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August 4, 2015

We arrived at St. Petersburg early Tuesday morning as we passed by industrial docks ladened in a dump yard of discarded metal as well as piers of churches adorned in gold. We signed up for a full day tour called “Imperial St. Petersburg”. Choosing a tour option provided by the cruise ship eliminated the need for us to personally apply for a Visa. This was handled for us. I suppose the negative to this choice was that we were limited to going on land unless we were with a tour, but at the same time I read in a travel book that tours are the best option as taxi driver’s don’t speak English.

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With only two days in St. Petersburg, however, our options were a little limited. We wanted to see the Hermitage, but with all the sites, we didn’t want to be in one place for four hours, so that is how we chose the Imperial St. Petersburg tour for our first day. The tour included visiting Peter the Great’s summer palace called Peterhof, Decembrists’ Square which is home to the famous Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church of the Resurrection (Church on the Spoiled Blood), a tourist shop, and a traditional Russian lunch. I learned later after reading a travel book, that we could have signed up for an extensive two day tour operated locally by Denrus (www.denrus.re/) which may have been a better choice, but who knows. Another operator was Red October (redoctober.us/).

Regardless, we set off at 9am, just an hour or so after arriving in port. St. Petersburg, located on the Gulf of Finland is the largest city and second largest port in Northwest Russia. It was the capital of Russia for two centuries and is known for its incredible palaces and cathedrals. Due to its location on the delta of the Neva with 60 river branches and 20 canals, St. Petersburg has 42 islands connected by 300 bridges.

Since 1703 when the city was built by Peter the Great, the city has been renamed multiple times. First called St. Peter, it was changed to the German version Petrograd after the First World War in 1914. Upon Lenin’s arrival in 1924, the city was given the name Leningrad. Then, just before the dissolution of the USSR, it became St. Petersburg.

Our tour began by taking the bus to Peter’s Square which was renamed to Decembrists Square in 1925 to commemorate the Decembrists revolt 100 years previously, and is now named Senate Square as of 2008. Located next to the Admiralty Building, is the iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great called the Bronze Horseman. The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian people after seizing the throne in a palace coup. The 20 foot statue of a horse rearing on its hind legs is situated on a slab of granite that took 400 men nine months to drag 4 miles to the waters edge for a specially constructed barge to transport it to St. Petersburg. The statue was protected by sandbags and a wooden shelter from the bombings during the siege of Leningrad from 1941-44 and is the symbol of St. Petersburg like the Statue of Liberty is to New York.

Across the street from the statue is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the city’s main church which was commissioned in 1818 by Alexander I. The imperial structure which took 24 years to construct and is the 4th highest domed cathedral in the world. Its dome is covered in nearly 100kg of gold. After snapping some photos of its exterior, we loaded on the bus, followed St. Petersburg’s main artery, Nevsky Prospekt, as we passed by several famous sites both near and in the distance.

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First we caught a quick glimpse of the golden spired Admiralty Building which once housed the Admiralty Board and is now a naval college. We followed the curved street slowly by Palace Square where the Alexander Column stands. The column was commissioned by Nicholas I to commemorate his brother Alexander’s victory over Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812. Rising 157 feet, this is the highest triumphal column in the world.

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The Winter Palace, with 1,000 rooms, houses the Hermitage Museum which owns three million pieces of art. Our tour guide told us that if we wanted to take one minute to look at each piece of art it would take 11 years. Another guide said nine years. I did the math, and it is 5.7 years. Regardless, it’s a long time.

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Across the river from the Winter Palace, located on Zayachy Island, is the Peter and Paul Fortress. Built to defend St. Petersburg from Swedish attacks, the fortress is the cities oldest structure and houses the city’s first stone church, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The cathedral’s Royal crypt contains the tombs of Peter the Great and most of his successors.

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Eventually we made it to our next stop, Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood. The church was commissioned by Alexander III in 1882 to honor the memory of his father who was assassinated the previous year. A shrine was erected in the exact spot of Alexander II which was later enclosed by the walls of the church, and thus its name, though officially it is called the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

Its colorful and ornamental exterior which features an array of gold onion domes is an example of Russian Medieval architecture, and it was built to resemble St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It interior mosaics, of which 90% survived the war despite finding an explosive in its dome, are equally impressive. The church became a temporary morgue during the Siege of Leningrad and later was used as a warehouse for vegetables during World War II. The church, which was never a public place of worship, is now a museum of mosaics for tourists.

At the widest part of the river, the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island is considered one of the most picturesque places in St. Petersburg. We stopped here briefly to take in the views and to check out the red Rostral Columns which were once light houses. Many Russian couples take wedding photos here. We saw a bride and groom taking advantage of one of only 60 sunny days in St. Petersburg. Speaking of sunny, what a change for us!

Thereafter, we stopped at a tourist shop for a chance to buy Russian dolls, amber, fur hats, eggs, and of course vodka. We got to taste vodka shots for free! Then we went for a traditional lunch at Dozari, a boat on the river. We had beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes…not too bad.

From lunch we took an hour drive along a recently completed highway (more highways and a stadium are under construction for the 2018 World Cup), to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great, Peterhof. No pictures were allowed in the castle. We waited in line for a relatively long time despite tour guides being able to skip lines, we slipped on some booties and were herded through the castle of several small rooms.

The biggest was the throne room painted light green and white. We were packed in there with five other tour groups waiting to see the small throne. Docents blocked off the doorways at each room to control the foot traffic. I don’t know how anyone could go through the palace on their own at their own rate of speed, in particular if they wanted to go a bit faster than the tour groups. They were shunned to the sides and held back or pushed through. We saw some more rooms of different decoration, including a cool portrait room, dining rooms that included heaters for food, and rooms with Chinese decoration.

Along the way, we learned about the Royal family, however, with history being my worst subject as a child and feeling like a sardine in the masses, I hardly gathered much knowledge that I could repeat accurately. There was Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexanders, Nicholas’ and lovers. Family members killed each other. The throne wasn’t always passed down to the children but sometimes to nephews who didn’t deserve to reign. And they built a lot of castles as gifts. That’s my summary…sorry!

I was so thankful to finally be able to enter the palace gardens which resemble Versailles. This is always my favorite part of the elaborate estates. While I can appreciate the art work, woodwork, and handicraft, I just like being in nature better. I could have spent my whole time in the garden if they would have allowed it. We walked by a handful of the fountains…the roman fountain, chess cascade, and trick fountains which the kids love. One trick fountain was an oak tree. Stepping on the correct cobblestone to its side, however, caused water to spray from the benches over the crowd. Another walkway was lined with a water hose that sprayed for 30 seconds at the beginning of three afternoon hours.

The fountains were gravity fed and operated with any electricity or recirculated water. I thought this was kind of cool except the pure, fresh water is taken from a spring and is discarded into the sea! With all the water problems in the world, this waste was a little hard for me to stomach.

At the end of the garden tour, we boarded a hydrofoil, and took a thirty minute ride back to St. Petersburg. I have never been on a hydrofoil, so I thought it was fun. The ride was fast and smooth despite choppy seas!

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We arrived at our boat in time to shower, eat a quick dinner which still took an hour, and then board a bus for a private tour at Catherine’s Palace. The original palace built for Peter’s wife was torn down by their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who felt it wasn’t nice enough. She commissioned a large blue and white palatial residence that is known for its amber room.

After we toured the carriage house and the gardens, we entered the palace to fireworks and guards playing wind instruments. Our group who was one of the first buses to leave, but ended up last in the palace with a terrible tour guide. Upon entering the castle with our entire ship, we were bunched up again. Our tour guide would speak of something in one room, while half the group was behind in another room. I was beginning to feel like I can’t do this again, when I just decided to stop listening to her and filter to the very back to be the last person. Suman followed.

This was the best because we could linger in each room all by ourselves. We got to enjoy the flute player in one room and a harpsichord player in another. We could take any picture we wanted of the Intricate designs in the amber room without anybody in them! And with the 300 guests ahead of us, we even got to walk through all the gold doorways, turn around and snap a photo of the lavish empty hallway. Normally no pictures are allowed in the palace at all, but being a private event in the evening, an exception as made for us. Being last turned out to be perfect! At the end of our tour, we enjoyed a short ballet show as a string quartet played. We returned to the boat around midnight after a long day! Fortunately for us, our tour of the metro and markets with vodka tasting doesn’t start until 1 pm tomorrow. ETB

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