Sunset Street Feast, #AZtory

Of all the Iftars I recently attended in Dubai, there was one that evoked a mix of emotions and a long series of photographs. It’s all started with the sound of powerful cannon operated by Dubai police in front of the tallest tower, Burj Khalifa. Legend says the tradition of firing Ramadan cannons dates to Ottoman Empire, when the sound announced the end of fasting. Today it’s only a symbolic gesture. The first cannon was fired in the UAE at the beginning of 19th century in Sharjah.

The cannon we observed in Burj Park wasn’t simple or shy.  Made in the UK in 1945 it looked as good as new but sounded a lot louder. I was 20 meters away however faced all the consequences of the sudden explosion. Prior to the demonstration I took photos with a charming UAE military officer in a smart uniform that resembled my outfit. When the ceremony was over, packaged Iftar meals were distributed among the spectators.

Amused by my astonishment, Zainab (you remember that brilliant girl, do you?) suggested we must go back to the Old Dubai to immerse in the true spirit of Iftar, witnessing people breaking fast right on the streets. So I charged my camera’s batteries, cleared the memory card and was ready to snap.

Wearing beautiful scarf “Distant Lands” by Wyilda 

From Baniyas square we crossed the street towards Deira, moving away from heavy traffic and into little alleys. The rule in the UAE says no drinking, eating, smoking or chewing is permitted during day time in month of Ramadan. Zainab’s last meal was around 3am and my discreet sip of water was right before I met Zainab however I was literally dying of thirst.

Zainab didn’t seem to mind the weather. She bravely led our expedition further and further between buildings and random pedestrians.

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Our first stop was in the front of a local mosque. I was surprised how many people were gathered for Iftar. They were busy helping with improvised tables, distributing meals and arranging seats for themselves and friends.

I wondered where all the women were. So Zainab took me around to a little hidden space.

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It took me a while to find Zainab.

After all the recent fancy dinners I’ve attended, it was very interesting to see the simpler side of dining at the sunset. Strangers offered me a bottle of water, dates and an opportunity to share their meal. I held tight to Zainab. She was my everything (again) in the middle of the old Dubai.

The prayer started and the feast began. I finally got to my bottle of water and believe me it was the sweetest sip ever!

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Only debris served to remind of the great feast that just happened in front of us. We  rushed to a nearby restaurant using the great Dubai metro of course 🙂

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P.S. I’m wearing a beautiful silk scarf by Wyilda, “Distant Lands”. Get yours here 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#AZtory: Anna and Zainab in Old Dubai, Part 1

In the pre-oil era, Dubai was a cosy settlement nested on opposite shores of a salt water Creek known as Deira and Bur Dubai. The Creek played a vital role in connecting the emirate to the region and the world, making it a peaceful harbor for fishermen, merchants, sailors and travelers.

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That’s what Google shows for “Dubai in 1950”

Today, Dubai is a city that develops rapidly with incredible acceleration but nonetheless loves its past and history. Dubaians take pride in preserving old buildings, opening museums and restoring the Sikkas, narrow streets hidden away from the cameras of tourists in busy districts. In Old Dubai, Sikkas resemble little arteries pulsing good vibes and connecting people, places and experiences.

My life in Dubai has had it ups and downs, mirroring the trends of the world’s economy. Realizing how little I had discovered on my own after living in the UAE for twelve years was surprising. Then a few weeks ago the luck smiled down on me when I randomly met inspiring Emirati photographer Zainab who talked me into joining her on a walking / shopping tour of the 5 most important Souks (markets) in Old Dubai – fish, fruit, vegetables, spices, garments and textiles and obviously, gold. I agreed without thinking twice and voila, this is the true story of what happened.

“Anna! See you tomorrow at Rashidiya metro station. 8am or earlier. Zainab,” my WhatsApp cheerfully pinged.

“Metro station? Are you sure? What if I drive?” my replies sounded as confusing as my thoughts. I’ve never used the metro since its opening in 2009 and frankly never intended to. Living in the Middle East taught me to cherish my extended personal space especially while commuting, which I did’t fancy sharing. Driving a reliable fancy car turns out to be a necessity, not a luxury. Zainab meanwhile responded in a non-negotiable manner and went silent, expressing how less she would sympathize with my chaotic emotions.

“Well, metro it is”, mumbled I to myself choosing to wear beige pants, a white tunic with long sleeves and a colorful silk head scarf by Wyilda; hoping to be unrecognizable in that camouflage. The next morning at 8am I was standing on a platform waiting for Zainab feeling extremely proud of my “mission accomplished”. I drove all the way to Rashidiya, conquered traffic, parked and used an escalator to reach the platform. Not too bad for a girl who’s car became her cave on wheels.

Tip: sort out your NOL metro card in advance to avail free parking.

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Zainab appeared on a platform with a warm confidence that only locals portray.

“Anna, where’s your gold card?” Zainab demanded greeting me. I pulled out my credit card in confusion.

“No, no. Metro gold card! Let’s get it quickly and ride in style”.

Finally, I felt relieved. Riding in style was all I wanted, so I happily scurried after Zainab. A few minutes later we were chatting tet-a-tet in a gold class cabin.

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Leaving brilliant Zainab in charge of logistics, I chose to sit back, relax and thoroughly enjoy the view paired with the complete privacy of our voyage. Half an hour later we changed a train and in another 20 minutes stepped out in Deira blinded by a bright sunny morning.

First stop: Fish market

As carrying raw fish on the metro was forbidden, our trip to the market had a more educational purpose than practical. We both shared excitement and curiosity but for opposite goals. Zainab was excited to indulge in real street photography and was curious to visit the fish market prior to its relocation to the Waterfront community. I was excited to watch Zainab, the “Queen of iPhone 7 portraits and boomerangs” in action. There was a secret goal too. Being a “crazy cat lady”, I needed to satisfy my curiosity and count all stray cats sabotaging fish businesses with their cute hungry faces. For some inexplicable reason Zainab was sure my blogging and photography intentions were towards people not cats. I did “my level best” to keep that illusion going.

A few minutes after our stylish entrance, I, avoiding any eye contact, found the most remote corner to spy on Zainab through my superzoom lens, documenting her fearless endeavor through melting ice, chopping and cracking. She didn’t seem to mind any of those, seeking only the pure joy of photography.

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Needless to say, my scheme fell apart pretty soon and my camouflage failed me too, as I ignored a fact we were the only two girls “shopping”. The whole market was able to point out my hiding spot to Zainab when she looked for me. To say she was disappointed was to say nothing! She frowned, giving me a stern studying look:

“Anna, listen. You are not a fish, you interest no one. Your options are: interact with people closely or halas, I’ll tape your zoom”.

Then she gently pulled my arm to illustrate the decision was made. That’s when I found myself in the middle of the fish cleaning area staring at heads, tails, fins and other scary attributes of that fishy business.

“Anna, yalah, I’m watching you,” Zainab’s voice insisted. Chop, chop, chop, click, click, click, we all worked in unison…

To be continued…

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Feel Like a Soviet in Moscow, Top 10, Part 2

My shady mission that started one dangerously sunny afternoon in Moscow has so far led to KGB interferance and thousands of vivid photos of the Red Square from every possible angle (except space). Those who followed my walking map in the previous post (as ambitious as the USSR’s five-years national economy plans) have developed a strong immune response to discoveries and probably lost 4-10 pounds of precious western body fat. Those, who didn’t – shame on you! The real communist is always on the go and with a little help, you’ll soon become one, willingly or not.

No. 7 – Gorky Park + Garage art center

Entrance to the park is free!

All you Scorpions fans will certainly remember the visionary video and heartbreaking lyrics of Wind of Change : “Follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change… To the magic of this moment… Let your balalaika sing what my guitar has to say…”. Wait no more! I’m taking you to the place “where children of tomorrow share their dreams” 🙂

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Since its opening in 1928, Gorky Park was established by a young Soviet government (fun could be regimented too) as a place to feel the change. While the new state was growing through the ruins of the Empire, the site for the future park was chosen on a deserted area, a former dump 45 minutes away from the Kremlin. Named after a Soviet writer (“Untimely Thoughts”) it was here that in 1935 a two-headed herald eagle striped off the Kremlin towers spent their last hours on display outshined by the symbols of a brand new era, red stars encrusted by semi-precious stones. For the next 75 years propaganda and leisure co-existed here. Extraordinary, from 1929-1937 it was run by female manager, Betty Glan who was only 25yo when appointed.

During WWII it was used to exhibit German war trophies, feeding anticipation for victory, and in post war years, the victory of communism. Following a recent restoration in 2012, Gorky Park was overrun with evil hipsters who enjoyed the 24/7 schedule of free wi-fi, all sorts of “ball” activities, lush lawns to sunbath on, access to Moscow’s river embarkment, never ending supply of kvas (a cold local drink which apparently is super hot) and street food. Beware, it’s easy to loose your sense of time and spend the whole day over here.

Not on my watch! Whatever you will be tricked in doing (local enthusiasm is contagious), find an hour or two for Garage, the museum of contemporary art opened by Darya Zhukova. Apart from a selection of peculiar installations, you’ll be surprised by the modern hybrid of minimalistic soviet architecture and modern urbanism. More here.

N0. 8 – Patriarch Ponds

Free!

Dive into the Moscow metro for a rapid ride from Oktyabrskay to Tverskay station, and for a quick meal at the first McDonald’s to open in the USSR. You may find this idea quite awful at first (especially if you are Vegan or allergic to fast food), however at the end of January 1990, around 30,000 Soviets arrived to queue for the taste of freedom. For many following months, a trip to McDonald’s became a dream stop on a sightseeing tour of Moscow (here is a video proof). Looks convincing, eh?

Our next mission is to explore the Patriarch’s neighborhood, the area loved by former party leaders, expats, spies, poets, ministers, the nouveau riche and readers of Master and Margaret (soviet satire novel by M. Bulgakov if you skipped my previous post). It was here at the Patriarch Ponds (actually there is just one) where the Devil allegedly appeared on May 1st, 1929. It was here that a phrase “don’t talk to strangers” turned into the meme and a dark fate for the two participants. Lounge on one of wooden benches to watch a very well dressed crowd pass by or have a drink at many nearby bars.

No. 9 – VDNKH

Entrance is free!

VDNKH is one of my favorite places in Moscow recognized for its authentic feel and magnificent architectural structures. It’s a Soviet version of Disneyland with rides, candies, glitter, performances and a promise of the Brighter Future for every working comrade. Many call it “Versailles stormed by Bolsheviks”. VDNKH or vystavka (fair) of Soviet realism with pavilions exhibiting new exciting gadgets, machinery and produce (anything from apples to spacecrafts). Here, feel the vibe!

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Glittering with gold, VDNKH isn’t just eye-candy, but it radiates the famous Russian spontaneity when one never knows where the day ends and is ready for all sort of scenarios. I was treated to a random glass of prosecco on board an empty stationery soviet plane.

Take a good look around. Back in 60s you may be walking alongside Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Today you may spot parkour enthusiasts rolling head-breaking tricks, brainy youth on scooters or special forces officers splashing in the fountains. A must-see are the space pavilions and the nominee of Stalin’s prize, sculpture “Worker and a kolkhoz woman (farmer girl)” by Mukhina. Just like Hollywood’s roaring lion it was chosen as the opener to Soviet films.

Once you watch the setting sun in the Communist themed park, it’s time to use the privileges of the capitalist’s world and jump into a comfortable Uber for the long drive through the center of Moscow to a place best described as temptation.

No. 10 – Chinese Grammar or Kitayskay Gramota, the restaurant

Reserve a table a day in advance. Arrive hungry. Be ready to throw cash to settle the bill. Tip: impress staff and audience by making it rain thousand ruble notes “Bad Grandpa”  style. Explore their food, drinks and mind-blowing menu here.

Owned by Mr. Rappoport (remember Dr. Zhivago), a lawyer known in his circle as a foodie and a talented chef with obviously good sense of humor and taste (in art for example), Chinese Grammar wins your interest at the front door. In the best traditions of the communist era, the statue of the greeting comrade is cheerful, green and screwed to the wall (for its own good they say). March in and be stunned by the atmosphere of a post-Imperial selected members only bunker loaded with artifacts. Strikingly good looking staff dressed in Mao’s soldiers uniforms are quite entertaining to watch with their trained posture and detailed knowledge of the menu. Believe me, my reader, it’s not just the decor that this place is loved for, but the Cantonese cuisine delicious in its simplicity and long selection of tempting cocktails. I couldn’t stop looking for a hidden door leading to gambling, opium tastings and happy patrons puffing the magic dragons so well described in Sherlock Holmes, but I failed. Maybe you’ll get luckier…

The end!

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Feel Like a Soviet in Moscow, Top 10, Part 1

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow is still as Red as it gets. In fact it’s getting redder and redder. Although “red” stands for beautiful in old Russian, older Russians are feeling nostalgic about the debris of a country that doesn’t officially exist. Defeated by my attempts to comprehend the mysterious Russian soul, I spent a week in the Kremlin’s Shadow to review, photograph and eventually leak to a wide group of civilians, the Top 10 “Feel Like a Soviet” experiences in Moscow. Let’s start with a little video to put you in the right mood. You’re welcome, Comrades!

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No. 1 – Sparrow Hills

It’s free!

Sparrow Hills or Vorobyovy Gory is a place with the observation point where Mr. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita wished farewell to Moscow and vanished in the darkness on galloping black horses. “Follow me my reader, and me alone…”, so this time let’s substitute horse power with a rather bourgeois morning Uber ride (as a after 10am local traffic is bearable), and take in a delightful view of “the meadows” of Moscow River.

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The Novodevichy and the Luzniki

Right in front of you is Luzniki Stadium where a fuzzy Olympic Misha tied to thousands of balloons broke many hearts at the closing ceremony of the 1980 Summer Olympics. On the left, see the golden onion-domes of Novodevichy Convent, which for a couple of post-revolutionary years served as the Museum of Women’s Emancipation. Then turn around to see one of Stalin’s so called “seven sisters” monument buildings, the Moscow State University poking clouds with its tall spire. The last leader of the Soviet Union, and the voice and spirit of Perestroika, Mr. Gorbachev was among its powerful and famous alumni. Walk around the University to appreciate the extend of Stalin’s architecture and then hike down the hills through partially wild-grown greenery to the Vorobyevy Gory subway station.

P.S. “The Master and Margarita” is witty Soviet satire novel and a masterpiece of 2oth century literature; a wonderful read if well translated.

No. 2 – Subway 

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The Moscow Metro is a treasure of Soviet architecture hidden underground. It was built to amaze (with the initial help of British engineers) and it’s truly shockingly beautiful. Being one of the first projects of Stalin’s ambitions, the Metro is loaded with secrets, mysterious passages, bronze sculptures, mosaics, gold, art deco and baroque elements. Allegedly every station has a unique design (Vorobyevy Gory is the first station ever constructed on a bridge). Some shine in marble recycled from demolished cathedrals and churches. Forty four stations are cultural heritage sites and all of them merge into one marvelous underground castle of the Working Class. While an assertive male voice announces stops on the way downtown and female voice the way out, I consider the Moscow Metro to be the most convincing propaganda ever. If communists ride in such a lavish style, sign me up to join the party (well, there is always a dark side, as Goethe’s Faust discovered when he sold his soul to the devil).

P.S. Tokens and passes are available at every station, the Metro is open daily from 6am to 1am. It’s the best way to get around the city and a great activity on a rainy day. Photography is permitted.

No. 3 – Red Square

It’s free!

Enjoy your underground ride all the way to the Ploshchad Revolyutsii (the closest exit) and hold your breath, prepare to be fascinated.

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Internationally recognized as a symbol of the evil USSR, Red Square originates in the 15th century when a space near the Kremlin (city’s fortress and now the presidential residence) was cleared by the early urbanists to create a buffer zone and a battle field. Later it turned into the heart of the city’s life, where state leaders fancy appearing and addressing the nation during official ceremonies, parades and on the New Year Eve (starting in the 20th century).

Ironically the first revolutionaries (Streltsy, then Razin and Pugashev) were executed here, followed by Soviet revolutionaries finding their eternal peace along Kremlin’s walls. You can visit the father of the Soviet revolution, comrade Lenin, in his private tomb (the mausoleum) right in the center of the square free of charge.

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Spasskaya Tower and the first Lenin’s mausoleum. Credit to unknown photographer.

Not sympathetic to mummies and queueing? Watch out for live smiley versions of Lenin and Stalin sneaking around. Look up. Some of Kremlin’s towers are topped with ruby stars, which replaced double-headed eagles in 1935. On the way out, spot a statue of General Zykhov, the one who led the victory parade after the end of the WWII.

No. 4 – Alexander Garden

It’s free!

Situated along the Kremlin’s wall, this park was originally dedicated to victory in the Napoleonic War and consisted of three separate gardens. Walk through the main cast iron gate to spend a minute in silence in front of the WWII memorial (every Russian family lost at least one member in that war). Watch the eternal flame and witness the change of young, good-looking guards gloriously marching in unison (relocated here from Lenin’s tomb in 90’s). Continue your walk to discover the Grotto (stones recycled from houses ruined by Napoleon’s army), and the Obelisk, ironically placed to celebrate 300 years of Romanov’s rule in 1913, then in four years it was tweaked by bolsheviks to represent their interpretation of history and restored to its original look in 2013. Time to turn to the other side, where happy teenagers on a hot summer afternoon loudly splash in the waters of the fountain with galloping black horses (again!), created by born-in-the-USSR artist Zurab Tsereteli.

No. 5 – GUM

Entrance is free!

Literally translated as the “Main Department Store”, GUM always has and always will represent prestige and luxury trade in the minds of Russians. Most visit GUM not to shop, but for an experience, an inspiration and Instagram selfies, obviously. Located right in front of Lenin’s tomb in an area known for retail and trade for centuries, it’s a totally different kind of a mausoleum nationalized by bolsheviks after 1917. Praised by the tragically talented poet Mayakovsky as the store for everyone’s every need, it was turned into a bureaucratic institution during Stalin’s regime (and the body of his wife who committed suicide was displayed here before her funeral). Since reopening in 1953 to outshine Saks and Macy’s, GUM never faced a shortage of goods nor a shortage of consumers. The two longest queues on Red Square led either to Lenin or shopping paradise. GUM was also a home to the secret Section 200 store where the Soviet Elite stocked up on Western fashion (think Nina Ricci and Chanel). Stroll down the aisles to enjoy the remaining signs of the Soviet avant-garde, taste the famous ice-cream and visit a delightfully jolly grocery store on the ground floor.

Well, my tired reader, congratulations! You’ve completed the first challenge set for your mind and body with true communist determination. To feel the true glory of this moment, imagine yourself back in 1937, in Stalin’s Russia. Back then there were three ways to celebrate: 1. the Na Zdorovie ritual (we tried it); 2. relocation to GULAG (skip!) or induction to the Pioneers (Soviet scouts and the second step in a complicated Party hierarchy). Let’s head to Dr. Zhivago’s for this unique experience.

No. 6 – Dr. Zhivago, the restaurant 

Reservation is a must. Credit cards are accepted, carrying cash is advised. More here.

Located right across Red Square, Dr. Zhivago is a place with great indoor and outdoor views. For a few months after it opened, it was impossible to reserve a table unless secured far in advance or demanded using the Russian tradition of close friends. Decorated in posh futuristic style with the elements of cubism, avant-garde and beloved soviet realism, this place is truly intimidating (even for those who indulge in chopstick fights at Hakkassan). Start with ordering vodka, trust me you’ll need it, paired with black beluga caviar to clear the palette and an overwhelming feeling of illusion (mosaics on the ceiling aren’t what they seem). Try traditional soft drinks mors and kvass (Russian answer to Coca-Cola) and get engaged in a conversation with the polished staff in choosing your treats. Have fun and overcome my silly fear of taking photos at Zhivago’s as I couldn’t get enough.

To be continued…

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Imperial weekend

When you think you’ve seen it all – visit Saint Petersburg and fall in love. It’s a city of many secrets, built with enthusiasm and passion (Window to Europe). It’s the capital of White Nights (from May to July) and elegant bridges (342+) inspired by the architecture of Venice, Amsterdam and Versailles (c’est vrai!). Its historical center has lived through the Romanovs, the Revolution, Bolsheviks, Stalin’s terror, a second world war seige and the fall of the USSR. But! Strolling down the Nevsky you could barely tell, St.Petersburg is as Imperial as ever.

There is more. While a trip to St. Petersburg will appeal to your heart and soul, it’s also a bargain. With the local currency (ruble) at its lowest rate for years, dinner at a posh restaurant feels like a family meal at a diner. Sounds awesome, right? Note these 5 important safety rules prior to traveling  (I tried and tested them all):

  1. Money and passport – inquire at the hotel for a reliable money exchange provider. Pick pocket alert: leave your passport in the hotel room locker and carry a photocopy instead. Keep a hand on your wallet in crowded places and on the Nevsky.
  2. Carry a hotel business card with their address and phone number for emergencies.
  3. Download Uber and use it as it’s the safest way to travel the city. Figuring out local public transportation may take some time and there is none to waste. Don’t take random cabs on streets.
  4. Purchase tickets for sightseeing in advance (queues are endless and a waiting is a spirit killer).
  5. Download offline Google maps (you’ll thank me many many times!).

Well, now that you are packed with wisdom, let’s plan and explore!

The State Hermitage museum (a must-see!)

Open from 10:30am to 6pm, except Mondays and on Wednesdays from 10:30am to 9pm.

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Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest museums of art, craft and culture in the world. Founded by Catherine the Great, today it consists of Small Hermitage, The Great Old Hermitage, The New Hermitage, The Winter Palace (all 4 are inner connected), The Hermitage Theatre, The General Staff Building, The Menshikov’s palace, Peter’s Cabin, Porcelain Museum and The Storage center. Uffff… they say it takes 15 years to review the whole collection if one spends more than 1 minute admiring every piece (plus travel time and lunch breaks as art watching always makes me hungry).

I advise to purchase 2-days ticket online (soft copy is enough) which allow you to skip a massively annoying line and to sneak through a special entrance, otherwise the wait is loooooong.

 

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Start at the Main Hermitage Complex at the Palace Square (don’t miss the “Gold Drawing Room” in the Winter Palace), break for lunch and cross the Palace Square to continue at the General Staff Building where a mind-blowing collection of Impressionists, Cubism and works by Picasso are displayed. In the evening head out for a ballet at the Hermitage Theatre. While there, search for signs of ruins of Peter the Great’s former Winter Palace integrated into a new structure.

On the second day, visit Menshikov’s Palace, Pieter’s Cabin and the museum of Imperial Porcelain Art. Beware, this itinerary will require some serious fitness preparation, but if you are a determined art enthusiast you won’t curse me. Bring your camera to memorize all that your eyes couldn’t snap.

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St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Wednesday is a day off. Online tickets

St. Isaac’s Cathedral took 40 years to build (1818-1858) but once complete, it became  one of the most impressive landmarks in the city and a symbol of Imperial Russia. The cost of construction was as fantastic at 1 mil in gold rubles. St. Isaac’s dome is plated with pure gold and rises 105 m high. The structure rests on 10,000 tree trunks, and the building features 112 granite columns and accommodates around 14,000 visitors. Its interiors are lavishly decorated with mosaics, sculptures and icons. Walk up the colonnade (300 steps only) to enjoy a magnificent view of the city and to stay fit. Photography is permitted.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Closed on Wednesdays. Online tickets .

The Church of Spilled Blood (above) is a rare example of patriarch Russia architectural style with its mosaics, onion domes, bright paint and gold. From first glance, you’ll notice how closely it resembles the 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (below). Do you agree?

The Church of Spilled Blood was commissioned to forever mark the place where Tsar Alexander the Second was fatally wounded in a terrorist attack. Funded mostly on royal money and donations from private investors, it took more than 20 years to build in the 19th century and around 30 years to restore in 20th century. Its picturesque exteriors and interiors are in great contrast with the neoclassical, monochromatic surroundings, giving an impression of deep nostalgia for the old, pre-Peter the Great Russia.

The Mariinsky Theatre

It’s as posh and Imperial as it gets. Built in neoclassical style, the theatre’s facades are monumental, sharp and aristocratically chilled. This impression changes as its interior decor turns into a sheer delight. Once in, you’ll notice yourself a part of a multicultural beau monde eager to be amazed. Just a few minutes into a performance you’ll see a change in the eyes and faces of people around you. A grumpy looking grey-haired man in a tuxedo will vigorously clap, exclaiming “Bravo, bravo!”, and a northern beauty with slightly cold features will gently smile through tears. It was here that famous prima-ballerina Anna Pavlova, at the age of 8, chose her destiny after watching “The Sleeping Beauty” for the first time in her life. And it was here where she danced her debut.

Book tickets for opera or ballet in advance as they are highly desirable and it’s very common to spot theatre-lovers desperately inquiring for an extra ticket at the entrance, just minutes away from performances.

P.S. I arrived in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of July. It was unusually cold, gloomy and rainy. The same evening, I realized that couldn’t imagine my life without memories from this beautiful at every angle city. Yes, it’s moody, with dark sides and puzzling, but with every uncovered mystery, with every discovered place or piece, a hunger for more and more develops.

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Window to Europe

In Moscow, June 1672, a Tzar was born with a vision. He was unusually tall, bright, clean shaven, non-religious and kept his eyes to the West.

He dared to challenge traditions, domestic structure and the modus operandi of Medieval Russia, advancing it to be the new powerful kid on the block. He led a massive cultural revolution by cutting beards, opening math and engineering schools, encouraging youth to travel abroad, forcing French fashion on his court, and introducing potatoes (ha!) to Russian cuisine. He moved New Year’s day from September to January 1st and adopted the German custom of decorating Christmas trees. Believe it or not, he was also the father of Russian ballet. Sound like a lot? Well, he could also twist and roll silver plates and assemble anything ranging from kid’s chairs to real warships. He topped it all when in 1703 he chose the site and laid the foundation stone for the new capital of New Russia, Saint Petersburg, which he believed was and forever would be the”window to Europe”. Long Live Peter the Great!

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St. Petersburg in 1720 by J. Homann

The legend says that when Tzar Peter and his entourage scouted islands in the Neva river delta for a perfect location (or a fancy sunset view), an eagle appeared right above them and that’s how it started. Well, superstition runs deep in Russian DNA 🙂

Modern St. Petersburg consists of 101 islands, it’s the largest, youngest European city with the most number of bridges and a confident promise to amaze. Today follow me on a tour of Peter’s city…

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We’ll start across the Neva river and the Winter Palace on Zayachay (Hare) Island at Peter and Paul Fortress. It was built as a bastion to counterattack Swedes, but soon turned into the “Russian Bastille”, where prince Alexey (Peter’s son) conspired against reforms and was interrogated and imprisoned. While still fresh and eager, climb up the Bell Tower, the second tallest local structure to discover its tragic past (a victim of several fires caused by lightining) and a panoramic view from 42m platform. Then enter the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the eternal home of Romanov family, and the oldest church in the city. It was built in stunning early Baroque style, greatly influenced by Western Europe. Its interiors were decorated with golden ornaments, icons and bible-themed paintings. On the way out, look up to spot the famous angel weather-vane on the golden spire.

Continue your walk along the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, take panoramic photos of the historical center on the other side of Neva river and then turn to Petrovskaya embarkment to visit the first residential house, a little cottage built for Peter himself in record 3 days, Cabin of the Peter the Great. Protected from the harsh weather by the pavilion, it was originally assembled in traditional Russian log cabin style (izba) with large windows and a high roof. Interestingly, its exteriors were painted to imitate a brick pattern as Tzar was building a city of stone on a limited budget.  The interiors were simple, practical and decorated with essentials only.

Photo credit St. Petersburg’s card

Our next stop is the opposite of practical. It was one of the fist luxuries, proudly designed for the eyes and soul by the Tzar himself and with his active involvement (he loved to be a part of all his projects). So cross the Troitskiy (Trinity) bridge to take a romantic stroll down the alleys in the Summer Garden. Yes, it was laid out as an entertainment park filled with early 18th century urban luxury trends – strict geometric principales, trimmed trees, swans, rare plants, sparkling fountains and marble statues. The river that supplied water to feed its fountains was eventually called Fontanka. Through its history, the Summer Garden has witnessed secret rendez-vous, powerful celebrities, assassination attempt, love scandals and impressive fireworks to end imperial ball. Sadly, most of the marble statues (except one) were replaced with copies during the latest restoration. Keep an eye for the Peace and Victory statue, it’s the only original left.

Now it’s time for “I spy with my little eye”. Turn around and find another golden spire with a weather vane in the form of a little ship shining high in the sky (or use Google maps). It’s the Admiralty tower strategically located on the Neva River in close proximity of Peter and Paul fortresses canons, so it could be easily destroyed if overtaken by enemies. The Admiralty at first was functioning as a shipyard to build the new Russian Baltic fleet and to support Peter’s Imperial ambitions (produced 262 warships).  Peter himself was seen over there working hard as a craftsman on docks. Today the Admiralty is one of most recognizable symbols of the city and a starting point of 3 main avenues. One of them is Nevsky prospect.

It’s impossible to visit St. Petersburg and miss the Nevsky’s. It’s a happening place, the hub of entertainment and nightlife, one of the best-known streets in Russia and a history itself. Around 2 million people walk up and down it every day (pickpockets too, beware!). Nevsky is lined with fancy shops, restaurants and the most impressive buildings in St. Petersburg, including Kazan Cathedral, Singer House, the Passage Mall and Anichkov Bridge across Fontanka River. Stop over here for a water adventure that will take you on a tour of bridges and water canals to discover St. Petersburg from a different angle.

Our next stop is Menshikov’s Palace located right in front of the Admiralty. It was built for a childhood friend of Peter the Great, his supporter and later the first governor, Aleksander Menshikov (not of noble origin but promoted to Duke by the Tzar). Being the first stone residential building in the city and a magnificent structure featuring a rare mix of Baroque style with traditional Russian architecture, the palace was often used for official receptions, balls and carnivals. Rich interiors were decorated with silk, gold, Dutch tiles and marble. The legend says that many of the guest were frightened to step on unusual looking 3D parquet designed by Peter himself and kept their feet up while seated.

If it happened that the eagle responsible for Tzar’s decision flew through time, this is how amazed it would be by the beauty of this eternal city (watch the aerial video)

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Photo and video credit: TimeLab Pro

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