Our Port Days in St. Petersburg, Russia
Two Action Packed Days in St. Petersburg
We've just returned from a Holland America Sandinavia and Russia cruise on the MS Rotterdam. Rested and back to normal, I am trying to put together some sort of record of our amazing experiences. My family and friends have been asking, "What was your favorite place?" I usually hate questions about favorites but, in this instance, I can answer this question without a moment's hesitation...I loved Peterhof, Peter the Great's Summer Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Saint Petersburg's Story
In 100 words or less!
Saint Petersburg is a city in Russia on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The city was once called Petrograd and Leningrad and is now sometimes called simply Petersburg. Founded by Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1703, it was the capital city of Russia for over 200 years. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, St. Petersburg ceased being the capital. Currently, it is Russia's second largest city with 4.6 million people and it is a major cultural center and port.
Special Considerations Regarding Shore Excursions in Russia - Remember visas are required for visiting Russia!
Deciding what to do when you visit a port on a cruise ship generally offers quite a few choices. In Russia, you must also have a Visa. There are three ways to go about this:
- ARRANGE FOR VISAS
You can arrange for your own visas before you leave home. For Canadians the cost is about $100 each. Choosing this option leaves you responsible for planning your days in Russia, a country that I understand is not easily navigated by English speaking tourists.
- HIRE A PRIVATE TOUR COMPANY
Hiring a private tour company offers many advantages but is very expensive. If you are comfortable contacting a company online and making arrangements through them for your Russian visit, you may have a great tour. If you do hire a private company, they arrange your visa(s) for you.
- SHIP EXCURSIONS
The simplest choice in Russia is to buy the excursions offered by the ship. This choice is also expensive as the cost of cruise line tours is generally considerably more than the cost of the activities on their own. However, in the case of Russia, if you take a ship excursions they purchase your visa for you. The cruise line provides a way to tour St. Petersburg and feel safe and secure.
This last choice is the option we chose for our two day port visit in St. Petersburg.
Port Day 1
Two of our stops in Russia, Catherine's Palace and Peterhof, were Baroque in style. Baroque is "a highly ornamental style of European architecture and art that lasted from the mid-16th to the early 18th centuries."
Early in the morning, we disembarked the ship, cleared customs and boarded a bus with about twenty other people for a fifty minute journey to Catherine's Palace. Truly an impressive site, we were lucky to arrive before too many tourists had and not only had a pleasant view of the front of the palace but a quick entry.
Truly an awe-inspiring building, Catherine's Palace is painted robin's egg blue and trimmed with white and over 200 pounds of gold gilt. We visited the rooms that are open to the public including the famous Picture Gallery and the Great Hall but I was most impressed by The Amber Room.
The Amber Room was stolen by the Nazis, smuggled to Paraguay and lost forever. Well, that is one legend. The story our tour guide told is that the room was dismantled and removed to Germany by the Nazis where it was lost forever. Much of Catherine's Palace was destroyed during World War II and about a half of it has since been reconstructed. The Russians spent twenty three years and eight million dollars rebuilding The Amber Room and, when they ran out of money, the German government gifted them with three million dollars so that the room could be finished. It is quite an amazing room. I have requested my family room be done in amber but my husband just raises his eyebrows at me and offers a can of amber-colored paint.
The Amber Room in Catherine's Palace
On my reading list is . This room was "originally designed for and begun by the Prussian royal family, it was still unfinished when they gave it to Peter the Great of Russia; it was completed and assembled in the lifetime of his successor, Catherine the Great. In 1941, the Germans overran the palace into which the room was fitted and it was moved to Knigsberg, only to disappear as the Third Reich collapsed and the German city fell to the Red Army. The book details the hunt for the Amber Room, which has involved persons from Russia and both Germanys as well as one well-connected Russian migr, a host of magazines, various spies, and occasional outbursts of popular enthusiasm." I am looking forward to learning more about the mystery behind The Amber Room. It might very well be worth reading this book BEFORE you go to Russia! The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure
Picture is from Wikipedia Commons - Note that taking photographs is no longer allowed in the Amber Room so there are very few of them available.
Vintage and Antique Amber Jewellery
When we were in Russia I, unfortunately, did not know anything about amber other than that it is, quite simply, a yellow fossil resin that is used for creating jewellery and ornaments and that it is very beautiful. I wish I had known more in order to have been able to do some intelligent shopping while we were in Russia. However, I am consoled by the presence of these beautiful, vintage amber pieces that are available on eBay.
Port Day 1
Pavlovsk in the Afternoon (Paul's Palace)
After we finished at Catherine's Palace, we were whisked away on our tour bus to lunch which was served in a medium-sized, ordinary sort of restaurant. The restaurant, of course, was pre-booked and the meal was pre-set as appears to be the case with cruise excursions that include a meal. The meal was not particularly noteworthy, either way except, perhaps, for the fact that we were being served borscht. Our tour guide informed us that most of the other tours would be eating tossed salad as their appetizers so we felt very privileged indeed! We enjoyed our meal and we found it quite acceptable. It was also well timed as we sheltered from the rain! (When you go to Russia, remember to pack good travel rain gear and don't be shy about borrowing the cruise line's free umbrellas as you leave the ship.)
After lunch we re-boarded the bus and headed for Pavlovsk. Paul's Palace was gifted to Paul by Catherine the Great when his son was born. This palace survived the Revolution of 1917 only to be looted and almost totally destroyed during the seige of Leningrad during World War II. One of the most interesting parts of the tour may well be the pictures of the destruction that was done to this palace. (It surely made the reconstructed rooms more impressive.) Reconstruction began almost immediately after the war so that the people of Russia could visit and enjoy the glory of Pavlovsk. Workers have spent 40 years bringing it back to its original state.
Paul's Palace is known for some of the amazing collections held within. We saw one-of-a-kind sets of china of which large parts had been saved because they were packed up and shipped away before the taking of Leningrad. It also has some of the most beautiful wooden floors that we have ever seen. During the reconstruction of the Palace, original flooring that had never been installed was found and it was put to use in the rooms it was originally intended for.
Russian Folk Music
From Russia With Love by Moscow Nights
From Russia With Love by Moscow Nights Including The Russian Folk Song, The Dark Eyes. Available to download from Amazon for your MP3 player.
Port Day 1
Evening Folkloric Russian Spectacular Show
After our day of touring, our tour bus returned us to the ship. We boarded, had dinner and then disembarked again, this time on our way to an evening folk presentation by the St. Petersburg Highlights folklore group. It was an action-packed musical journey through Russia featuring Siberian Cossack dancers, Russian and Ukrainian choral singing and a gypsy ensemble. It included the well-known folksong, The Dark Eyes, and live Balalaika music. There was an intermission during which we were served champagne and water...don't tell anyone that my 15-year old has a taste for champagne!
Our trip to the show on the bus turned out to be more than we bargained for as our guide provided a sightseeing tour of St. Petersburg along the way! (Two tours for the price of one!)
Imperial St. Petersburg: Peterhof In The Morning
On Day 2 of our stay in St. Petersburg, we were up bright and early once again, breakfast grabbed and then off to our waiting tour bus. (Look out early mornings are the theme song of our cruise!) This time we were headed for Peter the Great's summer Palace, Peterhof, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Peterhof was amazing and turned out to be my favorite stop on our entire cruise. Why? Well, for me it was the combination of the beauty of the palace and the grounds.
The Palace is a combination of Russian and Baroque styles. It has many notable rooms, one which I found particularly intriguing is called the Picture Hall. In that room are hung 368 paintings of women dressed differently, all of different ages and appearances but all painted from a single model.
The Palace was beautiful but the grounds, divided into upper and lower garden sections, were absolutely amazing. They were modeled after and are said to rival Versailles. I agree. The gardens are extensive with about 300 acres and we certainly did not get to see them all. There are 64 fountains that use 8,000 gallons of water per minute without the benefit of a pump. That is a pretty impressive feat, don't you think?
I hope you'll enjoy the pictures that I have shared here from Amazon. We took lots of pictures but ours tended to have more people in them than those shown on this page. (A lot more people. The cities that we visited in Europe were very crowded.) For a wonderful panoramic view of the upper Garden, follow this link.
Port Day 2
The Church of the Resurrection (Church On Spilled Blood) In The Afternoon
This time we did not have far to go for lunch as we ate right on the grounds of Peterhof in a restaurant in a renovated historical building. Once again lunch was fine, except this time we had tossed salad instead of borscht! After lunch, we were able to walk to the sea where we boarded a hydrofoil for the city of St. Petersburg.
Mistakenly, I had thought the hydrofoil might be a fun, exciting part of our day for my teenage boys. Oops, I was wrong! For a less glamorous picture, you should think ferry, one that is not too clean and which has poor visibility. I understand that travelling by hydrofoil is a common way to travel in St. Petersburg in order to avoid the bad traffic and we did arrive in the city of St. Petersburg in a timely and efficient manner where we reboarded our tour bus and headed for the Church on Spilled Blood.
The Church of the Resurrection or the Church on Spilled Blood is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is often called a jewel in St. Petersburg and it definitely was jewel-like. It was built to honor Tsar Alexander II on the site of his assasination and combined the styles of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The inside is mosaic, with more than 8,400 square yards of decoration done in mosaic tile.
(Yes, that is me hiding under that hat with all of my paraphernalia including bag, tour audio player and sweater!)
Russian Lacquer Boxes
A word of warning to shoppers thinking of taking cruise ship tours. Our experience is that, if you are a serious shopper, there is not much time for shopping built into most tours! (Unless, of course, you take a tour dedicated to shopping!)
Personally, I found it difficult to shop for items in a crowded gift shop in a tight time frame of say, 15 minutes. Why it seemed like the line-ups for the cash would take that long!
You can guess from my tone that we did not do much shopping. However, I think that a piece of hand-painted art, like a lacquer box, would have been a perfect choice. I just finished reading a beautiful and interesting page dedicated to How to Collect Russian Lacquer Boxes. If you are interested in purchasing a quality hand-painted souvenir, Kathy's page will surely be of assistance. In the meantime, here are a few lovely boxes that are available right now on eBay.
Click here to buy the ladies' version of this t-shirt or click here to order the men's version of this t-shirt on Zazzle. Both t-shirts feature the cathedral in St. Petersburg and both are available in numerous t-shirt styles and sizes, including sizes for children.
St. Petersburg, Russia, T-Shirts
European Ports of Call Reading List
The Rough Guide to St. Petersburg
It always surprises me when people travel without a good travel guide. They are spending a lot of money on their journeys and they are unwilling to spend $15 or so on a good travel book. For our cruise, I purchased three books PLUS I borrowed others including this one so that I could learn more about the excursions our cruise line was offering and make educated choices about where to spend our money.
Frommer's European Cruises and Ports of Call
Frommer's European Cruises & Ports of Call covers more than two-dozen American and European cruise lines, with full details on itineraries, rates, cabins, crews, cuisine, activities and entertainment, children's programs, pools and spas, fitness facilities, passenger profiles, and more.
Fodor's European Ports of Call
Fodor's European Ports of Call is filled with concise and practical overviews of over 70 major cruise ports throughout Europe, offering cruise passengers everything they need to know to make the most of their day ashore and enjoy unique shore excursions independently.
Fodor's The Complete Guide to European Cruises
Cruise expert Linda Coffman explains what makes a European cruise different and offers travelers insightful guidance on planning the best European cruise. She shares how to find the best ship and itinerary to fit every need and gives a complete overview of all the cruise lines and ships that travel European waters.
A simple piece of advice, whether you take your ship's shore excursions or not, is to visit the Unesco World Heritage Sites that are available in the ports you visit. They are excellent choices!
Mother and Son: One Of The Best Parts Of Our Port Days in Russia Was Playing On A Park BenchClick thumbnail to view full-size
What Would We Change About Our Port Days in St. Petersburg?
We were pretty pleased with our selection of tours in Russia but nothing is ever perfect. Our days in St. Petersburg were long, long, busy days but what we saw was impressive and done in a fairly comfortable and educational manner. Personally, I would have loved to have spent the entire day in Peterhof. I have since read that there are five museums on the grounds plus, of course, we could have explored the gardens for hours. However, if we had done that we would not have seen the Church of the Resurrection. Overall, what we had was a tiny peek into Imperial Russia which was surprisingly lovely. That is what cruise travel offers; tiny peeks into various parts of the world. We will never forget our glimpse into St. Petersburg, Russia!
Have you ever been to Russia?
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