Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Another Venice of the North


Amsterdam, move over, it seems St. Petersburg is also claiming the title of "Venice of the North". Being farther north, they just may have more credibility, or better global positioning for the title.

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Of all the canals, my favorite was the small offshoot of the Moyka that ran alongside the Church of the Spilled Blood. It's narrower width was more reminiscent of Venice. In general, the canals of St. Petersburg were wider than the Grand Canal itself and bore little resemblance to Venice by virtue of their scale.

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The most prominent difference between St. Petersburg and Venice has to be the parks along the canal banks. They create bucolic imagery that would be nearly impossible to find in Venice on all but the island of Torcello. 

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Piroshki, Pelmeni, and Borscht, Oh My!

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Living in San Francisco with its large Russian population gave us a distinct advantage when it came to Russian food. There were few surprises and we already had a list of things we wanted to try in the "old country", in order to compare them with what we had tasted at home. First on our list were piroshki, the small fried dough buns filled with meat, mushrooms or potatoes. They were easy to find and as my traveling companion commented on more than one occasion, "I've never met a piroshki I didn't like". Pelmeni were easily number 2 on our list and these meat filled dumplings, served with sour cream, were available just about everywhere. Borscht, the Russian beet soup was also readily available, and served with sour cream. As good as it was, I found myself ordering cream of mushroom soup more often.
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It hadn't occurred to me that it would be impossible to write a restaurant review of Russian restaurants. Since most signs were written in cyrillic with no English translation, and because my keyboard uses Roman letters, I find myself at a loss for words, or at least for names. No matter, there are hundreds of restaurants to choose from and showing you the food should work well enough. The meat as well as mushroom piroshki and porcini mushroom soup were available from a restaurant on Nevsky Prospect that looks like this:
Even though I can't name them, we did find some good Russian beer along with some imports. The Kozel pictured below is actually a Czech beer that I remember trying in Prague. It completely changed my opinion of beer, from something negative to something very positive.
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As you might expect, blini were on the food scene, the one below served with salmon roe and sour cream. The rye bread was impressive and the Russian Salad was a real treat, since I seldom see it at home. The surprise for me was buckwheat groats. Served with butter and mushrooms, they became a filling, vegetarian lunch course, but I also tried them for breakfast at the hotel. I'm not certain that they are normally a breakfast item, because to add to the confusion, our hotel also served macaroni and hot dogs for breakfast.
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Another restaurant on Nevsky Prospect turned out to be our favorite, because the food was so good and unpredictable. It turned out to be a Georgian restaurant and they have earned their reputation for serving the best Russian food available. Here are photos of it and its sign:
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We found it on our last evening in St. Petersburg and it provided a perfect last meal in Russia. First we started with piroshki, then an onion and mushroom salad. Next we ordered a "Russian Pizza" that was remarkable. There was a raw egg on top that our waitress nimbly mixed into the melted cheese with a fork. It was a real production and provided great entertainment along with the best food item of the evening. Lastly we ordered a pork and potato dish similar to a goulash and a lamb "shislak". Russian vodka rounded out the meal. Well, you can't go to Russia and not try the vodka, can you?
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

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When first hearing of this church in St. Petersburg, I erroneously thought it referred to Christ's blood. In reality it refers to the blood of Tzar Alexander II, the great liberator of Russia, who was killed by revolutionaries 20 years to the day after he freed the serfs. His plans for a constitutional monarchy were abandoned and Russia became more repressive under his son Alexander III and grandson Nicholas II, who were aiming to keep their own blood from spilling. We know how that turned out.
During our stay, we must have passed this church 10 - 15 times and each and every time I felt compelled to take more photographs of it, to take photos of every conceivable angle. So here is a visual essay of the exterior with its magnificent domes and mosaics:
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With an exterior this colorful and decorative, one has to wonder about the interior. It was well worth the investment of purchasing a ticket to find out. As I walked through the door, the first section was dark and the mosaics were eerily reminiscent of those in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia built in Ravenna Italy in the 5th century. The top photo is of a star pattern from the Ravenna mosaics.
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As you turn toward the central interior, the theme changes dramatically and becomes a modern interpretation of biblical stories done in bright, rich colors dominated by gold and a Maxfield Parrish range of blues and greens.
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As unlikely as it may seem, I'm actually only showing a portion of the photos taken in this church. Every nook and cranny was filled with mosaics and I don't believe that any surface was painted. Another fascinating aspect of the architecture was that you could look through levels of the ceiling to see mosaics on the undersurfaces of each dome.
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Here are a few more photos to show some of the other architectural details.
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