Published: June 17th 2012June 17th 2012
St Petersburg is a city that has endured much but now appears to be a flourishing city that in recent years has moulded its Russian values with many Western European influences to become one of the most keenly visited tourist destinations in the world. In my last blog I called it the “Jewel in the Baltic Crown”. After visiting many of the Baltic region’s capitals in the past ten days I can only conclude the moniker is accurate. Sadly our two days in St Petersburg have come and gone as I am not sure I have experienced anything like it. I feel like we have lived within a museum for 48 hours as everything we experienced was simply stunning and drenched in historical interest. Few cities in the world have had to rebuild themselves to such an extent during the 20th
Century. St Petersburg was a shell of a city after the Nazi 900 day occupation in WW2 but they have restored it to a level that the founding father would be proud of. Will I do it justice in words? I hope so, but at the same time I am aware that much of this greatness cannot transpose to words. It
is all too visual and at times I felt overwhelmed with what I was witnessing. What an amazing place.
When St Petersburg was established in 1703 by Peter the Great his idea was to create a great port and metropolis that would, at that time, be unrivalled throughout the world. He built it with the obvious ego of a Ruler and once completed declared that his new city would also be the capital of all Russia; moving at that time from Moscow. Buildings were to be bigger, spires taller, interiors more ornate and the city more elegant than anything that had gone before. It is due to those ideals that we saw what we did. However, he may have unconsciously put in place a timeline of events that actually led to the downfall of the Russian Royals in 1917; and that is precisely what our two day tour was to be about. This was a new excursion offered by P&O called The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
The actual process of entering Russia is harder than any of the other countries we have visited. Our tour had to be finalised well before we embarked
from NZ so as to allow time for Visas and landing information to be confirmed. Our visit fell under a Group Visa that the cruise companies can apply to – to go ashore on your own you would have needed to apply to the Russian Embassy in person and at great expense. We were issued with pre-printed landing cards and when we went ashore we had to carry them, our passports, our excursion tickets and also our cruise identity cards. In most other ports we have just had to carry our cruise cards to re-board the ship. I guess some of the suspicion of the West has not lifted. However, in reality you go with the flow and there was very little in the way of queuing at Immigration and we were shore side within minutes with passports stamped.
We were met at the coach park by Helena, who would be our tour guide for the two days. Our respect for her grew immensely on the tour with her knowledge and enthusiasm to educate us about her city one of the highlights of our stay. Most of what I will be writing is based on her explanations to us.
I remember mentioning in an earlier blog about our Tour Guide in the USA and how his ability to set a scene for what we were about to see was exceptional – Helena worked in much the same way and was always striving to give us more. From what we overheard from other groups we may have been very lucky to have her.
They had outlined early to us that our tour would be quite intense and we would cover a lot ground. We certainly did and we did not stop until late on the second day – in fact we were the last back onto the ship before sailing. Our first stop was about 20 miles SW of the city at the royal estate that houses the Peterhof Palace. Sitting on the shores of the Gulf of Finland this 300-acre park is immense in size and displays all the extravagance that Russia’s ruling class wanted to show off. It was personally drafted by Peter the Great and echoes the Palace of Versailles with its fountains, trees and park like setting. The fountains begin at 11am with the Grand Cascade beginning with all pomp and ceremony and accompanied to
music. The amazing thing is these are gravity fed fountains and when the water is released they burst into life with water shooting high into the air. With the golden statues and green of the gardens it is an impressive sight. We walked through the gardens so we could stand at the water’s edge and look back towards St Petersburg – in the very distance you could see Arcadia at dock. It would have been a 30 minute boat trip back by high speed hydrofoil a fleet of which ply their trade on the Gulf.
The jewel in the crown at the estate is obviously the palace; a summer home for many of Russia’s ruling Tsars. The exterior of the palace is yellow and white with gilded trimmings. By the end of the Nazi occupation the palace was completely destroyed both by looting and bombing by the Germans. That is one of the hardest things to digest when you are looking at these sights. Over the decades since WW2 they have been completely restored to their original grandeur with the Soviet state underwriting all of it. It was an obvious show to its people and the rest of the
world that they had the means to do it. There was no expense spared in the original designs and the subsequent restorations. I cannot begin to explain the process of applying gold leaf – all I can say is that I have never seen so much of it; whole rooms, the tops of spires and exterior and interior walls have had it applied. I would love to have the contract. Walking through the rooms was an incredible experience and we visited the Throne Room, the Portrait Room and the stunning White Dining Room all filled with treasures from the time – amazingly some is original as it was hidden from the German occupiers and thankfully never found. It would be amazing what still exists in private collections around the world that has never been returned. We had to wear shoe covers to protect the floors, which made it look like you were wearing little pixie shoes. They were the height of fashion and once again a great contract for someone as they are a wear only once item of clothing.
Being away from the ship for two long days meant that we were taken to local restaurants for lunch.
I had expected that we would be thrown a baguette or packed lunch to eat on the coach. How wrong was I? On both days they took us to local restaurants to enjoy local fare, which usually consisted of a glass of sparkling, a salad starter, a soup course and then on both days we had a chicken main – namely Chicken Kiev. It was nice to sit down and enjoy some Russian service and they could not have been more helpful. They were watched by Helena’s eagle eye and I feel her presence helped with the service and I am sure you would not want to lose the P & O contract over a badly organised lunch. The first restaurant was incredible and could easily have sat 300 - 400 people. We were greeted by a girl dressed in traditional Russian formal wear and she could have just stepped out of a period movie set. It was constructed of polished granite panels on the walls and floor and opened out into the most incredible garden areas. A wedding area was being set up outside as we left. Even the toilets were worth the visit and would have scored highly
on the Tricie W Scale.
Sated by our lunch we travelled back into the city but there was very little sightseeing. In fact most people fell asleep after a few minutes. I must admit we both nodded off as it just seemed so easy after such a nice meal. In the city we caught our first glimpse of the Winter Palace and its infamous Palace Square in which Tsar Nicholas II ordered the shooting of protesters in what subsequently became known as Russia’s “Bloody Sunday”. Our next stop was to be at the palace and the Hermitage, which is one of the oldest museums in the world. It was set up in 1764 by Catherine the Great and opened to the public in 1852. Today it has over 3 million artefacts. As with most museums not everything is on show at one time as there would not be enough room and certainly not enough time to see it all. They say that it would take seven years to view all of what the museum owns. That’s one long shore excursion!
There are over 1000 rooms if you count the Winter Palace and the four other large buildings in
the complex. We did not see all of them but we covered a fair distance within the walls. It is filled with treasures with paintings by da Vinci, Raphael and the largest collection of Rembrandt’s work in the world. There are patterned parquet floors, ornate staircases and moulded and painted ceilings. Once again the use of gold leaf is staggering and you can start to accept why the people of Russia started to get a trifle annoyed at how the nobility lived their lives. The Hermitage did not face the looting and bombing like that of the other places so less has had to be restored so much of what you see is original. Thankfully they had the foresight to move as much as they could before the German invasion. I think my visit to this museum will live with me forever. There was a sense of being overwhelmed and I nearly struggled to take it all in. It is a place of beauty that is a museum in its own right without even beginning to think of the treasures on display. It made for a wonderful ending to a great day and coupled with Mum and Dad’s day out
in the city (they had also attended a music academy and listened to a singing concert) we all had plenty to tell each other over sun-downer drinks.
Day 2 meant another early start but a far easier immigration procedure. This time we only had to show the entry stamps in our passport to the ‘friendly’ immigration staff – I tried hard to get a smile from them. It must come with territory as once we were city side we only ever encountered friendly and helpful people. Our stop this morning was to the city of Pushkin, approximately 15 miles south-east of St Petersburg to view Catherine’s Palace. Once again we had to don the pixie covers, which had begun to create great mirth amongst the group, especially when someone put their big hoof straight through the lightweight material. I was impressed that they managed to cover my size 12s but in putting them all on felt I had displayed the grace and style of a wounded hippo.
Catherine’s Palace was built in the mid-18th
Century to honour Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I. It is extraordinary and as soon as you drive up to the gates and see
the 1000 foot façade you realise you are in for something special. It is painted in a distinctive blue, white and yellow colour scheme – the yellow stucco now painted rather than in its original gold leaf. Catherine the Great was more frugal in her ways and when she inherited the palace she did not wish to pay for more gold leaf on the exterior so on went the yellow paint. This was the palace where the Romanovs held court, ambassadors presented monarchs’ credentials and royal balls were given on a scale not seen in the West. Standing in the aptly named Grand Room gives you a feel for what it must have been like – it drips gold leaf and with its crystal chandeliers it can only convey a feeling of opulence. In today’s market driven world you can also hire it for private functions; US$50K will be the cost. The palace’s popularity as a tourist destination is such that timings are crucial and you are fed through the building in a military styled procession. Helena did well to keep up with the museum guides who sit in every room ensuring that as one group exits a room the
next enters. As we wandered through the upper floors we could look back at the entrance and see that the queue was now hundreds of metres long; thankfully for those in the queue they had a small military band to entertain them – including renditions of Swan Lake with improvised ballet moves while holding a tuba.
Within the walls of the Palace is the Amber Room a unique and spectacular room the likes of which I had never seen before. Made from panels of amber it is the highlight of this palace. What is incredible is the fact that this is not the original and in fact the restoration was only finished in 2003. Sadly the original room was not saved before the Nazi occupation and disappeared. To this day it has not been found – one panel surfaced in the early part of this century, which allowed the experts reconstructing the room to compare their work. Amazingly it was nearly an exact match to what they had produced. It has cost somewhere in the vicinity of US$13 million to recreate the room and untold millions of dollars to reconstruct the palace. As it with the other palaces there
was little left after WW2 and when you see the photos of what has been done it is just mind blowing. The Amber Room still holds some of its mystery as it is the only room out of all that we visited that you are not allowed to take photos in – this is either to preserve the amber panels or increase postcard sales.
Within walking distance was the Alexander Palace. This had been the favourite summer home to Nicholas II and his family before the events of 1917. It differs to the other palaces we visited in the fact that it has only recently become a museum and only a very small section of the palace has been reopened to the public. It has spent much of the last 80 years as a Naval Academy and as such the interior has been changed a great deal. However, a very touching memorial has been made to the last Tsar and his family. Each room that we visited has been redone with exhibits that show family possessions, period furniture, clothes and other memorabilia. It was the photos that impressed me. They had taken an original photo and enlarged it to
wall size so you could see what the room had looked like when the Romanovs were last there. Furniture from the time had then been placed to give it a more realistic look. In one room they displayed many religious icons on the walls – for this they used icons confiscated by authorities at the border; there must have been 60 – 70 of them on the wall. In another the original polar bear floor covering had been returned – you could see it in the photo while nearly touching it in front of you.
The story of Rasputin and the part he played in the Romanov Dynasty is well documented. At the Yusupov Palace Grigory Rasputin met his demise in a mysterious assassination, which to this day creates debate amongst historians. We walked through the rooms in which the assassination plot was hatched and carried out and followed the vaulted cellar from which Rasputin escaped from, only to be shot outside. The Yusupovs were one of Russia’s wealthiest families at the time of the Revolution and their home was filled with treasures and furniture from about the world. It is one of the few museums that you visit
in Saint Petersburg that retains much of its original interior and exterior. It is not as large as the other places but you can easily get the feeling that the family had a lot of money. They housed a collection of art that was unique to St Petersburg. Their home theatre was a mini version of a grand theatre of Europe complete with a family box that was entered on a different floor for invited guests. It really was spectacular in its design and finish and I can honestly say that I have not seen a home theatre with its own orchestra pit! Because of their close ties to the royal family they escaped to other areas of Europe after the Revolution and still today there are descendants living in France.
Our last stop before heading back to the Arcadia was to the Peter and Paul Cathedral. This was perhaps the only rushed part of the excursion but we saw what we needed to. The interior of this cathedral is covered in gold leaf and much of it shines with the sunlight coming through the windows. They were redoing the altar while we were there and with the artificial
lights pointed at it the glow back was immense. It was like a golden cave in front of us. Designed by an Italian architect this cathedral is the resting place of all Russian Tsars from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. The last Tsar and his family have their own sacred room, which explains that Nicholas, his wife and two of his daughters (Anastasia being one) are buried there. Their bodies were only found in the 1990s after lying in unmarked graves for decades. The two other children are yet to be buried there as DNA testing on two skeletons found nearby has yet to be completed. Local feeling is that they hope the family can be reunited again soon with the reburial of the bones. It is an obvious special place for Russians to visit and share in a period of their history that could so easily have been forgotten or overlooked.
So that was that. We were back on the ship and our time in St Petersburg was at a close. It had been a magical 48 hours and included moments of wonder and awe – in fact at a few places I needed to pinch myself
that we were there. Incredible people, incredible city, incredible sights; I could not thank Helena enough for the warm and friendly way she explained and spoke to us about her very special part of the world. It is very apparent that they want tourists to feel welcome and to share in their history. We should be thankful that they have recreated much of it so that future generations can experience it too. We grabbed a drink, sat aft of the ship and watched the city disappear on the horizon - it all seemed slightly surreal that our visit was over.
There are more photos below