February 18, 2016

Postcards from St Petersburg

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Russia has always been somewhere that I viewed from afar, imagining snowy train rides on the orient express, elegant women draped in fur and teetering in heels on sheet ice, operas and of course the ballet. It was somewhere I always wanted to visit but I thought it would be a trip I would do sometime in the future when we could afford the hotels, the theatre and more importantly the vodka.

Thanks to British Airways holiday finder this was all made possible and a dream became a reality much sooner than I could ever have imagined.

If you haven’t heard of BA holiday finder you are in for a treat. Holidays include flights and a hotel (and often breakfast too) and the prices are extremely reasonable. I don’t normally like discussing costs as I don’t feel that it is particularly polite but I thought  this had to be shared as it is the best kept secret of city breaks out there and before you know it you too will be finding your next long weekend break at prices you couldn’t have imagined.

For our four night stay in the 5* Hotel Rocco Forte Astoria and return flights we paid £330. We realised how lucky we had been in finding this deal, as soon as we stepped through the doors of the hotel, glistening chandeliers everywhere, soft velvet curtains draped from floor to ceiling and once we had been shown up to our room with a walk-in wardrobe and its very own ‘Pillow Menu’ (should you require soft rye to rest your head rather than duck down) we knew we had been extremely lucky – maybe Pillow menus are a thing but I have never been lucky enough to cast my eyes down one before!

Our luck wasn’t about to run out either when we set eyes on the menus of the three restaurants within the hotel (notoriously hotel restaurants are pretty much to be avoided at all costs due to being marked up and expensive) we had a meal for two at the Italian, in my defence I did have caviar on my pasta, we were tired and just wanted something easy before we delved too deeply into the local cuisine.

My pasta dish was a £4.50 – in London you pay that much for an all singing all dancing latte so we felt very happy that the troubles in the Russian currency were making this trip cheaper than we could have hoped yet still as luxurious as we have always dreamed of. The friendly prices of the food followed with no mains being over £7 and cocktails all £5.50.

Right, enough of all that (hopefully it will make you think already this might be you next destination) on to photos!

After a long and peaceful sleep, helped by the vodka and caviar loaded carb meal we devoured, we wrapped up to brace the -3C and went in search of The Hermitage.

The first thing that strikes you about St Petersburg, more than any other city I have visited, is the size of each building; the adornments around every window (often in gold) and the vibrant colours that each building has been painted. The Hermitage bright green-blue is impossible to miss on the river bank. It is situated in the middle of a huge square and houses all of St Petersburg's prize paintings and sculptures.

The Palace rooms are breath-taking, the amount of gold you suddenly find your self surrounded by is completely breath-taking, not only do you feel slightly blinded compared with the cold overcast skies outside, the opulence you are immersed in is mesmerising.

Once you have had your fill (after a few hours you will be in need of coffee and some sustenance) head down to Eliseeves Emporium on St Petersburg's main street Nevesky Prospect. I wouldn't have known about this at all of it wasn't for a great family friend who visited in the autumn who said it is a must for any foodie. A mix of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason you have an eclectic mix of jars stuffed with sweets, fresh bread, every kind of fruit and nut coated in chocolate, cabinets full of caviar and vodka all encased in a gold adorned food hall.

After you have dipped a pillowy soft brioche into a thick rich cup of hot chocolate wind your back to the centre via the Church of the Saviour on Blood.

This place is breath-taking from the outside with colourful domes on each spire, interspersed with smaller golden domes. Icons coat the outside and blue and gold mosaics cover the inside.

Again when you walk into this famous church you are just blow away by the sheer opulence of it all, the colours, the stories and gold shimmering down on you is again mesmerising and its a place you could wander for hours working out each depiction, each saint and trying to count the mind boggling number of tiny tiles that make up each face and flower, the church took 12 years to complete, record time I think having been inside and seen the size of the mosaics.

After a successful day sightseeing, and a pretty tiring one (its amazing how much energy you use while trying to keep warm - even in the warmest snow boots) we ventured back to our little haven, and had supper in the bar. Delicious, didn't break the bank and the perfect way to round off day 1.

Vodka sours as a nightcap, optional but recommended!

The next day started slowly (the sun only rises just before 9am in the winter months- the perfect excuse for a little lie in). Once up and breakfasted,  French toast for him and traditional Syriki pancakes for me...


...we marched across the frozen river, really looking like a scene out of frozen in search of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Blue Door of the Great Mosque.  

Walking over the bridges was somewhat challenging, we almost got blown off and it was the only time that we really felt too cold. Once we had crossed the first bridge, having stopped to take a few photos,  we found a tiny little van serving hot chocolate a saviour in the biting cold. We guzzled down the soothing warm liquid and walked on to the Fortress you can see in the distance above, the gold spire of the cathedral poking through the clouds, leading the way.

The spires on several of the churches around the city are eye wateringly thin like golden needles dotted around the skyline. This façade is particularly pretty and perfectly symmetrical too - very satisfying to look at.. and photograph!

The inside is a glowing green, a stark contrast to the lush ultramarine blue of the Church of the Spilled Blood yesterday but the alter is still as opulent and golden as the palace rooms of The Hermitage.

The chandeliers twinkle in the soft light, coated in delicate crystals.

We walked on from the fortress across the road to the Mosque. Much closer than the views or maps would have you believe. The exterior is a rather dull grey (not much to write home about) but the blue door on the front is stunning. The detail is beautiful and delicate. One of the most beautiful doorways I have ever seen.

We walked back to our hotel via the emporium once more for a taste of that delicious brioche before getting ready for some afternoon tea before a night at the Opera, Russian style.

Afternoon tea was delicious consisting of pots of light jasmine tea, Russian Bilni pancakes served with jams or syrups, delicate cakes and biscuits. This afternoon tea was a buffet style with everything laid out on platters or in large bon bon jars for you to come and go as you please or as your hunger desired!

We got a taxi from the hotel, I didn't fancy teetering in the ice and cold up to the Marinsky Theatre and we handed in coats, ooogled at the diamond and fur adorned women. Picked up a set of opera glasses and let the show get under way...

The opera was over 3 hours long but the glittering costumes and elaborate staging kept us engaged the whole way through. A once in a lifetime experience to see the Opera in Russia, a really magical night. (You can book tickets here....)

The next day we had spied a pretty impresvie church just down the road from the Marinsky so in snow boots, we made the trek back down towards the theatre, not nearly as twinkly as in the evening, and found the Church of St Nicholas.

We couldn't go inside as service had just started so we headed back up to our new local for a traditional Russian lunch.

We kicked off with traditional cabbage soup served in rye bread. This idea of bread as a bowl is something I have been thinking about recreating for a brunch idea, so watch this space!)

We had smoked rabbit and duck for mains as recommended by our waitress.

Decedant desserts, a praline chocolate number for me and salted caramel for him.

We finished off our lunch with a little vodka tasting with fascinating flavours;

salted cucumber (this was not nice - everything you wouldn't want)
Horseradish (not as bad as the first but really strong flavouring)
Wild yellow berry (this was the winner of the pack)
Wild red berry ( a close runner up)
Followed by 2 plainer ones (I have since forgotten their flavours), especially as they were last in the queue  too!

After vodka tasting with thoughts little blurred and the weather pretty dull we hopped on a hop-on-hop-off bus to take in some culture in the warm and see a few parts of the city that were a little far to walk to. Really interesting and a great way to see the city for an hour to avoid the cold. I normally avoid these like the plague but out of season and in the Russian winter it turned out to be a great idea.

With that over it was early to bed before jetting home the next day, but not before once last lazy relax in the bar (hot chocolates all round)

Our city break was one of the best I have ever been on. Everything in the city is easy walking distance, nothing is too expensive, the people were friendly, the palaces and churches unforgettable and the atmosphere elegant and friendly.

Febraury, if you can brave the cold is a perfect time to visit. There will be snow on the ground, the river frozen and  no queues anywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful to hear about how beautiful St Petersburg is, especially with all that delicious food and drink too. Lucky you.


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