Baltic Cruise–St. Petersburg Russia Day 1

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Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood

1.  Needless to say, as an American I was a bit nervous to visit Russia.  I didn’t know how people would react to me.  I registered with the American Embassy and hoped for the best.  My fears were totally unfounded for my situation as a participant on a cruise tour.  The people we met were not overly kind, but weren’t unkind either.  The people in the shops were helpful.  I do think it helped that I learned to say “thank you” in Russian. But to be fair, I’ve found that learning the words “please” and “thank you” for the country you are visiting is very good.  It goes a long way to having people treat you a bit better.

2.  Once the ship docked we were off for our first tour.  We had to go through customs.  We were told to expect long queues, but we got through fairly quickly.  It was a bit disconcerting having police type people walking around, but they are pretty serious about who comes into their country.  I know for us, since we were part of a cruise, our visa was included in our tours.  It is pretty expensive to get a visa individually so doing it through a tour group is definitely the way to go.  Nothing to worry about. 

3.  Our first tour was 3 hours on our own (relatively unheard of in Russia) being dropped off on the Nevsky Prospekt.  This is a major street in St. Petersburg.  We were dropped off in the Arts Square (where the theatres are) and left to our own devices for a few hours.  This sounded great to me and Chris because it was the only tour that gave you any free time.  All the others were strict and you had to stay with the group.  We knew we didn’t have a lot of time to see all that we wanted, but we had a whole day the next day so we just started walking, careful to remember how to get back to where we were – and staying near enough that we didn’t wander into any questionable areas or streets.  As we walked we came upon the Church of Spilt Blood.  I probably cant find adequate words to describe it, and really the picture doesn’t do it justice either.  It was another “pinch me moment” – things I had only seen on TV.  It was stunning and exactly what we expected from Russia.  We didn’t have enough time to visit inside or get too close, but we knew we’d see more of it the next day.  It is, by far, the picture that is in my mind when I think of my cruise.  I mean, when am I ever going to see anything like that again?  It almost made the time on board the Marco Polo worth it, almost. 

4.  Of course we went searching through souvenir shops for a music box.  We try to get one for my mom during every holiday since she collects them.  We just collect magnets – who’s getting the deal there?  Music box vs. magnet?  But really, we love doing it and being able to find the most unique one to send home.  The shops were also packed with all kinds of Russian dolls called matryoshka dolls, Faberge eggs, furs, and scarves (for the churches).  We didn’t leave without our own doll, a doll for “M”, and Chris surprised me with a pretty pink, sparkly Faberge egg.

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5.  We decided to visit a very large cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt.  It was called Kazan Cathedral.  I was glad that I had a scarf to wear over my head.  We got conflicting information if it was required, but when we went in all the women had their heads covered.  It was HUGE but it was very quiet.  We noticed a queue to the front of the church.  There were people up there praying and doing the sign of the cross. The next day we asked our tour guide why they were doing that and she said there was a copy of the image of Our Lady of Kazan at the front.  She was was a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan.  She said people make pilgrimages to see and pray in front of the picture.  Its very important to a lot of them as witnessed by the long queue and emotion shown when they approached the picture.

6.  While we were at the church we decided to take a rest from the rain and really we had time to spare so we found a seat and just watched the people.  We saw a lady sitting on a folding char with a cat next to her.  I thought it was strange that she brought her cat to church with her, but who knows, maybe that is normal.  After a while the cat got up and started walking around.  Then he jumped up on the bench right next to me and snuggled up close and fell asleep.  I am sure then people were thinking about me, “Why did she bring a cat to church?”The cat stayed right next to me cuddled up for the rest of the time we were there.  At one point a couple came and sat on the bench.  The man started petting the cat and the cat went for him and scratched him.  I found it strange he was so docile with me but hated anyone who sat next to us and tried to pet him.  To be honest, we stayed longer than we would have because I was petting the cat.  I am a firm believer that animals know “animal people” and I guess this cat knew I was an animal person.  I didn’t mind, it is a sweet memory.  It wasn’t until we got back on the ship that I had the thought, “Maybe that cat was a stray and had fleas and I would not be infecting the whole ship.”  I have a wild imagination and the ship was never infested by fleas. 

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7.  It was really lucky for us that we got to have some time away from a tour group in St. Petersburg.  Usually the requirements of the Visa are such that you have to stay with your group.  It was a little daunting to be left alone.  In mainland Europe you can usually make some sense out of some of the signs.  But in Russia not only are there different words, but also different writing.  We did have to be careful and were warned a lot about pick pockets, but it turned out to be relaxing and very interesting to have the time – and not scary.

8.  I have to say the highlight of the time in St. Petersburg was getting to attend a ballet in the evening.  We were docked for 2 days in St. Petersburg so we had a lot of options.  It was the ONE thing that the cruise company did right.  We had the choice between a cultural celebration or the ballet. I decided you couldn’t visit Russia without going to the ballet.  We didn’t know what one it would be, and I was happily surprised when we found out it would be Swan Lake.  Swan Lake in Russia?  Sounds cliché doesn’t it?  Well I was very excited.  Chris had never been to a ballet before so I think he was a bit apprehensive, but he loves classical music so that had it going for it.  We were only about 10 rows from the stage – perfect seats.  The ballet was amazing.  The dancers excellent (but, really I don’t know that much so they could have been amateurs for all I know, but it sure looked good!).  It was so neat to see them dance in the toe shoes, do turn after turn after turn, see their expressions, but I think my favourite was the *slap* of their ballet shoes on the stage when all of them were dancing.  The whole experience was, yet another, “pinch me moment”.  We even had a champagne reception at the intermission (we had bottled water) in this spectacular building with ornate ceilings and walls and paintings. 

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9.  One thing that ruined the ballet just a little was that before we left both Chris and I left our phones at the ship so we only had our rubbish little camera.  It played up the whole time so we didn’t get very good pictures or videos which was really disappointing.  And just as a tip, while it is annoying to have the person in front of you constantly taking pictures and videos, its REALLY annoying when it is on an iPad or has the shutter sound every time you take a picture.  That being said, you can see our discrete videos here, here, here, and here.

10.  When the ballet was done it was really late at night (like 11:30 late).  There were several busses from the cruise that transported to the ballet, so when we got off the bus they said remember the bus number and get back on the same bus!  Well, people started filing on the bus and we waited for the late comers.  And waited and waited.  We saw the other busses start leaving back to the port (it is about 35 minutes to the port).  Finally we were the only bus on the square, waiting for one couple.  After waiting until about midnight the tour leader got a call that the couple we were waiting for decided they didn’t want to walk “all the way” to our bus but just got on the nearest bus to the door.  Needless to say this annoyed everyone sat waiting on the bus.  We finally got back to the port, had what was left of the late dinner the cruise provided and headed back to the room.

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