terrorism attacks, rich Russian culture and history, monstrosities and unique architecture.
Tourism and hospitality management students and media students of Karelia University of Applied Sciences in Joensuu, Finland visited the enormous and stunning city of Saint Petersburg as part of their studies. The trip was marked by the rather mixed emotions of excitement, fear and enjoyment. Let’s get the story from the beginning though and clear things out.
The journey from Joensuu to Saint Petersburg took almost half a day. The time in the spacious and comfortable enough bus passed fast when we were in Finnish territory. That makes sense as, while still in Finland, the mobile phone had a great signal and the 4G worked perfectly. That alone keeps a student busy for hours if necessary. Things changed when we shifted to Russian land. The serious but efficient officers of customs and border protection served us fast but without a single grin or smirk, without even greeting. However, that does not cause any inconvenience or negative thoughts and feelings once you know that this is typical in Russian culture or at least in professions such the one mentioned. Customs and border control officers carry with pride their title and they take their duties seriously.
Once passing to previously Finnish soil, now Russian, straight after the border control a wave of nearly negative feelings stroke. The nature resembled the Finnish one, the facial characteristics of the habitants were similar to the Finnish Karelian ones and the architecture was the same that existed when the area belonged to Finland but all this was part of a location that seemed to be part of a post-apocalyptic world. The buildings and streets looked like they were left to decay, the surrounding area was covered with litter and the faces of the locals were melancholic. Should there not be a few locals walking on the streets and clothes hanged to dry out in the balconies, I would have not guessed that the town is inhabited.
The journey was interrupted by some shocking news; The city of Saint Petersburg was hit by terrorists and bombing attacks occurred in the center of the city. The bus had to stop and the journey had to be on hold until we could be sure that the situation is stabilised and it is safe to continue. Some of the students were travelling abroad for the first time and this memory to be stigmatised with a terrorist attack is rather unpleasant. However, we were out of the city when the incidents occurred and we were safe. Once we got informed that it is safe to continue we proceeded with our trip feeling still excited but apprehensive and uneasy at the same time.
After nine hours of sitting in a bus we finally arrived to our destination..almost! The traffic in the city was the worst I’ve seen so far in my life. Because of the attacks the metro service was completely shut down for the day and the streets were flooded by thousands of people and cars. The bus stops had queues expanded to further than the eye could see. Crossing a single of the hundreds of Saint Petersburg’s bridges took about forty-five minutes and the distance to be covered in that bridge was no more than three hundred meters. The heavy traffic gave us the opportunity though to admire some of the beautiful buildings and areas of the city. We had the time to take more than a glimpse and deeply observe the gems of Saint Petersburg. We were inspired and full of ideas about the monuments and attractions we wanted to visit during our stay.
The terrible condition of the roads close to the borders, the attacks and the dense traffic slowed us down but we managed to arrive to Soul Kitchen Hostel where we would be staying for the next 4 days. This spacious, youthful and modernly decorated hostel was the ideal accommodation option for our group. The staff was more than happy to answer to any of our questions and help us out. Their service seemed sincere and the smile was always evident. They even took the initiative to arrange cooking lessons for us and introduce us to the Russian cuisine. The Hostel had a kitchen and bathrooms to be shared as it is usual for hostels. However, the spaces were always clean, fully equipped and beautiful. There was a common space as well with computers, a football table and different games. Everything from the friendly and professional customer service to the contemporary embellishments and the overall cool and artsy vibe emitting from every corner of the hostel contributed to this comfy and homey feeling and us enjoying our stay to the fullest.
Our first day started with a three-hour city tour with our guide Elina. She introduced as to the intriguing history of Russia by exploring the most interesting and impressive monuments and buildings. We saw the unusual bronze sculpture of Peter the Great in the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress. This controversial creation by Mikhail Shemiakin attracts curiosity to be interpreted. The Tsar is seated as if waiting for execution. He has extremely small head and spidery long fingers. The sculpture can even seem as offensive towards Peter the Great on the one hand but on the other hand it could be representing the image he has in the imagination of the public. This Tsar could after all be described as cruel as he commanded the execution of his own son.
The unusual bronze sculpture of Peter the Great.
One of my personal favourites is the Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood. This Moscow-style church looks a bit out of space in the European center of St. Petersburg. It is though one of the city’s most beautiful and memorable landmarks. Its richly coloured onion domes and the magnificent mosaics in the interior each featuring a particular Biblical theme make this church unique and indescribably graceful and charming. It got its rather awkward name because it was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881.
The Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood.
Elina gave us on the second day a tour in the stunning Hermitage museum. With over three million works of art and treasures housed in five connected buildings along the Neva, Elina’s guidance was needed and appreciated in exploring one of the world’s most impressive museums. The time seemed to fly as we explored the art of all the greatest European movements. We were filled with awe as were guided through the most significant creations of renaissance by Da Vinci, Ganaletto, Michaelangelo and Raphael in the Italian rooms. The works of great impressionists such as Gaugin, Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse and Picasso were at the top floor and next to a wide selection of oriental and Middle Eastern art. We had a tour in the ground floor also where treasures of the significant ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia were exhibited. We admired the throne rooms, ballrooms, boudoirs and the spectacular clock room with its huge peacock clock in the winter palace. This extensive, aesthetic, cultural even spiritual experience satisfied our souls but let us asking for more.
The ball room in the winter palace.
One of the most interesting attractions and the most unusual one that we visited was without doubt the Kunstkamera museum. Kunstkamera is the oldest museum in Russia and was established by Peter the Great in 1727. The Kunstkammer building hosts the Peter Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography with a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. This museum had items from almost all around the world; Exhibitions such as ‘Indigenous Peoples of America’ and ‘Peoples of Japan’ were beautifully arranged and demonstrated vividly the life and culture of these societies. However, the unusual part lays in the room with the anatomical collections of Kunstkamera. Peter the Great was particularly interested in human anatomy. He attended anatomy lessons in the Netherlands and understood the importance of knowledge in anatomy for surgery and general medicine. Studying anomalies to the development of organisms was also highly important from the viewpoint of science of then early 18th century. Peter the Great was trying to debunk the superstitious fear of monsters. He constantly expanded his collection of natural and human curiosities and rarities and even ordered all malformed, still-born infants to be sent from all over the country to the imperial collection. Viewing the preserved beings with anatomical deficiencies was interesting and curiosity satisfying but at the same time it caused feelings of distress and even sadness and condolement.
Part of the anatomy exhibition: Fetuses with anatomical deficiencies.
Overall, our trip to St. Petersburg was an exciting and terrific experience. It was diverse and fun. We familiarised with the Russian culture, history and the Russian people. We met people from all over the world and cooked all together Russian meals in the hostel’s kitchen. We saw the impeccable Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, the historical Palace Square the enormous state University of St. Petersburg. This experience had it all: feelings from excitement and happiness to fear and empathy and a very diverse and stimulating approach to Saint Petersburg, its culture and its people. It was absolutely worth it.