We came out of the plane into what seemed like an endless number of corridors that led into St. Petersburg's brand new modern and spacious airport at Pulkovo.
Our flight arrived at night and a friend of my travel mate's came to pick us up -- two tired and weary women who were grateful for the ride through a city that is so gorgeous at night that words can barely do it justice. Classical bridges and architecture are lit up and reflect on any number of the many waterways that run through the city.
On our first full day, we walked around, checking out a mere portion of the grand buildings and historically significant sites in this city that served as the capital of imperial Russia from 1732 to 1918. These included one of Catherine the Great's palaces, the Kazan Cathedral which was undergoing cleaning to bring out the true beauty and brilliance that has been obscured by dirt and dinginess, the Pushkin monument, and the Church on Spilt Blood (aka The Church of the Savior on Blood) -- a magnificent church erected at the site of Czar Alexander II's assassination by bombing in 1881.
For brunch, we met up with an American expatriate woman who came to St. Petersburg in 2004 to research ballet so she could become a professional writer and critic on the topic. What started out as a plan to stay a few months turned into permanent residence for the last 11 years after she fell in love with this crown jewel of Russia.
On another day, we visited the Russian Art Museum and took in the evocative work of 19th century painters and sculptors who portrayed a range of Russian subjects from candid images of common people and the Russian landscape to the czars and depictions of Orthodox Christianity.
We also saw the building in which Rasputin was murdered, St. Isaac's Cathedral -- the third largest in the world, the famous monument of Peter the Great on horseback, the square where desperate peasants came begging for bread and were massacred by Czar Nicholas II's forces in 1906, and the Astoria Hotel where Hitler planned a celebration of the expected taking of Leningrad (the Soviet era name for St. Petersburg) and had even sent out the invitations. Although Leningrad was under siege for almost 900 days, resulting in the deaths of millions of residents from starvation and illness, it never fell to the Nazis.
Later that evening, we met up with a former colleague of my travel mate's at a restaurant that served Georgian and Armenian cuisine. My favorite dish of the evening was something called dolma, which contained seasoned ground meat and rice wrapped in leaves and marinated in vinegar.
After dinner, we stopped to gaze in awe at the Neva river, surrounded by illuminated bridges, with the spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress visible in the northeast and the Hermitage in the south, as well as Catherine's Palace and St. Isaac's Cathedral.
I can now understand why many experienced world travelers name St. Petersburg as their favorite city in the world. It's beauty, history and character make it hard not fall in love.
Note: For those interested in traveling to Russia, contact me at natyliesb [at] gmail.com and I can put you in touch with people who will be facilitating trips in the Summer of 2016.
Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig's Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Sun Monthly, Dissident Voice, (more...)