Two Days in St. Petersburg
Russia continues to be more restrictive on its tourists than other European countries. In order to enter Russia you must secure a visa from a Russian Consulate in the United States, costing $60 each. The visa was waived if you signed up with one of the ship’s tours and would not be moving around on your own. We had read that it was not very easy to get around on your own and taxi service was spotty at best, so we spent the big bucks and signed up for a full two-day tour.
We disembarked the Brilliance of the Seas to the sound of a three-piece Russian band playing American show tunes. We were required to clear Russian immigration by showing our passports and proving that we had a tour ticket before being allowed to head for our buses. Believe it or not our guide’s name was Natasha.
Our first stop was several miles outside the city at the Peterhof Grand Palace, the summer palace of Peter the Great and subsequent Czars and Czarinas. On the trip out of the city Natasha pointed out a monument that marks the place where the Germans were stopped on their invasion of the city (called Leningrad back then). The German army surrounded and laid siege to the city for over 900 days, but they were never able to capture the city itself. This horrible period, when a large part of the population was killed by war or starvation, seems to define much of what the city and its people are all about.
Peterhof, like most of the palaces outside the city, was heavily damaged during the war, but the artwork and most of the smaller furnishings were transported into the city prior to the arrival of the German army. Most of these treasures were stored in the immense basement of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral and have been returned to the palace as it has been restored. When we arrived we were dismayed to see a long line of tourists in front of us. Apparently the other cruise ships had gotten the jump on us. The line moved along fairly quickly, but it was almost an hour before we made it to the entrance. That was plenty of time for the vendors to work us over pretty good as they moved up and down the line selling post cards, military hats and pins, nesting dolls and all kinds of other cheap souvenirs. The prices seemed really reasonable, and all the prices were quoted in dollars. We quickly learned that no one was the least bit interested in rubles if there were dollars to be had.
As we moved through the ornately decorated rooms of the palace we were reminded of Versailles. This was also true when we exited into the huge gardens filled with dozens of large fountains and water features. The Russian royalty, like their European counterparts, knew how to live well.
We took a long walk through the gardens and down to the Baltic Sea where we were loaded onto a hydrofoil for a fast dash across the inlet and back to the Neva River and into the heart of St. Petersburg. We were bused to the Nevskij Palace Hotel for a lunch of beef stroganoff, and we were entertained by a group of young musicians and singers dressed in traditional Russian outfits and performing Russian folk songs and dances. Well, it was traditional until they broke into a tongue and cheek rendition of “Back in the USSR.”
After lunch we toured two of the more impressive churches in the city. The first was the Church of the Spilled Blood. This very ornate and very typically Russian Orthodox church was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in 1881. It was closed by Stalin in the 1930s and was used as a warehouse, but it has been meticulously restored and is filled with floor to ceiling mosaics, pink Italian marble, and an alter filled with semi-precious stones supported by four jasper columns. It is very extravagant.
Next we visited St. Isaac’s Cathedral. This is a huge church built more in a European architecture. It took forty years to build and was consecrated in 1858. The interior is lavishly decorated with huge pieces of carved Russian malachite, marble, lazulite and other precious and semi-precious stones and minerals. The dome is gold gilded and is said to have consumed 220 pounds of gold. At today’s prices I think that is about 1.5 million dollars worth of gold paint. The dome is the fourth largest in the world behind St. Peter’s in Rome, the Dumo in Florence, and St. Paul’s in London. Pam and I have visited the first two and we were scheduled to see St. Paul’s when we returned to London. Unfortunately I have only climbed to the top of the Dumo in Florence and Natasha wasn’t about to hold up the tour for an hour and let me climb to the top of St. Isaac’s.
We returned to the ship to relax for a while. I couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening with the Diamondbacks so I paid seven dollars for an internet connection only to find out they had dropped seven out of their last nine games, but they were still in first place. We went to dinner but skipped the show so that we could get to bed early. We wanted to be wide-awake for our second day of touring in St. Petersburg.
We were up at 6:45 for breakfast and were off the ship
thirty minutes early to get through the immigration lines.
We were the first ones to our bus so we got the front seats and a chance to visit with Natasha. She has traveled around the world, but says she has no desire to live somewhere else. She genuinely seemed to feel passionately about her city and her desire to share it with others.
Throughout both days of touring she spoke non-stop about everything we were passing, seeing, or smelling. She never referred to a note and was never at a loss for an answer to any question. Some of the group privately complained that she gave us way too much information, but we liked it and tried to soak up every word.
The high point of our trip was St. Petersburg, but the high point of St. Petersburg was the Hermitage Museum. Rivaling the Louvre in Paris as a virtual treasure trove the Hermitage is housed in a series of buildings that include the opulent Winter Palace of the Czars. The architecture of the building, along with the huge rooms and staircases, is a museum in itself, but the collection of art is just amazing. We were told that the collection includes millions of items. You could spend one minute on each item in the Hermitage collection and you would still need many years to see it all. Needless to say our three-hour tour was only going to hit the highlights.
To our delight we were the first bus to arrive and Natasha made sure we were waiting on the front steps prior to the Museum opening at 9:00. As we waited on the sidewalk we were serenaded by a two-man band playing some non-Russian music. Their repertoire included The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, Dixieland, California Here I Come, Anchors Away, and The Eyes of Texas. Obviously they earned some tips.
When the doors finally opened Natasha pushed us along giving us just enough time to see things but keeping us from being overtaken by the groups behind us. For the first hour it felt very much like a private tour, which we enjoyed immensely. Of the twelve known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci two are in the Hermitage, and we spent a few minutes with each of them thrilled that we could stand close enough to pick up the brush strokes. Before our tour was over we were able to do the same with dozens of original paintings by Van Gough, Raphael, Rubens, Van Dyck, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, and Rembrandt. In fact there was a large room filled with originals by Rembrandt.
I have never been much of an art connoisseur. I am
generally less impressed with the art itself as with its
historical significance and, I might add, with the prices
that someone would be willing to pay for some of it.
However, Natasha led us to her favorite Rembrandt and explained what the painting said to her. It was a large painting of the Prodigal Son kneeling at the foot of his father. The story is one that I have heard dozens of times growing up in Sunday School. As I looked deeply at the painting and listened to Natasha’s description I began to see what she was able to see. The face of the father, who is meant to represent God, is filled with the glow of love for his son. The son traveled some wrong roads and made some really bad decisions, yet the father’s face is filled with love, and forgiveness, and joy that his son has come home.
As I stared into the eyes of Rembrandt’s father figure my own eyes began to water, and for a moment I realized how a piece of art can really speak to the soul. I remained transfixed for several minutes after my group had moved on. Then I wiped my eyes and hustled to catch up. There was a Michelangelo sculpture waiting ahead.
After eating salmon and borsch soup at a local restaurant we were dropped at the Babushka gift shop to spend some of those much needed dollars. Then we toured the Peter and Paul Fortress. Many of the Czars and their families are entombed in the small cathedral on the grounds of the fortress. To wrap up our day we boarded a boat for a leisurely cruise up and down the Neva River. Natasha spoke non-stop for the next two hours giving us the history of every building, bridge, and park we passed as a waiter brought us champagne and caviar canapés.
We were exhausted by the time we returned to the ship, but we hated to leave knowing that there was so much of St. Petersburg that we had left unseen. We tipped Natasha generously and hoped that we could return someday and let her show us much more of her beautiful city.