A hot and sunny day – temperatures peaking at 29C.
It was another early start for the second day of our two day tour of St Petersburg. We were told to meet outside the terminal no later than 8am, and the ships daily programme said we should go ashore at 7.30am. We ordered breakfast to be delivered to our suite, and although room service doesn’t start till 7am we asked Romil to deliver as early as possible, and he flexed again to deliver our food at 6.45am.
Going ashore through customs was even quicker than the previous day with just a cursirory check of our passports, and minimal queuing – they could see from the stamps that most people had been ashore the previous day. As a result our tour group were back in our minibus by 7.50 and driving off to our first destination.
The first visit of the day was to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, a town approximately 25 miles from central St Petersburg. Vladimir, our driver, took us through central St Petersburg and drove out of the city along Moskovsky Prospekt which is a 10km long avenue/boulevard with many notable monuments and Stalinist buildings, including the imposing Triumphal Gate and Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square – commemorating the Siege of Leningrad during WW2). J managed to stay awake until we got to the suburbs, a miracle given her predilection for falling asleep within 5 minutes of being in a moving car.
On both days, in all of the places we visited, there is so much to see and absorb that you miss the finer details, like the beautiful wood in-lay floors and the wide range of marble used at the Hermitage and the palaces. J was particularly drawn to some light blue marble pillars, a colour of marble we have never seen before. In addition to the incredible art work throughout, there is also amazing sculpture and other pieces like huge urns/vases made from malachite and lapis.
We soon arrived at the Catherine Palace, which Catherine I of Russia had built in 1717 as a Summer Palace. We started with a tour of the interior which was reminiscent of Versailles. The ballroom of mirrors and gold leaf glistened, and all the subsequent rooms were similarly grand. This is also the site of the Amber Room. While we certainly appreciated the craftsmanship, detail and opulence (cost) of the room, we weren’t moved by it in the way some people are. The original room was deconstructed to preserve it during WW2, but the panels disappeared. It has been painstakenly recreated based on the original thanks to pictures that were kept. In fact the whole building was virtually destroyed during WW2 (there were pictures showing the state the building ended up in), and it showed the vast amount of restoration that was required.
After a tour of the building we took a walk in the gardens, with wonderful views of the exterior of the palace.
Our tour of the Catherine Palace complete it was straight on to the next destination – Peterhof Palace and Gardens. The tour company provided a packed lunch for us to eat en route, a sandwich, a banana, a chocolate & marshmallow biscuit and a bottle of water. Not what we had gotten used to on the ship, but it filled a hole (apart from J’s aversion to banana’s).
We didn’t go inside the palace (apparently it is not as impressive as any of the other palaces we would be seeing during the course of our two day tour) but we had an hour wandering the gardens. The main draw are the very elaborate fountains – the most significant being the Grand Cascade and Adam Fountain in front of the palace, which is based on one made for Louis XIV in France. The cascade itself is apparently completely driven by gravity. At one time, ships could come up the long stretch of water from the sea to the bottom of the fountains to unload goods. Women buried the sculptures in the gardens (as they did at many other palaces), during WW2 to preserve them.
We continued around the vast gardens where other fountains were hidden away. It was turning into a very warm and sunny day, and the gardens were busy with both tourists and locals strolling around. It wasn’t like Hyde Park where people bring picnics and spend the day siting on blankets on the grass – even people that we assume were locals, were walking around versus laying about on the grass. There is a statue of Peter the Great wearing thigh high boots that are a bit wider at the top. There was a funny incident where our tour guide said that people would throw coins into the top of the boot for good luck. As some of the people were trying to get their coins into the boot an older lady came by and started berating them in Russian. There ensued a discussion between Dasha and the lady, with the lady saying that it was disrespectful and Dasha telling her that people had been doing this for decades. We went on our way, not wanting to upset or offend her. However, we noticed that she stayed put standing vigil at the foot of the statue, warding off anyone who was foolish enough to bring out a coin and prepare to throw it.
There are smaller ‘trick’ fountains scattered around the gardens. The water is turned on and off by groundsmen hiding in huts nearby. It was lovely seeing the kids racing about, running through the water when it would suddenly appear, screeching with delight when they got caught by a stream unexpectedly. Dasha told us that these were originally made as a way to tease the ladies who had come to sit and enjoy time in the shade after walking through the gardens.
Our tour of Peterhof complete it was time to return to St Petersburg. We were dropped at Avtovo Metro station which was built in 1955 and is one of a number of metro stations from the communist era, all built on a very grand scale. We took a train to the next stop Kirovsky Zavod for another photo opportunity, and finally onto Narvskaya – all equally elaborate and very different to anything on the London Underground. It was extremely cool and interesting. The combination of beautiful ornate lighting and architecture with the communist statues and plaques was striking. Despite it being a Sunday, the trains come every few minutes, were all immaculately clean and seemed wider than the trains in London.
The pace didnt let up, as we were then taken to the very central area of St Petersburg to visit the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – one of the iconic buildings of the city. Its not an active church these days, but used as a museum. The interior walls and ceilings are completely covered in mosaics of biblical scenes and figures. It was also the closest we got to any World Cup activities because the FanFest site was located right next to the building. J was particularly taken with the incredible artwork and imagery of the mosaics and would have stayed all day if she could have. It is impossible for the pictures to do this site justice.
Our tour was nearly coming to a close, but we had one final site to see – the Peter and Paul Cathedral where almost all the Emperors and Empresses of Russia are buried. The interior of the building was the least ornate architecturally and decoratively of all the sights we had seen in St. Petersburg. The most memorable part of the building is the 123 metre tall spire with an angel holding a cross on the top.
We had finished the scheduled visits with an hour until our latest return time to the ship. Dasha was happy to suggest an additional site to visit and was encouraging the group to do one more unscheduled stop. However everyone was fairly exhausted and overwhelmed by the whistle stop tour and we voted to return to the ship.
It had been a wonderful 2 full days of tours, and we would highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting St Petersburg on a cruise with minimal shore time. We felt it gave us a very good feel for the city, and that we were able to experience many of the iconic sights the city has to offer. Our guide, Dasha was wonderful. She spoke great English and was very knowledgable. There were a few occasions where she dipped into commentary about the current sanctions or the Ukraine situation. We assume that she is told to share some political commentary on the tours. Thankfully, no one on our tour decided to engage in a discussion with her about the rights or wrongs of the policies and politics of Russia!
We returned to the ship and freshened up for dinner as the Queen Victoria gently pushed away from the berth and out into the Neva Bay towards the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic sea. We were less tired after the second day – probably due to the longer periods between sites as there was more driving involved. It was a beautifully warm, sunny and windless evening making for a wonderful sail away. After about an hour we passed very close to Kronstadt which has a naval base which was at the frontline between the Russian Army and the German Army during WW2. There were a few Russian warships in port as we sailed by, and continued on past the various historic artillery installations. It was interesting reflecting on how much had changed in a generation. We had gone from fighting alongside Russia in WW2, to the Cold War, to the present where we were sailing past part of the Baltic fleet. We felt very privleged to have been able to see and experience so much over the two days. We passed through the St Petersburg Flood Protection barrier and out into the Gulf of Finland before we headed to dinner in the Queens Grill.
M ordered the Scallops to start, followed by the Lobster Thermidor from the a la carte menu, and a Crispy Chocolate Cannelloni with Caramel and Yoghurt Gel (sounds weird but was tasty). J ordered the Caviar followed by the Double Beef Consomme as a main course.
After dinner we had a short walk around the open decks before going back to our suite. It was such a beautiful warm evening on our balcony that we decided to order a couple of glasses of champagne and sit on our balcony to watch the sun set. The glow from the sunset seemed to be endless. As we were so far north the sky is bathed in light for most of the night. It was a perfect and memorable (J says romantic) way to end our whistle stop tour of St Petersburg as we began the return voyage back to Southampton.
We have already started talking about planning an independent trip back to St. Petersburg!
Tomorrow a sea day, before arriving at Kiel the day after.