May 9, 2016: St. Petersburg, Russia
There’s nothing like waking up to a beautiful blue sky and light winds as your ship comes alongside the dock for one of your bucket list locations. After many years of planning, budgeting, and one previously cancelled itinerary, we looked out our balcony windows, overlooking the city of St. Petersburg, Russia in the distance, excited at what our two days in port would bring as we spent our days once again with the consumate professionals of SPB Tours.
All of the information and detailed instructions from SPB were spot on, as we left the ship around 7:15am, following an ontime arrival at 7am into the port. Leaving the ship, there was a modern terminal building, along with two sizable souvenir shops on the ship side, and following the strict passport controls that slowed things for all passengers in both directions, our passports received the applicable visitor visas and we officially were on Russian soil. Walking quickly past the 10-12 additional souvenir shops and stores of the terminal, we headed outside, were a group of no less than a dozen coordinators and tour guides were quickly getting SPB tour participants checked in and introduced to our guides.
We were introduced to Elena (Elena V, as there were 5 Elena’s on the SPB team), our guide for our visit, and our excellent driver, Vladimir, as we got situated on our very nice, air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz 16 passenger mini-bus. SPB provided a car seat for R, but quickly allowed us to install ours into the front passenger row of the 2×1 seat configuration, where Aunt Mickey sat next to him, and Natalie and I each were afforded window seats to take pictures. When all was said and done, we had 13 people in our group, so there were a few extra seats for a little extra comfort, we were each provided with a bottle of water, some fun promotional magnets and pens from SPB and a pamphlet (just as we had in Berlin) introducing the tour, a map of the region, and a handy reference of Russian family trees to keep up with all of the history we would cover on the tour.
Today, May 9th, was Victory Day in Russia, one of the most important holidays of the year, as it marked the Russian’s victory over Nazi Germany, so we had the fortune of seeing the city decorated with flags, banners, and people young and old wearing military clothing in remembrance of family members that had fought. The Russian flag colors of Red, White, and Blue were accented by the orange and black stripes of the miltary medal given to many of these brave soliders fighting against Hitler.
Since we had a two day itinerary, Elena did a wonderful job in allowing us to experience some of the sights of the Victory Day celebrations, while also including several of our out of town stops today to avoid excess traffic, many closed streets, etc. It was a perfect balance of time, stops, and consideration to make our visit as enjoyable as possible.
We started our day promptly at 8:30am, making our way to the waterfront and making our first stop along the river Neva where we got to see (from a distance today, close up tomorrow), The Hermitage, Winter Palace, Church on Spilled Blood, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. From here, we passed the old Stock Exchange and the two towering Red lighthouses, blazing in fire on the one day of the year that these are still lit (it is a Victory day celebration, as the fires are no longer needed today), and made our way past Peter the Great’s Log Cabin (his simple home), one of the largest Mosques in Russia, and to our next big stop of the day, the Peter and Paul Fortress and church.
Arriving to the great fortress, founded in the early 1700s by Peter the Great, we entered through the large stone walls and walked across a massive cobblestone square, also home to a Russian mint, to the great yellow and white spire (the tallest in the city until modern times) and walked inside. The first thing we saw was opulence, marble and jasper columns, jade green and white ceilings, crystal chandaliers, and gold everywhere. Many marble tombs of the Romanov czars (who ruled Russia from 1613 until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution) were inside, decorated with flowers, gold, and the dual eagle head emblem of royalty. In addition to viewing the incredibly beautiful altar and iconstasis, we got to view the chapel of Catherine the Matyr, which was added as the Cathedral was expanded following substantial looting and damage during the Bolshevik revolution.
From here, we headed back to the waterfront of the Neva River to board a hydrofoil to Peterhof, our next stop on our two day itinerary. When we pulled up to the boarding point, we walked onto a pontoon, where a restaurant boat (one of many along the Neva for the people of St. Petersburg to enjoy a meal and an excellent view!) was docked. We looked around and assumed that this boat would have to move to let our hydrofoil pull alongside the dock. Our assumptions were entirely wrong as we boarded the restaurant boat, walked through it, and stepped onto another boat, passing through it, and to a third, our hydrofoil! It seems that the boats stack up to perform these boarding manuvers as there are insufficient places along the concrete walls of the Neva to board boats.
Once on the hydrofoil, we began the 22 km (13 mile) ride outside of the city. Elena mentioned that this method of transport was far superior to driving as traffic could turn the drive into a 2 hour ordeal, where the Hydrofoil can accomplish it in less than 40 minutes.
We enjoyed more amazing views of the city from the Hydrofoil and eventually of the Russian coastline as we worked our way to the southwest. As we arrived to Peterhof (also known as the Russian Versailles), we were along the gulf of Finland and the wind was blowing and it was much cooler, but the sun was still out and the blue skies were intact, so our group got our tickets and entered the gardens of Peterhof, where we would spend the next 90 minutes touring the beautifully manicured grounds and admiring the gravity fed fountains all over the 200 hectacres of the property.
We enjoyed dozens of fountains surrounding the grounds of the lavish palace, and admired the feats of engineering to bring all of this fresh water to the site through gravity fed methods. Along the way, we watched kids (of all ages) play in the trick fountains, also known as the “Magic Stones”… Sometimes they squirt water, sometimes they don’t – only way to know is to walk across the rocks at the base and see what happens! J
Criss-crossing our way across this beautiful park ands its gardens, fountains, and flowers, we made our way up the hill to the top and to the palace and admired the view all the way to the water. From here, we reboarded our buses to head to lunch, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal of borscht, bread, chicken in butter sauce, rice pilaf, vegetables, a russian pancake (crepe) with mixed berry sauce, bottled water, coffee, tea, and a shot of Russian vodka!
After lunch, we drove along a few Russian freeways to arrive at the town of Pushkin, also known as the “Czars Village” and the home of Catherine Palace. We were told that this stop was without question one of the highlights of our trip and while we were ready to enjoy it, we had already enjoyed the oppulence of Peter and Paul Cathedral, the fountains of Peterhof, and the beautifully decorated city for Victory Day celebrations.
We were blown away. While the palace itself has gone through many evolutions since its building began in 1717, it is just a museum today, and what a place! Every room seemingly more lavish than the previous and just a introduction to what we would be seeing once we arrived at the Hermitage tomorrow. From the inlaid wood floors (you must wear brown colored show protectors at all time within the building to protect them!) to marble, gold, and every color under the rainbow of fabrics, stone, and decoration. The building itself was amazing, in a baby blue and white, with gold accents, blood red carpets and marble staircases. Once complete, we walked through the extensive gardens, which were also decorated with intricate patterns, and made our way back to the mini-bus.
Our final stop for the day was to the St. Petersburg Metro, where we got to experience a ride on the subway! First, deposit your 35 Ruble coin (approx. 52 cents) into the turnstile to enter the system – you can go anywhere you want within the system until you exit… a great value! Next, take the escalator down, down, down, deep into the earth – St. Petersburg’s system is considered the deepest in the world, and you kinda feel like you are approaching the center of the earth, when the escalator finishes, and you step out into a vast station with high ceilings, chandeliers, marble statues, and immaculately clean. We took a quick look around our start station, Pushkinskaya, as Elena explained the “rules” of the subway – 1) You have 7 precious seconds for everyone to get out and for you to get in before the doors closed. You miss this window, you wait for the next train. 2) Don’t worry if you miss the 7 second window… Trains run every 2 minutes! Hence, the very short timeframe to enter/exit as the next train is just on the previous one’s heels. 3) For our example ride today, we will just cover a single stop, to Vladimirskaya. It was a ton of fun, and R even got into it, telling all of our tour group “Get off the train, get off the train!” when we arrived at Vladimirskaya and slipped out during our “sacred” 7 seconds. =)
This ended day one of our two day tour as we were returned to our cruise terminal, passed through passport control, and enjoyed a good night’s sleep, as we had a ton to do the following day as our tour continued into the city center of St. Petersburg, with a canal tour, an early visit to the Hermitage, the Church of Spilled Blood, Yusupov Palace, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Looking forward to it!