The Adventure: Part 4–St. Petersburg

See previous posts here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

 

A major part of the reason we wanted to take this cruise was because it made a stop in St. Petersburg, Russia.  We are both children of the 80’s and remember the time of the Cold War.  Russia seemed like a place we would NEVER, NEVER be able to visit so we were very excited to have the opportunity.

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Impressions:

HA! Our very first impression of Russia came from the cruise rules and staff letting us know that we would need to stay with our tour guides AT ALL TIMES, and we would definitely need to carry our passports with us as this was the only country in our cruise that we had to officially go through border control.  We were among the first off the ship as we went with a Disney Port Adventure.  We chose to do this because we were nervous about the off-chance that an independent tour would make us late for all-aboard and we would be stranded in Russia without the safety bubble of Disney.  We went to the border control where we were subjected to the longest and most silent inspection, procedure, and eventual entry into any country we’ve ever visited.  There was no open hostility or rudeness but both Bryan and I (who had to go through security separately–also unusual) felt struck by the lack of warmth or even common courtesy.  Anyway, that was a minor thing.  We met our tour guide lady who quickly assured us as we drove toward our first stop–The Hermitage, that we would be MUCH better off leaving anything of value on the bus and encouraging us to leave bulky jackets and purses on the bus.  She alluded to the fact that the coat-check system at the Hermitage wasn’t top-notch in returning items and the bus driver had been vetted and could be trusted to lock up our valuables and possessions and not try to steal them.  Well…hoookay, then.  So that was our first impression.  We were also told multiple times to be careful of pick-pockets and to keep up during the tour as it was “no good” for us to be without our tour guide wandering through the museum.  Hoookay, then.

Ultimately, though, the Hermitage was amazing.  We were able to go in before it opened to the public (crucial since it gets REALLY, VERY, EXTREMELY crowded as the day goes on) and this was an added boon since pick-pockets often buy entrance to the museum and practice their craft during the height of the crowds.  Hold onto your cameras, she says as we plunge into the opulence.  And it was truly opulent.  I have never understood the reason that royalty of past times wore such ostentatious, (probably uncomfortable) clothes.  I get it now.  It was because their houses were so opulent that there was no way they could lounge around in comfy clothes.  (Yes, I am completely ignoring social protocol, as well.)  There are five buildings that make up the Hermitage. We saw a portion of four of them as we moved through all of the glory at the speed of race walkers.  I would love to return and take my time.

(These are some of the buildings that make up the Hermitage.)

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The other impression that we got was the opposite–the Communist-Era housing.

(This was, by NO MEANS, the worst building.  Most of them were way more derelict than this one but it was hard to get clear shots through the bus windows.)

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This was a heart-breaking look at the life of people during that era.  I know, at the heart of communism, is the idea that everything is shared but comparing the affluence of the rulers with the destitution of the commoners was completely staggering.  And this was in my lifetime.  Just devastating.

One cannot help but feel after multiple interactions between our tour guide and various officials, that while the money from Tourism was wanted, actual tourists were merely tolerated.  Now, of course, we had little to no opportunity to interact with anyone outside of a few shop owners and our guide but the general feeling we got was that either Russians truly are stone-faced and pissed off OR there is still some degree of left-over distrust and suspicion.  I suppose this isn’t unexpected considering the interaction Russia has had with the world recently.  I view Russia as a country with a rich history, scarred with tragic eras.  There is so much beauty and possibility glimmering under the haze of suspicion and the leftover effects of a defunct regime.

Interesting Things We Saw:

The Hermitage.

This was just incredible.  Honestly, rooms of rooms of treasures, art work, etc.  Just looking at the ceilings, doorknobs, and molding in the rooms was beautiful.  You definitely felt like you were in a lavishly decorated palace–which it is.  The history is palpable.  Definitely worth a visit.

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Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood.  This is the much revered “Onion Dome” style of church–AKA Russion Orthodoxy.  I WISH, WISH, WISH we had the opportunity to tour the inside of this beauty but our tour did not allow for it.

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The inside of the tour bus (okay, not really but we spent a lot of time looking at it due to a disheartening combination of choosing the wrong type of tour and horrendous traffic).

 

~~~Notes and Stuff~~~

Food:

We ate at this restaurant.

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It was amazing.  We had beef stroganoff, cream of mushroom soup, and the BEST VODKA I HAVE EVER TRIED (and trust me that’s at least one or two).  This was part of our tour package but it was utterly delicious.  Everything from the salad to the dessert was beautifully presented and delectable.

 

Money Exchange:

About 1USD=60 Rubles

We did manage to pick up some Russian Nesting Dolls from actual Russia so I’d say that was a bucket list check right there.

Time:

St. Petersburg is 7 hours ahead of EST.

Traffic:

HAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!  Of all of the places we visited, traffic in St. Petersburg was the absolute worst.  They drive on the right-hand side but there is very little regard for the rules except for on main thoroughfares (and even then it’s sketchy).  At one point, we were on a smallish but still heavily-traveled road to a popular attraction and there were multiple automobiles double parked including a police car!  Our bus BARELY managed to squeeze by on this .  It was crazy!  I don’t know if there were set lines to show lanes for the direction we were going or not but it didn’t matter either way because they ignored them if they were there.  It was like children pushing to be first to go into a jumpy house–so much pushing no one was able to get through.  Anyway, this was definitely crazy and I was VERY glad I didn’t have to try to navigate that mess.

Fun Facts:

Well, I already shared with you that we were repeatedly cautioned to not hand over anything to anyone–even someone “official-looking”.  So that was fun.

St. Petersburg has been known by multiple names throughout the years depending on who was governing Russia.  It was with a strong sense of pride that our tour guide tried to explain the experience of getting to choose the name of their city in 1991.  She said it was a HUGE topic of debate mostly because no one had ever gotten to choose anything of consequence previously.

During the Communist Era, people were given government-mandated beans, canned goods, etc.  They had government labels on them and were supposedly pretty gross.  Of course, none of those in power or the officials had to eat them.

I know it’s because I have no basis for understanding Russian but they always sound REALLY, REALLY pissy when they speak.  Of course, this may be because of the way I was experiencing it.

There are something like 340 bridges in St. Petersburg (some just foot bridges). They open the draw bridges that go across River Neva in St. Petersburg at night so boats can access the Baltic Sea/St. Petersburg port. Everyone is aware of this and just know to end up on the correct side of the river or else be caught.  We didn’t get to see them at night because we were absolutely exhausted by the time our ship left (midnight) and it didn’t get dark until WELL after 11:25.  I wish we would have stayed up to see it.

The stores stay open very, very late in St. Petersburg–as late as 11 pm and later in the summer.

Wish We’d Seen:

Everything.  I’d like to do everything better and then do more.  We definitely did not do this beautiful city justice.  I would love to get a traveler’s visa and stay for a few weeks.  We didn’t see St. Catharine’s Palace.  We didn’t see very much at all.  I’d stay at the Hotel Astoria just to say that I stayed there and Hitler didn’t get to.  He evidently booked a room to hold his celebration over the fall of Leningrad (he even sent out the invitations) but he never took the city.

Feel free to check out the rest of the pictures (with some commentary) via this Flickr album.

 

 

The Adventure: Part 3–Tallinn, Estonia…which is an actual country, by the way

Please find the first two installments HERE and HERE.

Sorry about the picture formatting, for some reason, wordpress is not letting me fix it.

When I set out to document this, I thought it would take maybe a few days.  Here I am a week from our return date and I haven’t even really fully organized the pictures.  To be fair, I have over 6,000 pictures not including the pictures from our phones.  So you are very welcome for not subjecting you to ALL OF THAT MESS and I suppose it’s okay to give myself a break.

The first port of our Disney Cruise was Tallinn, Estonia.  I honestly had no idea that Estonia existed before I looked at the cruise itinerary.

Impressions:

I noticed right away that there are two distinct parts to Tallinn, old and new.  Of course, the old is what we’re after so we headed to Old Town.  This is basically an old fortress town.  It’s surrounded by a thick stone wall with towers dotting the perimeter.  We entered through the south gate along the main road.  Its cobblestone street is lined with flower vendors and cafes as you walk up the entrance.

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It certainly looks medieval (McDonalds notwithstanding).  Well, and the various cars, trucks, and delivery vans that somewhat comically try to navigate streets in a town with roots back 5, 000 years and streets and paths made accordingly.  There are certainly no lanes and nothing is marked so it’s an interesting mix of mostly pedestrian traffic with a bit of European drivers (holy gracious) thrown in.  We were armed with a map but roads mysteriously end, paths are hidden behind walls, and it’s kind of like looking at a string of yarn.  Shops are mixed with small hotels and government buildings and bars and restaurants and small museums in a jumble that I never quite figured out.  We eventually found our way to Toompea Hill (which is actually conveniently marked by both signs and the sizable tourist crowd constantly headed toward this notably historic area if you start out on the correct path which, we didn’t).  From there, you can look down upon Old Town.  Now, one recurring theme throughout this vacation (especially in the Baltic area) was the prominent and prolific instances of maintenance work.  As it was explained, the Baltic area is plagued by LONG, COLD, DARK, WET winters.  This means that there is precious little time in summer to get any restoration work completed.  So all of the construction has to be done then…when all of the tourists are there.  So if you notice that some of the buildings are draped with tarps or have portions covered with construction scaffolding, this is why.  Also, if you notice that I did not photograph something obvious, it may be because it was too covered with restoration equipment or actually wrapped in a life-sized sheeting with a photograph of what the building looks like.  Crazy!  Another thing that was very noticeable was the difference in upkeep between buildings.  The obvious tourist spots were fairly well maintained but the in-between buildings were very run-down but still oddly beautiful even in their dereliction.

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Everyone we encountered spoke very good English so no problems with communication.

Interesting Things We Saw:

Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral

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View from Toompea Hill (but not of Old Town)

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Katriina’s Kaik (Katherine’s Walk)

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Kiek in the Kok (really had to get that name in here somehow).  This was closed when we went but if we return to Estonia, we’d like to tour it.

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One of the towers (Eppingi to be precise) has been converted to an interactive museum about medieval times.  The kids LOVED this and had a blast pretending to kill each other with various medieval implements of death.

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The chain mail was SURPRISINGLY HEAVY.  It took both Bryan and me huffing to get it off the hanger and onto Drew!

~~~Notes and Stuff~~~

Food: We didn’t eat a ton of food or get the opportunity to try too much local flavor since we were only in port for a limited number of hours but we did visit this awesome cafe which is built into the wall.

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You access the restaurant by a series of stairs which are just as treacherous as they appear.

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The seats are located on the small balcony overlooking (with a pretty but tree-blocked view) Old Town.

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We had some drinks and a couple of orders of cheesecake and a piece of Estonian chocolate cake (which was delicious but I’m not really sure what makes it ‘Estonian’).  This set the precedent that we would try to eat at a small cafe in each of our port stops (which we managed to do everywhere but St. Petersburg).

Money Exchange: 

At the time we were there, the exchange rate was 1USD=1.04Euro (as I looked this up, I see it’s 1USD=.85Euro, DANGIT!)  Most places take credit cards but we ran across a couple of things that we had to have Euros for.

Time:

Estonia is 7 hours ahead of EST.

Traffic:

In the newer section, traffic is organized and they drive on the right.  In the old town, it’s an entertaining (from a distance, terrifying up close) game of chicken with absolutely no rules.

Fun Facts:

We walked over 12 miles in Tallinn.  We weren’t there a full day.  We walked a LOT.

Tallinn is one of the oldest known sites of human civilization in Northern Europe.  It was never bombed and destroyed like so many cities during the various wars.

The wind WHIPS down those narrow streets and it means business.  At one point, we were able to literally lean into the wind and have it hold us up.

There are very few bathrooms open to the public in Tallinn (and across Europe so go before you leave your hotel).  Your choices are to buy something at a shop that has bathrooms for customers, use the public pay toilets dotted here and there, or pay a toilet fee at restaurants, stores, and hotels.  We paid 1Euro per person to go in a hotel lobby’s restroom.  It was worth it–so clean!

Wish We’d Seen:

You can walk the top of the Old Town wall at certain portions.  I wish we had been able to do this but we didn’t have the Euros on hand to do this when we found the entrance and by the time we got the Euros and worked our way back, we had run out of time.

There are multiple museums that I wish we had at least poked our head into.

We only toured right around the Old Town.  I wish we had the time to tour some of the ‘newer’ older areas and explore some of their beautiful parks.

Towers We Climbed:

St. Mary’s Cathedral (AKA Dome Church) 422 steps–although some say 410.  Built originally in 1219 current exterior in 15th century.

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View from the Top

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St. Olaf’s Church/Oleviste Church–258 stairs to the top–although some say 323.  Built in 12th century.

This one was scary as CRAP because it was literally a few 2X4s attached to the copper spire.  This one was definitely the most unsafe of all of the towers we climbed and I NEVER want to do it again but the views were incredible!

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DSC_1095There was also a HELP MEDICAL desk at the top so if you’re having a stroke from all of the steps (258 but it felt like 4000), you could…I don’t know…avail yourself to their first aid kit?DSC_1096

 

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Overall, we thought Tallinn was cool.  I’d love to visit again given unlimited time and budget but I won’t cry if I don’t ever go back.

 

To see the full complement of pictures of our brief visit to Estonia, please click here to access my Flickr album.

a little bit of everything thrown in