I have to admit that this was the ultimate destination for our cruise – whenever else were we going to have the opportunity to visit Russia? We decided to book a two-day tour separately from the shipboard offerings, saving ourselves over US$200 in the process, deciding on TJ Travel (recommended by my brother who had used them a few years earlier).
Disembarking the ship was a bit of a joke, two days earlier we had to book our disembarkation groups; we got in early to claim Group A, but in fact all the groups assembled in the theatre together and were let off depending on how early you had reached the theatre (and how close to the front row you were), rather than by group. On the Russian side of immigration, we were met by a babble of about 20 guides all waiting for the tourists off our ship (and that day there were five other ships in port) so it was an extremely busy day for the tour guide companies. We were quickly found by our particular guide and driver and our group of 14 (South African, Canadian, Australian, American and NZ’ers) plus guide and driver set off to see this beautiful city. Alex our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about her city and an excellent communicator. Her English was easily understood as we travelled around the city for a quick circuit, taking a subway ride from one truly beautiful subway station to another, before heading to the Peterhof to visit the gardens and see the fountains.
As we wandered, trying in vain to avoid the crowds, Alex told us some of the history about Peter the Great, his wife Catherine I (not to be confused with Catherine the Great), the politics of Russian in that era, and the times of the Romanov dynasty. The gardens were fantastic, well maintained and preserved, but restored after being pretty much destroyed during WWII and the siege of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was called then). The fountains in the gardens were beautiful although some work was being done in preparation for the celebbration of end of the tourist season the following weekend.
After more than an hour here (no mucking around on this tour!) we reboarded our minibus and headed a short distance away to our lunch stop. This restaurant provided a meal of typical Russian fare including with Borscht, a true Stroganoff and honey cake. All for a very reasonable 1000 Roubles each (equating to approx NZ$46 for us both). Over lunch, we got talking to our table mates, a couple from South Africa, comparing our experiences with the value of many things on this tour, as well a bit of ribbing about the rugby and our chances to make good again.
Heading back into St Petersburg, we arrived at the Church of the Saviour of Spilt Blood, which is actually a reference to the spilt blood of the assassinated Tzar Alexander II, not of “The Saviour”. The outside is just as fabulous as the inside but again had to be restored and reconstructed after the revolution and WWII did their damage. Inside all the decoration is made of mosaic, in such detail that you need to be up close to realise they are mosaics.
Then another cathedral, one still used for Russian Orthodox worship, St Isaacs with its gold-plated dome and classical columns. More mosaic work decorated the walls, as well as frescos and paintings in a constant state of restoration. Our guide gave us plenty of information about the construction of this grand cathedral, but rushed us a bit – I was loath to leave without more time to enjoy the amazing artwork but onwards we hustled, back to the ship and ready for more the following day.
Next morning we started with a canal tour, seeing parts of the city from water level and, as two groups joined in the boat with the other guide providing some commentary, I appreciated the ease of listening to our guide even more. I loved the colours of St Petersburg. The blues, greens and yellows on the buildings give it character that not every city enjoys. It added a vibrancy to the town.
From the canal, we entered the Hermitage for our “early entry” along with many many other tour groups of all languages and nationalities. This palace of Catherine the Great is the second largest art museum in the world. We only saw a tiny portion but enjoyed the magnificent buildings and ornate decoration, so much gold and gilt and beautiful proportions. How the nobility lived in the days of the tzars! What decadence, what luxury, and our next destination was even more so.
The Catherine Palace out of the main city, designed for Catherine I (wife of Peter the Great) and enhanced by her daughter Elizabeth, was so ornate and gilt laden it took your breath away. Again, rebuilt after being destroyed by the retreating German army, it has been restored to most of its original splendour. (We heard of the incredible saving of many artifacts and precious items by burying statues, moving other artworks to the basement of one of the landmark churches and other feats of protection given to so much treasure). The interior rooms have been faithfully refurbished to display treasures and artworks and give an idea of how life was lived in Russian royalty.
Of all the tours, I’m glad the Catherine Palace was saved for last as it really was the most magnificent of many fabulous places we saw in St Petersburg.
It was very interesting to hear so much of the history, the trials and endurance of the people of this city, our guide had experienced the hardships of the transition from strictly communist Soviet Union to a more democratic and free Russia as a child in the early 1990’s.
We definitely recommend St Petersburg as a fascinating place to visit, and also recommend TJ Travel as your tour guides.