My Dream Destination: St. Petersburg
One of the best cruises in my 46 cruise arsenal would have to be the Baltic Capitals cruise that I took with Norwegian Cruise Lines. With an itinerary including such fabulous cities as St. Petersburg (even an overnight!), Helsinki, Tallinn, Copenhagen, and Berlin, this was the trip of a lifetime for me. My girlfriend Jo joined me and we set sail. The whole cruise was delightful, but Russia was the one place I had dreamed of coming to since I was in elementary school. Its rich history and opulence had always intrigued me and now I was finally here.
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Jo and I spent our first day exploring St. Petersburg’s surrounding areas and big attractions such as Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof with a private tour guide. Day two brought us into the city of St. Petersburg with the same guide for a day we would never forget. Our guide picked us up, wearing the same clothes as the day before, still smelling of body odor from the heat and lack of deodorant. Needless to say, Jo and I rode with the windows down to explore the city of my dreams and made dozens of lasting memories.
A Little History about St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg became a city under the Romanov Rule and was the capital of Russia from 1712-1918 when it was moved to Moscow. St. Petersburg is a melting pot of old Russian traditions and chic European styles, inspired by the European city of Amsterdam. St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, is one of the world’s most beautiful cities and houses some of the top art museums. It offers an overdose of history, expensive castles, exquisite art, stunning cathedrals, and modern shopping & clubs. Around six million people call St.Petersburg home.
Much to our surprise, the first stop on our private tour was to the St. Petersburg’s underground metro, home to some of the most elegant subway stations in the world. The metro was designed to be “palaces to the people”. Their expensive building materials were not only lovely to look at (gold mosaics and walls lined with artwork) but were in perfectly mint condition; a far cry from all public transportation I have seen in the states. Statues were hidden amidst the marble columns. We took a short subway ride from the Pushkinskaya station, located 186 feet deep into the earth, to the Zvenigorodskaya station. The cost was 25 rubles to ride the metro. A whopping three million passengers use the metro daily.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
Next, we stopped at the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg’s birthplace and oldest building. After entering Peter’s Gate, we saw the main attraction; the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. This Cathedral housed the sarcophagi of many famous Romanov Rulers, starting with Peter the Great and including Nicholas II and his entire family. It had a pulpit, which is said to have been used only once, to excommunicate Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church for denouncing the institution. There were other buildings within the fortress, including a museum and the state mint. Many visitors were sunbathing, picnicking, and enjoying the water, too. I found this complex interesting and loaded with great photo ops.
Downtown St. Petersburg
Driving into downtown, Jo and I got our first sight of the Anichkov Bridge. It was made of pink granite with 3 arched spans. The bridge was famous for the bronze Horse Tamer statues that adorned its 4 corners. Anichkov crossed the Fontanka River and was located next to the busiest part of town, Nevsky Prospekt. The nearby Neva River, right in the middle of town, offered spectacular views of the palaces lining its banks, and the Arts Square. Arts Square had a big selection of performing arts theaters, museums, and concert halls. Saint Michael’s Castle’s empire stylings, on the Moika River, was one of our favorites.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, or properly known as Cathedral of Resurrection of Christ, was the site where Czar Nicholas II was assassinated in 1881 by the “People’s Will” terrorist group. Nicholas III saw its completion in 1907 and the church was dedicated to his father on the site of his “spilled blood”. This had been on my bucket list for ages. It was a dream come true for me to witness! The photo even made the family Christmas card.
The grand Cathedral was in the middle of a congested downtown area. It immediately reminded me of the location of Trevi Fountain in Rome. The cathedral’s multiple colored onion domes were gorgeous. Outside, it was embellished with 20 granite plaques displaying historic events. We walked inside and found that not one surface was left unadorned. The decor ranged from marble to Russian minerals, biblical scenes, to the 7,500 meters of eye-popping mosaics. The flamboyant church was damaged by the Russian Revolution and officially closed its doors in the 1930’s. After 27 years of restoration, 1997 brought forth the official reopening of the Church on Spilled Blood. Thank goodness.
Relaxing and Unwinding, Plus Refueling
After hours of touring and listening to Russian trivia and historical facts, we opted for a break rather than go to yet another museum. Our guide’s suggestion was for Jo and I to go on a touristy type boat ride. The times did not coincide with the English guided boat tour, so we went on the Russian spoken tour and just enjoyed the relaxation, scenery, and the 15 bridges on the Moika River. Later, we dined across the street from the Church on Spilled Blood at the Cafe Saint Petersburg. The lunch we selected was Chicken Kiev, Basmati Rice, and a tart Cranberry Sauce. It tasted divine! Bonus: the restaurant’s windows faced the canal and afforded us beautiful views of the Cathedral.
The world-renowned State Hermitage Museum was our final stop of the day. The Hermitage was opened in 1852 and afforded by Catherine the Great. It hosts over 3,000,000 exhibits and hundreds of rooms, all located on the banks of the Neva River. Currently, it houses the State Museum which contained more Russian historical artifacts than anywhere else in the world. The Hermitage consisted of 6 museums, 5 of which are open to the public: Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre, Small Hermitage, and Winter Palace. The opulent green & white Winter Palace was home to Russian Czars from 1732- 1917. Catherine the Great was the first ruler of Russia to reside at Winter Palace.
One of the Best-Known Premier Art Museums in the World
The Hermitage’s offerings ranged from rare paintings and jewels to coins and sculptures. The museum captured a richness that at its time could never have been imagined. The Hermitage earned notoriety in its masterpieces by the Greats such as Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Rembrandt, and da Vinci. My favorite was the first floor Old Hermitage Italian Renaissance galleries and the Three Graces, by Canova. I found several things here similar to The Vatican Museum but thought The Hermitage to be much more over-the-top and interesting. Madonna and Child is one of the most visited items there.
Concluding our Epic Day in St. Petersburg
Concluding our tour, we drove by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Russia. Its dome was pure gold. By this point, Jo and I were exhausted, so we skipped going inside. Our guide had given us a spectacular introduction to Russian culture and shared its beauty with us. I would recommend St. Petersburg to anyone that loves art, architecture, history, or big cities. Until we meet again, Pah-Kah, Russia for goodbye.
Random St. Petersburg Trivia
History: A short 9 months after Nicholas II succumbed to death after complications of his attempted assassination, his wife, and five daughters were all executed by the Bolsheviks. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the entire family, calling them “passion bearers”, a category describing believers who endured suffering and death from political enemies. They were entombed at the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Tip: Dress lightly when touring The Hermitage. The air was stagnant and it was extremely crowded. Winter and spring times are supposedly less crowded.
FYI: In 1989, the city of St. Petersburg was added to the UNESCO list of heritage sites.
My St. Petersburg Photo Gallery: