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.
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.)
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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~~~
We ate at this restaurant.
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.
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.
St. Petersburg is 7 hours ahead of EST.
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.
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.