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Postcards from St. Petersburg, Russia

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 31 - 2009

St. Petersburg was founded 306 years ago when Peter the Great laid the cornerstone of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built as a seaport, Peter regarded it as a ‘window on Europe’ and the city quickly flourished as a cultural center. Peter modeled the city after Amsterdam, but its Baroque golden palaces and enormous cathedrals are more along the lines of extravagant Italian architecture. St. Petersburg was actually the capital of Russia between 1710 and 1918. However, when the Bolsheviks came to power Moscow became the capital once more.

Former Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin is from St. Petersburg and has been the catalyst in restoring the city to its former glory after decades of Soviet-era decline. With its freshly painted facades, there has never been a better time to visit the city.

The city sits on more than 40 islands in the Neva estuary, near the Baltic Sea. Because of its sixty-six canals and rivers, St. Petersburg is sometimes called the “Venice of the North.” The network of canals and rivers reflect a constantly changing sky and gives the city a different look and feel throughout the day. Nevsky Prospekt, inspired by the Champs-Elysées, is the central artery in the city for cars and other vehicles. However, it is touring by boat that offers the best views of the city. You will see numerous palaces and mansions along the canals and rivers highlights like the Stroganov Palace, the Summer Garden, and the mysterious Michael’s Castle, where the Russian Emperor Paul I was murdered.

One of the most famous sites in the city is the hauntingly named Church of the Spilt Blood, a colorful ornate onion-domed extravaganza. The church was commissioned by Alexander III to memorialize the tragic death of his father, Alexander II, who was killed on the site in 1881 by a terrorist’s bomb. After decades of neglect, this impressive building has been restored to some of its Orthodox glory. Another restored church is St. Issac’s Cathedral, with its massive granite edifice and gilded dome it dominates the skyline. Another church that is hard to miss along the city’s skyline is the St Peter and Paul Cathedral. Set in the heart of the Peter and Paul Fortress, this is where Peter the Great and his Romanov descendents are buried.

Also along the Neva River is the Cruiser Aurora, launched in 1903. The Aurora fought in the 1904-05 Russian-Japanese War and World War II, but is best known for her role in the Bolshevik Revolution. At 9:40 p.m. on October 25, 1917, the Aurora fired the shot that signaled the invasion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace was the tsars’ official residence and has been the setting for more than its share of tragedy. It is now one of the five buildings that house the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art museums. No visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the Hermitage. In this writer’s opinion, the Hermitage is better than touring the Louvre. No other museum in the world lets you come so close to some of the world’s greatest art masterpieces.

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