After an acceptable but not exceptional buffet dinner it was time to go exploring and we planned to make our way into the city. The hotel was some way from the centre on the very western shore of Vasilievsky Island so this adventure required transport and we started with a mini-bus ride to the Metro station Primorskaya where we purchased tokens for the ride and began a steep descent from street level to the trains.
Because it needs to run below huge rivers, the Saint-Petersburg Metro is the deepest in the World and the Primorskaya platform is seventy-one metres below ground with an escalator ride of one hundred and ten metres which takes several minutes to get to the bottom (the deepest station on the London Underground by-the-way is Angel on the Northern Line at sixty metres and on the New York Subway it is 191st Street on the Seventh Avenue Line at a mere fifty-five metres). At the platform a smart train in Prussian blue livery promptly arrived, the doors opened with a hydraulic hiss and we stepped on board to be transported quickly and efficiently on a ride of only two stops to the city where we left the train at Gostiny Dvor at took a creaking escalator ride to Nevsky Prospekt.
Planned by Peter the Great as the beginning of the road to Moscow, Nevsky Prospekt is the main street in the city of Saint-Petersburg which runs from the Admiralty building on the River Neva to the Moscow Railway Station. We came out onto the street adjacent to a huge mall where shopping aisles are measured in kilometres rather than metres! The Prospekt is a spacious wide boulevard and it was busy with people, men in suits leaving work and going home, young women with impossibly high heeled shoes, young men on street corners, families just out for a walk, street musicians, drinkers and beggars looking for hand-outs.
Not as grand as the architecture in Riga (in my opinion) but still very impressive it is lined with Art Nouveau buildings, Palaces and Churches of many different denominations which once prompted the French writer Alexander Dumas to call it ‘the street of religious tolerance’. Life on the Prospekt was described by Nikolai Gogol in his story ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ and Dostoevsky often used it as a setting within his works such as ‘Crime and Punishment’.
We reached as far as a crossroads where the street crossed the Griboedov Canal by the huge neoclassical Russian Orthodox Kazan Cathedral and the Art Nouveau Bookhouse (Dom Knigi) which was once the Russian headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and our eyes were immediately drawn to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its multi-coloured onion dome chapels and we were inevitably diverted towards it.
The Church is prominently situated alongside the canal and it was here on March 13th 1881 as Tsar Alexander’s carriage passed along the embankment a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. When it would surely have been more sensible to get away to a safe place as quickly as possible, the Tsar, shaken but unhurt, rather unwisely got out of the carriage and started to remonstrate with the would be assassin. A second conspirator, Ignaty Grinevitsky, couldn’t believe his luck and took the chance to throw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the Tsar.
There is a long tradition in Russia of erecting religious buildings in honour of historic events and The Church in the Name of the Resurrection of Christ on the Site of the Mortal Wounding of His Honoured Majesty Alexander II stands on the exact spot where the Tsar was fatally injured.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 the church was badly damaged when it was ransacked and looted. After that the Soviet government closed it in the early 1930s and in the Second World War during the siege of the city, at that time temporarily renamed Leningrad, by Nazi German military forces the church was used as a morgue for those who died in combat and from starvation and illness. The church suffered significant damage. After the war, it suffered the indignity of being used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the alternative name of ‘Saviour on Potatoes’. Restoration began in the 1970s and it was reopened in August 1997 but has never been reconsecrated and does not function as a full-time place of worship but is rather a Museum of Mosaics.
It was getting late now so we walked through Mikhaylovskiy Park just before it closed and then passing the sherbet lemon coloured Russian Museum we returned to the Metro and took the short ride back to Primorskaya and to the hotel. Before we went back we stopped at an Irish Bar, which wouldn’t normally be our first choice but there was a shortage of bars and restaurants in this part of the city and after one drink each and a bill of 450 roubels (£9) it was virtually certain that we wouldn’t be going there again!
Although it was late it was still quite light and faint daylight was leaking in across the western horizon and this should not have been surprising because at a latitude of 60° north Saint-Petersburg is more or less as close to the Arctic Circle as the Shetland Isles in the United Kingdom and Anchorage in Alaska in the United States. In fact we were only a week away from the beginning of the White Nights Festival which is an annual international arts festival during the season of the midnight sun that consists of a series of classical ballet, opera and music events and includes performances by Russian dancers, singers, musicians and actors, as well as famous international guest stars.
It had been a long day but a good one, we liked Russia and as we returned to the hotel looking forward to a tour of the City the next morning.