St. Petersburg, Russia

ST. PETERSBURG

It is impossible to see all of St. Petersburg in 3 days, but we did our best to see the highlights.

ST. PETERSBURG, WHERE TO BEGIN?

I (Kenn again) started this entry on our stateroom deck after just finishing our last part of Day 3 of 3 in St. Pete’s trying to figure out what to say about the past 58 hours that we’ve been here.  Oh and it’s after 10pm and it’s still as light outside as it was at 3 this afternoon..this “white night” thing is very interesting this far north.  I do think 3 days is the perfect timeframe to get a nice taste of the city but trust me, you could spend weeks here and not have seen it all.

Our Day 1 - Today from 8 - 5 was spent on an excursion entitled The Best of St. Petersburg and I think it lived up to its name.  We certainly saw and learned a lot.  We started off going to St. Isaac’s Cathedral at St. Isaac’s Square.  It’s an enormous museum (formerly a church) which took 40 years to build and was completed in 1858.  We only had the chance to stop for quick pictures there as it hadn’t opened yet but also got to do some quick street market shopping (we got a painting we liked) and then it was on to The Hermitage.  I’m not really sure what I can say about the Hermitage as it’s pretty overwhelming.  The Hermitage is the State Museum of Russia and it’s enormous.  There are 1,057 rooms in it and it’s separated into about six different but attached buildings which could all be their own museum by themselves.  We visited the following buildings in the complex: the Winter Palace, The Small Hermitage, The Old Hermitage and The New Hermitage.  Because we were on a tour, we did get into the museum early but by the time we left it was pretty packed and they say it’s packed every day.  We saw so much and so many different rooms, it was hard to remember them all but we did see many originals by Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Picasso, Cezane, Van Gogh…..and they were the highlights to be sure but even beyond the works themselves, the rooms were amazing and huge as well.  I hope the pictures we’ll post upon our return do them some kind of justice but I bet the sights really need to be seen to be believed.  Oh, it’s been calculated that if you spent 1 minute at each item in the Hermitage, it would take you 9 years to see them all…and we had just over 2 hours.  It was a whirlwind and we took a lot of pictures and learned a lot of interesting tidbits from our Tour Guide so we did not feel short-changed.

This was the first time I’ve ever used headphones on a museum tour that were on a frequency to the microphone headset of our Tour Guides.  This was awesome as there was no yelling that had to be done and as long as we were relatively near her, we heard everything she said.  One of our guides said that she’d been doing this for 9 years now but the headphones were only in the past 3 years.  I can’t imagine what a nightmare it was with all the tour groups in these museums before this as all they could do was yell to their 30 person group while every other tour guide did the same in multiple languages.

After the Hermitage, all of the various Azamara cruise groups had lunch in a local banquet hall where we had wine, champagne and shots of vodka.  We then walked to the Church of the Spilled Blood which was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  Across the street was the largest street market in St. Petersburg so we stopped in there and Al was almost left behind when he didn’t make it back to the bus on time.  We then boarded a boat and took a one hour canal and bridge tour which gave a much different perspective of the city.  Once off the boat we boarded our bus to go to Peter and Paul Fortress, whose start of construction is marked as the birth of St. Petersburg in 1703.  Inside the fortress is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul where all the Romanov monarchs have been buried……and that was just Day 1…..

Day 2 had a bit of relaxation to it to start as our excursion didn’t leave until 6pm so we had time for a visit to the gym, a jog, a nap, tea time, a quick laundry trip onboard and working on getting our pictures downloaded from the cameras onto the laptop.  That night our excursion visited Catherine’s Palace 17 miles away in Pushkin.  It was nice to break away from the city to see other areas but sad to see that even though the area is growing in wealth and prosperity, the town’s infrastructure leaves much to be desired as the most lanes we saw on the streets was 2 in each direction and there was a lot of traffic.  They badly need some expanded highways and some bridges over railways built.

Catherine’s Palace (or Tsarskoe Selo) was a very unique trip as no more than 100 people were there from our ship and we had the entire place to ourselves.  We explored the various rooms of the palace and learned much of its history.  We saw the very famous Amber Room but we both were a bit underwhelmed due to all the hype and the fact that there were many other incredible rooms in the Palace to be wowed by.  We entered the Great Hall (a nearly 50,000 square foot ROOM) where a string quartet played for us and we had a champagne toast with a Catherine the Great performer along with some dancers.  We walked outside where a band led us to our dinner hall.  It was all very pomp.  Dinner was great and the entertainment was a folk band with two female and one male singer who were great.  We finished dinner and boarded our bus back to the city.  We got back after Midnight (still dusky light outside) and had to be up at 6 the next morning for our next tour.  Being a tourist is hard work….

Day 3 was a trip to Peterhof which was about 19 miles outside of St. Petersburg right on the Gulf of Finland at the end of the Baltic Sea.  This was a summer palace built based on Peter the Great’s trip to Versailles in Paris and his need to have something as magnificent for himself back in Russia.  The palace itself is enormous and of course beautiful but the grounds of the palace are over 1,500 acres of lush, manicured gardens and many unique fountains.  Aside from the sheer grandeur of the fountains, palaces and grounds, we were amazed to learn all the fountains were fed from natural springs Peter the Great discovered 14 miles away from the grounds. No electric pumps are used to feed the fountains. They all work by gravity. It’s hard to believe it when you see how powerful the fountains are, but that is what our guide told us.

Many golden, life-sized statues adorn the main cascade of fountains in front of the palace. These statues were all buried to avoid discovery by the Nazis. Amazingly, the Nazis never did find the statues and what stands now are the originals.

We had another gorgeous day of touring around the palace and the grounds for a couple of hours with our tour guide and then boarded a hydrofoil back to St. Petersburg.  Peterhof was a great way to end our three days in St. Petersburg.  Not sure if I’ll ever come back to St. Pete’s but this trip will leave me with many amazing memories (and pictures).

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Comments we both had about Russia - the sheer opulence of the Russian Emperors and Empresses (or Czars and Czarinas) was unbelievable and it’s no wonder the people revolted and said (and I paraphrase) “no more spending of all the Empire’s money on your five hundred room summer palace!!!  You already have 3 other summer palaces!!!”  The idea that someone required a card table inlaid with 40 different types of wood….while beautiful is a bit much but I guess that was what it was like “keeping up with the Romanovs” back in the day.  Also, we couldn’t believe how many portraits there were of the many royal family members.  I lost count of how many portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great I saw over the course of three days but at certain palaces there were two or three portraits of the same person in the same room.  How vain can you be?!?!?

Other quick comments about St. Petersburg…on Day 1 (Tuesday) we saw no less than 12 wedding groups travelling about the same sites we were at to get pictures in their wedding suits and dresses.  I made a comment to Anna (our tour guide) about seeing more Tuesday weddings than I’d ever seen before and she said in the summer months, every day of the week is very busy with weddings.  On Days 1 and 3 the weather was sunny and the temperature was in the upper 70s.  Our tour guides indicated that we were extremely lucky on those days as they only get about 40 sunny days over the course of their nice weather months June - September and July was actually one of their rainiest months.  Yes, we can’t complain at all about the weather we had in Russia as while it rained a bit on Day 2 and at times heavily, every time we stepped foot outside on any of our excursions, the rain stopped, the skies cleared up and it got sunny.  It was bizarre but we were thankful.

I know that some may not like the idea of guided group tours as a way to see a new city but I will say that our tour guides were so knowledgeable, I can’t imagine how I could have learned all the information I did without them.  Half the interest for me was in hearing the guides talk about more daily life things while we were on the bus heading to a next destination or while stuck in a traffic jam (more and more the norm here).  Hearing their personal stories or of their parents’ or grandparents’ stories of living through the Russian Revolution of 1917 through World War II with the Nazis invading their country, through the Stalin years, through Peristroika to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.  It’s incredible what hardships they had to experience over those years.  To hear them now talk of how they love to travel to Egypt and Turkey for their main vacations or to take a train to Stockholm, Sweden just to go shopping with no papers or special requirements….well, a lot has changed and I’m happy for them except that……

I’m not sure who can afford to live in St. Petersburg or Moscow anymore as the cost of real estate is exploding in these cities.  1 bedroom condos that went for the equivalent of $60,000 US purchase price just 3 years ago are now going for $200,000 US and mortgages just came into being over the last decade or so with the current interest rates being around 12%, down from 16% when they first became available….ouch.   The tour guides also said that 5% of the population is the wealthy class, 20% is middle class and 75% of the country is “living hand to mouth”.  As an example, average monthly salaries for doctors working at state hospitals is $700.  As a result, people will take 2 jobs to mix their work hours between state and the higher-paid public opportunities.  Oh, and monthly rent for a typical studio apartment can cost $700 so you can see that St. Petersburg is an expensive area to live when the salaries are such.  The kicker is…Moscow is even MORE expensive to live in.

- Kenn