Public service announcement: here is your very brief general information to get things started. St. Petersburg is situated on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Finland, some 400 miles from Moscow. Considered the most European of all the cities of Russia. City population is around 5 million and is the largest sea port in the country. It is built on a series of islands spread over a wide area. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great. In 1712, Peter transfered government from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great continued to build the City into a major European capital. She founded the Hermitage Museum, which today is pretty impressive still. There is much more, if you want to learn more – look it up on-line. One more add, the currency is the Ruble. There money is tightly controlled, so taking into or out of Russia is illegal.
When I think back to some of the places that I wanted to visit, Russia was always one of them. Why? Maybe it was the times that I grew up in; being a member of the US military; Russia was not really open to visitors or maybe all of them and more. I was so looking forward to my 2 day visit to Russia. When I booked the cruise, I was told that I would need a visa to go out and about and explore. Since I did not have enough time to get said visa – I had to do the cruise ship tours. Since we were going to spend 2 days there – I wanted to make sure that I covered as much as possible, we went on 2 tours.
The first on was the big 10 hour city highlights, Pushkin (Catherine’s Palace) and Peter and Paul Fortress. Armed with camera’s and some high expectations… I have waited for this moment for a long time. We set off from the port towards the city center – passing by many residential housing along the way. Some of them are new, some fairly new and some were not. One thing that was noticed right away is the number of housing units and the lack of planning for cars. Ouch, cars were parked almost 3 deep. Parking is tough most places. As we moved around St. Petersburg, you got the true sense of the traffic, navigating around the various islands (bridges everywhere) and the views.
As our luck was not already pretty good but here are some of the causes of the extra traffic and congestion:
- Economic Summit was scheduled for the 2 days we were there. This caused road closures – as the delegates never had to wait in traffic. Extra security was out.. Got to see plenty of SWAT folks.
- Was Wedding season – were must have seen 30+ couples (and their families) out and about taking pictures at the many historical sites (same places we were going to). In Russia, this is very good luck. When you see them, you are to make a wish and it is supposed to come true.
- That evening was a celebration for the end of the school year. Big concert and fireworks needed to be prepared for. Again, road closures or lane restrictions.
Back to our day on the tour. We must have circled St. Petersburg many times – as I started to get a very good sense of where I was on the bus. We headed out to Pushkin to visit Catherine’s Palace. Once there, we were treated to a walking tour of the Palace and the garden’s. I enjoyed every part of that tour. Our guide handed out receivers and headphones, so she could continue to tell us what all is going on – quietly (probably saying her voice from yelling). Once the morning was over, we drove back to St. Petersburg for the rest of the tour. Lunch was local cuisine at a hotel banquet hall (I would comment that it was not my favorite food, but okay). Back on the bus for more city highlights and then walking around Peter and Paul Fortress.
Day 2 of St. Petersburg was a 4 hour visit to the Hermitage Museum. Wow.. 4 hours was not enough, I felt like we were rushed to see as much as possible. The Hermitage is located on Palace Square, is one of the world’s greatest treasuries of fine and applied art with over 3 million exhibits. To say the least – impressive is right. We were able to get within inches of many of the greatest artist ever and their work was not behind glass. In fact, I was pretty shocked at how close you could get.
My overall impressions:
- Looking at much of what was done during the early years, you can see that the government tried very hard to keep up with Italy and other countries – but they did it on a cheaper scale. What was marble in Italy was painted in Russia. What was solid gold, is gold leaf. Pretty cool – keeping up with the Jones’ on a budget.
- Traffic – what a pain… I know this cost us some of our visit. We had less time in some places due to keeping to a schedule. We also missed out on visiting the Church of Spilled Blood (due to the economic summit street closures).
- Our guides did an amazing job – they knew their stuff and were pretty good with answer questions. English was not a problem. What people can not hide is their opinion of stuff. We heard their pride and the disappointment as they talked about certain periods. I truly enjoyed not having a watered down version.
- We had beautiful weather and got to see many of the celebrations. The wedding stuff was pretty cool. They drive around and take pictures before they are married. I was not even able to see the wedding dress ahead of time. The celebration for ending of school – military school, college and high school – all at once for everyone.
- Security at Palace and Hermitage (in the rooms) were pretty much older women – just watching what was going on – which was really back-up. As the cameras were everywhere.
I can now say that I have stepped on Russian soil in my lifetime. Who would have thought about that some 20 or 30 years ago? Times change and this was a very good experience.