Well, we finally made it to St Petersburg! This was expected to be the highlight of this trip. Our first day was a little overcast with some very light rain at times but the second day we were there was a beautiful sunny day. It was one of the 60 sunny days they get every year in this Russian city. We were very lucky to get one of them!
We had arranged a 2 day tour with SPB Tours including a night tour for our stay in St Petersburg. Going through immigration here is a little more intense than other stops you go through. You must have a Russian visa to enter the city but many of the tour companies such as ours provides this service. The first day getting off the ship takes some extra time and there are long lines with everyone getting off the ship at the same time. We boarded our tour bus a little after 8 AM which only had 17 people for our two day tour. Our guide was a local professional Russian tour guide that spoke good English. She was extremely friendly compared to the people you see along the streets and in the tour attractions and she told us that in general Russian people do not smile at you unless they know you. Our first stop was a Russian subway to get a taste of what the local people experience. It wasn’t that much different than other metro subways in other international cities except there isn’t any English translation to where you are going so it would certainly be much more difficult for non-Russian speaking people to use. From our short ride we went into a Farmers Market to see some of the produce and souvenirs sold in the area.
Our next stop was Peter and Paul’s Fortress, which was built to protect St Petersburg from the Swedish back in the 1700’s. This was a very opulent fortress with the highest steeple in St Petersburg on the church. The “small” angel at the top of the steeple had a wing span of 20’ but you could not have guessed that looking at it from down below. It is amazing how much gold you see in all the churches, cathedrals and palaces throughout St Petersburg. Outside the walls of the fortress are some small beaches on the Neva River which runs through the city. Starting in March, people (mostly men according to our guide) will start sun bathing even though they are sitting next to snow and ice.
Our group then boarded a hydrofoil boat for a 40 minute ride out to Peterhof Palace which was built by Peter the Great as his summer residence. Peter was one of the earlier House of Romanov Czars and built St Petersburg back in the early 1700’s. Originally it was the capital of Russia and is now the second largest city in Russia behind the current capital, Moscow. We did not go into Peterhoff Palace but took pictures from the outside of both the building and the gardens. What was most interesting about the gardens was all of the fountains constructed without any use of pumps. All of the water shooting up in the air is strictly by gravity and is quite an engineering feat. There are literally hundreds of fountains all “powered” by gravity. Once again the gold that adorns this palace and the fountains is quite amazing. The tour included lunch which provided us the opportunity to partake in some Russian staples such as borsch and beef stroganoff. We also had the traditional vodka to start the meal.
After lunch we went to Catherine’s Summer Palace which is located in Pushkin outside the main city. Once again you are stunned with all the opulence throughout this palace. The Amber Room is inside this particular palace and was a room built in panels of Amber jewels that literally were priceless. Unfortunately during World War II the Germans destroyed this palace and stole the Amber Room which has never been seen again as it was originally created. It is unknown whether it still exists in some buried vault in Germany or moved off to South America someplace. The room was recreated over many years by master jewelers. The entire palace was rebuilt with the Amber room being reconstructed starting in 2003. No pictures can be taken in this room and the pictures shown in our blog are taken from outside the room looking in. Almost all of the palaces that you view today have been reconstructed by the government and turned into museums. Most all of this reconstruction occurred after the Soviet Union was abolished back in 1992. It was interesting listening to the many stories from our guide about the difference between Russia today and how life was in the Soviet Union with the KGB. She told us one story of her being called into a room shortly after she attended college and was found talking to some foreign people she had just happened to meet. She was asked many pointed questions by the KGB and told not to talk to foreigners again. Now she makes her living talking to foreigners in the new Russia. This was the end of our first day’s tour.
We arrived back on the ship around 6 PM but by the time we cleared immigration and dropped off a few souvenirs we had no time to grab any dinner before going back outside for our 7 PM night tour. Our tour was named “See St Petersburg as a Local”. We started the tour on the bus by being given four samples of different tasting vodka. Since we are not vodka drinkers, none of these really tasted good and two of them were down right disgusting! I guess we will never be a local. The night tour took us down to Nevsky Prospect which is the main road through town. We walked a mile or so looking at some of the sights and being provided some of the history. Much of the history focused around the siege of the city when it was then called Leningrad and the Germans surrounded the city for almost 3 years but never gained entry. They bombed the city and destroyed many buildings. Over one third of the population of the city died of starvation during the siege. After our walk we boarded our boat for a night canal tour. It was nice to see the buildings lit up at night and you got an interesting perspective from seeing them from the water. Bottles of vodka were passed around and you could drink as much as you wanted during the boat ride. Based on the samples we had on the bus, we elected to pass on the vodka and just admired the sights. It was an enjoyable boat ride and the rain held off.
The next day we had to rise early again to catch our 8 AM bus tour and what a beautiful sunshine day! We started off with a 1.5 hour canal boat ride but this was on a great sightseeing boat with a very good narrative of what we were seeing. The boat dropped us off at the Hermitage which is a museum created from Catherine The Great's Palace. This was another amazing example of all the wealth these Czars had when they ruled. This palace had all original paintings collected over the years by the Czars. The artwork in this palace is supposed to be comparable to the artwork you can find in Paris’ Louvre or the New York City Met. There are works by all the masters including Michelangelo, Rafael, Leonardo Di Vinci and Rembrandt. They must have really liked Rembrandt because they had 25 of his paintings including the Prodigal Son Returns which we have provided you a picture of in the blog. There are thousands and thousands of original paintings and sculptures in this Hermitage which consists of 6 different buildings and three million individual exhibits than you can see. They only put ten or twenty thousand on exhibit at a time and change these out every month. After leaving this amazing museum we headed to see the Spilled Blood Cathedral. This was actually more of a memorial than a cathedral. It was built in spot were Czar Alexander II was killed by terrorists. He was a much loved Czar and they built a memorial to remember him. This could be considered one of the true icons of St Petersburg. It is a very colorful Russian orthodox style church. When we think of Russia, many of us have a picture of this type of church in our minds. As pretty as it looks on the outside, the inside of the church is just as nice with beautiful mosaics adorning the walls. The ceiling is painted in gorgeous murals. We were amazed that there was a lot of discussion to tear down this church to improve the traffic in the city. What a loss of art if they would have done that! During the war this church was severely damaged and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that they restored it back to its original beauty. You notice that almost all the restoration of churches and palaces were done after 1992 (i.e. post-Soviet Union). The soviet government did not allow religion other than communism. People were not allowed to go to church. It wasn’t until Russia became its own country outside of the Soviet Union that you could once again go to church and all of these grand palaces and cathedrals of their past history were restored. That is also why all of the city’s cathedrals are really museums now and you have to pay an admission fee to view them.
After viewing the Spilled Blood Cathedral, we went to lunch and had a really great meal at a very interesting little restaurant. The desert was the best part! It was a layered honey cake that everyone wanted to get the recipe for after we ate it (secret recipe)! After lunch we went to the Yusupov Palace which was where Rasputin was murdered. Felix Yusupov tried to poison him and eventually shot him many times before he was eventually thought to be dead. He was then thrown into the river and when an eventual medical exam was done of the body it was found he actually drowned and neither the poison nor the shooting killed him. Rasputin was extremely close to Czarina Alexandra and it was thought he was killed for having too much influence on the Czar. The Russian revolution to overthrow the Czars occurred only a year later. You can see a recreation of the murder scene with Felix Yusupov and Rasputin in one of the blog pictures. In this palace there was a beautiful theater and we were given a brief show by four Russian singers who sang a Russian folk song that was really great to listen to. It is amazing to see so many of these huge palaces around this city. Most of them now are just used as commercial or residential buildings and the people occupying them probably don’t even know about the history of their building. Our last stop on this tour was St Isaac’s Cathedral. This is another iconic building in the city that you see from many different places. It is once again a very beautiful building on the inside and supposedly very similar to the Vatican in many ways. You can also walk around the cupola like the Vatican but we didn’t have time to do this. It was a real engineering effort to build the cathedral. A very large scaffold was built to hoist the huge columns that were placed around the cupola. It is also amazing to see renderings of the three previous churches built and destroyed to build a larger church on the same ground until this huge cathedral was eventually built. The conclusion of our tour was a quick stop at Starbucks so that on some folks could get a Starbucks cup in Russian. Included in our blog pictures is Starbucks in Russia.
It was quite an amazing trip to St Petersburg. There are so many beautiful things that we saw and many interesting stories we were told. This dialogue in this blog has gotten quite long and we apologize for its length but there is so much to say about this city. As one last funny story to tell you, we have included a picture of a Russian car. No one in Russia wants to buy a Russian car because they are too expensive. They are not expensive to purchase. They are too expensive to operate. Our tour guide says that a Russian built car might need to be repaired once a week to keep it running. Almost all the cars you see in the city are built in different countries. I guess you need to be a mechanic to own a Russian car. There are so many great Russian stories that we were told, that we wish we had time to tell you.
When we got back to our ship an hour before we were set to leave this port we were amazed at how strong the winds were. The waves were pounding on our ship in the port. An hour later when we were supposed to be sailing off to Helsinki we were advised from the captain that we were being forced to stay another night in St Petersburg because the strong winds it was unsafe to leave the port. Unfortunately this has caused us to miss Helsinki (our next planned port). Regardless we are at sea now heading for Stockholm and actually appreciated the rest after two long days in St Petersburg.
Happy Cruising, Greg & Sharon