As our SPB Tours van made its way through the city, we crossed onto Vasilievsky Island, which for over a hundred years served as the City’s port. When the port was moved farther down the Neva River, the island became home to the Stock Exchange, and today the site for museums, universities and other public buildings. We continued by the two Rostral Columns, studded with ships’ prows, that served as oil-fired navigation beacons in the 1800s and today are reminders of that time (on some public holidays gas torches are still lit on them). Our destination was Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, located in the middle of Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island.
When Peter the Great re-claimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703 and that day became the birthday of the city of Saint Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed. For that reason, from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city’s garrison and rather notoriously served as a high security political jail. Among the first inmates was Peter’s rebellious son Alexei and more famously Dostoyevsky, Gorkiy, Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother, Alexander.
In the middle of the fortress stands the impressive Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian Emperors, Empresses and Grand Dukes from Peter the Great to Alexander III, until the end of the Romanov empire. Executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and is family were moved here in 1997 from the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg.
The Cathedral was the first church in the city to be built of stone (between 1712-33) and its design is unusual for a Russian Orthodox church. On top of the cathedrals’ gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. This weathervane is one of the most prominent symbols of Saint Petersburg, and at 404 feet tall, the cathedral was the highest building in the city until the 20th century. Other buildings in the fortress include the City History Museum and the Mint, one of only two places in Russia where coins and medals are minted.