Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth: #5: St. Petersburg Russia

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

We ran into a guy with a pet bear. I felt like I was in a John Irving book!

#5: St. Petersburg , Russia

Every now and then my parents let us kids decide where to go for the family vacation. My brother, who was interested in Russian history picked St. Petersburg. I had traveled a lot by that point but I was unprepared for such a unique country.

We happened to go for the tricentennial of St. Petersberg. If you know nothing about Peter the Great, he’s definitely an interesting character. He is credited with Westernizing Russia. He made all the Russian officials move from Moscow to what was basically swampland and called it the gateway to Europe. He traveled around Europe getting ideas for his great city and for ideas on how to govern his country. I call St. Peterburg the cliff notes version of Europe because it has the canals of Amsterdam and Italy, French architecture, a world-class art collection, and the cosmopolitan feel of London or Paris. We went to at least three or four museums and castles each day! And if that wasn’t enough, during the summer they have White Nights so it was still bright out at midnight!

The Church of Spilled Blood

We were immediately stunned by the Church of Spilled Blood (It has a thousand different names). It looked like it was made out of candy. No picture I’ve seen has captured the bright, intricate details covering the entire building. We went out of our way to visit this church every day of our 8 day trip. And if you think the outside is spectacular, the inside was just as amazing!

The interior of The Church of Spilled Blood. This is all tile mosaic.

The shear size of the castles and museums were stunning. We spent 12 hours at the Hermitage and didn’t see a quarter of the art. Anyone that’s traveled to Europe will probably say they got tired of the castles after awhile, but the castles here are out of this world and every room was more breath taking. Every thing was covered in gold, or velvet, or murals.

Just another hallway in an amazing castle

It was the first country I visited where most people didn’t know a word of English- although I’m sure that’s changed in the last 10 years. Even the written word was indecipherable because they use a different alphabet (Cyrillic). There were hardly any signs of American pop influence which was refreshing. I’ve never understood why people travel thousands of miles to eat at a Hard Rock Cafe and shop at a Gap.

I will always love St. Petersburg because I had the best meal of my life there. We followed an incredible scent to a hole in the wall restaurant (actually it was in the basement and you had to duck to avoid the rafters). I ordered beef stew and wine from Georgia. I don’t understand what was in that stew but I’ve been pining for it ever since. And that wine – it was the only glass of wine where I actually tasted all the things a wine connoisseur “says” they taste when they drink wine. Hints of plum, sun soaked cherries, and just a touch of raw earth, or whatever. IT was really good.

Don’t miss Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. It’s a bit out of the way but the water fountains are spectacular. We had to take the subway, and had no idea how to read the signs. An old lady noticed our panic and I guess she asked if she could help in Russian. We pointed to the picture of the palace in our guide book and she took my brother’s hand, and we followed. She stayed with us for two subway transfers and helped us out when we arrived. Then she disappeared into the crowd like a magical babushka. The palace sells a limited amount of tickets and we were out of luck – that is until we bribed a guard and he let us in! To Russia with Love.

Lessons from a month abroad

Me in park Guell

I arrived back home yesterday afternoon. I did not expect to get giddy while walking through Immigration, or getting on the subway, or putting my key in the door, but all those things reminded me that I’m coming home. And I was excited to do so. As much as love to travel, I am always surprised by how happy I am to come back home. To have clean clothes. To see my kitties. To plug in electronics without first having to find the stupid adapter that always gets lost in my suitcase. I know I’m weird, but no matter how many showers I take while on vacation, I never feel as clean as that first shower when you get home.

I came home 5 pounds heavier. I would like to think those pounds are filled with wisdom. So here are some very wise things I learned while traveling for a month:

a window in Salamanca

1. No one says it better than my boy, Bill Bryson, “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” This quote was etched into the bathroom stall in one of the restaurants I ate in in Barcelona. Although I’ve read it many times and have appreciated it, I’ve never read it while actually traveling , nor while on the toilet.  As much as I loved seeing all the sights from the tour books, the real joy is in finding a cup of coffee exciting again. Or taking a picture of a window. I mean seriously when do you take pictures of windows when you’re at home? Travel reinvigorates your enthusiasm for life. By the way, can you imagine how long it took to etch that quote into the bathroom stall?

2. An oldie, but a goodie: try new things. I didn’t want to see flamenco, but it blew me away.

Me trying out new water

While dining out, the worst food I had was when I was feeling homesick and ordered what was familiar to me. Pizza and hamburgers just don’t cut it in Spain. The best food I had was when Mike and I decided to order the strangest sounding thing on the menu. Duck ham (seriously that’s what it said) on top of duck liver pate was out of this world. I can’t believe I almost passed that up for french fries. Other great treats were bull tail ( YUM!), and onion jelly with sheep cheese and walnuts. While walking back to the hotel every day, we knew the fastest way to get back, but we always made a conscious effort to go down a different street, and for that we saw some amazing views, beautiful graffiti, hidden gardens, and old churches. If we only followed the path we knew we would have missed out on a lot.

3. Spanish is hard.

4. A lot can be done while sitting at a cafe drinking coffee. You can’t help but reflect on your life, how it’s going, and where you want it to go. I don’t know if it’s those little tables, or if it’s using a saucer, but you start to ask yourself the big questions. How do I want to spend my money? How do I want to raise my kids? What kind of lifestyle do I want? Do I really want the noise and chaos of NYC? Maybe I should live on a boat for year. Waiter, one more cup please.

5. Ok, because I love Bill so much I’m going to include one more quote. “I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted, or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored.” Here’s one of the catches of traveling a lot – you become jaded start to compare countries. Instead of appreciating each place you visit you say “oh, the Hermitage was far superior,” “this doesn’t hold a candle to the canals in Venice,” or ” It’s no Kathmandu.” This is a horribly pompous attitude to have and I know I’m guilty of it sometimes. I was reminded of how much I hated it when I met a one-upper in Salamanca. When I said I liked the bread, he said, “Really??? You have to try the bread in Paris.” When I said I loved the Cathedral, he said, “Really??? You have to see the Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul.” When I told him that I had seen it and that you really can’t compare the two, he then said, “Well it’s no Notre Dame.” I’m not quite sure how to prevent that snobby attitude, but maybe just being of aware of it is the first step.

6. People can be extremely self-conscious. While on our way to a restaurant we saw a toddler running around a fountain. He was having so much fun that we decided to sit on a bench and watch him. He ran around the fountain maybe five hundred times. It was super slippery and he must have fallen an equal number of times. Each time he fell he would crack up laughing. and then start over again. He was insanely adorable, and we could not stop laughing. Eventually his dad picked him up to leave and when he walked past us he asked with an accent that sounded like the Terminator, “You find something funny?” At first I expected him to laugh like it was a joke, but he looked like he was about to kill us. I was shocked and really I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. How could he be so offended by us laughing? I thought it was obvious that we were sharing in the kid’s joy. My only guess is that he thought we thought his son was stupid, or that we thought he was stupid for letting his kid fall down so much. Either way, why was his first assumption so negative? It makes me think, did I ever get self-conscious because I thought someone was laughing at me, but perhaps that were laughing with me?


7. I learned that when I’m tired, hot and hungry I become Traysaurous. It’s not pretty. I think I scared off I few kids – and maybe Mike too. No, actually he was brave enough to take this up close picture. On a serious note, I’m tired of always feeling tired. This trip has not only prompted me to take flamenco classes, but I’ve also decided to go to a sleep clinic. For years I suffered with insomnia, restless sleep, and sleep walking/talking. My roommate in Salamanca told me I stood up in the middle of the night and said, “this tent is filled with bees,” and then I tried to open an imaginary tent zipper. My brother told me that I woke up one night and asked if I could pay for the bus ticket with American cheese. One of the most annoying parts of this trip was that I was sleepy almost every day. I wanted to wake up fresh and ready to see the sites, but instead Traysaurous came out a little too often. I think my quality of life would greatly improve if I could get 8 hours of fantastic, uninterrupted sleep. With no bees or American cheese.