Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Our Baltic Cruise: St Petersburg, Russia

Yesterday in this space I told you of our visit to the beautiful city of Tallinn, Estonia. Today I'll try to summarize our two-day visit to a fabulous city that I can now happily strike off my bucket list: St Petersburg, Russia. Be warned: this will be a very long post ... you may want to read it in sections!

The Regal Princess docked in the harbor at St Petersburg at about 6:45 AM on Monday, June 20th. We had signed up for a two-day tour package that required us to report to our assembly location by 6:15 (!), so as to be ready to navigate the Russian immigration bureaucracy as soon as the authority to disembark was given.

Unlike everyplace else we visited, our travel documents and cruise cards were checked each time we left the ship and each time we returned to it - a total of six times over two days. The first time, we were checked by a young policeman who was bound and determined to be the very serious and totally official protector of the nation - no smiles, no chit-chat, just careful and very detailed examination of our docs and the usual flurry of typing and stamping before handing everything back to us without a word. All the other times, we were checked through by smiling young lady police officers who at least grinned (okay, grimaced) when I greeted them with my very best college Russian*.

We boarded our bus at about 7:15 and met our guide for the next two days, Natasha, whose regular job was as an history teacher ... she spoke marvelous English with an adorable Russian accent, and was very knowledgable and very patient with all of us, the great majority of whom had never been in Russia before.

The tour packed a great deal of sightseeing and experiences into two very full days, which began when the bus deposited us on a large open square in front of a building belonging to the Russian Defense Ministry! It was quite a novel experience for me as a retired Air Force officer to be wandering around an area crisscrossed by large numbers of uniformed Russian troops ... who pretty much ignored us! No, I did not try to take pictures of any of them.

From the square we walked a few short blocks to a landing on one of the city's canals and boarded a low-slung sightseeing boat for our tour of the city from the water. One of the first things we saw was this sign, warning of the low bridges along the route and foot-stomped frequently by Natasha and by the ship's captain:

The tour on the water lasted a bit more than an hour and a half under gloriously clear skies and bright sunshine (a real treat after the miserable weather at our previous stops). We were each presented with a "glass" (actually a soft plastic cup) of champagne to sip as we cruised along the Neva River and the network of canals that run through the city and give it the nickname "Venice of the North." Here are a few pictures taken from the boat ...

In this picture, check the upper right-hand corner ... partially hidden behind the light-colored square is a young man who ran alongside our boat the entire way, except when we left the canals and entered the open Neva River. Each time we passed under a bridge, he would be at the midpoint, happily waving, and he'd then pace us to the next bridge to do the same thing, occasionally turning cartwheels or doing other little tricks. Of course, he was waiting at the top of the landing when the trip was over, looking for tips ...

This picture shows the shore of the Neva River outside the St Peter and Paul Fortress, the site of an annual sand-sculpting competition which was in progress ...

In this picture, we're nearing the end of the boat ride, and on the horizon are the gorgeous domes of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, more about which later ...

After the boat ride, we walked back to the bus for a short ride to the world-renowned museum of The State Hermitage Museum, where we were able to enter for a group tour at 9:00 AM, well before the usual opening hour of 10:30.

Amazingly enough, we were allowed to take as many photographs as we wanted, although the use of a flash was forbidden, as it was in most (but not all) places we visited. One feature of every palace and museum we visited was the presence in each room of a stern-faced middle-aged-to-elderly woman whose function was to glare at us and practice her English vocabulary, which consisted mainly of "no touch!" "no flash!" or "no photo!", depending on the location. Agnes and I took dozens of photos, but few if any of them capture the total magnificence of the vast museum. I'll just show you this representative one, which is of one of the interior staircases. As I remarked several times, I didn't know there was this much gold leaf in the whole world ...

From the Hermitage, we got back on the bus for the trip to our next stop - the aforementioned Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. But en route, we passed by this building, "Dom Knigi," the "House of Books," the oldest and largest bookstore in St Petersburg. However, if you look closely at the inscription above the door, you'll see that it reads, "Kompaniya Zinger'" - it was originally built in 1902 to be the local headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company ... a fact I found fascinating, as I come from a family with a long association with Singer.

We soon arrived - along with about 397,000 other tourists, at the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, a beautiful church built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was beautiful almost beyond description, both inside and out. None of the pictures I took inside can begin to do justice to its baroque opulence ...

After that visit, the bus delivered us to a restaurant where we had lunch (featuring, as always, shots of vodka and a folk music and dance show), and then it was back on the bus for a visit to the Yusupov Palace, the scene of the murder in 1916 of the "Mad Monk" Grigori Rasputin. We visited the cellar where the actual murder took place, which features this waxwork display showing Prince Yusupov and Rasputin ...

I can tell you that the rest of the cellar is very creepy, with low ceilings and eerie brickwork. If I'd been Rasputin, there's no way I'd have gone into that cellar.

From the Yusupov Palace we went back to the Regal Princess to change clothes for the evening part of the program, which was a tour to Tsarskoye Selo, Empress Catherine the Great's palace in the town of Pushkin, north of St Petersburg. The bus ride took about an hour and a half, and we first stopped for a brief visit to the Imperial Carriage Museum (meh) before being dropped off before the majestic gilded gates of the palace ...

When we went in through the gates, tables had been set up along the pathway to the palace's main entrance with glasses of champagne and vodka and platters of canapes. The palace was closed to general visitation, and was open by special arrangement for the tour groups from the Regal Princess. After having some caviar crackers and a glass of champagne, we took a few pictures of the facade of the palace, which was too large for my camera to handle without a wide-angle lens ... this picture shows about a third of the frontage ...

As we approached the main entrance, a band in Tsarist imperial uniforms was playing ...

Inside, we donned the usual booties over our shoes to protect the floors, and proceeded to the upper floors to tour the inside of the palace. We took lots of pictures, but frankly, after a while there's only so much gold leaf and baroque decor you can handle. I'll just share this picture with you - the highlight of the tour - the reconstructed Amber Room of the palace.

The legendary original Amber Room vanished during World War II, when it was removed and carted away by the Nazis and never found. When the palace was reconstructed after the war, the room was painstakingly recreated by teams of Russian artisans. It's beauty is beyond anything I can describe ... where most of the palace is a blaze of light and gold leaf, the Amber Room literally glows with warm light. The picture doesn't even begin to do it justice ... it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

At the end of the tour, we removed our booties and were herded into the palace's grand ballroom, where a string orchestra was performing a concert. We each had a glass of champagne and were seated to listen to the concert, and after a few minutes the music stopped and one of the uniformed guards appeared in the doorway and blew a trumpet fanfare - and in walked "Catherine the Great" and her escort, followed by an interpreter.

The "Empress" gave a short welcoming speech which was duly translated, and then she and her escort sat down to enjoy the rest of the concert, which also included a young couple in period costumes dancing a complex minuet. It was an amazing experience - one could almost believe it was the actual imperial court of the 1700's.

After the concert we gradually filtered out and headed to our buses, but found the uniformed imperial band still out on the grounds playing away. While we stopped to watch and listen, a horse-drawn carriage rumbled up and a man and woman emerged, and proceeded to dance a Viennese waltz to the band's music. If their waltz was not quite in time to the music, we were willing to forgive them ... they were, after all, dancing on sand and gravel!

After that, it was back on the bus and on to dinner and yet another folk music and dance show at a rustic restaurant in the forest not far from the palace. The food was authentically Russian (and, of course, included borscht and vodka), but Agnes wasn't impressed with the main course of stuffed cabbage rolls ... her comment was "I didn't like them when my aunt made them, and I don't like them now!"

While we were at dinner, the beautiful weather we'd been enjoying all day took it's leave ... when we came out of the restaurant it was raining lightly, and by the time we arrived back at the ship - at half past midnight! - it was pouring. Not an auspicious omen for the start of our second day, just a few hours off!

The show time for the second day was a somewhat more genteel 7:00 AM on the bus. Agnes was exhausted from the pace of the previous day and the late return, and decided to remain on the ship, while I went on the rest of the tour. 

The day began with a two-hour bus ride out to yet another palace, Peter the Great's vast tarpaper shack known as Peterhof. It had the usual understated architecture and endless procession of gilded halls, all of which I duly observed and noted in my journal, as photography was not allowed inside Peterhof (it was at one time, but without flash, as Natasha explained, but so many people kept using flashes anyhow that photography ended up being banned altogether). We still had to wear the booties on our shoes, though, and pass by the eagle eyes of the scowling protective matrons in each room.

This picture inadequately shows part of the Grand Cascade of the fabulous fountains behind Peterhof ...

And this view looks back toward that cascade from about 2/3 of a mile away, down the long canal that stretches out to the Tsar's dock on the Gulf of Finland ... a walk I made twice (in pouring rain) to kill time before the fountain show. I was standing on a bridge over the canal to take this picture, and while I was doing so, a young woman in worker's overalls was gamely marching back and forth across the bridge with a push-broom in an endless (and futile) attempt to sweep away the steadily-accumulating sand, mud, and water. In this she was involuntarily assisted by a pair of elderly oriental tourists who were shuffling along, still wearing the protective booties they'd forgotten to take off when leaving the palace.

The fountains at Peterhof are gravity operated (no mechanical pumps) and only run once a day - a show of about 10 minutes at 11:00 AM, to recorded symphonic music. It's difficult to describe the scene, with fountains and cascades and armies of tourists jockeying for position in the rain ... but it's beautiful.

After seeing the fountain show, we returned to our bus (past a group of tip-seeking musicians energetically playing hits like "God Bless America" and "Anchors Aweigh") and returned to St Petersburg for lunch at an upscale restaurant called "Troika." Yes, they served vodka with lunch, along with the usual folk music show.

After lunch, it was back onto the bus for the ride to the last two stops of the day. First was at St Isaac's Cathedral, another in a series of vast, magnificent cathedrals that dot the city. There isn't much to say about this one that doesn't apply to every other staggeringly gilded, baroque cathedral in Russia, but here's an interesting note: in the picture below, shot straight up to the summit of the central dome, you can see a tiny white dove of peace. The actual wingspan of that dove is three meters, which gives you a concept of the enormous size of the cathedral ...

One fascinating interior display showed models of the four versions of the cathedral that have existed through the years. The first model showed a much smaller St Isaac's that - literally - sank into the swamp on which St Petersburg is built. Today, the famous statue of Peter the Great stands on that site.

The final, and largest, model was the most interesting - it showed the cathedral as it exists today, and was carved from a single block of wood.

The final stop of the day was at - yes - another cathedral, the appropriately-named Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, located in the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul. The main factor of interest in this cathedral is that it is the final resting place of nearly all the Russian imperial rulers since Peter the Great. As such, it has at least as much baroque gold decor as any other cathedral, as you can see in this representative photo -

The interior area of the cathedral is dotted with side rooms and enclosures which house the tombs of the various rulers and members of the Romanov family. This picture shows the tomb of Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) on the left, with those of Tsar Peter III and Empress Anna. The marble tombs you see are not the actual burial places - the bodies are interred beneath the cathedral floor, and the solid marble tombs sit atop the actual graves.

It was all very impressive and moving.

We spent about a half hour in the cathedral, and then headed back to the bus for our final trip back to the ship. We were running quite late because of delays caused by the horrendous St Petersburg traffic, but happily the ship waited for us ... and for the many other busloads of passengers still mired in traffic behind us (the designated "all aboard" time was 4:30 PM, we didn't get back until 5:15, and the last buses straggled in shortly after 6:00).

That's the story of our visit to St Petersburg. At the risk of boring you still further, here are a few random observations in closing about the city and our time there:

- The old, imperial parts of the city are fabulously beautiful. The Soviet-era and more "modern" parts of the city, not so much.

- Traffic is almost indescribably hideous and parking is chaotic. Our tour bus at one point spent about 20 minutes going inch-by-inch down a short street so parked-in that the driver had at most two inches of clearance on either side.

- Natasha was a wonderful guide and did a superb job of keeping us well-informed and on schedule (as much as she could given traffic delays). She was open and frank about the good and bad points of Russian history (didn't try to gloss anything over), but I did wonder about her true political leanings - she frequently referred to a specific point in history as "The Great October Socialist Revolution," but I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not ... and didn't want to ask.

- The endless parade of vast palaces and huge cathedrals and the overwhelming magnificence of The Hermitage can leave you jaded as they all start to run together. Had I not kept up my travel journal each day to anchor the photos we took, I'd be hard-pressed to remember what we saw and what it all meant. It's sad when you visit a breathtakingly beautiful church and think to yourself, "Again?"

- With the exception of the grouchy old ladies frowning over the rooms of the various palaces and The Hermitage (and the passport checker on the first day), every person we met was pleasant and friendly. It's easy and appealing to generalize, but the average Russian is probably pretty much like you or I.

And now you've probably had enough travelogue for one day. Tomorrow we'll move ahead to our visit to Helsinki, Finland ... and the post will not be nearly this long. More thoughts then.


* My Russian teacher told me one time that although my grammar was ... deficient, I had one of the best commands of the Russian accent she'd ever heard in an American. Her comment was, "You speak a perfect accent without a trace of Russian!"


eViL pOp TaRt said...

Those photographs were stunning! It was an eye-opener into a magnificent city and palace!

Kristen Drittsekkdatter said...

That is an awesome place! Designed to intimidate the commoners.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer said...

Beautiful pictures!