By ANNA MAE LAMENTILLO
It was way past 10 at night when we arrived in St. Petersburg, a port city on the Baltic Sea that served as the imperial capital of Russia for over two centuries. From the Polkovo Airport, we traversed the Nevsky Prospekt to reach Rubinshteyna, a centrally located hipster neighborhood that serves as a melting pot of restaurants, bars, and cafés. The drive was reminiscent of Venice, but even more beautiful. Christmas decorations elegantly adorned the city built in Italian and French architectural styles and shaped by over a hundred canals and tributaries. It was far from the cold, isolated, and almost grim description of Russia depicted in a number of mainstream films.
Upon reaching Rubinshteyna, we headed to our hotel, Art Room Underwood, more popularly known to locals as Sergei Dovlatov’s House. Close to midnight, the streets were still busy and restaurants were still open. We head to a 24/7 pub called Street Food Market in Zagorodny Avenue, one of the four crossroads forming “five corners.” The beef kebab was authentic and unforgettable that, for several nights, I’d sneak out of our room to get another serving. Friends thought I’d lose weight in Russia for eating boiled potatoes. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, this was not the case. In fact, I looked forward to every meal in St. Petersburg, an eclectic combination of Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijan, ersian, Russian, and European cuisine at a price range that starts at only 250 pesos. In Rubinshteyna Street alone, one can opt for Israeli cuisine at Bekitzer, or a self-cost bar like Commode, or Cuban cuisine at O! Cuba, or an Italian-Mediterranean Fusion at The Sizzle. If you are a fan of jazz like me, then a night cap at 48 Chairs in Rubinshteyna or The Hat in Belinskogo or the Jazz Philharmonic Hall in Zagorodny is in order. Dovlatov may be right—“One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with.”
VIEW FROM ST. ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL
On our first day in St. Petersburg, we opted to visit St. Isaac Cathedral, a 19th-century neoclassical building with Orthodox Russian and Byzantine influences. The basilica, which took 40 years to build, houses the best viewing point of St. Petersburg, its colonnade formed around its gold cupola and giant granite columns. While it takes about 262 steps to reach the top, the skyline of Russia’s cultural center makes up for it. At 63 years old, my mom, Elnora Lamentillo, would do it again.
The interior of the cathedral is also worth paying attention to, from its bronze doors to its iconostasis framed by columns of malachite and lazurite.
Architecture enthusiasts would also revel in the number of Orthodox churches magnificently built along the Nevsky Prospect. Just behind the main avenue is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a showcase of medieval Russian Architecture built in the spirit of romantic nationalism. Just a few meters away, at the juncture where Nevsky intersects the Griboyedov Canal, is the Kazal Cathedral, a church built in 1801 to mirror St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Aside from these churches, one can also visit The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the Smolny Cathedral, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the Prince Vladimir Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Andrew the First Called, the Cathedral of St. Sampson the Hospitable, the Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the Transfiguration Cathedral, and the Trinity Cathedral.
WORLD’S SECOND LARGEST ART MUSEUM
Our next stop was the State Hermitage Museum, the second largest art museum in the world housing over three million works of art and world culture artefacts, including 1,013,653 artworks, 1,125,623 numismatic objects, 784395 archeological artefacts, and 13,982 arms and armory, among others.
The Main Museum Complex in Dvortsovaya Embankment alone is composed of six historical buildings, namely the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage, the Hermitage Theater, the New Hermitage, and the Reserve House of the Winter Palace.
In other words, you’d need at least 34 days to see the entire collection, assuming you spend only one second looking at each piece. And so, even after spending a day and a half in the museum dating back as early as 1764, I have barely touched the surface. But I dare say that one has to step into Hermitage, whether in the Jordan Gallery or the Twenty Column Hall or the Small Italian Skylight Room, to know St. Petersburg. For a moment, maybe time is nothing but an illusion. Maybe, time can be confined in space.
CHRISTMAS IN RUSSIA
Following the Gregorian calendar, Russia celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, rather than on Dec. 25. As part of their tradition, families eat supper on Christmas Eve consisting of 12 dishes, one to honor each of the 12 apostles.
But while Christmas in St. Petersburg was still a few weeks away, the streets were already adorned with decorations and restaurants and bars would play Christmas music, quite reminiscent of the festive celebrations contagious in Filipino culture. I did not expect Russia to remind me of home, but it did.
On Dec. 24, we went back to visit the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian emperors for almost two centuries. Facing the Palace Square and the Neva River, the green and white palace said to contain over 1,700 doors, is a display of baroque and neoclassical architecture also evident at Peterhof Palace, Catherine Palace, and Mikhailovskiy Palace.
Opposite the Winter Place is the 300-year-old Admiralty building, one of the oldest buildings in St. Petersburg. The yard, which once built over 260 warships for the Russian Navy, now connects three of the city’s main streets—Nevsky, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and Voznesenskiy Prospekt. Just further down the road is the the Admiralteyskaya Station, the third deepest metro station in the world with a total depth of 86 meters. There are many ways to describe a subway station, but the metro in St. Petersburg,
particularly the marble interior of the Avtovo station, was simply beautiful.
Whenever I travel, I have a list of non-negotiables, things I’d like to do for certain. In Washington, it was skydiving. In St. Petersburg, it was watching the Mariinsky Ballet.
My family opted to watch The Nutcracker, an 1892 production first performed in Russia, written by one of my favorite composers, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As a child, I grew up listening to “Piano Concerto No. 1,” “Symphony No. 6,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” Hearing the orchestra perform “The Kingdom of Sweets,” “Arabian Dance,” and “Pas de Deux” where it originated was the highlight of the trip. I am admittedly not a ballet enthusiast but watching The Nutcrackerat the Mariinsky was in every sense captivating. In the play, the audience was dreaming with the wide-eyed, child-like Clara, who was both delightful and precise. It was an intricate juxtaposition of art and technique, one that would transport the entire stage into the consciousness of its patrons, creating a seamless imagery of fact and fiction.
FROM NAVAL PRISON TO HIPSTER DISTRICT
The last thing we did before heading to the airport was to visit the New Holland Island, a triangular artificial island created in 1719 but only opened to the public in 2011, 292 years after it was built.
The island, which used to be a naval prison, has come to be St. Petersburg’s newest public space equipped with art, pubs, cafés, playgrounds, and an ice skating rink. Whether you prefer to sit by a bonfire pit and drink mulled wine—or try Ferma Burger, Camorra Isola, Pho’n’Roll Cafe, or San Diego in “The Bottle,”—New Holland would remind you that indeed realities transform over time.
Our trip to Russia has been in every sense delightful. Admittedly, we opted to visit St. Petersburg out of curiosity after the Russian government extended to Philippine passport holders the privilege of free electronic visa. Going to the trip, I had absolutely no expectation. Marcel Proust may be right: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”