From Russia, with love.

Another country, means another cruise, another show, and a front row seat.  This time, Russian dancing!
In 2009 Russia introduced a pilot program intended to increase tourism in the country.  Under the program individuals entering Russia through certain St. Petersburg ports are able to remain in the country for 72 hours VISA free.  I fully support the pilot project as it allowed me the chance to spend 3 amazing days in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, and most importantly, the excuse to don my fur toque!
It is trips like these that make me wish I would have paid more attention in history class. I imagined St. Petersburg as a city home to streets lined with ex-soviet buildings; grey, cold, and imposing, locals in warm fur toques, bleak cold weather, and copious amounts of vodka. I was wrong on the buildings and weather.

The city itself has been described as an "outdoor-air museum," a description that is dead on. Every few blocks you run smack into a museum, church, or historic site, which is no surprise given the series of Tsars, invasions, and revolutions the city has survived. To keep fueled, I binged on fresh borsch and mouth watering "Russian pancakes," (really just crepes).

While in St. Petersburg, a visit to the infamous Hermitage is a must. It is impossible to decide what is more impressive; the incredible art collection including numerous da Vinci, Michael Angelo, and Rembrandt pieces. Or the stunning buildings that house the collection, including the Winter Palace, once the main resident of the Russian tsars. Founded in 1764 the museum owes its existence to Catherine the Great and her strong support for the arts.
At one point I noticed this group of men who could not have been more conspicuously taking photos of my friends and I. My reaction was to flash them a peace sign, (admittedly meant as an insult). Much to my surprise, they loved it, and proceeded to ask for individual photos with every female sporting a blonde head of hair. I made 20 euros. Only kidding!
The Church of the Saviour of Spilled Blood is a stunning but inactive church, built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  A group of revolutionaries threw a bomb into his carriage. The leader was hit by a second bomb, and is said to have bled to death from his injuries at this exact spot, hence the name.  This was not the first attempt on his life, as attackers had previously derailed a train and bombed the Winter Palace. Alexander II is most famously remembered throughout Russia for his 1861 efforts to free Russian serfs, or peasants, from their masters. 

While the church is spectacular to admire from the outside and said to resemble St. Basil in Moscow, the inside definitely takes the prize. It is hard to tell from the photos but the entire inside of the church is covered in intricate and stunning mosaic tiles.  The sheer size of the project blows my mind.
Lastly, a visit to St. Catherine's Palace, a stunning and giant building and garden 25km outside of the city.
Every story we heard about a "Great" leader was shadowed by the widespread oppression and poverty throughout the country.  I actually could not handle the palace, and its elaborate displays of wealth.  No one needs 400 rooms, especially not ones dripping in gold. My attitude of disgust confused my travel mates and they had me pose for a photo.
Above is my attempt to sneak a photo while in a replica of the legendary Amber Room. The original room was 'presented' to Peter the Great in the 18th century, only to completely vanish during WWII Nazi air raids. 

There are several theories of what happened to the millions of pieces of Amber, gold, and precious stones carefully crafting the 'piece of art.'  Some believe the room was in the process of being transfered in crates only to be burnt down by an air raid, others that the the Nazis used a torpedoed stream to sink the entire room to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, or that the Red Army troops dismantled the room and took Amber pieces as souvenirs. Most recently, a historian has claimed the treasure is in a Nazi bunker 40 ft under the soil of Koenigsberg. As interesting as the theories are, while standing in the room I found myself consumed with the thought, "who on earth thinks to themselves 'I've got an idea, let's build a room with chunks of Amber.'"
For me, the most beautiful part of the palace was the gardens.  

The most interesting, a hallway with walls plastered with restoration pictures. The hall included images of blown out ceilings, buildings reduced to their brick frames, and snow-covered ballrooms. Looking at those photos, you begin to realize just how destroyed the city was left after WWII and the Leningrad Blockade. Bombs ravished St. Petersburg, leaving it completely in ruins. Up until this point, I was ignorant to the fact that nothing in the city was actually an original.  While the grandeur displays of Tsar wealth did not sit well with me, I really do admire the work that was put into recreating the City and the intense preservation of the country's history.
On a lighter note, St. Petersburg by night, in a limo = good times!

This post barely skims the information our brains were packed with during our three short days in Russia. While St. Petersburg is considered the most 'European' city in the country, the history embedded on every street corner is still amazing, and I wish I could have stayed longer.

Lesson learned: You do not actually want to be forced to stay longer. Being advised by a customs official that you may not be able to re-enter the EU, and threaten to strand you VISA less in Russia is terrifying. *Shudder.* Note to self, always travel with Swedish VISA documents.

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