Tombs, Fortresses and Gardens

Up bright and early to find out if Russia really is what I imagined. I will have to admit that St Petersburg is not what I expected. Years ago when St Petersburg was bidding for the Olympics, their promotional video really stood out. I was intrigued and so very keen to see see this ‘Venice of the North’. I expected islands, palaces, canals and grandeur. Yes, all of that is here, but in a more ordinary way. I did think that maybe I had a romantic expectation, maybe I was expecting too much and maybe the Olympic promotional video was just not put into context in my mind.

Lighthouses, bridges, high-end shopping streets, modern apartment blocks and palaces are flanked with run down, grey and dilapidated buildings. There is an element of modern, Western, capitalistic Russia; and old, communist, USSR from the movies. Many buildings are in desperate need of repair, and give a very depressing Cold War impression. I could almost imagine spies meeting in some of the blocks to discuss their next engagement, send out coded messages and hide secret documents in dark and dingy rooms with barely any furniture.

I had no idea what to expect at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Sometimes it is better to know nothing and have no expectations, as everything on offer is always a surprise. The exterior was lovely, the interior was impressive, but then, without any warning, I was presented with the tombs of the murdered royal family. I was completely frozen! Here lay the bodies of a family who had no choice in their birth and yet were made to suffer and face a horrendous death because of who they were and the future political threat their lives proposed. I have had visions of what they had to face on that frightful night, and can’t imagine how they must’ve felt…and here they lie. I felt the tears well up, but sadly being part of the tourist mob, the emotions were rapidly swept away with the sounds of photographic equipment, the flashes of cameras and the movement of the crowd. The Putin-esque guard at the door sternly moved people on who were lingering. And the moment was gone. I looked back at the tombs from a distance….I felt the emotions rise in my heart again, but it was now out of reach and all I have to show for the intense feeling I had at that moment was a one-dimensional photograph. But looking at that photograph since, has evoked the heart-sore I have felt from the very first time I heard about the plight of the royal family when I was still at high school. Of all the photographs I have taken since I arrived in Russia, this one still means the most to me – bland and nothing special, but it is the story of the people behind the photograph that hits me every time I even just think about it. I am sure their spirits are all in the chapel intermingling with the visitors…I am sure their presence has played a role in millions feeling the same as I do. I can’t imagine I am the only one…

We visited Peterhof in the afternoon. Again I had not expectations…it was just a place on the itinerary we were visiting, journeying on the hydrofoil. Opulent water features, detailed garden designs and romantic forest type landscapes, and no electricity or water pumps – just all cleverly manipulated gravity. The gold leaf, the stone and the water mixed perfectly to create gardens I know the royals and dignitaries were proud of and enjoyed.

A day beautifully designed – culture and nature evenly balanced to give all tastes something to savour…sigh!


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