Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cruising to St. Petersburg

There are so many places in this big, beautiful world that I want visit. For the longest time St. Petersburg, Russia has been sitting on the top of that list. Historical romance novels along with an excellent biography of Peter the Great written by Robert K. Massie is what finally compelled me to book a Scandinavia / Russia cruise aboard the Celebrity Silhouette. It was an astounding ship, an incredible itinerary, and cruising to St. Petersburg was every bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be!

Once a desolate swamp, today St. Petersburg is a glorious city of splendid palaces, architectural gems, and cultural treasures. We were docked in the city overnight giving me a good amount of time to explore the city. To make the most of that time I chose a very comprehensive 2-day excursion with a local tour company, gladly letting them handle the logistics as well as necessary visa. Some of the highlights of our days included visits to the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, Peterhof, the State Hermitage Museum, Catherine Palace, the Faberge Museum, a Metro ride, and a canal cruise.

The canal cruise was a nice way to begin the day (despite it being a cool and dreary morning weather-wise), as it gave a nice overview of the downtown city. It was a lovely ride passing alongside tree-lined avenues with pastel colored palaces and under numerous beautiful bridges. I never knew that St. Petersburg was often referred to as the Venice of the North (along with seven other cities, two of which were on this same itinerary!), built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva River and connected by over 300 bridges!

We passed by the State Hermitage Museum on our canal cruise, a huge six building compound mainly set in the magnificent Winter Palace (a former residence of Russian emperors), and extending into adjoining buildings. Later in the day we returned for a tour. The classical Small Hermitage was built for Catherine the Great as a retreat that would also house the art collection started by Peter the Great. To say the collection significantly expanded (there are over 350 rooms of exhibits) is a gross understatement! We moved through the buildings rather quickly hitting the highlights but you can literally spend weeks and weeks here!

My favorite stop was the visit to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built to honor Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was assassinated at the site where the church now sits.   It is absolutely dazzling… St. Petersburg’s most elaborate church with a classic Russian Orthodox exterior (think colorful onion domes) and an interior decorated with thousands and thousands of mosaics. Whenever I visualize St. Petersburg, it is this church that I see in my mind!

I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Catherine Palace, named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband's death. Originally a modest two-story building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose it as her chief summer residence and wanted it to rival Versaille! The Catherine Palace is probably best known for the Amber Room, a room decorated in gold encrusted amber panels and mirrors. It was the most exquisite palace room I have ever seen anywhere! You may remember that the Amber room was dismantled and stolen by the Nazis during the war. In 1982 Russian officials approved its restoration, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million! The fact that they did so is a gift to anyone that has the chance to see it!

It was sunny and warm when we pulled up to Peterhof, St Petersburg's most famous and spectacular Imperial estate. However, we weren’t here to tour the palace. All our time was to be spent meandering through the extravagant gardens and admiring the 173 fountains inspired by Versailles. Peter the Great showed he had a sense of humor by installing ""trick fountains"", hidden water sprays, built into trees and tiny plazas. The fountains come to life when staff press hidden mechanisms, much to the surprise of the unsuspecting visitor! I think I got just as big a kick out of it as the children that were visiting that day!

The Fabergé Museum was truly a gem! No pun intended! It is a privately owned museum founded in order to repatriate lost cultural valuables to Russia. To give you a brief background of the history, the first Fabergé Egg was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as an Easter / anniversary gift to his wife.  The empress was so delighted that a new and unique egg was commissioned every year! The museum is home to 9 of 50 Imperial eggs. Beyond those there are snuffboxes, figurines and objects d'art from the House of Fabergé and other noted Russian jewelers, plus a gallery of classical Russian paintings and a roomful of religious icons.

As you can see, our days in St. Petersburg were very busy, and I only gave you a small sampling of what we actually did! I would like to return one day on another Baltic cruise since there were still many places I did not get to visit. Do you have a place you have been wishing to visit? What are you waiting for?

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