On a recent cruise to the Baltic, we had three days to spend in St. Petersburg, Russia. Before sailing, I was told that international cruise passengers are allowed to visit Russia without a visa for a certain amount of time. I did not realize that in order to go out of the port and visit St. Petersburg, I had to be on a sponsored tour. I could not just go and explore the city on my own. Since I only booked two excursions for the next two days, I had to scramble and find something to do on our first day in St. Petersburg. Luckily, I was able to book a last minute sightseeing tour of St. Petersburg.
It was a nice day in St. Petersburg. Our guide started introducing us to the city by saying that we missed the rain and cold. "Did you know that St. Petersburg only get 60 days of sunshine each year? You're lucky to be here on such a beautiful day, one of those sixty days," announced our guide. We were on a tour bus making our way along the bank of the Neva River to see most of the city’s landmarks and tourist sites. Acting like a teacher, our guide told us to pay attention and remember the names of the bridges that we’re about to cross. “This is the Trinity Bridge,” she said while shushing those who were talking. I thought she was using the bridge as a lead-in to talk about St. Petersburg geography. Situated in the North-West of Russia in the Neva River delta and on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg is an important port city in the Baltic. The city is located on 44 islands formed by the Neva River and various rivers and canals. Hence, the many bridges to connect the islands.
I expected to see grey color or stern buildings, but most of the government or historic buildings like the Hermitage and the Winter Palace are in pastel green or blue, pink and mostly yellow colors even the military building (the Admiralty) across the river. I asked our guide about the pastel color. She said that yellow was Catherine’s favorite color that she ordered to have the buildings painted in yellow. The names Peter the Great and Catherine cropped up many times during our tour. We first stopped by the Rostral Columns to see a view of the Peter and Paul Fortress with the imposing golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral from across the river. We then crossed the bridge to see the cathedral up close. St. Petersburg is chock full of palaces, museums, theaters and monuments. Most of the buildings are in Neoclassical or Romanesque style architecture except for a few churches with the iconic Russian onion domes like the St. Isaac's Cathedral, the largest orthodox cathedral in the world. We only saw the buildings from the outside. Our bus stopped by the park where our guide allowed us to get off the bus so we could take pictures of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its colorful onion domes.
After seeing most of the tourist sites, I coaxed our guide into stopping and dropping us off in front of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood so we could see the design up-close. In contrast to the muted pastel colors of the palaces and government buildings, the church exterior is a riot of color. Icons and plaques recording the history of Alexander II’s reign and intricate detailing on marble and granite adorn the church. The church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded. It stands by the canal that adds a dramatic effect to an already very impressive architecture and Russian design.
After visiting the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, our bus drove us to the souvenir shop. I saw two tour buses leaving as we arrived at the shop with a very tiny doorway. So, I thought it was the reason why our guide gave us the extra time to explore the church although it was not part of the program. I’ve been on tours enough times that I knew the tour operator’s MO. I used my shopping time outside to take pictures of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.
The highlight of my evening was a ballet performance at a state run theater. I would have loved to see a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theater - a world-class opera and ballet, but I did not have the budget for it.
The following day, we visited Catherine’s Palace, which was 30 kilometers away from the city center. As a tour group from the cruise ship, the sponsor gave us the privilege to enter the backside or the north side, where there was no line. Perhaps, it was part of the visa arrangement. I was in awe at the size of the palace. The caretaker and maid’s quarter in the north side alone is HUGE.
I could easily fill pages and pages in this blog with descriptions of the palace interior, but let me just say a few words about it. The palace is beyond extravagant. It would make Imelda Marcos drool like a rabid dog. Just imagine the gilded rooms and halls filled with gilded wall-carvings, gilded ceilings with mural paintings, humungous chandeliers, gilded inlaid floors, walls covered in Chinese silk. And of course, the highlight was the bejeweled chamber, the Amber Room, decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors.
Our tour of the palace ended at the south side where I saw long lines of visitors to the palace official entrance and a few people enjoying the gardens.
Another highlight of my trip was a visit to the Hermitage, the most impressive building(s) in the Baltic and considered one the largest museums in the world. The museum occupies six historic buildings that include the Winter Palace. There is a separate section or building dedicated to modern European art that includes impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. The museum houses over three million pieces of artworks. It’s been said that to see every single item in the museum would take several years. We only saw a portion of the museum with the permanent collections of world famous masters, from Flemish Dutch to Italian Renaissance artists like Rubens, Rembrandt and DaVinci to name a few. We could not possibly see the whole collection in one day.
Back at the cruise ship, I sat on the veranda and gazed upon the shallow waters that extend into a dry land. For the first time I noticed the cranes and the expansive flat land like it was ready for new building constructions. Then I saw the expansive skyline dominated by the same shape gray tall buildings. It occurred to me that I have been to the city of culture, visited the largest museum in the world, went to a ballet, but I did not really experience the real culture of a place, the real moments and narrative which tell a city better than any pictures could ever do. I barely scratched the surface of a city full of history. It was like reading a history book with 1000 chapters, and I was stuck on chapter I.
Note: All photos by the author