Art & Design
St. Petersburg is Moscow’s flashy and pretty younger sister. While Moscow wears drab colors on her Soviet buildings, her sister prefers pastel colors on her Western European-style ones. Unlike her uptight, somewhat repressed sister, St. Pete’s revels in her winding canals, good food and her extravagant displays of money and power.
As N and I made our way from the train station to our Airbnb apartment, we immediately noticed a difference in the mood of this Russian city compared to Moscow. It immediately felt safer for us as lesbians (we saw many queer people during our stay), the people in general were friendlier and most importantly, there were signs in English EVERYWHERE.
This made things a lot easier. Gone were the days where we had to stand in front of a store trying to decipher the Cyrillic so we could find a drugstore (аптека) or a hotel (гостиница), or go through menu items so we wouldn’t order yet another dish with potatoes (картошка) or cabbage (капуста). We were able to walk down the street without constantly trying to read the Cyrillic because we had no other options, and it was such a relief.
However, English signs in a non-English-speaking city also means hordes of tourists. We felt like we weren’t really in Russia anymore, and while it was a relief to have made it safely across, it was also a little sad to know that from now on, it would get more and more touristy the further we went west. We knew going into this trip that we were traveling through Europe in the height of the tourist season, but we were spoiled by being one of very few tourists going across Russia from the east (most go from west to east), and suddenly we had to share Russia with the rest of the world.
And share with the world we did. Robert, N and I waited for over an hour in one of two lines to get into the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace and currently home to painting masterpieces from around the world. You’d think that Russia’s most famous museum would have more than two ticket windows but no. The woman working our counter – with a huge, classy lily tattooed on her chest – could not give a shit that there were hundreds of people lined up, anxiously waiting to see great art. So if you go, go right when it opens or buy advance tickets online. It might be a little more expensive, but it’ll end up saving you a ton of time.
If you want to see over-the-top, St. Petersburg is your city for two of the gaudiest, completely overdone places: the Hermitage and Peterhof. I’ll get to the latter in a minute. The Winter Palace is gilded everywhere: on the ceilings, doors, walls, furniture… Decorative tables, chairs and wall-hangings are also on display to show Catherine II’s excessive lifestyle.
Amongst all this, paintings and art gifted to Catherine II from nobles hoping to curry her favor hang on the walls. There is also modern art, which was “nationalized” (i.e., taken and/or stolen from wealthy Russians) during the Soviet era.
And this is where I’ll air out my gripe with the Hermitage. In their effort to show off the Winter Palace and Russia’s art collection at the same time, the palace ends up overwhelming the art… Or in this case, putting a huge glare on it. The light from the big windows of the Winter Palace shines directly on the paintings, making it hard or almost impossible to see them. Paintings were hung way too high, which makes me wonder if the exhibit designer is a giant. It’s a shame that there isn’t more attention or care put into the fine art portion of the Hermitage. I’ll leave it at that.
Peterhof was highly recommended by all of the guidebooks and by every tourist we met. The only person who told us to skip it was an ex-pat Russian guy, and we didn’t listen to him. We set off with Robert with a “well we’re here, so we have to see it” attitude, and took the hydrofoil there for what we thought would be a lovely (albeit, overcast) afternoon, strolling through the quiet gardens and estates of Peter the Great and other Russian nobility.
To sum it up, Peterhof and its fountains are a poor man’s Versailles. Both Peter’s Palace and the fountains were largely destroyed by the Germans during World War 2, so everything there is pretty much a replica of what used to be. The fountains were nothing all that special or amazing to see, and Peter’s Palace was over-the-top and showy, and reminded me a bit of Disneyworld. The gilded statues looked like they’ve been painted over one too many times; the coats of paint dulled the details of the statues and made them look even cheaper. It might be that our disappointment with stepping off of the hydrofoil and seeing throngs of tourists colored our perception of the place. Or the fact that we were all wanting to get out of the city and into nature at this point in our trip.
We worked our way around the crowds and took obligatory photos of the fountains and Peter’s Palace. We eventually found a spot by the water, and the three of us sat and looked out at the Gulf of Finland and watched the Laughing Gulls chatter with each other. It was quiet, serene and a little bit of heaven for us in Peterhof.
Turned off by the crowds everywhere, N and I did a lot of decompressing in the old school apartment we had rented, had drinks with our friend Robert at one of many Irish pubs in the city, got my haircut by the roommate of a waitress with cool hair who had served us, went to see an opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, got ripped off by a smooth-talking Georgian man for my souvenir Soviet military pin (it’s gotta happen at least once, right?), and had date night with my boo at a cute little restaurant.
For art buffs, I would recommend the Russian Museum. Their permanent collection includes Russian art which rarely leaves the country (see some examples in our photo album below), and it is fascinating to see how fine art evolved in this country. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is the best Russian Orthodox church we visited in terms of the art and architecture, and it’s got a kickass name.
For photos of our days in St. Pete’s, check out our album.