1. We woke up early the next morning to meet up with our tour. We decided to go through a company called Cruising Excursions for this day long tour, as none that the cruise line provided looked very good compared to what Cruising Excursions were offering. Also, we used the same company in Rome and really loved it so we though we couldn’t loose. And we were right! There was a much bigger ship docked that morning so our group of about 20 on the tour were me and Chris from our ship, and the rest from the other ship. It was nice to have new people to get to know and even kids on the tour. We were in an air conditioned mini-bus with bottled water and a great tour guide. She was a young, married, school teacher named Catherine. She taught English to junior high/secondary school age kids. She did the job for the summer and to work on her English. She was incredibly smart and knowledgeable and most importantly approachable and friendly.
2. One thing we did notice about our tour guide, Catherine, was that she was fiercely patriotic and loved her “dear President Putin”. She was full of love and admiration for him and her country. She did make the “joke” (keep in mind this was when the problems with Ukraine just started) that, “We’ve taken Crimea. We often joke that since Alaska is cold we call it ice and say that next President Putin will have Ice Cream (Crime).” I don’t know that making jokes like that were very clever in a bus full of (mostly Americans), but I know she didn’t mean it nasty and just as a joke. It really made me think about what we are taught and what we believe. There were several times she talked about how Ukraine owed Russia a lot of money, wanted to be part of Russia, etc. and she said it matter of fact. That is what she believed. It was very interesting to see that point of view. She was a very intelligent woman and just had strong beliefs because of her culture, what she believed, and what she learned. I supposed, even though I might not agree, I cant fault her for patriotism – after all if there is one thing Americans pride themselves in, its patriotism. At any rate, I wasn’t ever offended by what she said, but could feel the propaganda mixed into the facts.
3. On our drive from the port into the city centre there was no shortage of sights! There were so many things to looks at that were so different than anything we’d ever seen. You want to take it all in and not miss a single thing. St. Petersburg is a vivid, historic, busy, exciting city.
4. Our tour guide arranged to take us to an authentic Russian restaurant for lunch. Chris and I are quite picky eaters so we were a little hesitant but decided to go for it – why not, what’s the worst that could happen? Most of the people got the traditional Russian Dumpling dish. We were sitting next to an older couple from the other ship and that is what they got. We decided to order off the menu and ended up with some pretty yummy grilled chicken and some potatoes in cream with dill (a Baltic favourite, I found). It turned out to be quite good food – plain and simple. The couple sitting next to us said that the dumplings didn’t have much of a taste at all (they definitely didn’t look very appetizing). It was a perfect break from our sightseeing and before we started exploring the Hermitage.
5. One thing I have noticed as we’ve travelled is that the general feelings about Americans aren’t very friendly feelings and I have seen more Americans that I like to admit live up to the stereotype the Europeans have for us. This tour was no different. Most of the Americans on the tour were kind but there were a few who were really rude. It makes me cringe so I try to be as kind as possible so that people don’t think we’re all like that. Although, its probably for nothing since everyone thinks I’m British now because of my messed up accent anyway.
6. We had the option to have a private tour (lead by our tour guide) at the Hermitage, or for one of her colleagues to take the others to see some more sights around St. Petersburg. I think the idea of hours in a museum filled Chris with dread so he decided to go and see the other sights. This is Chris’ post about St. Petersburg. At the bottom is a part about the Field of Mars – that is what he ended up seeing while I was in the museum.
7. I got to visit the Hermitage. Now, it wasn’t on my list of places I wanted to see and I really thought we’d miss it on this trip. I knew Chris wasn’t a huge fan and so I just figured that I’d have to skip it (marriage = compromise right??). When the tour guide offered us a private tour, other options for those who didn’t want to stay, and discounted tickets I was in heaven. I don’t think there is any way to describe the Hermitage (like so many things in Russia). It was grand and imposing and very impressive. This is what the internet says about the Hermitage:
The State Hermitage is a museum of art and culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors.
We were given our own headsets tuned into what Catherine was saying. She knew her way around the museum and all the “important” paintings and things that most people want to see. I was interested in the paintings and luckily, that is where we spent most of our time. Honestly it is such a huge building it would probably take years to see everything there. It was very hot and humid with lots of people but I guess you wouldn’t expect much less in such a popular place.
8. The museum was a feast for my eyes. I didn’t know where to look and was easily distracted by so many paintings. We got to see famous paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci, Cezanne, Ruben, Monet, and on and on. You could get close enough to see the brush strokes and really take in the pictures. In the picture album are a sampling of some of the paintings I saw. Absolutely amazing (pinch me moment). But my favourite was this painting by Rembrandt. In person, it looked like there was a light shining on the picture but it was just the way it was painted. Beautiful. I was so so so lucky to get the opportunity to see the museum – I am glad I didn’t miss it!
9. During our tour, Catherine decided to stop at a tiny, out of the way souvenir shop. It was right by the place where Rasputin was shot and next to a playground full of happy little children. We went inside and they were offering free Vodka (only in Russia right? and no mom, we didn’t have any). We both used the toilet and came out, slightly traumatized, with the same picture:
Next to the toilet was a bin full of used toilet roll – for this sheltered American it was… well… gross and it made me say to myself, “We aren’t in UK anymore….” I didn’t read about THIS in the travel books and made sure I didn’t use the toilet again until we were back at the ship.
10. We got back to the ship in just enough time to say goodbye to Catherine (she hugged me goodbye). It was a great day and a great tour. I can usually judge if a place has affected me by whether I want to go home and learn more… and I absolutely did with Russia. The lives of the Czars and Catherine the Great really made me want to research more. Knowing that it was probably the only time we’d visit Russia I tried to take in everything I could. It was one of the best tours/stops we’ve had here in Europe. Throughout the day the storm clouds were rolling in. We were leaving about 6 at night, and the other ship docked with us were planning on following behind at about midnight en route to Finland like us. We had dinner and went to bed. In the night I was woken up by some really serious rocking of the ship. Not only that but I got food poisoning from the food on board for dinner and already felt sick. It was bad night, to say the least. I am not very confident with big bodies of water anyway and I cope best on cruises by “forgetting”. That night as the ship grounded and we were being pushed side to side I was scared, really scared. Adding the sickness to it – it wasn’t a great night. Chris went out earlier in the night and could see that the sea was pretty rough (Here is the video Chris took of the storm brewing) – but probably nothing compared to what we went through that night. When we woke up we found out that we had gone through a pretty bad storm and the other ship decided to stay in port instead of risk it. I didn’t know to be happy or sad – happy that we weren’t going to miss seeing Helsinki, but sad that the Marco Polo’s Captain decided to risk it. But we were there safe and sound with blue skies so I guess it worked out for the best.
St. Petersburg overall: Amazing. I was nervous to visit Russia. When I told people that we were stopping there I’d usually get the reply, “Be careful!” But I didn’t need to worry. The customs procedure with cruise trips was smooth and efficient. Its not a place I would try to visit on my own, without the safety of a tour group, but I am so lucky to have visited there. I do know how lucky I am, especially now, to say I’ve visited Russia. The buildings and architecture alone were worth the visit and the Hermitage and ballet were icing on the cake!