During my stay in St Petersburg I got to appreciate the number and variety of bridges that there are in this “Venice of the North”. Given that St Petersburg is dissected by a series of islands and waterways, bridges are an integral part of the cityscape. There are hundreds of bridges scattered around the city and the easiest way of seeing a healthy percentage of them is from the deck of one of the innumerable canal boats. If you have the luxury of time though, on foot is a better way to view in detail at least a representative sample of the bridges. In the 19th century the city administrators decided to colour-code some of the bridges, but now-a-day only the Blue, Red, Green and Yellow (this last one now renamed Pevcheskiy) bridges remain of those originally designated by hue. The best known of these is the Blue Bridge (Siniy most), which crosses the Moika River and has the widest span of any bridge in St Petersburg. The other three ‘colour’ bridges also cross the Moika but they are less ambitious constructions than the Blue Bridge. I couldn’t really fathom where Pevcheskiy bridge (the Singers’ bridge) got its former name from (Zholtyi) as it looks more olive-green than yellow in its colouring. Some of the bridges display a mythological animal motif, eg griffins (Bank Bridge), the Sphinx chimera, aptly enough, on the Egyptian (pedestrian) Bridge.
One of the most famous bridges, in part because of its central spot in the city, is Anichkov Bridge. This bridge provides passage over Fontanka canal for traffic and pedestrians on busy Nevskiy Prospect. Visitors to St Petersburg invariably stop to admire the four bronze horse scultures on each corner of the bridge. I had several opportunities to do this as on our journeys along Nevskiy Pr we regularly crossed this spot back and forth. The four-cornered “Horse Tamers” are one of St Petersburg’s most recognisable landmarks.
Another bridge over the Fontanky River interesting in its design, is Lomonosov bridge. This bridge is a remnant of the movable, towered bridges common in 18th century St Petersburg. Lomonosov is characterised by four rusticated Doric columns which look a bit like sentry boxes on top of the bridge.
Further down the Fontanka River we came to Panteleymonovsky Bridge at the point of the river’s confluence with Moika (near the Mikhailovskiy castle). Pantelymonosky is an attractive bridge with some interesting martial elements. The bridge’s railings incorporate an impressive motif of shields, battle-axes, spears and other weapons of war. The end-columns holding up lanterns continue the theme. Its design of a bundle of spears, atop of which is a golden eagle, is suggestive of Imperial Rome.
Out on the Neva River the Palace Bridge (Dvoretsovy) is the bridge that gets most attention in St Petersburg. Dvoretsovy is probably the most photographed (and reproduced on posters, T-shirts, caps, etc) highlight in St Petersburg. The Palace is a bascule bridge with a mechanised, double-leaf lifting action. At night it is the standard pastime to take photos of the illuminated bridge opening for passing vessels on the Neva. The Palace bridge also features prominently in the “White Nights” cruise on the river from June to July each year.
Along the river from Dvoretsovy is Trinity Bridge (Troitskiy most), another interesting segmental designed bridge and a single-wing lifting mechanism. most visitors appreciate Troitskiy bridge for its spectular Art Nouveau feature such as the elegant metal lanterns and the elaborate rostral columns at each end. Whilst visitors tend to focus, rightfully, on the feast of grand buildings on display in St Petersburg, its good to keep in mind that the city’s bridges have a particular charm and fascination of their own.
After we returned from Pushkin we decided to catch up on a few of the recommended places that we hadn’t got to on the walking tour. The Saviour on Blood Church (AKA ‘Church of the Spilled Blood’) is on most ‘unmissable’ lists for St Petersburg. The key to this cathedral’s origin lies in its name. The church was erected on the spot (the junction of Moika and Griboedova canals) where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, hence the somewhat queasiness-inducing name. By the time I got round to visiting it I was probably suffering from ABC fatigue, the prospect of viewing yet “Another Bloody Church!” (having had my fill of them all over Eastern Europe) didn’t excite me. But even in this jaded state of mind I would have to admit that the exterior of “The Spilled Blood” left a strong impression on me. It is stunning admixture of different designs and patterns, domes with swirling colours, some pure gold and some looking like a “chocolate freckle”. I was reminded more than a little of the famous Pokrovskiy Cathedral (St Basil’s) in Moskva’s Red Square with its striped, multi-coloured domes & towers (but “The Spilled Blood” is a slightly scaled-down version of the Krasnaya church). The 16-17th century style building contrasts sharply with the Baroque, classical & more modern surrounding buildings of the area. Some expressive mosaics in the church’s interior. There’s a long string of souvenir stalls at the rear of church alongside the canal.
We crossed town to see St Issac’s Cathedral (in Russian transliterated as Isaakievskiy Sobor), one of the icons of Saint-Petersburg, right up there with Kazan Cathedral. It is located in the Admiralteiskaya district not far from the Neva River. St Issac’s is worthy of a look for its crowning glory alone – the huge fully gold-plated dome roof, identifiable from diverse parts of the city. The 250rbl entrance fee (as at 2015) is very good value because the interior is quite a treasure to behold, richly decorated with glittering mosaics & columns containing malachite & lapis-lazuli ornamentation. As an added bonus good views of the cityscape await climbers willing to walk up the 226 steps to the church’s colonnade.
We went next to St Micheal’s Castle (known variously as St Michael’s Castle, Mikhailovskiy Palace and the Engineers’ Castle), located on Sadovaya Ul near another junction of the city’s canals. Mikhailovskiy Palace is in a different league to the vainglorious excesses of St Petersburg’s better known architectural tourist magnets. It lacks the glamour, richness and sheer scope of Peterhof, the Winter Palace and Catherine Palace. As castles go this pink castle with a green roof is a formidable looking structure with a moat and strong walls. The castle has a big open courtyard in the middle which is quite barren, it could do with a few pot plants & a little imaginative planning to brighten the area up. Mikhailovskiy Palace’s beginnings had an ironic element which explains the castle’s air of foreboding – built by Tsar Pavel I with the purpose of strengthening the emperor’s personal security, however Pavel survived only 40 nights in it before he was murdered! Across the road in a pleasant park overlooking the palace there is a statue of Peter the Great posing as a Roman emperor. Today Mikhailovskiy Palace is an art museum (part of the Russian Museum) with lots of works by famous Russian artists including world-class painters like Chagall and Kandinsky. Architectural oddity: all four facades, N, S, E & W, are completely different in appearance.
Getting back on to Nevskiy Pr, a monumental piece of architecture that you’ll find hard to miss as you walk the street is Kazansky Cathedral. When I first noticed this panoramic building I mistook it for the parliament or the head-of-state’s residence, not a church. It has a large, extended colonnade, bookended by two huge square arches. The colonnade with a dominant central dome is shaped in a semi-circle which encloses a small, peaceful garden with a fountain. Kazansky Cathedral’s design was based on the iconic St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, much in the way that Peter the Great’s inspiration for Peterhof was the glory of Versailles. Visits inside the Cathedral during opening hours are free. Not far from here, still on Nevskiy, we stumbled on another ecclesiastical building very different to Kazansky. The St Catherine Armenian Apostolic Church, a little Armenian church set back from the street and dwarfed by all the large elegant Art Nouveau buildings close by. The Armenian church is a small but beautiful light blue and white building. From the street you only get only a glimpse of it as it is jammed in between two large, more pedestrian-looking buildings. Up close of course you get a better view, but unfortunately, the proximity of unconnected buildings block a full, wide shot of the whole facade. Still, it is worth your while to stop and check out this minor gem of a building.
Having seen the Hermitage/Winter Palace briefly at night I was keen to return during the day and take it in more thoroughly. The facade as viewed from the Alexander Monument is one huge green and gold panorama of a palace, the Hermitage is in fact a conglomeration of several buildings, the green one, Zimadvorets, being part of the whole (Tot Pustyn). The exterior of the Winter Palace is intended to impress the viewer with its sheer size and scope … mission accomplished from first sighting!
The interior of the Winter Palace is magnificent, but my takeaway impression of all that unbridled opulence and grandeur left me thinking that very often less is more! The Museum opens on to a sublime, white marble staircase which is unfailingly packed with large hordes of visitors snapping shots of everything in sight. Absolute plethora of portraits in a long corridor of Russian generals of the Napoleonic Wars, military types in glossy uniforms with varying degrees of facial hair. Did the Russians really need this many generals to counter Napoleon? The interior apartments has the decorative style of gold and white elegance of the Louis XIV interiors, it was all so reminiscent of what I had seen six years ago at Versailles Palace. The Hermitage as a whole simply drips grandiloquence to a grotesque level of self-indulgence. Peter the Great and his successors were wholeheartedly intent in engaging in a game of ‘one-upmanship’ with the 18th century French court.
The Hermitage’s art collection is the envy of art galleries worldwide, and makes many of the leading museums’ holdings pale by comparison. Fantastic array of 17th-18th century European art works on display including Rembrandts and paintings by other Flemish/Dutch masters, a Michaelangelo sculpture and two extremely rare Da Vincis. The art works by Western old masters in the Palace range from Rembrandts (several works), Rubens, Van Dyke, Brueghel, Titian, Veronese, Velaquez, Hals and Raphael to De Vinci and Michelangelo. Chinese, Egyptian, Prehistoric and Modern art is also represented in the Palace’s collections. I was more impressed with the art on display here than with what I saw in the highly-vaunted Museo Del Prado in Madrid. The interior design can be appreciated for its high aesthetic content, variety of styles and superior quality. The ornately-decorative rooms should also not be missed – St George’s Hall and Armorial Hall in particular are full of objects of refined taste and gilded beauty. Whenever you go you’ll have to compete with the big crowds, processions of large group visitors tramp it’s floorboards continually, but the experience & benefits are well worth it!
From the Winter Palace we ventured to the western outskirts of St Petersburg, to Peterhof, where comparisons with Versailles are even more pronounced. The grandeur of the Peterhof palace complex has earned it appellations like the “Versailles-Gorod” of Russia. Peterhof (Dut-Ger. origin, meaning “Peter’s Court”) in summer was crowded with visitors of course. We went primarily to see the Lower Park. Petrodvorets (the Grand Palace itself), in canary yellow and gold edging, looked a very splendid looking building, however we passed on getting tickets to go inside, partly because we didn’t have the time to do it justice but also we’d heard the interior wasn’t that special. Besides we still had the potentially even more exquisite Catherine’s Palace to come.
From the top of the bluff (the higher level of the grounds) the Lower Gardens and multiple fountains are a great sight, adorned with numerous classical golden statues, chequerboard floor and a channel opening out into the main fountain. Similarly, glancing back up from the bottom, the sloping Grand Cascade is also an impressive vision with the Palace as backdrop. The Chessboard Cascade with its dragon motif certainly attracts the young visitor. Well worth a look also is the low, long building, Monplaisir Palace on the sea and the garden and fountains of the Orangery. The most celebrated sculpture of the Orangery fountains is that of the mythological Triton fighting the sea monster and turtles, deeply symbolic to the Russians as signifying Peter’s victory over the Swedes in the Great Northern War.
One of the parts of Peterhof most popular with the flocking multitude is the Trick Fountains, Peter the Great’s own innovation apparently, but, again borrowed from the Versailles court of the French Sun-King. Having ordered that hundreds of fountains be constructed at Peterhof and elsewhere it shouldn’t be surprising that Peter the Great might get a bit bored with playing it straight and want to sabotage some of them – what a absolute card that man was! I can just imagine a bunch of nobles and boyars vociferously objecting to Peter’s practical joking … sure thing! In fact trick fountains were quite the fashion for absolute monarchs and rulers in the day. The Hohenems Prince-Archbishop of Hellbrun Palace in 17th century Salzburg got a similar kick out of seeing unsuspecting guests get doused by trick fountains, and like Peterhof, that tradition still goes on at Hellbrun today! Still, bread and circuses and all that … I say give the people what they want, and the trick fountains are certainly a big hit, the biggest source of merriment indeed in Peterhof’s Lower Gardens (and largely but not exclusively with children!). The only thing is, I suspect the element of surprise is losing traction, Peterhof’s trick fountains are so well known now … we were forewarned about it before we went there. That said, once there, you still need to be careful where you walk. Even if the idea of the trick fountain is a bit on the gimmicky side, it should be said that it does amuse (and cool down) the horde of people who gather round the gardens. What we found wasn’t impressive before leaving Peterhof was the thoroughly inadequate and disgusting toilet facilities at the entrance/exit, a small row of portaloos (insufficient in number for the amount of visitors) with the nauseating stench of raw sewerage piling up. Such a first-rate tourist attraction for St Petersburg warrants facilities more commensurate with its importance and popular patronage.
From the Summer Palace of Peterhof we headed to the southern districts of St Petersburg to the suburb of Pushkin, formerly called Tsarkoye Selo (“Tsar’s Village”), location of another breath-taking Romanov palace, Catherine Palace. The blue, white and gold-laden Palace we see today is the product of several 18th century reconstructions reflecting the varying tastes of empresses – from Catherine I to Elizabeth to Catherine II! The result, ultimately, is more of the same of what we saw at the Hermitage & Petergof, tasteful Italian elegance, unrestrained extravagant luxury and over-ornate decoration, but it is every bit as magnificent as those other St Petersburg palaces – probably more so. The quadrangle-shaped building has many unbelievably beautiful rooms and gold encrusted apartments, the Picture Hall, the Amber Chamber, the Green Dining Room, and so on. Again the interior recollects the majesty of Versailles, especially with its close similarity to the Hall of Mirrors.
The Palace grounds follow suit using Versailles as its inspiration (and even as a template). The manicured parks are equally as sublime as those at the Summer Palace, with their expansive relaxing areas, gardens, lakes and canals, unusual hedge patterns, etc. The Cameron Galleries with its bronze busts of famous historical figures and other sculptures is not to be missed either. In one of the lakeside buildings we heard an excellent performance of that traditional Russian standard, “the Volga Boatman” from a vocal quartet. The only disappointment at the Tsarskoye Selo palace was the limited lunch options on site, the relatively new restaurant was booked out on the day we visited, and because of the crowds at the palace we had a long wait for service at the other food outlets.
Not too long after arriving in St Petersburg I found myself taking a stroll down the street in the central part of the city that everyone gravitates towards, Nevsky Prospekt. It was late in the evening and for a while I was under the impression that this city of exquisite palaces & cathedrals had maybe been hijacked by a ‘Mad Max’ film production company. As I walked down Nevsky street my auditory nerves alerted me to the immediate vicinity of gangs of bikies tearing up and down Nevsky at frightening speeds. Some bikies were “burning rubber”, doing wheel stands and fishtailing their machines, generally it seemed playing games of chicken with tardy pedestrians – with not a police car in sight! I just couldn’t figure out what was happening, all that commotion. It was well after midnight when I walked back down Nevsky, sidestepping the strip club spruikers on the way to Uprising Square. In the vast square old ladies passively and quietly sit in the hope of selling their bunches of flowers, and young men are busy stencilling ad messages on the square pavement (certainly a cheaper form of advertising than paying for billboard space). As I walked I wondered if this was normally how it was like in St Petersburg, decibel-exploding motor bikes assailing the eardrums of the general population into the wee hours of the morning.
A couple of days later, back on the same street in daylight this time, I noticed a huge banner, “St Petersburg Harley Days” just near peaceful Ostrovsky Square. I had my answer to the mystery. Bikies has descended on St Petersburg from all over the globe (Germany, France, Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, the US, etc, St Petersburg’s own “Night Riders” included). The Harley-Davidson event was in a cordoned-off area with heavy security at each of the entry points, but it seemed that Joe (and Joanna) Public weren’t being kept out so, I ambled through the gate without being challenged to produce my HD Club bona fides. it was a big commercial operation inside the perimeter, lots of activity, people walking all over the joint. Lots of folks dressed in black, no shortage of tattoos and beards of course. There were special Harley-Davidson machines on display and promotional girls with black-and-white checkered flags which they’d occasionally wave around rather superfluously given there was no actually racing going on. Along each side of the compound was a long row of souvenir stalls selling mainly specialised motor bike-related items. Organised entertainment was aplenty, displays of bike stunt-riding and a rock band was warming up in the bandstand when I was there.
The Harley Days festival in the city is now apparently an annual event for international bikies, OK its not just for bikies … for (Harley-Davidson) motorcycle enthusiasts of all shapes and kinds. From time to time bands of these enthusiasts would rev up their motors and ride en masse in a head-turning procession along Nevsky Pr. In all some 3,000 motorbike riders were said to have attended the Saint Petersburg festival during the first couple of weeks in August … it certainly seemed like it was that many on the ground to my ears! And the bike riders and Harley-Davidson aficionados clearly enjoyed themselves, that was apparent for all to see, so much so that plans were set in place for next August’s St Petersburg HD event before this one finished.
Most tourists venture down to Palace Square during the day to visit the Hermitage/Winter Palace and marvel at the treasures within its doors. But the Square at night is well worth a bit of a ‘butcher’s’ also. The lit-up Hermitage looks spectacular after nightfall (in August this means after about 10pm!) as does the divinely majestic Carlo Rossi-designed arch of the General Staff Building adjacent to it. The massive square is relatively deserted after dark. There are still people leisurely strolling past the landmark of the towering Alexander Monument, but at night Dvorets Ploshchad becomes very much the domain of skateboarders, Russian youths move in to make full use of its flat open spaces. Warning: it is not necessarily a quiet place to hover around in after dark as motor bike riders (maybe it’s the Harley-Davidson mob again) take advantage of less city traffic around to regularly tear round the very broad circumference of the Square late into the evening.
Despite the evocation power of the majestic arch (designed by yet another Italian architect in the service of the Romanovs) and the formidable edifice shaped like an archer’s bow, the General Staff Building (GSB) is destined to always remain in the shadow, figuratively rather than literally, of the Winter Palace/Hermitage which it shares the Palace Square with (its nondescript name doesn’t help in keeping it in the forefront of tourists’ minds either). The simplicity and elegance of GSB’s clear, straight lines makes a wonderful contrast with the more ornate and intricate Winter Palace, and GSB’s proximity to the iconic Palace ensures that it will be always be in the public eye. The magnificence of Rossi’s monumental arch is one of the city’s architectural gems … don’t miss the classical sculpture on top of the grand arch celebrating the military triumph over Napoleon.
Dinner options in St Petersburg are numerous and varied. On the recommendation of some fellow travellers we went one night to Moskva Ana Nevskom, at the western end of the vast Uprising Square. Located on the top floor (Lev. 6) of Nevsky shopping centre just off the main road, Moskva is a large, tastefully decorated indoor restaurant (part of the Ginza Project chain) with an L-shaped outdoors section commanding great views of Saint-Peterburg. The menu was both large (printed on A3 sized paper) and extensive (Russian, Italian, Japanese, etc, too much choice really). We went with the Russian dishes, trying the Dorado Grill, the trout burgers and the Stroganoff after knish and pelmeni (potato and meat dumplings respectively) as starters, washed down with wine and a Baltica pivo or two. The waitress assigned to our table (Julia) was very attentive and helpful, sweetly apologising several times for the deficiencies of her English! The food was good if a little pricey after you added on the mandatory pectopaH sales tax, but we still left Julia an appreciative tip. The quality of the food was good but the Moskva’s main selling point is the magnificent panoramic view. The restaurant even provides a telescope for those wanting to take a closer look round between different courses. We were right on the outside edge in the corner which was certainly position A for views, though later on we realised how exposed our position was when the wind picked up and it got a lot cooler (about dessert time). Looking around at the other tables we took a leaf from the local patrons’ books and wasted no time in reaching for the complimentary blankets which were very welcome.
You can’t really experience all that St Petersburg has to offer without spending time on Nevsky Prospekt … it’s essential – and unavoidable! Dissecting the city from east to west for some 4.5km, Nevsky Pr is home to St Petersburg’s shopping precinct, restaurants and nightlife. On our first morning we left our hotel in Ligovsky Pr and walked up to the vast Vosstaniya (or Uprising) Square where Nevsky begins. At all times, or so it seems, there is a constant stream of people up and down Nevsky, shopping, wining and dining, sightseeing. On one side of Uprising Square stands Vosstaniya Metro station. On first glance I mistook it for a church, but as railway stations go it is one monumentally impressive building, a stunning but simple pavilion with a sandstone coloured circular colonnade at the top.
There are a number of attractive Art Nouveau buildings on Nevsky. One that garners a lot of interest and visitors is Yeliseev’s Emporium, a food hall selling fine caviar, vodka & other overpriced Russian gourmet foods. Not as grand or opulent as its Moscow namesake (Yeliseev’s gastronom) which some have compared to London’s Harrods, a claim by any reckoning that is something of an over-stretch! St Petersburg Yeliseev’s in itself is quite a spectacle, from its whimsical window display with little comical figurines to it’s aesthetically pleasing interior. It’s not exactly a place for delicatessen bargain buys but it’s really worth going in for a look at the beautiful decor. On a searingly hot summer’s morning we sat under the ‘shade’ of its giant centrally positioned indoor palm sipping a raspberry lemonade & admired the balustrades & ceiling designs. I was amused by the two old men mannikins in the gold leaf balcony on the back wall who reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the audience hecklers from the “The Muppets” TV show.
Continuing down Nevsky we soon reached the first of the waterways that gives St Petersburg its famous epithet, “Venice of the North”, Fontanky kanals (the Fountain canal).The bridge on Nevsky Pr that crosses the canal is called Anichkov Most. On each corner is the famous horse sculpture, the “Horse Tamers”. Here, you’ll find the ever-present boat trip touters, locals of all ages who all day energetically spruik boat trips to the public. Even late at night they were still hard at it on the bridge – and at the other canals further along Nevsky, Griboedova and Moika. Many spruikers used a hand-held mike to loudly announce (in Russian) the trips offered by competing boat companies. I wondered about the effectiveness of this method of soliciting for business. Because of all the noise generated by the crowds of people and the normal, heavy motor traffic on Nevsky, I doubted if anyone could make out anything much of what the touts were saying. Whilst here we confirmed our booking for a boat tour for later in the day. Many of the boat trips start from near Anichkov Bridge, although some begin from Neva Embankment (there are many, many options for canal and river tours available in St Petersburg!).
A little bit past Anichkov Most is Ostrovskogo Square which is as much about peace & tranquility as Anichkov is abuzz with activity. A large monument of Catherine the Great watches over the park and garden. The reform-minded German-born empress is depicted atop a globe with some of the great men of letters & politicians of her day. This pleasant park on Nevsky Pr is a welcome refuge for visitors, a place to “take five” away from the hustle & bustle of the main street. In the tree-lined square I noticed an oddly dressed couple in 18th century period costumes leisurely strolling around the park. Observing them I discovered that they were ‘performers’ touting for tourism business, offering themselves up to visitors to have their photo taken with them at a price. Before leaving the Federation I had learnt that this was a feature common to Russian tourism, at most tourist hotspots (Peterhof, Catherine Palace, Red Square, etc) similarly over-dressed ‘aristocratic’ couples would pop out of the woodwork at the first sight of a tourist!
Heading back past Catherine II’s park we passed the street artists’ quarter where a number of artists sketched portraits for passers-by (oddly the portraitist were all males, all middle-aged or older – just as they had been in Old Arbat in Moscow!). Just along from the park is Gostiny Dvor, St Petersburg’s oldest shopping mall and not ‘tiny’ at all. Gostiny Dvor is all neoclassical elegance on the outside but inside it is rather old-fashioned in its presentation and layout. A handy place still to pop into as it has a free of charge WC.
One of the more unassuming but interesting little streets running off Nevsky that I took a fancy to is Malaya Sadovaya Ul. On either side of the mall is a bronze cat (one of each sex) perched high on the wall. Walking down the plaza, the idea is to toss a coin at either cat and try to land in on the ledge. The reward for succeeding – guaranteed good luck to the thrower! This is another instance of the potency of Russian shibboleths akin to what I saw in Moscow with the superstitious mania for rubbing the knee of a sculptured bronze figure for luck as you sprint past! The rest of the pedestrian-only street contains other interesting features including a sculpture of a photographer and his dog, a kugel ball fountain which looks like a rum ball sitting on the end of a slice of cake (quite appropriate I think for a street replete with cafés selling sugary tortes and pastries). Malaya Sadovaya’s inviting benches, street lamps and overall relaxed ambience makes it a favourite haunt of young St Petersburgians – especially at night.
Further along Nevsky, near Griboedova canal, we came to another wonderful old Art Nouveau building, Dom Knigi (the House of Books). It’s a very large bookshop, good for a browse (there are even some books here that are not printed in Cyrillic script!) and it’s another handy place to use the toilet gratis on the top floor. By the real reason to stop here is the Singer Cafe … no, not a cafe where you sip coffee or hot chocolate whilst a soloist or some enthusiastic amateur entertains you with a ballad or two, but a reference to the building’s “needle and stitch-work” past. Before the bookworms moved in, Dom Knigi was in fact Singer (or Zinger) House, headquarters of the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer Cafe is a bit of an icon on Nevsky Pr and we ended up having a light lunch at the cafe before resuming our walking tour of Nevsky Prospekt & its environs. The cafe had a relaxed, casual air, with staff that were attentive and polite with a good grasp of English. I had salmon pelmeni and a lemonade, more than sufficient to recharge my batteries for more foot-slogging. The upstairs section of this cafe is known for its great views of the panoramic Kazansky Cathedral (directly opposite on the other side of Nevsky) through its supersized square windows.
After taking in a few more of the highlights of Nevsky Pr we backtracked to Anichkov Most for our boat trip. As the boat wound its way up Fontanka canal, criss-crossing the other canals and eventually turning into Moiky, an on-board commentary in Russian was played through a loud-speaker. Fortunately though for us we had our English language guide Valentina sitting with us so we got the translated version face-to-face, essential if we were to get some idea of the different buildings & bridges (very many bridges!) that we were passIng. Our boat was a flat top type, the importance of which was illustrated when we passed under bridges as low as 2.4m or 2.5m!), standing up was not recommended – for reasons of personal health preservation! One of the attendants was standing up on the boat as we were about to pass under one of the lowest bridges. He didn’t appear to be aware of its approach but at the last moment he nonchalantly ducked his head to avoid get it taken off! It unnerved us at the time but it was pretty clear that he knew all along what he was doing and was in fact just ‘showboating’ to impress the punters on board. From the canals we entered the wide and free-flowing waters of the Neva River where we got a good view of the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress. Seeing St Petersburg from the water on the Fontanka, Moiky and Gribeodova canals was a really important (and time-saving) way of getting good views of many of the city’s best buildings. By the time we had returned to Nevsky Prospekt after the two hour cruise we’d had enough of sightseeing for the day and were ready to return to Ligovsky Prospekt and make plans for dinner.
After you’ve had your fill of cathedrals, museums and grey ministerial buildings in the Kremlin, a good place to wind down is Aleksandrovskiy Sad immediately to the west of the wall. The tempo in these gardens is very downbeat, no hustle or bustle. You can sit and admire the attractive, colourful gardens and chill out. Or you can take a stroll along the path parallel to the wall and see yet more extremely youthful-looking guards on duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Grotto ‘Ruins’ which are the sparse remnants of the original city wall (in front of the high, newer, permanent Kremlin wall).
Manezh Square isn’t internationally well-known in the way Red Square is, but tourists in Moscow usually find themselves here at some point as it links up with other parts of the central city such as Alekandrovskiy Garden, the Bolshoi Theatre district and Red Square itself. Manezh Square is also important to Muscovites for various reasons. The area in front of the State Museum is often the scene of public protests by Russian citizens and interest groups (it also has been the site of football riots in recent years). When I was there some people were waving protest placards next to the statue of Marshal Zhukov whilst their comrades video-recorded their actions. I couldn’t read the placard’s message (in Russian) but the last word was ‘Putin’. What it asserted about him clearly infuriated a couple of surly combative types and a heated argument ensued which eventually provoked police intervention. The ‘incident’ gradually dissipated, the malcontents moved on and the placard-holder resumed her vigil, generating little interest from passing pedestrians.
I found the south-western part of Manezhnaya the most interesting section of this leisure park, in particular the series of attractive canals and fountains separating Alekandrovskiy Garden and the elongated underground Manezh shopping mall. This was a fun family area with children playing with the canal’s animal statues or under the Four Seasons fountain (symbolised by four rearing bronze horses) which sprays a stream of water onto passers-by. The Four Seasons fountain is another popular venue for Moscovite newly-weds. This area is always a hub of activity with ‘entertainers’ dressed as tsars, tsarinas, a ‘Lenin’ and two ‘Stalins’ (“I’ll see your Lenin and raise you one Stalin!’), all trying to coax visitors into having their picture taken with them – for a fee! The fountains have a ‘circus’ feel about them. As well as the impersonators of Soviet heavyweights and Romanov royals, there is an (incongruous) American Indian chief, various other spruikers and some unfortunate white doves with their tail feathers deliberately bent back so that they cannot fly away. The elegant, restored Manezh building (in background of photo above), once a horse-riding school, and the metro, are on the level diagonally above the fountains.
A welcome diversion from the crowded Kremlin triangle can be found in Moskva’s huge public library (nicknamed ‘Leninski’ due to its previous name VI Lenin Library). Blast from the past to see its rows and rows of card catalogues, a system still apparently in use on the main floor (the Russian State Library does have a digital catalogue as well!) I was a bit surprised by the level of security, electronic gates and guards in police flak jackets, but justified I guess because of the historic national significance of its collections. A slim but comprehensive publication on the workings and history of the Library is available. No entry fee but tourists should obtain a visitor’s badge at the front desk.
The State Library is on the way to Arbat Street (known locally as Old Arbat), its worth the 10 minute walk as on the way you’ll see one or two other points of interest, such as Moscow’s first cinema. Old Arbat is a car-free plaza interrupted in the middle by a cross-road. In it you will find probably the best place in Moscow to buy souvenirs, including the widest variety of Matryoshka dolls depicting innumerable celebrities Russian and international (from Putin to Rasputin with quite a few US presidents, European heads-of-state and pop singers thrown in).
Aside from momentos and shopping Arbat is a good location away from the centre to eat (a range of inexpensive options). The plaza is pleasant to stroll down, lots of street performers doing their thing, musicians, portrait artists, guys in animal suits wanting to hug you (prompting the odd awkward moments), etc. A huge mural depicting Marshal Zhurov (that man again!) dominates the western end of the street. There’s usually a crowd milling round one particular Jackson Pollock-inspired local artist who paints his expressive and vivid works on a broad horizontal canvas using a flourish of spray cans. For a complete contrast (and change of mood), pop around the corner at the bottom of the street into Smolensky Blvd where the festive feel of Arbat is replaced by the characteristic greyness of a remnant of the Soviet style of architecture, a tall, dour ministerial building. There is a metro station just near here (Smolenskaya) to get you swiftly back to tourism central.
To the immediate west of St Basil’s is the once impenetrable Kremlin, now somewhat demystified by the influx of modern tourism. If you walk around the entire perimeter of the Kremlin walls you get a sense of how the structure of the fortification is both symmetrical in parts and asymmetrical in others. The pattern of defensive towers positioned strategically along the walls form the shape of an irregular triangle (strictly speaking the perimeter of the Kremlin is actually five-sided). You also get an unmistakable sense of how formidable the walls are (height and depth), something they needed to be given the successive waves of assaults on the Kremlin over the centuries (Polish, Swedish, French, Bolshevik, etc). The walls’ symmetry is most apparent on the southern flank of the wall running parallel to the Moskva River.
Big queues at the ticket box for both the Kremlin and the Armoury when we arrived at 10am. Even bigger queues lining up to go inside the entrance. The entrance to the outer grounds of the Kremlin is on the western side of the Kremlin, from the Alexander Garden. So after buying tickets for the Architectural Ensemble of the Cathedral Square (Rbl 500) we postponed our Kremlin visit to around 2pm (by which time the queues had diminished somewhat). Once inside the Kremlin we took in the cathedrals primarily. Much as we wanted to, we just didn’t have time to fit in the highly lauded Armoury.
I was a little surprised that so many churches situated within the erstwhile stronghold of Communist power survived for the 70-plus years the “Religion of Atheism” held sway in Russia, but perhaps the regime had other uses for these beacons of ecclesiastical Orthodoxy, or they judged that tearing them down was just too provocative an act as countless pious Russians still held them sacred. For whatever reason they survived – the Annunciation Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral, Church of the Deposition of the Robe, etc. – with their white facades, arches & towering gold and blue domes. They all ooze a showcase calibre of magnificence. The idiosyncratically named Deposition of the Robe is probably the pick of the church buildings if you count the superb cluster of tiny golden domes which strictly speaking are part of the abutting Terem Palace. Other highlights include the Annunciation’s dazzling copper gate with gold embellishment, and the Necropolis of Ivan the Terrible and the early Romanov tsars in Archangel.
When I visited the Kremlin (August 2015), the Patriarch’s Palace (now a museum) was holding an informative exhibition on “the European Orders of Knighthood”. Included in the exhibition was an interesting video on the discovery of the long-lost Romanov crown jewels in London. After a good hour-and-a-half of cathedral-hopping we found welcome relief from the heat in the shade of the Kremlin Grand Garden, indulging ourselves in the Russian summer passion for morozhennoye (eating ice cream). After refreshments we moved on to the Tsar Bell, but first we had to contend with the over-officiousness of a characteristically large brim-capped policeman on traffic duty.
Tsar Kolokol is at the western end of Ivanovskaya Square. The bronze cast Tsar’s Bell is the world’s largest bell (6.14m high, 6.6m in circumference, over 200 tons in weight). Eavesdropping on a private tour talk a local guide was giving a Texas oil billionaire. I learned that owing to a fire the bell was never hung, let alone ever rung! Attempts to counteract the fire resulted in a large chunk of the bell breaking off and it was never reconnected. A short distance from the bell is the equally monumental Tsar Cannon, its impressiveness is symbolic only as it has never been fired in anger. At the other end of Ivanovskaya Square is Spassnaya tower, eastern exit of the Kremlin. If you exit here you will note that the gate is manned by extremely youthful-looking guards.
From the exit gate, back at St Basil’s, we walked across Red Square to experience the nearest thing Moscow has to Harrods – the famous GUM building. The giant RYM/GUM department store (formerly the State Department Store under Communism) offered air-conditioned respite from the summer sun and the crowds in Red Square (also a free WC). Good place to grab some lunch (2 large bistro-style eateries to choose from – inexpensive with excellent range of food choices) plus GUM has multiple ice cream outlets (more morozhennoye!) In GUM tourists can either shop to excess or simply roam its arcades and admire its 19th century Italian-designed elegant facade and hooped skylights. A nostalgic feature of the centre is a number of window displays showing aspects of Soviet life in the 30s, 40s and 50s (pastimes, old radios, household goods, etc). At the time we visited there was also a display of 1970s men’s and women’s fashions – such as the USSR’s 1976 version of the safari suit! Easily overlooked but part of the huge GUM complex is the toy section complete with resident store clowns to excite the imagination of the very young – this is situated behind the main building in Vetoshny Per. If you walk from here up to the end of the short Vetoshny Pereulok, turn left at Nikolskaya Ulita, this will take you back into Red Square. But only after you pass yet more of the traditionally costumed ‘noblewomen’ and Cossack warriors preening themselves for photo ops in the plaza.