First Posted: 5/3/2012 10:20:07 AM | Last Updated: 5/3/2012 10:20:08 AM
Our next port was the one I was most looking forward to because I never thought the day would come when I would be visiting St. Petersburg, Russia.
Just a comment about a cruise that goes to Russia. For all cruises, of course, you need a valid passport. The cruise line tries to make it easy for their passengers by arranging with the other ports in Europe for you to go ashore without a visa for each country. This is not the case in the Russian ports. You do not need a visa if you are on a recognized tour while in the country. However, you cannot leave the ship on your own without a visa. There’s no getting off and hailing a cab to go into town and sightsee or shop. If you are not on a tour, you must stay aboard the ship. You can use a tour company other than the ship; however, you must be sure they are licensed to take tours off the cruise without visas. To avoid all this hassle, we just booked a tour on the ship.
Because this port was extremely foreign and a little frightening to us, we were happy to stay with the tour guide and group. Remember, all of the signs are in Russian, many of the people speak only Russian, and it may not be as easy to communicate as it is in many of the other large cities in Europe.
We wanted to see and experience as much of the culture as we could, so we booked a two-day tour. The ship stayed overnight at this port as there is so much to do and see.
On day 1 we toured the city by bus, with a long stop at the Hermitage Museum. This is an absolute must-see. Located right in town on the river, the humongous green building houses more than 3 million objects of art, including works by da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and many of the French impressionists. The site dates from 1700’s when it was begun by Catherine the Great as a private court museum. Be prepared to walk as the place is huge and seating few and far between. There is also no air conditioning. If possible, leave coats, umbrellas and large bags on the bus, as these must be checked, and the cloakroom is a nightmare. It was raining and chilly the day we were there, and we had to wait in line outside, so we had to use the check-room. The crowds got so bad the museum had to call in the police to prevent a stampede. Our guide opted to leave her coat rather than face the turmoil and risk losing her charges.
After a “typical” Russian lunch (code for terrible, I think), we were off to see some of the other highlights of the city, including the Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Peter and Paul Fortress. The magnificent architecture of these historic landmarks contrasts starkly with the very utilitarian structures used to house the populace. Throw in a couple of short shopping stops along the way, and day 1 was history.
We were happy to get back to the ship for another delicious dinner and some evening entertainment, before an early night to be ready for the next day’s outing.
An early start on Day 2 took us out of the city to visit Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. This was the palace of Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine, dating from 1710. The interiors are absolutely gorgeous, as it has been restored after damage suffered during W.W. II. After touring the inside of this fairytale palace, we were also permitted to tour the extensive grounds at our leisure.
Again, lunch was at a local Russian restaurant (pack some snacks because the ever-present vodka was the best part, and I hated that. Also, the restroom facilities are somewhat primitive, BYOTP (toilet paper).
The next stop was Peterhof, built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles Palace in France. The grounds here are extensive, with dozens of fountains, waterfalls, statuary and flowers that are truly breathtaking. Again, the art in the palace is fantastic, and the state rooms unbelievably luxurious.
These were two very strenuous days, but the sites were certainly worth seeing.
We even had another adventure on the bus ride returning to the ship on the second day. It was getting near time for the ship’s departure, and we were all tired after the extensive touring we had done at the palaces, and many people were dozing off when the bus came to an abrupt halt. We were being pulled over by a police officer, and if you think it’s nerve-racking to be pulled over in the US, it’s terrifying in Russia. The bus driver and tour leader (both Russian) were clearly extremely nervous, even though we couldn’t imagine what infraction had been committed. Finally, after a tense half hour or so, the driver returned to the coach, and we were on our way. We finally discovered that he was accused of driving one wheel of the motorcoach over a streetcar track in the road. The driver denied doing so to us, of course, but we were left thinking that no one questions the police in Russia. Maybe it’s a good thing we weren’t allowed of the ship except in the care of a certified tour agent.
Even with that extra bit of excitement, we got back to the ship just in time to board and head off to our next destination, Tallinn, Estonia.
St. Petersburg was truly a wonderful experience, and one we’ll never forget.