Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 3: St. Petersburg

August 15 - St. Petersburg, Russia (day 1)

We arrived early and quietly into St. Petersburg, with a couple of boats that met up with us in the middle of the night to guide us through the Russian waterway toward our berth. Lance and I were up very early, since our tour began at 7 AM. We were able to watch the sun rise over the harbor. Our berth was about 6 miles from St. Petersburg.

We signed up for the Grand Tour of St. Petersburg, the most expensive tour, which is 2 full days and covers the must-see sights. The first day promised to be warm. In fact, they announced before we disembarked that the high temperature was expected to be 87 degrees and we had about 93% humidity. These two days would be the hottest of the cruise.

As we disembarked, a small band was there to greet us, playing songs for American dollars. We went through customs, which isn't a big deal, really. You have to have a photocopy of your passport, which you hand to the Russian authorities, who then stamp your passport and give you a red card, a cruise passenger visa, which you must return when you come back to the ship later on in the day (there's a fine if you lose this card). We made it out to the line of busses and met up with our tour guide, Elena, who proved to be an absolutely wonderful guide, as well as very tolerant, given the ignorance and rude remarks made by several people in our group over the course of the two days.

The first thing we did when we arrived in St. Petersburg was board a rickety open-topped sightseeing boat, which took us through the canals. Even though it was barely 8 AM, the crew served us champagne, which was very good. It felt decadent. We enjoyed all the sights along the canals, including some of the major ones (Hermitage, St. Peter & Paul Fortress, etc.). What I remember the most though was a little boy who waved at us from a bridge, and then proceeded to run to every bridge that we passed under so that he could wave at us. He ran a alongside our boat for a good mile or two. After our tour, he waited by our disembarkation point, and collected tips. Apparently, several young boys do this during their summer vacations...they make quite a bit of money this way. We didn't give him any money though.

That seemed to be a recurring theme in St. Petersburg. Everywhere, everyone wanted your money, and they didn't care if it was rubles, euros or dollars. We had pushy vendors thrusting their wares in our faces. We saw more bands performing at tourist attractions for tips (we heard a lot of the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful). Now I know what out of work musicians do in St. Petersburg.

But I digress... After our canal cruise, we went to the Hermitage. It is absolutely impossible to see this entire museum if you are only a visitor in St. Petersburg. It is so massive, that it takes 9 years to see everything if you only stare at each item for 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you've ever been to the Louvre...well, the Hermitage more than gives it a run for its money. It is THE MOST INCREDIBLE museum I have ever seen. This museum is located in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, who dearly loved the arts. She started the Hermitage as her own personal art collection, and it expanded from there. We spent about 90 minutes in there, but there was a cast of thousands inside (all the other tour groups were there too), so it was difficult to get through. It's not air conditioned either, so it got really uncomfortable inside, but aside from that, I was suffering from sensory overload. The Hermitage is truly the epitome of visual intoxication.

You can take a virtual tour of the Hermitage, but it's not quite the same as going there.

We needed a break after that, and fortunately, it was time for lunch. We were taken to this restaurant called Bellini's, which sounds Italian, but isn't. We didn't eat in the restaurant itself...rather, we were put in this huge banquet room that seated hundreds. All the people on the Princess tour were eating there (there were several busses of people on the same tour). We had 3 glasses: one water, one wine, and one tiny one with vodka. I tried a tiny sip of the vodka and I swear, that stuff would peel paint off your walls (in fact, I'm not quite sure it wasn't turpentine...Lance compared it to rubbing alcohol). Needless to say, I passed. The wine was good though, and Lance shared his with me since he doesn't drink it (and wine is uber-expensive on the ship, so I will not pass up free wine when it is offered). On our starter plate, we had smoked salmon, a salad (cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers), and they passed out platters of chopped pickles and pickled cabbage. I ate some of that, and it was really good. They had bread and butter at the tables too. After we cleared our first course, they gave us 2 tiny blinis (pancakes), one topped with sour cream, the other topped with red caviar. I had never had caviar before, so I braved it...and it wasn't bad. It wasn't exactly good either, but I ate it. Most everyone at our table scraped it off. Then we had the soup course, which was just potato soup. The meal was not exactly exotic or anything...we had a simple chicken dish with mashed potatoes and steamed veggies. Dessert was a scoop of vanilla ice cream with berry sauce, really refreshing on such a hot day. A Russian musical group performed for us while we ate. They were pretty good, and of course, they tried to sell their CD after we finished eating.

We didn't get back to sightseeing immediately after lunch. The bus stopped at Red October, a souvenir shop (and I'm sure Princess is getting kickbacks from this place, because all the busses stop here for shopping). They had all the typical Russian souvenirs you would expect: nesting dolls, fake Soviet military paraphernalia, Faberge egg knock-offs, etc. Lance and I found a nice handpainted egg to hang on the Christmas tree and then we got back on the bus. They had everything there from the very cheap to the top quality, so I suppose it was a decent souvenir shop.

After that detour, we were on our way again. Next stop: St. Peter & Paul's Cathedral, which is the centerpiece of the fortress. This is the burial place of the czars, and we saw the graves of Peter the Great and his family, among others.

This was our last stop of the day, which was probably just as well, considering most of us were hot and cranky (at least the bus was air conditioned). We were taken back to the ship, where we had to stay, being sans visa. There were evening excursions, such as private Hermitage tours and a night at the ballet, but we never signed up for those. Princess had a special treat for us anyway - the dancers and singers from the famous Troika restaurant came on the ship to perform for us. That wasn't until 8:15 though, so we had time to kill. Lance and I went swimming for a bit, and then we had dinner and went to the ice cream parlor, where I stupidly ordered a concoction called "Death by Chocolate," which was aptly named. Lance ordered one too, and survived. I spent a good deal of the evening clutching my stomach and moaning. I love chocolate as much as the next person, but a brownie, chocolate ice cream, hot fudge, and chocolate chips were just too much (and the whipped cream didn't help either). I slept for about an hour before the Troika show, and was feeling much better by then.

Anyway...about Troika - it's a cabaret-type show, but it featured some traditional music and dancing. They gave two performances, and we caught the earlier one. They announced afterwards that the performers were going up to the buffet to have dinner. No kidding...not long afterwards, I was in the hallway on our floor waiting to catch an elevator, and all the dancers came stampeding out when the elevator doors opened, nearly crashing into me in their mad dash for Horizon Court (it turns out that they had different performers for the 10:15 show, so the 8:15 dancers didn't have to worry about eating and then performing right afterwards).

That was the end of the night for me. Lance was down in the casino that evening...I think there was a blackjack tournament. I stayed in our room and watched some TV and read.

August 16 - day 2

Our objective first thing in the morning was the magnificent Peterhof Palace, which is famous for its Grand Cascade, an absolutely stunning fountain that gets its water from the Gulf of Finland. We had about a half hour drive to get there, so most of us dozed off in that time, but I would hate to miss any photo opportunities, so I fought off the urge to nap.

There was a mini marketplace set up in the parking lot of Peterhof, with food stands and merchants selling their wares. All around the entrance, there were musicians playing and men shoving pashminas, nesting dolls, and faux Faberge eggs in our faces. We were told that many of them are pickpockets or work in cahoots with them (not just at Peterhof, but at any major tourist attraction), so to watch our valuables.

Once inside, we had to slip special booties over our shoes to protect the floor, and we proceeded with our tour through the palace. Other than the Grand Cascade, it lacked the wow factor that the Hermitage had…at least for me, it did.

Our group walked around a little outside too (that was the best part anyway). We actually found a quiet spot in the gardens that was not crawling with tourists. The gardens gave all the tour groups an opportunity to spread out, which was good, because the crowds were ridiculous. Princess needs to stop timing these groups to all arrive in the same place at the same time (and that goes for the other cruise lines that were there too).

Once we left Peterhof, we made our way into the center of St. Petersburg to visit the incredible St. Isaac's Cathedral. We had passed it the day before and saw its golden dome all over town. Finally, we were going to see inside.

It is the largest church in St. Petersburg, and it takes your breath away. You can't possibly know where to look when you're inside (luckily, you don't have to worry about tripping over pews as you're looking up at the ornate ceilings...Russian Orthodox churches do not have places to sit, as standing or kneeling only is allowed). This church is so beautiful that the French architect who designed it, a Catholic, requested to be buried here. He was denied that request, because of his religion.

After we left St. Isaac's, it was lunch time, so we were herded into a palace that has been converted to a restaurant. Again, all the tour groups were convening there for lunch, but instead of us all being seated in one big room, we were placed in several different rooms. And since it was a palace, the rooms were beautifully decorated. (The place was called Last Palace, in case anyone is interested.)

Lunch, once again, was nothing terribly exotic. I skipped the vodka completely this time...they didn't have it already on the table, but they came around to pour it. I had wine and water. Our plates had smoked salmon (again), some weird croquette made of shredded carrots and potatoes, and a piece of toast with red caviar on it (I scraped it off this time). We had cream of spinach soup, followed by some kind of fish with white sauce, green beans, and fried potatoes. They served what they said was strawberry tart for dessert, but it was definitely cherry...they just got their fruits mixed up. After two lunches here, I am still confused as to whether these meals are authentically Russian. Obviously the vodka and caviar are. ;)

After lunch, we walked off part of our meal by pounding the pavement a few blocks to the most exotic and colorful church in St. Petersburg - the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It is so named because it was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (someone finally succeeded in killing him after several other attempts had been made on his life). The church was consecrated 100 years ago, and had banners announcing its centennial celebration. Inside, there is a shrine built over the exact spot where the czar died. Like St. Isaac's, the Church on Spilled Blood is not really a church so much as it's a museum.

We ended our Grand Tour of St. Petersburg with a visit to Yusupov Palace (I should mention that there are over 600 palaces in the city before I explain why we went to this one). Yusupov Palace is famous because this is where Rasputin was murdered in 1916, a monumental event in Russian history. It was a beautiful palace, but by then, I was really kind of tired of touring palaces. It had a small theatre though, which was lovely (and performances are still given there), and a wonderful music hall, where we were serenaded by a quartet. I took a short video of the performance (one minute), although I think the sound quality is a bit off, and it doesn't help that two women sitting behind me were talking and laughing through the performance (GAH! I got so sick of all the rude people on this tour).

After our tour of Yusupov, our time with Elena was at an end. She saw us to passport control at the dock, and then we boarded the Star Princess, getting ready to head toward Helsinki. As we pulled out of our berth, the band that had greeted us on our first morning was there to see us off. They played Anchors Aweigh, which made us laugh, and they waved goodbye (and I suppose they also expected money to come showering down at them from the decks of the ship).

As we left St. Petersburg, we were told that we would be passing by a formerly top-secret Russian naval base - Kronstadt - which is now open to the public. In fact, the people at Kronstadt have been trying to get Princess Cruises to dock there so that they can get more tourism, but it's too far from St. Petersburg (it took 90 minutes to get there from the time we left our port). While Lance and I waited to see Kronstadt, we just stretched out on some lounge chairs and enjoyed the cool breezes coming off the Baltic...we didn't have books to read or anything. It was nice to just sit and do nothing. We eventually arrived at Kronstadt and the cruise director was on the bridge, pointing out specific things on the base and giving us a little historical background on it. It was actually very interesting, as I hope my photographs will show (and to think, 20 years ago, I would've gotten shot for taking photos of it!).

And that ended our time in to Finland!

Okay, now it's time for pictures. I have to say that I'm not entirely pleased with this set. I was always trying to photograph over peoples' heads, while walking (sometimes, we had to keep moving), or in bad light (either too much or not enough), so some of these photos suffer from camera shake or are crooked. Also, there are a lot of them that don't have labels...I just can't remember what every building is (and I looked up several as I was labeling). There were SO MANY palaces and things to see, it's just impossible to know them all unless you live there. I labeled the important stuff, anyway. Also, in many photos, it appears that I have the place all to myself. That was hardly the case, but I'm pretty good at photographing places to make them look empty. But you will see the crowds in some of them.

There are around 150 photos in this set. Most of them are not retouched, but I had to retouch the Troika pictures because they were pretty dark.

~~ Click here for pictures ~~

1 comment:

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