May 10, 2016: St. Petersburg, Russia
A bit past 7:30am this morning, we exited the ship to begin our second day in St. Petersburg, meeting up with Elena, Vladimir, and the rest of our tour group to kick off a new day of sightseeing.
First up today was a return to the waterfront pier along the Neva river, this time to board our one hour canal tour. By now, we were seasoned experts on passing through 3 boats to reach our canal boat. Our guide for the next hour, Victoria, provided a nice overview of Russian History as we had the chance to view many of the sights of the City Center without obstruction from the river.
As we finished the canal tour, we exited our boat just a stone’s throw from the Hermitage and entered the short queue for our early entrance 10am ticket time. Inside of the Hermitage (as we have had for all of our interior museum/sight visits), we were fortunate enough to have Elena as our guide – she had a personal microphone, and we all had a portable receiver with an ear loop headset. An instructor in Russian Literature, she had a phenomenal amount of great information, connected it with each of the sights we had seen over the very busy two day tour and took excellent care of us, ensuring that every need could be accommodated. In addition to her work with SPB, she was also a teacher at a high-IQ school for students between the ages of 7 and 15, many of which go on to study around the globe.
She made this incredibly complex and massive museum (think Louvre or Smithsonian in size and exhibits) understandable, and helped us appreciate it so much more by isolating a subset of the art that would help us have the most enjoyable experience.
The first part of the tour was through the historical rooms, including the Ambassador’s Stairs, the ballrooms, the Malachite Room (a drawing room decorated with malachite, a green-copper mineral found in the Russian Ural mountains), the Field Marshalls’ Hall, Memorial Hall of Peter the Great, the Armorial Hall, and the War Gallery of 1812 (over 300 portraits of the generals that helped to fight against and expel Napoleon from Russia), the Throne Room (no… you can’t sit on it), and the Pavillion Room (home of the most amazing and intricate Peacock clock, a timepiece unlike any ever seen). In the Hermitage, much like the Catherine Palace, the inlaid wood floors are amazing, but given the sheer numbers of visitors to the Hermitage, they can’t deal with the additional chaos of getting everyone to put on, use, and take off foot covers, so they are needed here.
The second part of the Hermitage tour brought us to view art from the Old Masters where we get to see not one, but two original Leonardo da Vinci works (there are only 20 left in existence). The Benis Madonna, showing Mary as a very young girl, maybe in her early teens, is sitting with Jesus, as she shows Him a flower. The Litta Madonna shows Mary nursing the baby Jesus. The names of the works are actually associated with the family names of the original owners, we came to learn.
Not to be outdone, Catherine commissioned a replica of the Vatican Loggia, so we have some of Raphael in the Hermitage as well, though the replica is so exact that in many locations within the long, narrow room, it is impossible to tell which you are actually in.
As we continued along, Michaelangelo was the next master to be seen, with his sculpture, Crouching Boy, and though not entirely completed, represents some of the best work of the great artist.
In the course of 30 minutes, we had already seen more great masters than most of us in the tour group had seen in most of our lives, but it just kept coming… Next up: Rembrandt, including the Prodigal Son, and a few other of his less notable, but still amazing works.
Ironically, it was time for us to end our tour, and though we were all exceptionally impressed, by what we’ve seen, Elena’s amazing knowledge of all the intricate subject matter, there was still another entire section of the museum with the modern masters (think Manet, Degas, Monet, Renior, van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, and Picasso) that we wouldn’t even touch. According to the latest information, given the number of works of art in the museum, it would take an individual nearly 9 years to visit and view them all. We didn’t quite have that long, so we were all exhausted, but appreciative for all that Elena had introduced to in our short time.
From here, we made our way to the Church on Spilled Blood, with its incredibly colorful and intricately decorated exterior. Built on the location of the suicide bomber death of Czar Alexander II in 1881, nearly every square inch of this massive church is decorated on the interior with colorful and vivid mosaics. Given looting during the Bolshevik revolution, damage from World War II, and its stint as a morgue, it is today primarily a museum and holds only minimal services.
A short walk away, we headed to lunch, where we had another amazing meal, including a wonderful salad, mushroom soup, breaded chicken, potatoes, and a sweet and tasty honey cake for desert.
After that amazing lunch, we had gotten our second wind and headed to the Yusupov Palace, on the banks of the Moika River, and just one of the 57 palaces that Felix Yusupov owned, making him nearly as wealthy as the Czar himself.
Darin served as the official photographer for this location as a photography permit was needed, so we ventured though and enjoyed this lavishly decorated site filled with marble staircases, works of art, French tapestries, Venetian mirrors and woodwork, and an incredible private underground theater in which 200 of your closest friends could watch private performances.
On top of all the amazing elements of the building itself, this was also the location of the 1916 assassination of Grigori Rasputin, an amazing story of poisoned food, which couldn’t kill him, then being shot 4 times, which couldn’t kill him, then finally being thrown into the Moika river, where he finally drowned. Elena provided all of the incredible details of this “never say die” story and set the record straight on the true story of what happened.
Our final stop was to St. Issac’s Church, another incredible testimony to the power of the human spirit and how churches played a role in the survival of the people of Russia during the times of Nazi Hitler during World War II.
As we slowly began to make our way back to the cruise port, we made a short stop at a souvenir shop for any last minute pickups, and then said our goodbyes to a phenomonal guide and driver, who made our two days in St. Petersburg memorable, fun, enjoyable, and exceeded every expectation! Would highly recommend SPB tours for any location in which they operate, as they are setting a new and impressive standard for service, quality, and value. As we sailed away during dinner, R said his customary good bye to each of our ports “Good Bye Russia!”, but something tells me that this won’t be the last time to visit the country. One more bucket list location crossed off… Time to add another!