Summary (both days): High temperatures of 58º F; threatening rain clouds both days. Breezy the first day, downright windy the second (reports of “hurricane-level” gusts outside the city; trees are blown over). Walked 3.65 miles (9,119 steps) first day, 3.97 miles (9,915 steps) the second. Private tour with Anastasia Travel, Anna was our guide, Slava our driver.
Russia. Ooh, it sounds mysterious, quite alien and a little dangerous–especially for those “of a certain age” who lived in the USA and grew up in the midst of the Cold War. But here we were, heading out on the Star and slated for two full days in the city Peter the Great created as his portal to the west.
You need a visa (expensive and time-consuming to get) to travel “on your own” in Russia; Mom and I opted for a two-day tour with Anastasia Travel (anastasia.travel) and they took care of the visa thing for us. Whew!
[Look for my post specifically about the cost of the tour, advantages, etc. here:]
Our two days in St. Petersburg were a blur and overwhelming and a bit tiring–and amazing! We saw things I never thought I’d see (Mom and I stood right beside a DaVinci Madonna painting–and have the photo to prove it) and a culture that previously only existed for me in geography books in school.
We opted for a “best of St. Petersburg” type of tour, but found we saw so much more than was in the itinerary the tour company sent to us. That’s a bonus with having a private tour (just Mom and I and, Anna, our guide and our driver)–we had more variety and some impromptu side trips.
In preparation for this trip, I read “Catherine the Great” (by Robert Massie); I think this prepared me a bit for understanding Catherine I, Peter II, and Catherine II. Heading to SPb yourself? Read the book–and yes, I know it’s long; but it really will give you a solid foundation for your own visit (now, would I lie to you?).
Here’s a brief summary of Day One (hopefully in order, if I’ve got this right):
City Tour: In the car around and about the Neva River. Anna gave us a wonderful geographic orientation to St. Petersburg and, as always, understanding the geography of an area helps me get a better feel for why it developed as it did. We spent some time at the place where the Little Neva and the Big Neva converge and Anna told us about the city’s many museums–far more than the “big” ones we’d heard about before (a museum of “everything” seems to be all that’s missing). We stopped, at my request, to see Peter the Great’s cabin (the original tiny wood structure is completely enclosed in another building to protect it). Ask to see Wedding Palace Number 1 and the significance of it being the first; look for brides and grooms around the city, all dressed in their (typically rented) finery.
Peter and Paul’s Fortress (and the cathedral, too). The “new” design of the fortress (thick walls instead of high walls) was never tested in battle. Most interesting to me is that all the Russian emperors (and empresses) are buried here at the cathedral. It helped me to see the lineage of them all in one place; what with all the overthrows and imprisoning of possible usurpers it can get pretty confusing.
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. A “working” Russian orthodox church, this stop was unexpected but very informative–and enjoyable. I’m glad it was early in our SPb visit because learning from Anna about the service’s elements and meaning helped me to make sense of all the cathedrals and churches we were to visit over the next two days. Anna explained how icons are “used/revered” by churchgoers and the significance of the iconostasis.
The Hermitage: Begun as an artistic dream by Catherine II, who collected all kinds of intellectual friends as well as creations, the Hermitage is simply unbelievable in the breadth of what it offers. The buildings we visited are adjoined but you travel up and down staircases, through annexes and even inside over a canal as you visit the “best of” items on display. Very, very easy to get lost here–and the huge numbers of Chinese tourists make it even easier because they have no compunctions about crashing right between you and members of your party, splitting you up as they charge from one brief photo stop to the next. The Hermitage is one of those places where the phrase, “drinking from a fire hydrant,” is certainly spot-on; so many fine pieces of art covering so many periods and so many cultures can make you feel overwhelmed and inured to the beauty. Don’t let it. Take a break and just sit in one room (okay, stand then, only the museum docents–yes, they’re grumpy-looking, too–have chairs) to absorb a bit. Rick Steves’ book “Northern European Cruise Ports” has a great overview of the Hermitage; read it ahead of time so you can tell your guide what interests *you.* Our tour had us here for 2.5 hours.
Resurrection of Christ Church: Wait, you haven’t heard of this classic onion-domed church in St. Petersburg? Perhaps you’ll recognize it by its “common” name: Saviour on the Spilled Blood. The church, in the old Russian style with the odd-shaped and colored domes, was built on the site of the fatal shooting of Emperor Paul (he didn’t die right there on the cobblestones but a bit later). This area is filled with tourists–and, evidently, pickpockets who take advantage of all of us who stand there, mouths open as we gape at this church that looks so typically “Russian.” I joined the gapers (but not the victims of crime, thank goodness, with my “stuff” secure in my ScottEVest). For me, standing in the shadow of this church vividly made it so real for me that we were actually in Russia. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Lunch at a chain restaurant, Stolle’s. We had two types of peroshki (chopped meat and fruit) and Anna told us that in the Soviet days, there were workers’ cafeterias for the mid-day meal. With “freedom,” those eating places disappeared and Anna said that Russian-based chain restaurants grew in popularity–along with McDonalds.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral: This made it a four-church day for us–but it wasn’t one to be dismissed despite the abundance of religious sites. St. Isaac’s includes dozens of mosaics illuminating the dark church walls and alcoves as well as huge columns supporting the roof (check out the display inside to see how they “raised” these columns; even non-engineers can understand it–and be amazed!).
Shopping: Well, of course! We have three grandchildren and that means three of the little (as in “cost effective because toddlers will be playing with them so why get the pricey ones?”) metroshka dolls needed to come home with me. Anna asked Slava to stop at a “good” store for them, not a street seller. It was such a good store that they had free beverage samples of in little plastic cups at the entrance; one of the plastic cups looked like it contained strawberry juice so I took the proffered cup and downed it. Egads! It was vodka, “flavored” with juice. Well, that certainly eased me into finding a trio of the stacking dolls without much concern. I also bought a Russian chocolate bar for Mark (this is his standard “souvenir” from me; not the fancy chocolate kind but the chocolate bars I find in supermarkets. Yep, I know: it’s probably the equivalent of buying him a Hershey’s bar. But he likes ’em!).
Back to the ship at 6:30 pm. Anna walked us back through the customs people (still no smiles from this quarter), arranged to meet us the next day at 8:30 am and we re-boarded the Star. Thankfully. And ready to wear a different pair of shoes tomorrow so my feet would have a break.