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Picture-perfect Petersburg tourists

After yesterday’s seven hour-long hike through the city, we opted for a lazier mode of exploration. We took the metro again to Saint Petersburg’s busiest street, Nevsky Prospekt, and boarded a hop-on-hop-off red bus where we proceeded to buy a family day-ticket allowing additional passage on boats that tour the city’s many canals and rivers. Not only is this option less tiring on little legs, it is fun and informative: you get an audio guide to run you down some of the key landmarks and the history associated to it.

The double-deck bus took us down Nevsky Prospekt, from Gostiny Dvor all the way to Uprising Square, where a gigantic obelisk stands to the memory of the citizens who withstood the 900-day siege of (then-named) Leningrad by the Nazi troops. We delved a little bit further south, past the Moscow railway station and the posh Galeria shopping mall before turning back on back on our heels along the same route. We hopped off just after crossing the Anichkov Bridge, adorned by four giant bronze sculptures of men taming horses, which symbolize humanity’s (supposed) dominion over nature. The typical arrogance of the time did not fool our 21st century kids, however. They were quick to quip: “you can tame a horse but you cannot control nature”!

On the journey, we learnt that even though the official birth of the city is 1703, when the Tsar built the Peter and Paul fortress to protect it against the Swedes, it has much older origins. Given its prime location on the estuary of the Neva River on the Gulf of Finland, that is hardly surprising. In fact, earlier settlements were important trading posts of the Hanseatic League and historians believe it was a key commercial crossroad even before that.

Our grumbling stomachs forced the first pit stop but the grandiose statue of Catherine the Great, opposite the Aleksandrinsky Theatre, did nothing to spoil the view. Neither did the fun window of Kupetz Eliseev’s grocery store where animated gnomes display the appetizing wares that earn the shop its fame. We wolfed down a late breakfast next to the bronze statue of photographer Karl Bulla and hopped back on the bus to head north towards the heart of the historical district.

From the second deck of the bus, we admired a series of stunning landmarks: Arts Square, Circus Ciniselli, St. Michael’s Castle, Fontaka’s River Embankment, the Church of Simon and Anna, Summer Gardens, the Mars Field and few more. We then hopped off again to visit the interior of the ginger-bread-house-looking Church of the Resurrection of Christ, more famously known as the Church on the Spilled Blood (it stands atop the site of Tsar Alexander II’s attempted assassination). If the church’s external appearance is undoubtedly eye-catching, the interior provides more than a decent match. Its five domes, each topped by typically orthodox onion-bulb shapes of dazzling color, do more than stand out among the crowd of richly adorned architectural gems Saint Petersburg offers. They peek out proudly and dominate the city’s entire skyline. Yet the inside is equally mesmerizing. From floor to ceiling, ornate mosaics cover every inch. In total, the tiny “puzzle pieces” (as Guy and Max called them) make up 7000 square meters of biblical scenes and iconography. No wonder it took almost a quarter century to build! Even restoration, after several decades of Soviet neglect, took a further 27 years.

When we came out of the church, the sun had disappeared. We worried the steadying drizzle would spoil the boat ride we planned to take from the next stop, after circling Palace Square and driving past the Hermitage complex. By the time we got to the pier, the rain had gotten strong enough to force us to buy an umbrella indeed. Undeterred, though, we walked along the banks of the Neva while we waited for the boat’s departure. An unlikely meeting with two Ivorians, who greeted us at the quay, helped to keep our mood sunny. Ibrahim and his buddy were both students operating summer jobs as tour guides, taking advantage of their undeniable linguistic skills. Between snippets of advice to wandering pedestrians in fluent Russian, English and French, we managed enough conversation to learn that one was studying aeronautical systems and the other geology, with a specialization in deep-sea oil & gas exploration in a local university. I am not sure who was more amazed: them for stumbling upon a Belgo-South African family living in Abidjan or us for meeting near-compatriots studying such elaborate careers so far north.

The rain did not last. As soon as we boarded the boat, the crew slid the retractable roof open. We were thus able to shoot all the sights we walked the day before from the vantage point of the water: Kunst Kamera, the Stock Exchange on the spit of Vasilyevsky Island, the Peter and Paul fortress and cathedral, the two Chinese mythological Shih Tzah lions on the Petrovskaya Embankment and, of course, elements of the battle fleet of the Russian navy that was still anchored after yesterday's celebrations.

After that long loop on the Neva, we stepped off at the Summer Gardens for a stroll through its symmetrical alleys and lavish fountains.

We got a little carried away and missed the following boat so we decided to walk the distance to the next stop along the Fontanka River. You always enjoy yourself most when you go off course. At a slower pace, we probably appreciated the facades of the palaces lining either side of the canal even more. However, by the time we reached the Fabergé Museum stop we were all exhausted. We took half an hour to relax on the banks and then hopped on the next boat for the second half of the tour.

It took us far along the Fontanka, which was the city’s southern boundary in the time of Peter the Great, before turning north again on Kryukova canal. In so doing, we passed by the pastel-blue Nikolsky Cathedral, whose baroque spires and golden domes are a favorite of sailors, and the Mariinsky Theater, one of the world’s most prestigious ballet and opera houses. On the corner where we turned east into the Moika River stands the New Holland district. Peter the Great founded it to be a shipbuilding quarter, after a visit to the Netherlands inspired him to arm a fleet to further his empire’s military and commercial reach. Nowadays, as it slowly gentrifies, it is turning into an arts and entertainment center prized by hipsters.

For the last leg on the narrow Moika, we sailed right through the very heart of the historical district. We ducked beneath several low bridges, admired the grandiose Yusupov palace, one of the many owned by Russia’s richest family (the only one capable of rivalling the Romanovs’ wealth in the 19th century), the Stroganov palace and the Kazan Cathedral before we reemerged into the Neva via the short winter canal that borders the Hermitage palace complex.

After such a tourist marathon, there was nothing left to do but to grab a quick bite to eat and head straight for the hotel. By now, the kids were spontaneously requesting their beds and it did not take more than a few minutes before they were snoring happily…

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