church to be bulit on the same site.  A specially formed committee examed designs until the French-born architect, August de Montferrand (1786-1858) was appointed to build the current cathedral.  Montferrand, who had studied under Napoleon’s pet desinger Charles Percier, had create a design that was criticised by some members of the commision for the allegedly boring rhythm of it’s four identical octastyle porticos.  Some thought that even though the design had enormous proportions, it would look short and squat and not particularly impressive.  There were also apparently concerns about building a 100m tall cathedral on old and insecure foundations could be problematic.  However, the emperor favoured the design and things worked out in Montferrand’s favour after all.


Montferrand moved to St Petersburg from 1818 to 1858 to oversee the construction which took a full 40 years to completion – the cathedral’s foundations were strengthened by driving 25,000 piles into the fenland of Saint Petersburg and innovative methods were created to erect the giant columns of the portico.  Montferrand dedicated his life to creating this edifice, and his one wish was to be buried here in his creation, but the Emperor would not allow it, as Montferrand was Roman Catholic and this was an orthodox church.


The Cathedral has had a spotted history – during the Soviet era, most of the building was stripped of its religious treasures and iconographies, and in 1931 it was turned into the Musuem of History of Relgion and Atheism.  The dove sculpures were removed and replaced by a Foucault pendulum.  Further, during WWII, the dome was painted over in gray paint to avoid attracting enemy air craft, and on it’s top in the skylight of the dome, a geodesical intersection point was installed to assist in determining the positions of German artillery.

By Maria’s account – the church continues to have a somewhat dubious place in social history.  The state has funded any restoration, management and administration of the Church in recent years.  It has been a pet project of Putin’s to maintain and upkeep this particular cathedral, however recently, it has been handed over to Church control, which means the income from St Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Church of the Spilled Blood will no longer be open to public scrutiny.  Instead the Church will be able to do as they please with tourist income received from these two iconic sites… the people are not happy about this change of plan, and there is some speculation that Putin’s cronies stand to benefit from these new financial arrangements.  So much so, that various sectors of the public and the tourism industry in particular are considering striking and protesting actions to attempt to return the control of these public treasures to public administration. Incredible mosaic work, and so much carved and gilded timber, it was really quite breathtaking.  The only church I have seen more impressive than this one was St Peter’s in Rome… and that I think was largely due to the sheer scale of it. Detail of the mosaic work… 

Next stop on our tour was the Yusupov Palace which was also known as the Moika Palace.  It was the primary place of residence of the Family of Yusupov who were very close to the Romanovs.  The building was also the place where the younger Yusupovs murdered Ra-Ra-Rasputin on December 17th, 1916.

The palace was built around 1776 and from 1830 to 1917, the palace belonged to a noble Russian family called the House of Yusupov.  They were immensely wealthy, close to the Romanovs and known for their philanthropic tendencies and their art collections.  They had personally amassed more than 40,000 works of art, including works by Rembrandt, and expensive sculptures decorated the palace and expensive jewels decorated their persons.  During the Russian Revolution, the family fled for their lives unable to take their treasured possessions with them, and the Yusupov art collection was nationalized and relocated in the Hermitage and other museums.

The palace was as lavishly decorated and appointed as the royal palaces of the time, the Yusupovs were extremely wealthy – though the rooms and spaces are not as large as the royal residences. Inside the Yusupov Palace is a private theatre that was built to entertain family and friends for private ballet and opera performances.  This was the start of the current home theatre trend, I am sure of it! Though today, most people don’t do them in quite so much style.  😉 

Yusupov Palace is where the assassination of Grigori Rasputin was played out.  A monarchist group led by Prince Felix Yusupov, heir apparent to the vast Yusupov family fortunes, together with Vladimir Purishkevish and the Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich invited Rasputin to the Yusupov Palace to a dinner in Felix’s lavishly appointed private rooms in the cellar of the palace.

Here, Rasputin was served poisoned wine, and the others made an excuse to leave him for 30 mins.  When they were sure he would be dead, Felix returned to the cellar to find him unaffected. Rasputin, immediately clued onto their surprise and knew that something was up.  He attempted to run, but Felix Yusupov retrieved a revolver and shot Rasputin from the side.  Felix then went back upstairs to inform the plotters that Rasputin was dead, but he took Felix’s absence as an opportunity to flee from the cellar through a side door.  The plotters chased Rasputin out onto the street, where Purishkevich shot Rasputin in the back.  He was then dragged back inside and a third, close range bullet, was shot into his forehead.  The murderers then wrapped him up and drove outside the city to dump his body into the Neva River!  Only according to Maria, they did not allow for the fact that the river was frozen, and it took them a long time to dig a hole through the ice in order to dump his body.

Felix Yusupov must not have been a particularly bright fellow, as he immediately started telling everyone that he had killed Rasputin and saved the aristocracy from his influence over the Romanovs, and was promptly arrested. (Gotta admit, I don’t love the wax dummies.)

Well, after this it was a final stop for some souvenir shopping in lovely St Petersburg in what must have been the most expensive souvenir shop in all of Russia – or perhaps we only thought that because we had seen prices in Moscow where they don’t have thousands of cruise ship passengers to fleece on a semi-regular basis.  🙂

We had a marvelous, if hectic, two days in St Petersburg and for now, it remains firmly on my list to go back to – mostly to see the Hermitage properly.  I feel we had sufficient time in each of the other historical sites we visited, and it was only here that I could have spent many, many hours wandering the galleries and corridors.

Tomorrow – Helsinki!


2 thoughts on “St Petersburg Day Two

  1. Thank you, thank you THANK YOU! This was so much better than any other site doing photo tours. Your pictures are so detailed I could even imagine I were there. Truly marvelous!

Tell me what you think