Blog St Petersburg, Russia
Well, this blog will be hard to write to try and express what we have seen here in St Petersburg. It is a stunning city and we have been amazed at the buildings, architecture, etc. And the wealth of previous rulers as expressed in the buildings and land they had. We have had two days here and we chose to go on a private tour. This involves a car, a driver and an English speaking guide. We so appreciated doing it this way – no queues, excellent information and Karina, our guide, had excellent English and we enjoyed some jokes with her too. We were also very lucky with the weather. Apparently the skies are mostly grey here all year except for July. But we have had sun every day and about 25 to 30 degrees. Karina repeatedly said she couldn’t believe the weather.
The first day here customs was a bit of a hassle. We had to be off the ship at 8am to meet Karina, but so did the first two tour bus people so there was a bit of a queue to get through customs. No smiles or chatting from those people! We didn’t need to arrange a visa as it was sorted via the tour – so in effect our tour ticket was also our visa. You are not allowed off the ship unless you have a visa (which you have to arrange in your country of residence) or a tour arranged. So we haven’t been able to go wandering in to town etc. That has not stopped the crew who has marine visas and they go ashore after work at night and some don’t return till 6am and start work at 6.30. Apparently the secret is to drink copious amounts of red bull when you get back on the ship!! Just while I mention the ship crew – they are fantastic!! Very friendly, helpful etc. One of the benefits of being on a smaller ship. The bar lady calls Peter Mr. Peter. Last night we had dinner with Canadian friends we have made on the ship then we all sat on the deck listening to the party music at the pool and watching the amazing sunset. Two of the crew joined us and we drank Russian vodka and had a lot of laughs with cruise stories, including Peter’s fishing story.
Right, back to our time in St Petersburg. So after customs Karina was waiting for us with an “Esplin” sign. Very easy to find. The driver was called Igor and didn’t speak a word, was rude and wouldn’t come to pick us up when Karina took us for an unscheduled walk in to the centre of town. She said “I don’t like that man – don’t tip him”. He was not a happy chappy at the end when Peter shook his hand and no tip was left there!
So, day one. Before I start, a warning – there are a lot of churches in this part. But these ones are truly something else! We first went to a local church (Cathedral of St Nicholas) where a Russian Orthodox service was happening. The church was amazing in its own right (gold leaf, decorations, art, etc) but with the priests singing (no musical instruments) and chanting and echoing around the church it was a very spiritual moment.
After a drive and seeing some of the local sights off to St Issacs Cathedral. This one is famous for its huge gold dome. And it is huge! How do they keep them clean…………… In the same square as St Issacs was the Astoria Hotel – where Hitler had planned to have his big party after the war. He even had the invitations printed already. It is a huge place and we went in to the foyer to have a look. All marble and chandelers.
Then we got to view the river, the Winter Palace, statues galore, Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Aurora Cruiser – which was the navy ship that fired the blank shot to start the revolution here.
And then………… we went to see the Church of the Spilled Blood. Oh what a place and what a story. I wont bore you with all the details but it is basically a shrine to Alexander II. Amazing both inside and out. What they built way back in 1880’s……….. it has 220 sq metres of mosaics in side! We really were amazed and kept saying “Wow”, “wow”, “Wow”.
We got back to the ship about 2pm in time for lunch of course. The lunches on board you have two choices (three if you include room service, but who would with all these views from the decks!) One is a full buffet with foods galore and the other is a Grill by the pool – with hamburgers, wings, ribs, baked potato etc. The buffet changes everyday and usually has a theme. Today had no theme but options included soup, a sandwich bar, a Caesar salad bar, hot beef sliced to order, pork medallions, chicken escallops, vegetarian pad thai, tons of vegetable dishes, a taco bar (mmmmmm great chilli and best ever guacamole!), a bread bar, a salad bar with 5 different salads and a dessert bar. Oh, and of course the ice cream bar! Wine is complimentary with lunch.
Then the next day we had a full day tour with Karina and a new driver, Constantine. What a day. We visited the Summer Palace (oh my goodness!), the Hermitage Museum, which is the Winter Palace, and saw a few extra sights. We are kicking ourselves we didn’t ask to see the subways, as apparently they are full of chandeliers, art and amazing to see.
The summer palace is very hard to explain. So amazing. No photos allowed inside due to the original 19th century silk coating the walls instead of wallpaper, the original dinner set etc. Some articles had been taken away and hidden before the war which is how come they survived and the others are reproductions based on drawings and writings. We have never seen anything like it. And the grounds with the fountains…………..
And yes, it is real gold gilt on the statues. They cover them in the winter with boxes. The fountains are very powerful and have no pumps or anything – it is all gravity fed. And designed so long ago – it is quite incredible.
Us at the Summer Palace gardens
On the way back to town (an hour drive which was a 3 day horse trek back in Peter the Great’s time) we stopped off at a tourist village to see a traditional village look.
Then Karina took us for lunch at a traditional café, instead of the usual big hotel restaurants. We were very happy about this. Turns out Russia is famous for its pies – oh I wish now I had taken a photo of them. A whole server full of these pies – all beautifully decorated with pastry cut outs, and full of interesting insides – chicken and rice with dill, meat, mushroom, fish etc. And each pie is square and HUGE (e.g. 1 foot by 8 inches) and you order by the size you want. Peter also had the borsch – the beetroot soup and I had something I can’t spell or pronounce……. Meat cooked in dumplings, smothered in sour cream. A lot of sour cream is used here. They were OK, but different. Once again a lot of fresh dill on top.
Then off to the Hermitage Museum.
Oh to see Renoir, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, …………… all together. There are over 3 million works displayed and needless to say we didn’t see all of them (thank goodness!! Phew!). This is all in the winter palace so the building itself is quite something. I am sorry I can’t quite portray the feeling, the opulence etc via words. I hope the photos do help.
Raphael’s ahll painted by Raphael at the request of Catherine the Great, to rival teh Vatican’s paintings.
This 24 carat gold clock was presented to Catherine the Great – the animals are animated and each Wednesday at 1pm they still wind it up for the animals to move.
We got back to the ship at 4pm and I felt a little sad to be saying goodbye to Karina. She was so lovely and knew so much we had formed a bond with her already.
Last night we ate with the Canadian friends at one of the two specialty restaurants on board, where the food is amazing and you need to pay a little extra to eat there. We had a great dinner (French onion soup, goats cheese soufflé, pork and then dessert) and then joined the party at the poolside with a band, singers and such. Watched the sunset go down at 11.15pm!!!!!!!!! Then we went off to the night club and danced to a DJ music and were still up to watch the bridges over the river open. Of 300 bridges here 25 open (raise up) every night from 1.30am till 5am to allow ships to enter the river. It was a very beautiful sight.
So that is St Petersburg. We could have spent a week here of course but feel so privileged and in awe to see what we have. And for the country to have rebuilt it so much since the war bombings is just incredible.
We sail tonight to Tallin which is in Estonia. (actually we have been there but havent done teh blog fo rthat yet =- and just getting this one posted now. More later)
Love to you all
Jo and Peter
PS: while I write this and then load it on to the web Mr. Peter himself is by the pool, swimming and reading his book. Just thought I’d add that in!! J