Trip Start May 26, 2010
15Trip End Jun 10, 2010
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I'm not often at a loss for words, but this blog is difficult to write. This city overwhelms the senses. For starters, as our English friend put it so well, this city is vast. It seems to go on forever. It is also low, there are no high rises in the center of the city. The tallest buildings are apartment buildings located outside of the downtown. The new taller apartments are beautiful. The 1970's Soviet apartments are a perfect reflection of that regime. They are ugly, and they are falling apart.
I'll spare you a history lesson, there is plenty about the city on line if you are interested. By western European standards, it is a very young city, founded in 1703
The city is centered on the Neva River, then divided by canals in a plan that was meant to imitate Venice, Italy. The palaces face the river and canals. The Russians also built incredible cathedrals containing priceless art and iconography. Operas, ballets and other entertainment were drawn to the city, as it became Russia's capital. Today some 5,000,000 people live here.
The opulence is unbelievable, yet it is a stark reminder that the wealth of a very few came at the expense of very many. These czars made Bill Gates look middle class. While they built 100 room homes, the peasants barely survived. It is not difficult to understand why this became a cradle of revolution.
We arrived to a cloudy sky and a bit of drizzle. It looked like we had another dismal day ahead.
While the Soviet Union (called the "Soviet period" by the local people) collapsed 20 years ago, the bureaucratic mentality remains
We met our wonderful tour guide Elena and our driver Nicolas, and went off with our 5 British friends who had arranged our tour. It was quickly evident that we made the right decision to hire the private tour. There were 6 cruise ships in port, along with countless Russian school groups. Everything was mobbed, but we were able to cut the lines by whatever arrangements had been made by the tour company. I didn't ask how they did it, but I think you know.
We drove into the city, making a photo stop along the Neva River. We were warned to be careful of pick pockets, but we had no trouble. It was our first view of the massive Winter Palace, which contains the Hermitage Museau. The scene was breathtaking, despite the clouds. We then drove around the city, seeing some highlights from the van. We made a stop at a place I had requested, Victory Square. This celebrates the remarkable defence of this city during the 900 day long siege of Leningrad (as it was called at that time) during World War 2. One million people died from starvation, bombing and artillery during that frightful time, but the Russians held the city. If you are interested in military history, there are several excellent books about the siege.
Next we drove out of the city into the suburbs. This area was occupied by the Nazi's during the war. It is growing fast today, and there was a great deal of road construction going on. This is a cheap place to drive, gasoline was the equivalent of about $2.20 per US gallon. Diesel was about $1.75.
We soon arrived at the Summer Palace. Despite being only perhaps 15 miles from the center of St. Petersburg, the czar felt they needed to be in the country for the brief summer, so they built another huge, oppulent castle. This castle was virtually destroyed during the war, as well as looted by the Germans. The Russians have spent 60 years restoring it, a process which continues today. It is named Catherine's Place, after the Czar's wife. There is gold leaf everywhere, from the exterior copulas to almost all the rooms. Huge rooms were built for entertainment. A beautiful park was built around it. I really don't know how to describe it, it's absolutely stunning. I'll post some photos once we get home.
We then drove back into the inner suburbs, which had also been occupied by the Germans. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local restaurant. One of the interesting issues in the city is that the water is not safe to drink. We were served bottled water. The Soviets were more interested in building missles than building water treatment plants, and this one legacy of their brutal rule.
We left the restaurant, and the sun was shining! The rest of our time in St. Petersburg was perfect weather. Sunny, cool with a light wind. We had lucked out once again.
We walked across the street and came upon another huge palace called Peterhof. We did not have time to go inside, we toured the incredible gardens and fountains that surround the palace. There were several wedding parties there for photographs, and it was easy to understand why. The fountains were gold, like so much else at these palaces. Once again, this palace was badly damaged during the war and restorations continue. Our guide provided many interesting details on the lifestyle of these incredibly wealthy people. We walked a couple of miles, ending at the Baltic Sea, which the rear of the palace faces.
We returned to the city on a Russian hydrofoil, crossing the bay. Other than no air conditioning and the windows steaming up, it was a neat ride. Annie did notice something, the people here do not "smell very good." I did mention to her that we probably did not smell very good to them either!
Our last stop of the afternoon was magnificent St. Isaac's Cathedral. It's copula is located in plain view of much of the city. The German's never attacked it as it was a constant landmark for them during the siege. It is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The Soviets hated religion, and nearly blew it up along with thousands of other churches they destroyed. They actually used this magnificent edifice to store potatoes. It was also used to store priceless art work during the war. It has been meticulously restored. To give you a sense of the scale, it can hold 11,000 people standing. Today it is a museum, but it is still used for Russian Orthodox services on special occassions.
That completed our afternoon program. We returned to the ship to eat dinner and prepare for the evening program we had also reserved. We endured a ridiculous 30 minutes trying to get through "passport control." As one person put it so well, just where do they think we will go? The cruise terminal is on a new man made island. The only place to go was the ship. After more noisy stamps and more playing with the computer we were let through. Idiots.
We ventured back out for the evening event with trepedation. Now, however, because we had been blessed with 2 yellow stamps in the passport and not just one yellow stamp we were allowed through with just a quick look at the passport. Stalin would be proud.
The evening program was called a "fun tour." We started with a visit to an old Soviet department store that is now a luxury store. Tiny containers of black caviar sold for $100. I don't like the stuff anyway, but that seems a bit much for a handful of fish eggs. We then walked to a newer mall type area with more expensive stores. Basically only foreigners and the rich shop at these places. We didn't buy anything, but it was interesting none the less. We then walked to where normal Russians eat and shop and visited a souveneir store that had "water closets" and free vodka shots. I had one shot, the first alcohol I've had in a very long time due to the diabetes. It was a neat place and we bought a few things.
We then headed to the highlight of the evening. A boat ride through the canals in full daylight. We boarded at 9:45 PM (2145) and the sun was still very bright. The evening light made for some excellent photography as boated around the city. They also served Russian bread, pickets and chocolate - and vodka. I could have been the designated driver if needed! It was a real party atmosphere and a few people were feeling quite good by the time we returned to the dock. I won't mention Annie's name as she would be upset if I did so. The evening was perfect and the atmosphere was incredible. I wish you all could have been there to join us.
We returned to the ship at 11:15 M (2315) and watched the sun set. It remained light until after midnight.
Speaking of midnight, it is now 12:55 AM (0055). It is still light enough to see land. I will end this now, and post day 2 tomorrow. Photos will follow another time.