St. Petersburg – Part 1: Drunk on beauty

Following is a post written by my first guest blogger (and daughter), Allison Malecha, assistant editor at Grove Atlantic Publishers, a published poet and a great travel companion. Allison is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and the Humanities – with a focus on the languages of French and Czech. Allison has traveled the world extensively, with extended studies or internships in Paris, Prague, Amman, Oxford and Florence. She brings to her writing a very old soul with a very young heart. 

St. Petersburg is a city that has had many names—Saint Petersburg at its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, Petrograd in 1914 after the fall of the tsarist monarchy, Leningrad following Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, returned to its original moniker in 1991 after the fall of communism, and nicknamed “Piter” throughout. My phone, set to Czech, still called it Petrohrad.

However you title it, the city is Russia’s second largest, and it is the northernmost big city in the world, with just under five million inhabitants. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918, the city was the capital of Russia (the governmental seat then moved to Moscow)—and its monumental architecture and wide Parisian boulevards fit that bill. But the fact that the city is basically an assortment of swampy islands bisected by the Neva River, which runs from Lake Ladoga in the northeast to the Gulf of Finland in the west, keeps it from achieving anything like a grid. Partly because of this, and partly because I spent my seven days in the city with a friend who is fluent in Russian acting as my 24-hour guide, I still had trouble navigating the 10-minute walk from my friend’s apartment to Nevsky Prospekt, the famed artery of St. Petersburg, until the very end of my trip.

A map of St. Petersburg showing the highlighted attractions and the many waterways off the Neva River that flows through the city from Ladoga Lake on the east side to the Gulf of Finland on the west side

The first step, though, to seeing St. Petersburg, or any of Russia, is just plain getting there. You need a visa, and to get a visa, you need an invitation, which you can buy for around $30 on this website. It looks fake and feels fake and is fake, but it works. The same site also directs you to the visa application, which you fill out online and then finish processing at a visa issuing office. The total cost for me was around $150, but the price varies depending on time constraints and type of visa.

Once inside the St. Petersburg airport, I wasn’t asked a single question by the customs officer, and with the tap of a button inside her glassy cubicle, I was let loose on the whole beautiful city. I had flown in from Prague, and the colors of St. Petersburg’s buildings looked sober to me in comparison: yellows, beiges, and peaches instead of greens, pinks, blues. But I soon learned that these more stately exteriors hid many vibrant treasures: from the Hermitage’s Golden Drawing Room to the jewel-encrusted eggs cushioned in gleaming display cases at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

My first full day was Thursday, May 1st, and since the Hermitage Museum offers free entry to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month, my friend and I stood for an hour and a half in the cold to avoid paying for tickets. Once inside, every goosebump became well worth it. My mom has mentioned Versailles here, but the rooms of the Hermitage, Russia’s most famous art museum and the former residence of the Russian monarchs, made the Hall of Mirrors look chintzy in comparison. Truth be told, I couldn’t describe a single painting or sculpture I saw, but I can remember feeling awe in a room done entirely in gold leaf, putting my hand around a crystal doorknob the color of a ruby and the size of a tennis ball, and craning my neck in each room to gaze at the wooden ceilings, intricately carved and painted pale blue and white, or cream and gold, or in splashes of color formed into murals.

Me in front of the Hermitage

Me in front of the Hermitage

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ceiling at the Hermitage

Highly ornate ceiling at the Hermitage

The large-scale extravagance of the Hermitage is mirrored in miniature at the Fabergé Museum, just off Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka Canal. One of St. Petersburg’s newest treasures, the museum has only been open to the general public since April and still must be experienced through a Russian-language tour. But it is worth finding an interpreter, or screwing comprehension altogether, to ogle the imperial eye candy on display. The French and German-trained jeweler Carl Fabergé began making his priceless ostrich-egg-sized artifcats—often fashioned from mother of pearl and spackled with gems—for Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s and continued it as an Easter tradition for his successor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The yolks of these eggs are the real treat—pint-sized portraits or gem-covered toys that reveal themselves through impressive feats of mechanization. The museum’s collection doesn’t end with the eggs, though; Fabergé designed everything from cigarette cases to dinner plates to icons, a staple of traditional Russian households. And it’s all housed in the elegantly restored Shuvalov Palace, which once saw some of the finest fêtes in St. Petersburg come through its ballrooms.

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge' Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge’ Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

As in any big city, St. Petersburg’s art doesn’t end indoors. For each of the five million living, breathing inhabitants, there seems to be a stony-faced statue. St. Petersburg boasts more statues than any city I’ve ever seen: scientists and tsars, politicians and literary greats, and a Lenin and Pushkin for every neighborhood. Carved into the walls of subway stations and building facades, guarding the many bridges, and standing proudly in every square and half-square of the city. Some of my favorites were the self-effacing Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s murderous protagonist in Crime & Punishment) on Stolyarny, and the immense Lenin in front of Finland Station, one hand clutching at his armpit, the other thrust outward at an invisible crowd. The day we visited, we were the revolutionary’s only audience, along with a cluster of snowflakes the clouds had suddenly let loose from the sky. The most renowned statue, though, is the Bronze Horseman, along the bank of the Neva and not far from the Hermitage. Catherine the Great’s 1782 tribute to her idol Peter, the statue is mounted atop the “Thunder Stone,” which the Russians claim to be the largest stone ever moved by man at 1,500 tons.

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Unlike in most European cities, almost all of these statues are secular in nature. But as anyone who has read Russian literature—and if you haven’t, Crime & Punishment is an excellent place to start—knows, Russian Orthodoxy is integral to the nation’s culture, and remained so even through 60 years of communist state-imposed atheism. The orthodox church’s onion domes strongly flavor the skyline: from the coal-colored domes of Vladimirskiya, which Dostoevsky frequented while writing the Brothers Karamazov, to the Candy Land-esque spires of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The name of the latter hints at its origin story: it was built at the end of the 19th century by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his father, on the spot where he was fatally wounded by a bomb-throwing anarchist. I could have walked around the building for hours, analyzing its deep rainbow shades and flourishes of gold. But after waiting in line for a ticket, I walked inside the cathedral. Though every wall is covered floor-to-atrium in mosaics, I felt less that awe-inspired. Not because I’m unreligious, though that’s true, but because my head immediately became filled with the snaps and clacks of cameras capturing every tiled face and lit candle. I couldn’t concentrate, and after one tour, I pushed my way back outside.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

Earlier that same day I had resented Fabergé’s no-photography policy—compounded by the fact that its museum store seemed indefinitely closed for business—but my experience at the Church on Spilled Blood (for short) made me think they might have had the right idea. Sometimes, the beauty of a city, especially a city as overflowing in beautiful things as St. Petersburg, is better sipped in silence.

 

How to see Slovenia in a day!

A new year brings new destinations to share. Today it’s back to Europe to share one of those proverbial hidden gems – Slovenia. A country that held no spot on my bucket list, let alone being on my radar of places I had ever heard much about. After a visit to this quaint self-contained region, it is on my ‘must revisit’ list.

I owe this find to my daughter. While she was studying abroad in Prague she came across an article in a travel magazine talking about the capital of Slovenia – Ljubljana. We had been looking for one more destination to add to our itinerary traveling back to the US after her stint in Prague. It was adventurous to pick such an unknown destination, but we were intrigued by this tongue twister city and an opportunity to travel to some place new and different.

After only a few hours of walking the streets of Ljubljana we were ready to send for our belongings and make Slovenia our new home. That may have been a bit drastic, but our stay was so magical, we delayed our departure by an extra day so we could take in as much as this little country had to offer. And little it is – about 2/3rd’s the size of Rhode Island. From atop Ljubljana Castle, that sits on a high point in the center of Old Town Ljubljana, you can see the four countries that border Slovenia – Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria.

Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Because our time was so limited in Slovenia and because we knew absolutely nothing about the area, we chose to use the services of a tour company.

The tour company: Exeter International – set up the perfect itinerary and had awesome communication. The tour guide: Marijan Kristovic – born and raised in the area, and went well beyond his ‘tour guide’ list of duties. We started our tour walking the streets of Ljubljana, but I will share those highlights in next week’s post. In this post I will share “How to see Slovenia in a day!”

Slovenia has only been a country since 1991, when it seceded from Yugoslavia. The Slovenian people are a proud people. They work hard at living a self-sustaining existence. Most grow their own food and make their own wine. They have one of the highest percentages of middle-class citizens in the world, with very few people who live in wealth or poverty. This is all very commendable for a country who has seen a lot of change over the years – the guide’s Grandmother has had 4 different passports in her 80+ years of life, but she has never moved.

Our first stop was at the Postojna Caves. Discovered by a farmer back in the 1800’s, there are at present three miles of the 18 miles of dark, dank, wet caves open to the public. The caves are very cool at a constant 8 degrees celsius in their natural state. There is a concerted effort to keep the influx of humans and lights to a minimum as extra heat incites the growth of harmful algae. Limestone stalactites and stalagmites, growing 1 mm every 10-30 years, line every inch of the cave. Some as thin as paper, some several stories high. It felt good to return to the warmth of the outside the caves.

Stalactites lighted from behind, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

Stalactites lighted from behind, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

The whiter the stalactite the purer the limestone, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

The whiter the stalactite the purer the limestone, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

Then is was onto one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen – Lake Bled. It is places like this that I think ancient fairy tales were written about. A quiet little lake town, on the opposite end of the country, about an hour away. Sitting high above Lake Bled, perched on a cliff, is another medieval castle. But in the middle of the lake is an island, called The Island, because it is the only island in Slovenia.

medieval castle, sitting high above Lake Bled, Slovenia

The medieval Bled Castle, sitting high above Lake Bled, Slovenia

The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

On The Island sits a medieval church. To get to the island you hire the services of the only boat company allowed to service the lake. The boating license has been in the same family for generations and the government has deemed that it stay in the family indefinitely. The hand-made wooden boats, piloted by a handsome young Slovenian, take you to the base of the 99-step stairway leading up to the church. Legend has it, if the groom can carry his bride up the whole 99-steps he is worthy of marrying her.

The medieval cathedral on The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

The medieval cathedral on The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

Handmade wooden boat waiting to courier passengers to The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

Handmade wooden boat waiting to courier passengers to The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

99 stone steps the groom has to carry his bride to prove he is worthy of marrying her, The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

The 99 stone steps a groom has to carry his bride up to prove he is worthy of marrying her, The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

In the church is a magic wishing bell, a gift from the sitting Pope during the era of the Roman Empire, to the sitting Slovenian bishop of the time. The first bell sent sank in a bad storm enroute to the cathedral, but the second bell sent survived and so was thought to be a lucky bell. If you are strong enough to get the bell to ring, you are granted a wish. It took me three good yanks, but I did succeed in making that bell ring!

The stories of Slovenia are plentiful. The sites of Slovenia are breathtaking. The people of Slovenia are private and passionate and want to keep this country a little known gem. But they are also proud purveyors of friendly service and a desire to share with others the beauty and magic of this quaint little country.

To be continued…Next week: Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Prague (et al) – part 2: castles to rival the imagination

The castles in the Czech Republic may not have the notoriety of castles in the UK or Germany or France, but they are a must add to your travel itinerary.

Thee most well-known is the Prague Castle. Ironically the actual castle is a long, low somewhat staid building. The St. Vitus Cathedral that sits within the castle grounds is what gives the castle its iconic skyline – especially when it is lit up at night.

Prague Castle sitting above the Vltava River

Prague Castle sitting above the Vltava River

Prague Castle lit up at night

Prague Castle lit up at night

Construction on Prague Castle began around 880. This UNESCO Heritage site is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as being the largest ancient castle complex in the world – 70,000 square meters.

St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest gothic church in the Czech Republic. With detail and ornate accents to rival some of the greatest cathedrals in Europe. Within the castle are some unique chapels that have been created by royal figures throughout the years.

St. Vitus Cathedral, sits within the property of the Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral, sits within the property of the Prague Castle

Gold mosaic inlays on the St. Vitus Cathedral

Gold mosaic inlays on the St. Vitus Cathedral

St. John of Nepomuk Chapel in St. Vitus Cathedral

This highly ornate chapel supposedly contains the remains St. John of Nepomuk, in St. Vitus Cathedral

Chapel in St. Vitus Chapel built by King Rudolf II - a proponent of Mannerist style showing incomplete pillars and a less ornate look

Chapel in St. Vitus Chapel built by King Rudolf II – a proponent of Mannerist style showing incomplete pillars and a less ornate look

One of my favorite spots in all my travels is the castle that sits in the idyllic setting of Pruhonicky Park, an hour subway and train ride outside of Prague. The castle itself dates back to the 1270’s, but the grounds were turned into a fairy tale land that stimulates the senses, back in the 1800’s. I could not stop taking pictures so I will let my pictures replace my words for the rest of this post.

Chateau at Pruhonicky Park

Chateau at Pruhonicky Park

My son, Mike, taking in the smells of the fragrant flowers that line the pathways

My son, Mike, taking in the smells of the fragrant vibrant colored flowers that line the pathways

Is it a picture or a painting? A picturesque stream running through Pruhonicky Park

Is it a picture or a painting? An idyllic setting for a romantic picnic along this stream running through Pruhonicky Park

I kept waiting for fairies to flitter out from the this fairy tale setting

I kept waiting for fairies to flutter out from  under the lush green canopies of the this fairy tale setting

More castles: Prague being a fairly small country, allows you to take short day trips to see many of the countries highlights including a couple of more castles.

State Cesky Krumlov Castle, located approx. 100 miles south of Prague on the Vltava River, is comprised of some 40 buildings

State Cesky Krumlov Castle, built in the 1200’s, is located approx. 100 miles south of Prague on the Vltava River, is comprised of some 40 buildings

Dobris Castle, this colorfully ornate newer 18th century castle is located approx. 40 miles southwest of Prague

Dobris Castle, this colorfully ornate newer 18th century castle is located approx. 40 miles southwest of Prague

Must dos and sees: Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the highlights of Prague and the Czech Republic. Try at least one of their home brews to accompany a plate of ghoulish and knedly. Bring a good camera to capture the ornate colorful architecture of the city and the castles that abound through the countryside. Most importantly, relax into the laid back attitude that surrounds you.

 

Prague – Part 1: highlights of an architectural marvel

Prague, Czech Republic: an iconic view of Prague from the Prague Castle

Prague, Czech Republic: an iconic view of Prague from the Prague Castle

Prague architecture

Prague architecture

National Opera House, Prague

National Opera House, Prague                                             The Czechs do love their theater!

Colorful Prague buildings

Colorful Prague buildings

For years I have heard Prague is one of the most beautiful cities worldwide – known for its ornate and colorful architecture. As  I came over the hill from the airport, it took only moments realize this was not an empty sales-pitch.

I have decided to break Prague’s highlights into two posts – so check next weeks post for part 2.  There is just too much to share about this marvelous city and surrounding area.

Following are highlights that stood out for me during my five-day stay in Prague:

  • Charles Bridge:  Walking bridge connecting Old Town to the Prague Castle. Construction began in 1357, by King Charles IV. Most notable statue – St. John of Nepomuk: in 1383, Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, threw St. John into the river. Apparently the priest would not divulge to the King what the Queen had shared in the confessional. There were also rumors of a ‘deeper’ relationship between St. John and the Queen.
Charles Bridge, Prague

Charles Bridge, Prague

Statue of St. John of Nepomuk, Charles Bridge, Prague

Statue of St. John of Nepomuk, Charles Bridge, Prague

  • Old Town: You are embedded into daily life along with locals – you eat where they eat, you drink where they drink, you shop where they shop. The opportunity to live in the beauty of the city is not lost on its people, but rather cherished as much as it is by the multitudes of tourists.
  • Unfortunately the US has a tainted history connected to Prague. The US bombed the Old Town City Center in 1945, mistaking it for its actual target of Dresden, Germany – some 120 km away. It was a ‘blind attack’ meaning they relied on radar, which failed, and they hit Prague instead of Dresden – killing hundreds and decimating dozens of historical buildings.
  • The ground level of the buildings in the background of the second picture actually sit a full floor above the original street level that existed during the 13th century when Old Town was in its prime.
City Center in Old Town, Prague

City Center in Old Town, Prague. The clock tower is the only building to have survived the US bombing.

'New Construction' in Old Town, Prague

‘New Construction’ in Old Town, Prague

  • Country Cottage: King Ferdinand built this royal palace in 1500 showing Italian Renaissance architecture, but eventually decided it was not large enough to house his family of 12, so it was never finished. The palace sits near the Prague Castle at the end of the Royal Gardens. There is a fountain in the garden that sounds like it is singing if you put your ear very close to the running water.
King Ferdinand's unfinished country cottage

King Ferdinand’s unfinished Summer Palace

  • John Lennon Peace Wall: Turn the corner from baroque architecture that sits below Prague Castle, in Mala Strana, and there, tucked off a side street, is an ode to John Lennon. Lennon’s strong voice of peace was a hit in the Communist Prague. There was huge outpouring of grief when Lennon died, and people wrote their complaints and grievances on the wall. Amazing it survived in the Communist regime.
Ode to John Lennon

Ode to John Lennon

  • The Pub: Czech’s also love their beer! There is a bar called ‘The Pub’ where each table has four beer taps. There is a large screen that shows the stats for an ongoing contest for beer consumption between other tables, other Pub bars across the city,  across the country and across Europe.
The Pub in Prague, where we can pour our own beer from our own table taps

The Pub in Prague, where we can pour our own beer from our own table taps

What to do: Bring good walking shoes! The city has so much to see and do. The above ground tram system and subway system are well laid out. But the city is very walkable and allows you to see all the intricate detailing of all the beautiful buildings along winding cobblestone streets taking you to one hidden treasure after another. Take the tram up the hillside near the Castle and across the river – and walk back down the path. Rent a paddle boat and spend a lazy hour floating along the Vltava River and see Prague from a different vantage point. Next week I’ll give you a tour of some of the Czech Republic castles.