The early morning skies were misting and cool as we came into St. Petersburg. I had missed sunrise, but I’m not sure there would have been much to see. As I was hanging over the railing looking through the misting fog, the building complex above appeared in the middle of the bay. I have no idea what it was, but believe me it was spooky dooky. These were large buildings, and they appeared to be on ground, but it was smack in the middle of the bay. The abandoned, derelict concrete buildings on either end had a fair sized pond between them, and the whole thing was ringed with a low concrete wall. A narrow opening (see above) went into the pond. Definitely not large enough for anything military (so no dead Russian sailor ghosts), but perhaps something for fishing? Very perplexing and it lent a definite air of mystery into our trip. If anyone has an idea what this was – let me know!
We have a two day visit to St. Petersburg. Visas are not required for cruisers, but it also means we have to stay with a government sanctioned guide. This is not only expensive, but our time is just not our own. No wandering around town seeing the sights on our own. We could have purchased visas, of course, but the added expense for two days didn’t seem worth it.
Last year we visited Siberia, which was a hoot. It was a sunny day in late March, but freezing. Snow on the ground, as you can imagine. We were all bundled up like human-sized Yeti wannabes. The residents, thinking it was a sunny warm day, were all in shorts. I guess it is all relative. The residents were definitely not friendly and I had a guy spit at me when I said hello. And immigration was a nightmare.
St. Petersburg is a tourist mecca, so we were sure it would be different. And it was. The people we encountered were all wonderfully warm and helpful. Immigration? Not so much, but they weren’t rude, either. We stood in line to get out and stood in line to get back out any time we left the ship. No eye contact, except to verify our picture matched the passport. No verbal communication, unless it was to correct something (I had Ellie walk up with me). Not warm and friendly, but those poor folks see thousands of people a day, and it can’t be easy for them. I would have taken a picture, but there were signs up saying no photography. Not wishing to see the inside of a gulag, I kept my camera in the bag.
We almost didn’t make the tour. Ellie had been suffering from a head cold for a few days. During the night her ears had started hurting. She was definitely not feeling well. George, ever hopeful for a reason to stay on ship, declared she needed emergency medical intervention and stay on board for the day – and he would happily volunteer to play nurse.
As mother of six, I’m not easily panicked about a head cold and earache. Her ears were definitely aching, but she didn’t have a fever, and her throat wasn’t red. George was adamant that we have her seen by a doctor. Now mind you, the tour starts at 7:30 a.m. This is 6:30 a.m. and the medical clinic doesn’t open until 8 a.m.
George, convinced her throat might close and need resuscitation, insisted she stay. Then happily reached for his book. Ellie, hearing of her imminent approaching death, started to get alarmed and felt worse. I started getting cranky. Another fun day in paradise….
I called the 24 hour nurse on duty and she said Ellie would need to see the doctor. I explained the time crunch (we now had 45 minutes). She said she would wake the doctor and he would see us, but it would cost double.
Madly, Ellie and I jogged to the tour excursion site and asked if we had time to make an emergency run to the medical center. They are used to everything – they put tour stickers on us and said “RUN!” George, sipping his coffee, strolled to the excursion site and took a seat.
We raced to get to Deck 2, which also was the disembarkation site. Explaining our problem, the staff escorted us downstairs to the medical center. Which was closed, with a sea water Titanic door, of course. We got a special tour of the crew quarters and entered through the staff entrance. The nurse appeared, took info, called the doctor and he came stumbling in. He said she had no fever, no red throat and yes, her ears were plugged. His diagnosis? Head cold. He handed us some antibiotic spray for her ears that might help and a bottle of Dayquil. And a bill for $300.
We ran back to the excursion site, but they had left. We raced back to other end of the ship, where we had just left, and after a huge search – found George. And left for the tour. Poor George, outwitted again. It would have been cheaper for us not to use his excursion ticket, and let him stay on the ship.
Our first day out was a guided tour (of course – no choice!) to the Peterhof palace, authentic Russian lunch and a tour of a modern art museum. Our guide, Svetlana, was gracious, warm and helpful.
Tip: When traveling to Russia in August, remember EVERYONE is taking a tour (because they have to) and the lines will be long. So long that you cannot see either end, and the thought of a toilet is more important than food and water. Although, when not longing to pee, there is a fear that you will die of starvation. Imagine the longest line you have ever been in at Disneyland and multiply it by 27. Then add another thousand people.
Svetlana earned her tips. She got us in the line and told us to wait while she tried something. Pretty soon she came back, motioned for us to go quietly with her and not say anything. With an air of authority, she quietly marched us past an estimated 7,000 people and stopped next to a Princess Cruise group (we are Celebrity). She conferred with their guide (must have been a friend) and motioned for us to join their group.
Oh my goodness. How rude to the multitudes of people behind us. And we loved her for it. I know, when I’m at the Pearly Gates asking for admittance, they will probably have this on their Top 100 Reasons She Should Not Be Admitted list; but it was such a sweet surprise.
The Peterhof was the summer palace of Peter the Great. So named because, well – he was pretty Great. I’m not a Peter expert, but he was quite remarkable for his time. Both in stature (he was nearly seven feet tall), and for his westernization efforts of Russia. He was the first Russian monarch to travel to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. He went to France, which began their close cultural relationship, and fell in love with the architecture and gardens. He returned to Russia and decided to create St. Petersburg. Mind you, this was a large swampy area of small islands. No prob if you are a Tsar; just set your slave peasant labor pool onto it and create a city. He wanted a good seaport to open Russia up to Europe. Big changes for a big, isolated kingdom.
He built himself a summer palace, which is now known as Peterhof. A tiny little cottage on the Bay of Finland. Ha. It is now much grander than the original he started in 1705, as it was added onto by various rulers. Let it be said that the rulers and rich of Russia loved gold. I’m sure they had gold plated toothbrushes. And commodes.
There are many royal palaces in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area. The wealthy lived a lifestyle far different than the people who served them. We walked through room after room of gold and beautiful antiques. Sadly, many of the palaces were destroyed and damaged during WWII. St. Petersburg is famous for their 900 day siege by the German military. Aerial bombings and looting destroyed much of the former grandeur. There has been a remarkable effort to rebuild and restore the palaces. Unless you have knowledge of the horrors of the damage, you wouldn’t have any idea it had taken place.
I was dazzled, Ellie was interested for the first 50 rooms and George wanted to sit down after the first room. In fairness, we had been on our feet for quite awhile before ever reaching the first room.
After the palace tour, we had a tour of the famous gardens of Peterhof. Inspired by the gardens of Versailles, Peter began creating the ultimate garden. 160 acres with 150 fountains. It was truly incredible. The fountains are all unique and large. At the time it was created, one fountain had the highest spouting water in Europe. All gravity fed without pumps. An engineering marvel.
We eventually reached the bay and our guide informed us it was a short one mile hike to the hydrofoil boats that would give us a ride across the bay. Poor George, he was ready to quit, but he gamely kept on. He was happy to have the 45 minute ride to rest. We all were. The boat was extremely comfortable and we sailed across the water in style.
Next stop was our authentic lunch at an authentic restaurant. I had asked for a vegetarian meal, but they didn’t get the memo. The guide tried to get something for me, and said they were giving everything they had vegetarian. A glass of champagne, a shot of vodka, and a nickel sized piece of toast with caviar on top. Followed by chicken salad, beef borscht, beef stroganoff and a cherry tart. As you can imagine, the caviar and cherry tart really balanced out the alcohol.
Yes, I drank the champagne! I tasted the vodka and decided to pass on it. No problem, George drank my vodka and Ellie’s champagne and vodka. Plus his own. George, who had eaten a hamburger a couple of days ago, decided to be vegetarian (I think to support me) and didn’t eat his beef stroganoff or borscht. He loved the chicken salad, however and would have eaten my cherry tart, except I whacked him with me empty champagne glass. Reviews of the food were less than warm, it really didn’t look good and there was a general consensus that it stunk. You know it’s not good when the guide doesn’t ask “How did you love the food? Great, right?” There wasn’t any mention of lunch after we boarded the bus for our tour of the modern art museum.
Both George and Ellie were glaring at me about the next stop. Modern art? What the heck were we doing? To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about it either. When I booked it, I didn’t realize we couldn’t scamper off and do our own thing. I thought if it wasn’t great, we could go sightseeing. Oops.
Perhaps it was the champagne and caviar bite, but I absolutely loved this place. Even Ellie enjoyed it. George loved that there were benches to sit on and enjoy the view. We were accompanied by a bonus surprise. One of the artists exhibiting his work consented to show us the museum and give the artist’s perspective. He was followed by a photographer who was documenting it for publicity purposes. The guide was surprised and happy to have him – and it was amazing.
He talked about the artists, and what they were trying to communicate through different mediums. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I ended up having such a great time. Some of the exhibits were tactile and we were encouraged to touch and feel. The last exhibit was by our artist. In the center of a dark room, he had lined a curving path with rows of plastic bubbles hung from ceiling to floor, illuminated so they glowed. Each one us walked through the bubbles, touching them and feeling a bit like we were enchanted. The champagne was probably still working its magic. George wasn’t too enchanted (the vodka talking?), but he was really tired and wanted out of there. He walked through the bubbles with a “I’m pretending this is fun” look on his face – to the enjoyment of the group. I’m not doing a great job of describing it – but the group had great fun and the guide looked amazed. I’m sure her tours here previously have not been as inspiring.
Back on the bus and the guide described the city as we went back to the ship. Ten hours of adventure and we were all ready to stop. None of us had eaten anything nutritious the entire day, so we ate quickly at the buffet and went to bed. Getting ready for the next ten hour tour tomorrow.
The video below is my tour through the bubbles, while still enjoying the influence of the lunch bubbly.