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Published: June 25th 2019
St Petersburg - Palace Square
Looking towards the dramatic Triumphal Arch
June 2019 And now, St Petersburg, Russia. Day 1 The Grey haired nomads continue their journey around the Baltic, Tallinn, (Estonia), Helsinki, (Finland), and now leave Helsinki by overnight ferry bound for St Petersburg, (Russia).
We’ve been putting off going to St Petersburg for a number of years. British and US media can be thanked for much of that I suppose, lack of trust, anti-Russia and all that, but memories of the Cold War also persist for some of us, leaving fears of an unfriendly reception for us Westerners. There are also some complex issues of Visas. But we have finally been lured to this intriguing city by the many enthusiastic tales of its staggering beauty from those who have previously been fortunate enough to visit.
There are many ways to get to St Petersburg from the UK. With Tallinn and Helsinki also on our current ‘must do’ list we investigated cruises, but decided they all spend too much time at sea, give too little time at each port of call and visit places we have already been to, or of have no particular desire to visit. Our final plan has taken
us budget Ryanair to Tallinn, a ferry to Helsinki for a couple of days and onward to St Petersburg, where the prospect of a 72 hour visa-free tour sounded tempting.
The St Peter Line ferry, Princess Anastasia, sails across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, between Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg and Tallinn, carrying up to 2,500 passengers and 580 cars. Our thirteen-hour, overnight sailing, with deluxe cabin, (towels, slippers and dressing-gown, complimentary fruit, mini-bar and en suite) afforded us priority boarding and departure, and a fantastic a la carte breakfast, inclusive of bubbly on tap, in the New York restaurant.
‘Prority’ passengers gathered at reception awaiting disembarkation at St Petersburg; those with pre-booked 72 hour tours having first confirmed their hotel bookings. Once ashore we were quickly through passport control and Nadia, our guide for the next three days was waiting, card in hand with our names in big letters, with our ever-smiling driver, Sergej.
Suitcases stashed, our car whisked us off through the traffic at high speed with Nadia giving us a running-commentary of all points of interest and history on the way from the front seat, to
a viewpoint with a panoramic vista of the Fortress on an island across the Neva River.
Nadia is one of those lively, smartly dressed individuals, early thirties at a guess, with a quick brain and little clockwork legs to match, moving, non-stop, with the pace of a cheetah. This young lady was making sure we got our money’s worth. Very early on she warned us to beware of pick pockets and ‘pushy’ beggars – I guess we were mindful of that, but don’t let that put you off – just be aware and very careful should you decide to come this way. In that respect it’s not unlike many of Europe’s major cities. Experience tells us it couldn’t possibly be worse than Barcelona or Palermo.Motorhome News from Europe 18
Within an hour of our arrival in St Petersburg, we were at the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachiy Ostrov (The Hare’s Island). A small bronze hare sits on a post by the footbridge, where tourists throw coins for good fortune – and we joined them with out-of-date Russian currency kindly provided on this occasion by Nadia, for such a purpose. We usually make our own luck, but every little helps!
The star shaped fortress was built on the island in the early 1700s, forming the centre of what is today’s St Petersburg. A cannon is fired from the Naryshkin Bastion here at 12 noon each day; it can be heard all over the city and continues to frighten the daylights out of the city’s residents, Nadia told us. Within the fortress grounds stands the rather lovely Peter and Paul Cathedral, the oldest church in the city, with its huge bell-tower and gilded angel-topped cupola. The striking gilded interior houses the white marble tombs of many of Russia’s tsars and the re-interred remains of Nicholas II and his family. You know the story.
Our car was waiting across the bridge as we left the fortress and we shot off like a Soviet intercontinental space rocket, dodging in and out of tram-lines and busy mid-day traffic to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The name itself is enough to strike horror in many tourists and yet more violent Russian history reveals the source of its origins. This quite exceptionally elaborate church stands beside the canal where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination
attack in 1881. The church with its red-brick exterior and glorious gold and blue-studded domes was erected in Alexander’s memory and its awesome 7000 square metres of mosaics depicting biblical scenes and figures left us wide-eyed and speechless. It really is quite magnificent. We were reminded here of the marvelous mosaics of Palermo’s Cathedral Monreale, which we visited many years back. (Now, there’s a story of pick-pockets!)
It was becoming clearer by the minute that our three days in St Petersburg were likely to be extremely hectic, but it was also evident that this city is packed to the gunwales with amazing sights, far, far beyond our expectations. Sergej drove us to our quiet hotel close to the city centre where we took advantage of a few minutes to freshen up before we were off again; to St Petersburg’s number one attraction, The Hermitage Museum.
The part of the State Hermitage Museum we were visiting is housed in the Winter Palace built for Peter the Great, a monumental building like a delicate green and white iced wedding cake stretching the whole width of the impressive Palace Square. Locals mingled with smiling tourists in the
glorious sunshine interspersed with threatening cloud, bicycles criss-crossing the square with youngsters on scooters, wobbly segways and cash-rich visitors in horse-driven carriages.
Surrounded by monumental neo-classical buildings, Palace Square is the central city square of St Petersburg. Towering above us was the Red-granite Alexander column celebrating Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon’s army and behind us the 580m long sweeping arc of the Building of the General Staff with a dramatic Triumphal Arch at its centre completing the picture.
All visits are specifically timed and Nadia joined us for a quick lunch in the smart Museum Café whilst we waited for our 2.40pm entrance slot.
The museum’s vast collection of international artwork is dispersed across a number of galleries in separate buildings. One could literally spend days here immersed in rare and beautiful art in all its many forms, but sadly, our limited time allowed us access to a few highlights only: Leonardo’s ‘Madonna and Child’, Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ amongst a vast collection of his work, Raphaels, Michaelangelos, Goya, a magnificent golden peacock of British origin and sensationally spectacular apartment after apartment after appartment - an endless
How fortunate we were to have the magic wand of our experienced guide, Nadia – no queuing, more information and history than we could possibly absorb, no booking of tickets, straight through the turnstile like VIPs and a car at our beck-and-call! She has every right to be proud of her ‘official guide’ status.
By now you will have some idea of the pace of our visit, but there was still more to come. We were already breathless and there were two more days of this. It could only be done with a guide and a private car and that, take my word for it, is worth every Ruble.
At 5pm we were back at our hotel for a well–earned rest before strolling the quiet side-streets and an early dinner at a rather special little Georgian restaurant we found beside the canal, where we shared a few moments with the locals away from the tourist centre and its inflated prices.
A few facts on St Petersburg travel, visas, our hotel etc. will follow on our next blog should you wish to know more. Meanwhile we’ll see you
The golden peacock - Made in England!
again tomorrow. Get up early, there’s a lot to see and do here in St Petersburg.
David and Janice
Scroll down for more pictures and up for the Panorama show!
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