St Petersburg is spectacular. We took a guided tour (day one of two) today with SPB tours. Although SPB had already sent our passports to customs as part of their procedure, it still took 1.5 hours to clear customs today. Our early arrival of 8am on the docks seemed to be not much advantage for a speedy departure. The tour lady we had, Maria, seems nice but is a little robotic in her presentation rather than interactive. However, she certainly packed a lot in. Thankfully, it was a gorgeous day of sunshine (although only 10 degrees it felt a lot warmer). We began by driving through the city streets, with Maria explaining what we were seeing as we went. It was so interesting to see the differences between apartments built during communism compared to more recent ones. Our first stop was a trip underground to ride from one station to another on the metro. Although Maria did not take us to the most elaborate station, the ones we saw were hard to believe; made of marble and mosaics, and a very long way below the ground, just the escalator ride was exciting. Our next stop was a fortress and church built by Peter the Great (I think – I found it quite hard to make out what Maria was explaining to us with her Russian accent!). It was interesting to see the Tsar’s throne in the church. Apparently he was the only one allowed to sit down during he two hour long services. Next, we drove 30km through beautiful countryside to see Peterhof (Peter the Great’s palace). The 30 km drive took at least an hour due to the terrible traffic jams. Maria explained that most Russians left the city to drive and walk in the countryside on the weekend. Today is Saturday, so I assume that we were caught in the midst of this tradition. Peterhof was incredible. Just as elaborate as Versailles, with a canal running up to the palace from the Baltic Sea. A channel needed to be built in the sea surrounding the palace, as in that particular section the water is only a metre deep. Palace goers could sail in with their ship, cruise up the canal, and climb up the stairs to enter directly into the ballroom. Beautiful fountains were everywhere – the centrepiece went up 20 metres. We walked around the gardens, but did not go inside to the museum.
We stopped for a ‘traditional Russian lunch’ at a restaurant, which consisted of biorch (soup made of beetroot, carrot, potato and cabbage which are apparently the only things that will grow in the harsh climate), pork and vegetables, vodka, and ice cream with raspberry sauce. Not all of the tour partakers enjoyed it, but it was interesting!
Catherine’s Palace was next. It was no less grand, in fact, it was more so. The building was enormous, and we were able to wander around about 20 rooms. The Russian government have apparently decided not to renovate the palace any further inside due to expense. Both Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace were almost completely destroyed during Nazi occupation, and so they have both needed to have extensive building works done. Statues survived by being buried in fountains and underground. The rooms inside were completely overdone with gold everywhere. The highlight was definitely the Amber Room, which has been completely remade as the amber itself went missing during the war.
We returned back to our ship in a stupefied state. It has been such a fascinating day to see some of the treasures of St Petersburg. It seems that almost everywhere you look there are lovely gardens and majestic old buildings. Maria described many monuments, churches, fountains and structures to us as being built to celebrate Russia’s victory over this country or that. She seemed quite angered still by how much the Nazis had destroyed their heritage, and pointed out many buildings where the damage had still not been repaired. Maria also spoke with pride about how her grandparents’ generation had held out against the Germans taking control of their city, for 900 days. Many starved as Hitler cut the supply lines. It was also interesting to hear Maria speak about the education of Russian children. Many learn at least two languages until they leave school, but this also continues into university. The languages learnt at university depends on the degree being obtained- for example, musicians learn German (due to the German composers) and English while art students learn Italian and English. University students are also required to take classes in Russian history. We are looking forward to what tomorrow holds!