St Petersburg is sometimes called the Venice of the North, due to its many canals. Although I did find an article in Wikipedia with an amusingly long list of cities and towns that have been referred to as the Venice of the North, St Petersburg does probably deserve that title. Built across the marshlands of the Neva River delta, St. Petersburg is interlaced with around a hundred tributaries and canals with a total length of 300 kilometers and over 800 bridges crossing them. With another warm sunny day and clear blue skies a trip up the Neva River passing palaces and mansions, crumbling old buildings and sumptuous restorations, and lush green parklands was just what the doctor ordered.
We did not expect to come back from a Baltic Cruise with sun tans! We sat on the open deck of a flat canal boat and gazed in admiration while our expert guide described the sights & discussed life in St Petersburg today. She told us that Mr Putin is genuinely extremely popular, and that life in Russia is so much better than it used to be, people are happy.
After the cruise we visited two of the famous churches of St Petersburg. The first one was the one I was really looking forward to – known as The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, its official name is The Resurrection of Christ Church and it was built between 1883 and 1907. I always assumed that the “spilled blood” referred to Jesus, but in fact it was Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. Alexander was a reformer, but was not popular and had previously survived many attempts on his life.
The church is decorated inside and out with detailed, brightly coloured mosaics and is quite a feast for the eyes. It was ransacked after the 1917 Revolution, and closed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s. It was used as a temporary morgue during WWII and after the war as a storehouse for potatoes and other vegetables. Thankfully it has undergone an extensive restoration, reopening to the public in 1997. The main dome was covered in scaffolding, sadly, but the interior was absolutely dazzling.
Next stop was St Isaac’s Cathedral, once the main cathedral of Russia. It remains the 4th largest cathedral in the world. Now it is mostly a museum, though there is a small congregation that meets in a side room. It was designed by a French architect, Auguste Montferrand, who had to win two independent competitions to complete his design. The cathedral took 40 years to construct, from 1818 to 1858. 112 monolithic granite columns 17 metres high support the porticoes. This being a swampy site, about 24,000 piles had to be driven in for the foundation, which 11,000 serfs took a year to do, working day and night, winter and summer. It can hold 14,000 standing worshippers.
We had booked another tour for the afternoon, to the Russian Museum, which houses the world’s finest collection of Russian art. The gallery was founded by the Tsar Nicholas II to house his father’s art collection. However we just could not face another tour of another crowded museum, so we pulled out and spent a relaxing afternoon on the ship. Here’s a photo of the outside of the Russian Museum – that was as close as we got.