Welcome to Day #2 of our 3-day discovery of St.Petersburg, Russia! On our first full day in St.Petersburg, we explored the historic centre of the city on foot and via boat cruise down the Neva River. On the agenda for our second full day in the city was a visit to Peterhof – meaning “Peter’s Court” in German – followed by a performance of Swan Lake at the Hermitage, the highlight of our trip.
Getting a feel for the “real” St.Petersburg
We packed a picnic lunch and hopped on the matushka bus to the palace. Matushka buses are like mini-buses and can be boarded at Avtovo metro station – don’t worry, you’ll know which one is destined to Peterhof by the signs, which are in English, and the enthusiastic driver assistants calling for you to jump on board.
The benefit of taking the bus was getting an insight look at what St.Petersburg is actually like, outside the gilded walls of the famous city. Contrary to the coloured palaces that line the streets of the Nevky Prospekt, these concrete buildings, and ancient trams were a little more along the lines of what we expected to see in the former USSR.
Travelers Tip! If you’re in the mood for something a little fancier than a min-bus, there are also hydrofoils that take you from the Hermitage to Peterhof and back! Keep in mind, the price will be a bit steeper, but it’s sure to be quite the experience.
Inspired by the architecture at Versailles, Peterhof was built by Peter the Great in the early 1700s. The palace grounds feature numerous structures, including the Grand Palace and Monplaisir, as well as the spectacular Grand Cascade, comprising of 64 different fountains, over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs and other decorations.
The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for its incredible gardens and joke fountains that are unleashed on innocent visitors passing through. The entrance to the palace is through a beautiful garden lined with statues and fountains like the one pictured below:
In order to enter the grounds, you have to purchase a ticket, and then, once inside, you have to purchase a separate ticket for every site you wish to tour. Once inside Peterhof, you have the chance to explore the grounds at will, but no matter which way you go, you’ll encounter impressive statues and fountains like this one, along the way:
We chose to start our tour with Monplaisir, overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Monplaisir was completed by 1723, and was Peter’s preferred retreat for entertaining his closest friends and advisors. The building complex was also used by Catherine the Great, who lived briefly in the palace during her marriage to Peter III. In fact, it was here she discovered that there had been a coup against her husband that would lead to her becoming the Empress of Russia and the longest female ruler the country would ever know.
After strolling around Monplaisir, we plopped ourselves down for a picnic in the gardens. After regaining our strength, we headed towards the centre of the ground in order to get a panoramic view of the Grand Palace – and what a spectacular view it was:
The Grand Palace
As you near the steps of the Grand Palace, you are greeted with the Grand Cascade (yes, everything in Russia is a “Grand” something or other), the most impressive site at Peterhof. The sheer number of gold statue fountains instills visitors with a scary sense of just how much money once circulated between the hands of the Russian elite. The most important statue in the cascade is that of Samson, wrestling the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War.
Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, Peterhof
Given the magnificence of the Grand Palace, it may seem strange, but what turned out to be my favourite part of our day-trip to Peterhof was a visit we made to Peter and Paul’s Cathedral right before catching the bus back to town.
Located across the entrance to the official grounds, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral is second only to the Church of the Spilled Blood of Our Saviour in terms of architectural beauty and grandeur. As beautiful as it was on the outside, it was inside the church, as I observed people practicing the orthodox faith, that I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and curiosity.
Unfamiliar with the routines and traditions of orthodox worshipers, I stood back and watched as women in scarves bent over gently, kissing their beloved icons. Old women, young women, each standing devoted and humble, eyes closed, leaning on the icon of Mary, as she prayed. It was one of those moments when you realize the amazing way in which travel can open your eyes and unlock an understanding of a people, a culture, or a belief in ways that no other experience truly can.
When in Russia…
After wrapping things up at Peterhof, we ran back to our hotel for a quick change and then off to dinner and a show; but not just any show, this was a ballet at the Hermitage! When I set the agenda for St.Petersburg, seeing a ballet at one of the city’s majestic theatres was top of my list. I mean, there we were in the land of great composers like Tchaikovsky who I adored – I knew if I didn’t grab tickets for a ballet when I was in town, I’d regret it the rest of my days. So, I ordered tickets to Swan Lake via balletandopera.com and had them delivered to my hotel to they’d be awaiting me upon arrival. I was shocked to see they were actually there when I checked in! I’m not going to lie, that could have gone either way.
Before skipping off to Swan Lake however, my companions and I decided it was time to try our second Russian delicacy of the trip, pelmeni, soft dumplings stuffed with meat with a side of sour cream – they were fabulous!
Post-pelmeni, we walked over to the Hermitage, arriving 10 minutes before the curtain went up, yet somehow ending up with seats smack in the middle of the theatre, maybe five feet away from the orchestra; it was perfect.
The ballet itself was beautifully performed, the dancers world-class, and the music divine. Seeing the ballet was definitely the highlight of my trip to St.Petersburg! If you’re hesitating to buy tickets, just do it – it’s a once in a lifetime (unless you go back) experience you will never forget.
Stay tuned for Day 3 our discovery of St.Petersburg as we take on the Hermitage and discover the best souvenir shop in the city!