|Winter Palace - main building of Hermitage museum|
The Gulf of Finland is very shallow and the cruise ship docked at St Petersburg around 8 AM. As I mentioned earlier, visas for Russia are not easy to get. An exception is made for cruise ship passengers. Russia has realized the potential of cruise tourism and many cruise ships dock here. This has resulted in good revenues for the city . Most cruise ship are here for 2 days so that the entire city could be experienced by passengers. We could have chosen shore excursions for this city through the Costa cruises itself but I learnt that certain Russian Companies were better and cheaper. I had chosen a Company called SBP. The booking was fairly simple and was done on website in advance (http://sbp-tours.com ). No advance payment was made but all passport information was provided to them so they could submit them to Russian authorities in advance for processing of visas.
We had to carry our passports and tour booking tickets to show the immigration personnel. We had to remain with the tour guys all the time and if required we could have taken an evening tour as well. Evening tour could have been a ballet tour, a boat ride or what is known as a Vodka tour. One could just ask them for a car and driver and he would have taken us where we wanted to go but I was sure that no one would have energy to go out in evening after all the Museums and churches. I was proved right here as the days were exhausting. And during that time there is no 'night life' as it does not get dark till 11 PM !
|I must be happy with SBP tour company|
Luckily not many cruise ships had docked at the same time as us so we did not have to stand in long queues for immigration. We got past quite quickly and were delighted to see a nice black Mercedes Van/mini bus standing there waiting for us with a driver and guide. They had promised no more than 16 people for our group and thankfully there were just 4 more people besides the 7 of us. The mini bus was very comfortable and we all were provided with water bottles and an audio system so that the guide could keep us informed about the history in Museums and churches.
SBP tour’s signature tour was a 2 day deluxe tour which shows you a lot of places in and around St Petersburg but is very hectic. I don’t think any of us were enthusiastic enough for a grueling sightseeing. I would go on to say that amongst the 7 of us, I was most enthusiastic so I had to take a call on behalf of all of us and I knew Kunaal and Jyoti would not want anything hectic and the teenagers would start cribbing if we overdid the sightseeing bit. So what I chose was a tour called the ‘2 day highlights tour with Amber workshop.’ The cost was approximately $ 240 per person including tips. I was happy when our guide Danay announced that we would be visiting the world famous ‘Hermitage Museum’ as our first sightseeing stop.
The Hermitage Museum- you need days here.
The tour companies have special arrangement with the authorities to let the tours enter the Hermitage Museum before the official opening hour. This was wonderful as we could enter before the general public. As I had mentioned earlier, on this particular day there were not many cruise ships docked so Hermitage was not crowded at all. During peak season in July and August the queues are long and it gets hot and stuffy inside. It also encourages pick-pockets and thieves to target the tourists. The weather on this day of June was nice and cool at 16 deg C.
Hermitage Museum comprises of several buildings and the main amongst them is the famous Winter Palace of the Czars. It has 3 million pieces of exhibits so you can imagine that how little we must have seen in just a couple of hours. Museum had been started by Catherine the great in 1764 but opened for public in 1852. The museum dazzles you. Your eyes dart all around. Each room is exquisite. As you move from room to room you are greeted by great paintings, sculptures, gold pillars, exquisite painted ceilings, tapestries and you can understand why Czars had this reputation of opulence. Danay enriched our knowledge by giving a nice and simple commentary explaining the significance of the rooms and pieces of art which were prominent. He made us spend more time in the room which had Leonardo da Vinci paintings.
|Leonardo da Vinci's work has been given one full room here|
We were in the Museum for 2 hours but even for a person with average knowledge of art, I would have liked to spend a couple of days here.
|Art and art everywhere|
Churches are like this ?
‘Church of our savior on the spilled blood’ is striking. It is a kind of building where you want to start clicking pictures the moment you see it. This Church was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was severely wounded and died in March 1881.The church was built from 1883 till 1907.
It is a well known fact that Soviets who came to power after the Russian Revolution were against religion. Many churches were damaged and priests sent to prisons in Serbia. This church was damaged and looted after the revolution and during the WW II it was damaged badly. It was restored and opened in 1997 but not as a normal place of worship. You have to visit this church if you ever visit St Petersburg. Without this visit your trip would be incomplete.
|Inside the church is as beautiful|
Russian food and feel of the city
Danay suggested that to save time we have ‘Piroshki’ for lunch so that we don’t spend too much time eating. These are meat, cabbage, rice filled pies and are either baked or fried. We vetoed the idea and he took us to a local restaurant where the Russians were eating their lunch. It was a nice place and we could pick up from variety of soups, chicken, pork, beef, skewers ,vegetables and get them billed. The food looked good and it turned out to be pretty good and nice tasting and I got tempted by a soup called ‘Borscht’ which was made out of beetroot but had vegetables and beef in it. It was quite decent.
We did get a feel of the city as we walked on the main avenue ‘Nevsky prospect.’ The economy must be hurting the normal citizen very much as there were hardly any people in plush stores on this avenue. Danay said that Putin's adventures and his trying to emulate the Czars in their conquests was hurting the Russians badly. The oil prices had crashed, the western economies had put sanctions on Russia due to Ukraine misadventure and the Ruble had crashed. Normal Russian citizens were not happy at all.
The town of St Petersburg is spread around Neva river and as you stand there you see a nice flowing river around which the town is built. The architecture of many buildings is striking and many of them are churches. It indeed is a very pretty city.
Dazzled by the metro ride
|Each metro station dazzles you|
We were taken by surprise when Danay told us that a metro ride is a very important part of our tour. He started by saying that this metro was deepest in the world. I really thought that we would be wasting our time. I have seen enough metro systems in world so really wondered what the big deal was. My assessment turned out to be totally wrong ! We visited 2 stations and really, they were stunning. I can’t imagine why anyone would make such beautiful metro stations and spend so much money on them.
|The stations are very ornate and very impressive|
One of the stations called Avtovo had chandeliers, lamps, ornaments decorated with laurel branches, swords and other emblems of valor. The far wall of the central underground hall is a decorated mosaic called 'Victory', with the image of a woman and her child. This Avtovo station has been voted as one of the best in the world. No wonder all of us kept clicking picture after picture. I think we were all very keen to post these pictures on Facebook to show our friends that metro ride can be so wonderful and full of ornate stuff.
The day was rounded off after we visited Peter and Paul's fortress and Cathedral. The remains of last Czar Nicholos II and his family were buried here. After the revolution the Czar had been taken to Siberia and had been assassinated along with his family. Decades later his remains were found and brought here to be buried. No one had been sure what had happened to him.
We had learnt quite a bit in this one day. It had been a tiring day but really exhilarating as we had seen and learnt so much. No one was complaining about tiredness so this meant that the day had gone off well for everyone. All of us were asking questions about Russian history to the guide and this meant that interest had come alive.
It was time to go and relax in the spa and get prepared for another long day tomorrow.