The cruise port in Russia for the Baltic Capitals cruise allows for an overnight stay. Excursions are expensive and they have large groups of people to load and unload at stops. My friend researched our St. Petersburg options and came up with a two day twelve hour per day private tour with the same itinerary for $400 per person. Not only was it cheaper than the cruise line, but having a personalized tour saved time and allowed for more stops in Pushkin and St. Petersburg.
My Visit to Pushkin
Russia requires a separate travel Visa. No travel Visa is required if your excursion in Russia is with the cruise line. However, if you are doing a private excursion, your guide may offer to take care of this for you, which was the case for our tour. On the first day in St. Petersburg, our guide met us at passport control right outside the ship. Our tour was reversed in order due to traffic from the St Petersburg International Economic Forum going on. Putin was there and I was excited to be a single block away from him.
We headed to Pushkin, a town named after Russian Poet Alexander Pushkin, which was about thirty minutes away. We made a quick stop at the hauntingly beautiful Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, built in commemoration of the 900 days St. Petersburg was repeatedly bombed and attacked by the Germans. With eternal flames along the walls and classical music playing aloud, the memorial displays a broken ring representing their country moving on to new things. I had not read about this prior to our trip, but it was a hidden gem.
Talk About Impressive!
Upon arriving at Catherine’s Palace, her summer home, I was awestruck at the first sight of this neoclassical and baroque style electric blue, white, and gold beauty. The palace was named after Catherine I, but its decor was most greatly influenced by Catherine II. The word gaudy could have originated here, but even with gold and mirrors on nearly every surface, it meshed beautifully, showcasing the tremendous power and riches of this country. The palace was gutted and destroyed by the Nazi’s during WW II, but has since been reconstructed to its original design.
Catherine’s Palace houses the world famous Amber Room, made of 8 tons of amber lining the walls and furnishings, ranging in every shade from green to deep brown. Photography is not allowed in this room. I found The Amber Room one-of-a-kind, but I preferred the richness of the portrait room, as seen below.
The grandiose Great Hall is the enormous ballroom, which at one time was bustling with dances and parties. The room’s tall windows, chandeliers, and sparkling mirrors appear even larger with the sun beaming in. Some rooms at the palace are named after their primary decorative color such as the Chinese Blue Drawing Room, The Blue Formal Dining Room, and the White Formal Dining Room. Another lovely room was the Agate room, filled with amazing artifacts and valuables.
Even the Grounds Aim to Please
Upon exiting the Palace, one travels down red carpet lined circular white marble staircases on either side to begin the visit to Catherine’s Park. The park has many gardens, some English and some French; however I did not find them very interesting, though the landscapes were immaculate. One can even visit the Pyramid, a graveyard devoted to Catherine the Great’s dogs. On the property is a music pavilion where we heard a lovely acoustic performance.
We made a quick stop to an Orthodox Church in Pushkin where Czar Nicholas II and his family attended. There was a service going on at the time and watching their rituals was something new for me. A head covering was required and the church had scarves to borrow.
A Visit to the Russian Versaille
Next came an unquestionably must-see visit to Peterhof Palace, Peter the Great’s last residence before his death. Often called “Russia’s Versaille”, the castle is stunning and my camera was ready to get to work, but much to my dismay, they do not allow pictures inside. The furnishings in the castle varied from rich lapis tables, hand painted silk tapestries, impressive inlaid parquet floors, funky ornamental ceramic vases, and purple jeweled glass chandeliers. Corridors of the palace run the entire length of the castle, and parallel to the river.
Palace walls are decorated with ornate sconces, silk wallpapers, and master oil paintings. Some of the ceilings were hand painted (called a plafond) with lovely frescoes, Elizabeth pictured within many of the scenes. This palace could hold thousands of people at one time, thus was used for grand balls, masquerades, and large dinner parties.
Peterhof, completed in 1721, was similar to Catherine’s Palace with that rooms were decorated in a single color scheme. The rooms that tied for my favorite were the Crown Room (the bedchambers), and the mint green Throne Room, which was green trimmed in red. There were two eye-catching Chinese themed rooms with valuable jeweled walls.
More than 5,000 hand painted ceramic dishes, many being Wedgwood, were on hand for the elegant dining rooms. The portrait gallery, containing 130 works by Prague artist G. Grott, was my favorite room of all. Grott was Elizabeth’s favorite artist and upon his death, she bought all his remaining portraits and hung them in this gallery. Most feature children and the expressions captured are exquisite.
Some of the Most Famous Fountains in the World
The Fountains at Peterhof are one of St. Petersburg’s most popular attractions. Outside the palace is the Grand Cascade fountain, which features a most impressive series of fountains, and a whimsical grotto underneath the water. Each garden features a creative fountain in the shape of something special (Adam & Eve and Sun, were just a few). Walking into the opulent gardens was like falling asleep and having the most heartwarming dream.
The landscapes housed vibrantly colored flowers and the biggest tulips I had ever seen, all the exact same sizes and heights. The perfectly manicured terraced gardens, ornate footbridges, and gazebos, offered many areas to take pictures, rest, or admire. Do not miss the photo spot at the sea wall where you can view the city of St. Petersburg and the cruise ships across the water. For a fee, you can be photographed with men and women in historic costumes.
Peterhof welcomed hoards of school children the day we were there to celebrate the end of the school year. Fancily dressed and adorned with ribbons and sashes, the kids enjoyed playing in the fountains. Some of the fountains even played back with help from the water controller hidden behind the bushes. Concession stands were available, but none of the vendors spoke English. The gift shop is rather pricey and cramped, but I did purchase a souvenir book about Peterhof Palace.
We ate a delicious beef stroganoff lunch, a Russian classic, at one of the restaurants in the Peterhof complex. The restaurant prices were affordable with plentiful portions and free WIFI. Our guide was kind enough to treat us to lunch.
FYI: Admission to Catherine’s Palace is 550 rubles for adults and Peterhof was around the same.
Tip: You must pay for toilet use nearly everywhere in the Baltic’s. The price was typically 50 Euro cents.
Tip: Shorts and sleeveless shirts are frowned upon at historic attractions. One of the churches we visited required a head covering.
Russian Short Story
History: SHORT STORY: Marta Helena Skowrońska, came from a poor family and later became Peter the Great’s mistress. Marta Helena converted religions to Orthodox and her name was changed to Catherine. In 1707, Catherine and Peter the Great were secretly married. They bore twelve children, of which only two lived to adulthood. Catherine was Peter’s second wife and chose to become a Tsarina. Peter died in 1725, and after several hurdles, Catherine became Empress and ruler of Russia. It is rumored that one of her many lovers had Peter killed. Two short years after taking the throne, Catherine passed away.
After Peter II and Ivan VI (the next rulers,) Catherine and Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, became one of the most popular rulers of Russian monarchs. Elizabeth loved to host parties and dance, maybe the reason she owned over 2,000 pairs of shoes. Wedless and childless, Empress Elizabeth introduced her chosen successor, her nephew Peter, to Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. Upon Sophia’s conversion to the Orthodox religion, she became known as Catherine II, in memory of Elizabeth’s mother. Proceeding the death of her husband Peter, Catherine II became the longest ruling female leader in Russian history. Her rule was called Russia’s golden age and she became known as Catherine the Great.