The mooring in St Peterburg was at a new facility quite some distance from this large city. In the distance we would see the high density unity rising to the sky and a freeway under construction. We were required to be at the tour lounge at 6.15am. I don’t know how I booked something that would have us up at this hour of the morning but that’s how it was.
Once we moved through Russian customs, we boarded the bus and headed through the buildings we had seen in the distance, both residential and industrial precincts. It was quite overcast but one could see that this city had buildings and architecture that no other city has. It was unbelievable. They were all massive and if it was possible to renovate each of them, it would surely be the most distinguished city that I have ever seen.
Our Russian guide, Anna, took us to the start of a river and canal ride, not the best at this hour of the morning, quite cold in fact due to the overcast skies and some spits of rain. We were given champagne, not actually what I would expect to drink at 7am in the morning. Of course, St Petersburg calls itself Venice of the North, with its many bridges and canals that weave across the city. It gave us a good idea of many of the sights of this great city. Peter the Great conceived the River Neva as the main thoroughfare of the city, so it could transport people and merchandise. The Fontanka and Moika Rivers run off the Neva.
The Hermitage Museum, the Tsar’s former Winter Palace plus four other buildings, was next on the list with its many valuable exhibits, paintings by Da Vinci, Monet and Rembrandt, to name a few. The elaborate chandeliers and parquetry flooring added to the opulence. We were constantly under the eye of the ladies who help supervise the museum along with the alarms that sound should your body go over the roped lines. Setting the alarm off was meet with a stern grunt, Russian style. We were given a guided tour through the gold room but were not allowed to take photos in there. There were massive vases made of jade and other semi-precious stones. The value of these exhibits was priceless and one wonders how the royal families acquired so much wealth.
Next stop was the Saviour on Spilled Blood Cathedral, a restored church boasting a “Russian Style” exterior and the iconic masterpiece that one sees in tourist magazines. All the murals are made of ceramic tiles. There are no chairs in this church as it is Russian Orthodox and they stand throughout their services. The significance of this cathedral is that houses the memorial to Tsar Alexander II, the shrine being built on the spot where he was mortally wounded, the date of his assassination being March 1, 1881. The memorial is adorned with serpentine, jasper, altairhodonite and gemstones from the Urals. The exterior is a brown coloured brick but the onion-shaped spires are covered in gold and other colours.
Lunch was next and weddings were the done thing. Several bridal parties were outside our restaurant as it was near the registry office. They have wedding drinks on the street and everyone brings you flowers on your wedding day. We sat with an American lady and her two sons, eating salad, borsch (beetroot soup with vegetables), stroganoff and mashed potato and apple strudel. Vodka and wine were on the table to drink as well. The food was quite enjoyable.
Once we were back on the bus, we made a stop at a monument near St Isaac’s Cathedral. Opposite this statue of a horse and rider was the palace that Catherine once lived in. She didn’t like the monument as it was as she had to look at the back side of her father and his horse, so it was turned around for her but, over the years, it has been returned to its original position.
St Isaac’s Cathedral was impressive. The walls were adorned with marble and paintings. The domed ceilings were breath taking. The central gold dome is one of the largest in the world and is covered in 220 pounds of gold. It had stained glass windows and heavy iron doors. It started as a small building and over the centuries following fires and war, it has grown to what it is today. This version was commissioned by Alexander I in 1818 and took more than three decades to build. During the war, the gold dome was painted grey so that it could not be seen and hence, it survived the bombings.
As we drove back through the city in the afternoon, the sun broke through and it was time to snap a few more photos. After a short break back on the ship, we dressed ourselves in preparation for our night excursion to Pushkin to see St Catherine’s Summer Palace. The drive took us through the southern suburbs and we were shown where some of the more expensive living apartments were.
Our first viewing at the palace was the carriage museum which was of little interest to us after what we had seen in Portugal last year. From there we walked towards the grounds and gardens of the palace, a fully renovated sight with golden onion-shaped spires. Vodka, champagne, caviar and nibbles were available in a small courtyard. A band played some march music. From there, we were escorted into the palace but we had to wear silly brown covers on our shoes to protect the parquetry floors. The interior of the palace was beautifully renovated and once again, some irreplaceable treasure could be seen. Finally, we arrived at the concert chamber where we were treated to a stringed septet and some dancing performances.
Dinner was long-awaited for and it was around 11pm before we sat down to eat. Luckily we had had a snack in the afternoon. The meal was ok as when you are that tired, food doesn’t really thrill you. There were some singers playing Russian music which was very loud and operatic – not good when you are tired. Finally, we were back on the bus with the lunatic driver. We managed to nap on the way back as it was a good hour’s drive. Bedtime was achieved at around 12.45.