Destination: St. Petersburg Russia
Date: May 2013
I can’t tell you how I excited I was to visit Russia! I think its because I spent my childhood in anxiety about the Cold War. I needed to reconcile that Russia was now a country of peace (but as I learned during my visit) probably not as much prosperity as they would have liked. However, it was an amazing city with so much to do that I had to run and manage my time wisely to get in as much as I could in the two days we spent there!
As I learned in my port explorer, “St. Petersburg is situated on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Finland, in the delta of the River Neva. It is considered the most European of all the great cities of Russia, and a living monument to the opulent days of imperialism. The city, with a population of over 5 million inhabitants, boasts the largest sea port in the country and is an important maritime center….
St Petersburg is relativity young for a European city and less than three centuries have passed since the first structure, Peter and Paul Fortress, was built by Peter the Great in 1703. Today St. Petersburg is the most popular tourist city in the country for both Russian and foreign visitors.”
Getting into Russia is also a little bit tricky. From our cruise we could have booked a shore excursion through them which would have waived our need for a visa to get into the country. However, we didn’t want to do this for two reasons, we didn’t want to be stuck on a bus with everyone from our cruise, and because these excursions were very pricey. So instead we filled out the appropriate paperwork online and sent off for Visa’s long before the cruise began. This turned out to be a great benefit to us. We were able to book our tour with a private company that accommodated our party of six and we could see the sights at our leisure.
When we disembarked our first day we met our guide, Lena, whom we set up with Maria Rose tours. Lena was great! Her English was superb. After many questions that we were throwing at her during the day we learned she lived in Montana as a foreign exchange student, loved Pop-Tarts, was working on her masters, and her parents live fourteen hours north in the Arctic Circle. We learned all about life as a Russian, and what its like to live in St Petersburg. This was a bonus to the interesting information she gave as part of our tour.
Once we made it through customs at the port, Lena was there to greet us with our eight passenger van and we were off to Peterhof. Peterhof is about a thirty minute ride out of town and is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It is the summer home of Peter the Great. Thought its been altered over the years it is splendid to take the time to go through the extensive interior and the beautiful grounds that rival Versailles. It was astounding.
Since I had just read a biography on Peter the Great it was exciting to see so many of his history in real life. Inside the Grand Palace are many displays of art, decorative objects and furniture. Many of the rooms in Peterhof overlook the beautiful gardens that add to the beauty at every angle. Though the interior of Peterhof seemed smaller to me it was still an amazing sight to see in person.
From Peterhof we jumped back into our private tour van and headed to the city and back to lunch and an afternoon at the Hermitage. One thing we realized about the drivers in St. Petersburg, they are all consistent…consistently aggressive!! We were getting tossed all over our van so for those who are prone to car sickness make sure to take something before jumping into a cab in St. Petersburg.
Our lunch in the city was spent at Efes Istanbul. Of course it was set up through our tour company so we didn’t have a choice but checking on Trip Advisor it was ranked about #650 out of 900 restaurants in the city. I am witness to say it really was that bad. Just sitting down to our table we were served a room temperature tea that looked like dirty water. Our borscht soup was terrible and the whole experience left us all still hungry and dying of thirst. I was actually glad to have this experience just so we could enjoy our restaurant choice the next day so much more. More on that restaurant in my next post.
The best thing about lunch at Efes Istanbul was having a chance to rest a little and use the restroom before heading off to the Hermitage. Our walk to the Hermitage had a side trip past the Church on Spilled Blood also known as The Resurrection Church of Our Savior. This church is the most “Russian” building in St. Petersburg. With the domed tops adorned in many materials of marble and mosaics it is something to remember. After the assassination of Tsar Nicholas the II, this church was built in his memory by Tsar Nicholas the III. It is something that can’t be missed and to be photographed from every angle.
Around the corner is the Hermitage. The Hermitage is the largest museum in Russia. It was commissioned by Empress Catherine II and built to have her growing collection of art. Housed in the Winter Palace, it also encompasses the Little Hermitage next door and the Large Hermitage. All three of these buildings are impressive and house some of the most impressive art pieces I have seen in real life. Of course I’ve visited the Louvre and I do think the Hermitage rivals the magnificence of collection. The Hermitage seemed to have pieces from every famous artist from every era. Piece after piece was inspiring as we traipsed from room to room, building to building taking in all of these priceless works. It was a bit overwhelming.
Lena, our guide, told us if we would like to spend time looking at every piece it would take us over eight years to see it all. We only stayed four hours and were completely impressed by Russia’s collection of art. Finally our feet were too tired to hold us and we were still so thirsty it was time to move on and get back to our ship.
Outside of the Hermitage, Lena found us some taxis and even rode back with us to make sure we had a safe arrival to the port. Along the way we got to talk to her more about what we should do the next day since we decided to take the city in by ourselves. She was so helpful and I really consider that I have a friend in Russia now. She was so infomrative all day and having once been an art major in college she knew so much about so many pieces in the Hermitage. It was so helpful to have her show us the highlights and explain so many pieces to us. I think we would have missed so much had we tried to just go through the Hermitage ourselves. With Lena with us we maximized our visit.
Our first day in Russia was definitely a success. I was a littler overwhelmed by some of the obvious poverty, the lack of public works systems in the city, and just the overall cleanliess of the city. But I must remind myself that this city is over three hundred years old, and experiences harsh winters that make sidewalks crack, and grass not worth planting. So though it doesn’t have the familiarity of the US it does have a charm that I was glad to witness first hand.
Safe and Happy Travels!!