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Queen Victoria 2010 Cruises
Baltic Explorer and Jewels of the Mediterranean - Part 3
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8 and 9 August – St Petersburg

St Petersburg was the most interesting of our destinations as it was a window into Russia as well as a fascinating and unique city in its own right. It was very different in both respects to what we had expected. You cannot start to understand St Petersburg without understanding a little of its history. St Petersburg was a completely new town designed from the start to be a new capital of Russia by Peter the Great. He was one of the greatest leaders during the Romanov Dynasty which lasted for three hundred years and ended when the revolution started in St Petersburg. St Petersburg was started in 1703 on the edge of the gulf of Finland at the end of the Baltic once sufficient land had been won to allow a safe harbour. Peter the Great was a giant of a man, especially in those days when 6’ 6” was an exceptional height. He had travelled extensively in Europe, mostly incognito and returned with the vision and determination to create a new capital city for Russia which would be the equal of anything the world had to offer.

The strategy of the design was largely his own, with a basic layout of a city in the delta of the River Neve much like Amsterdam in that it would have large number of canals. The canals were to some extent a necessity as the site was a swamp and the taming of the areas cost around a hundred thousand lives to disease – a greater cost in life than even the first attempts at the Panama canal. The whole concept was defined in considerable detail from the start with wide avenues called Prospects radiating out from the centre with the main buildings and other streets on a much more regular grid then possible in a city which was just allowed to develop and everything was on a grander scale. The best architects, designers and painters that Europe had to offer were brought in to realise his vision. There were many objections in his Court to move from Moscow but his will prevailed and it remained the capital, bring one short period, until after the revolution over 200 years later. Peter the Great was determined that it would be a city built of stone from the start and a ban on all building in stone anywhere else was introduced and all the stonemasons in Russia were moved to St Petersburg and a strange ‘tax’ was introduced so that every ship and baggage train had to bring stone with it in the early days.

During the following two centuries every ruler had to build his own new Palaces and the master plan was filled in with magnificent buildings. Peter the Great also started off the building of a ‘necklace’ of Summer Places of an increasing sumptuous nature round St Petersburg. Many of these were modelled on European Palaces such as Versailles.

Even after the revolution St Petersburg was treated relatively benignly and although it was run down the great collections of art and magnificent buildings remained intact even through the great siege in the Second World War which lasted nearly 300 days – the city has never been conquered during it life although many of the Summer Palaces were taken and severely damaged during the war. During the communist period the capital was moved back to Moscow and St Petersburg was first renamed Petrograd then after Lenin’s death it became Leningrad, the name many people still think of it under. It was renamed St Petersburg after the last changes. President Putin was a man of St Petersburg and has been instrumental in its regeneration and the restoration has been on a barely imaginable scale turning it once more into a showcase to the world.

Russian Customs and Immigration is complicated. The only practical means to see St Petersburg is to pay for Cunard tours; otherwise local tours have to be organised and a proper Russian visa purchased. Whatever the choice, it was going to be expensive. This is not a city where there is a free shuttle bus and you are allowed to wander independently. We decided to book a Cunard full day bus tour on the first day, which involved a morning passing by the highlights of the city, followed by lunch, and then the afternoon walking around the famous Hermitage Museum. On the second day we visited the palace of St Catherine the Great in the morning, had lunch at the Summer Palace restaurant, and then visited the palace of Peterhof in the afternoon. We had purchased a simple guide book at home before travelling but it is better to buy the set of local glossy guides on arrival, typically only a few Euros each. We only succeeded in purchasing some of them on the second day and so did not always know exactly where we were or fully appreciate what we were seeing.

The Queen Victoria berthed at Marine Facade 7, which was some distance outside St Petersburg. Our original papers said we would berth near Narva Arch. Our neighbour was P&O Arcadia, who had arrived the previous day. Every ships which comes seems to stay for a minimum of two full days. There is a nice new reception building, with a Duty Free Shop (no alcohol) outside, and other shops inside. Processing of passports and paperwork was efficient and friendly, and queues were short. It seemed better organised than immigration to the USA although we later realised we were lucky as we heard that one elderly pair of ladies had their passports taken and were held up for half an hour because one of their papers was on a different shade of paper.

We were scheduled to depart on our tour at 0845 and did so. The journey to town passed a mixture of apartment buildings, some obviously much more modern than others. Cars were few and far between even for a Sunday and there were very few parked at the roadside although, and to our surprise, many were foreign with lots of BMWs, Mercedes and Toyotas both new and old. Reaching the University Embankment of the Neva river we did not know whether to look to the right or to the left, there were so many interesting buildings. We passed a vintage icebreaker, on a corner, and eventually stopped at 0910 near the two Rostral columns. Apparently these used to be lighthouses. The tour was tightly scheduled with timed photo stops (typically 5 or 10 minutes) as well as passing lots of interesting buildings and trying to take photos through the window. The Peter and Paul Fortress, which was the first building in Peter the Great’s capital city, and the Cathedral were directly ahead, Museums were on the other side of the road, the Dvortsovaya Bridge which leads to the Admiralty and the Hermitage was nearby. Everyone took pictures facing in each and every direction. We were soon off again, passing the former Stock Exchange, now the Central Navy Museum, flanked by the Zoological Museum and the Institute of Russian Literature.

We headed north, crossing the Birrzhevoy Bridge, passing the Military Museum at 0930, Trinity Square, and having our next photo stop by the Cruiser Aurora which fired the blank shot that started the Revolution. The bus route is obviously standard because at each stop there was a small market of stalls offering souvenirs for sale. We crossed back over the Trinity Bridge and along the Field of Mars to the Church of Spilt Blood. We could not go inside because time was too short to buy a ticket but we did have time for shopping in the craft market opposite. Having seen porcelain from the Imperial Porcelain factory in Tallinn it was here in Russia that we chose to buy a small Cobalt Net dish as a momento.

Back on the bus we retraced our steps, crossing the Fantanka river then along Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St Petersburg. We passed the National Library, the great shopping arcade of Gostiny Dvor and then the Kazan Cathedral. We reached St Isaac’s Square but did not stop. There would be a stop later. We passed close to the cathedral with the blue dome but we were too close for photos. We never did mange to get a picture although we saw it in passing several times during our two days. We crossed the Egyptian bridge and reached St Nicholas’ cathedral. Here we did stop for a few moments. We drove into the Theatre Square passing the statue of Rimsky Korsukov. The Square contains the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the famous Kirov ballet company who were presently on tour, as well as the Conservatoire. Finally we were back at St Isaac’s Square and could have a few minutes to get off the bus and take photos of St Isaac’s cathedral and the Astoria Hotel. Next we went through Palace Square, and crossed the bridge to our lunch stop at the Bellini restaurant. Again we came to realise that we were on a tight rein as we walked across the road to take a picture and were immediately intercepted and reminded where our bus was parked.

The afternoon was spent in the Hermitage, just across the river. It is impossible to summarize our visit but the word stunning comes to mind. We wore headsets so we could hear our guide, and we took lots of photos. The tour was at high speed and we saw to much too quickly but it was necessary in order to see all the main highlights. Our interest was primarily the building, not its contents, so we must have been a disappointment to our guide who was very knowledgeable on the important exhibits especially the paintings. The five interconnecting buildings of the Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world. Originally, what is now the main building, was the Winter Palace of Russian monarchs completed in 1762, it also comprises the buildings of the Small and Old Hermitages completed in 1787 which housed the art collections of Catherine the Great and her Theatre, followed by the New Hermitage in 1852. They are now all linked at various levels and there is only one central entry and exit so all tourists are effectively corralled even if they separate from their guides which is easy in the throng.

We began on the Ground Floor in the Kolyvan Vase Hall where the main exhibit is a unique green jasper vase which had been made from a single block – it weighs in at 17 tons. Quickly we continued to the Twenty Column Hall with its displays of Greek urns. Then climbed up to the First Floor, where the State rooms, private quarters, ballrooms and other living areas of the imperial families have been restored to hold the collections. Here is the the important art gallery and sculpture. The Second Floor rooms are of little interest themselves but contain the collections of modern art, and a view down onto the silver collection on the lower floor. The Pavilion Hall in the Little Hermitage contains a celebrated 18th century English peacock clock but our main interest here was the rich mosaic floors and tables and the crystal and gilded chandeliers.

We finally exited after nearly three hours and completely overwhelmed in Palace Square and were confronted by the curved building of the General Staff Headquarters. It was built in 1819-29 for Nicholas I and has a gigantic arch; now it is a museum. The Alexander Column is in the centre of the square, and commemorates the 1812 victory over Napoleon. It was only a short walk across the road to listen to a girls’ choir singing in the Kapella. It was a special concert because they sang without an orchestra, their teacher used a tuning fork to define the starting tone.

After a short walk back to the bus we went back to ship, along the same route, but passed the submarine on the embankment – sadly (again) too fast and too close to get a picture.

Whereas the Hermitage was the Winter Palace of Peter the Great, on the second day we visited two of the famous palaces which are part of the ‘necklace’ of Summer Palaces. Relative to St Petersburg, the palace of Catherine is to the South of the city, and Peterhof is to the South West. Each is one hour by bus from our berth, and it is about an hour to travel between them. There is a lot of road infrastructure work around St Petersburg, and travelling is slow. Both palaces had special arrangements for the Queen Victoria. Firstly Catherine’s Palace opened early, at 0800, for cruise ships. Unfortunately this meant we needed to leave the QV at 0630 and set the alarm for our wake-up call for 0515. It was Monday and the Peterhof is usually closed to visitors, but again we had special entry.

Our bus took the now familiar route from the port into town but on our way south we saw some new monuments. These included the Moscow Triumphal Arch, the monument to Lenin, the tall pointed monument to the heroic defenders of Leningrad on Victory Square and the Egyptian Gate. During World War II St Petersburg suffered 900 days of blockade by the German Army lasting from September 1941 to January 1944. It was a very difficult time, with starvation and bombardment, but the city was never occupied although the German Army was camped within sight of the city. Although the German Army did not capture St Petersburg it did a lot of damage to the city and also to the surrounding area, including the beautiful palaces which were occupied and in the case of Peterhof allowed to burn to the ground. Damage to all the Palaces was serious and it took many years before the structures could be repaired. In addition, the Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace was removed completely by Germans and has disappeared without trace. A new Amber Room has been built. St Petersburg celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003 and the city was transformed by an influx of funding; President Putin was born and lived in St Petersburg and he had an important influence in the way the city has been restored.

First was Catherine’s Palace which is in the town of Pushkin, named after its most famous inhabitant. He went to school at the Lycee which was founded in 1811 to provide classical education to the upper classes, next door to Catherine’s Palace. After his marriage he lived in the town. Our guide told us about his life and read translated extracts from his poems.

We were ready for the beautiful blue, white and gold facade, but not for the extent of it all. A band welcomed us as we queued to enter. The Main Staircase has a clock and a barometer, and is the gateway to the Grand Hall. The suite of state rooms are along a long corridor, the Golden Enfilade. We had been provided with passes allowing photography in most of the Palace and all the grounds. One of the main features is the Amber Room but there it was strictly prohibited to take photos or video inside so we had to be content with a calendar at the souvenir shop. One room displayed three tables with ribbons and matching china. When decorations were awarded the recipient was given the medal and ribbon as well as the matching porcelain. Many rooms contain blue and white tiled corner heaters, but only one is an original, and that is distinctive because all the tiles are different. We noticed that a contribution to the refurbishment had been made by a German company and that 300 pieces from a collection in Germany had been donated for the 300th anniversary year in 2010. This included Meissen porcelain. An English designer, Charles Cameron, had been commissioned to work on the Palace and he had created a green and white room which immediately reminded everyone of Wedgwood. Again the table displayed local Imperial Porcelain.

The interior of the house is beautiful but the gardens are pleasant too. Charles Cameron also designed the Cameron Gallery in the gardens which dates from 1783-87. Adjacent to this neoclassical design is the yellow coloured Agate Rooms, Cold Bath Hanging Gardens and the ramp leading down to the Great Pond and the blue and white Pavilion.

It was still only mid-morning and too early for lunch so we drove across to Peterhof, a pleasant city with a Russian church. The journey was less than the hour in spite of the road works and we arrived in the area early. This gave time to spend a few minutes in a log house family park which had a few animals, a hotel, souvenir shop and toilets. All very essential after our early start.

Finally we reached lunch, which was only the other side of the road, at the Summer Palace. It is a nice building, just 2 years old, although modelled on a real palace. The decoration reminded us very much of the Queen Victoria. Our meal was salad, borscht soup, chicken cake with potato puree, and large pink mousse cheesecake, accompanied by a glass of Russian champagne. The service was not good because of language problems, and asking for the missing sour cream to go with the soup needed our guide to interpret. Overall, it was much better than lunch the previous day, but still not up to QV standard.

Unfortunately it was prohibited to take photos or use video inside Peterhof, whereas there had been few restrictions at the Catherine’s Palace. Peterhof is most famous for its gardens and we began in the Upper Gardens, with the Oak Fountain and the Neptune Fountain.

We had only a few minutes to rush around and then we shepherded into the house through the back door. The rooms and their decoration were very much the same style as Catherine’s Palace. The Dance Hall design was based on that at Versailles with an abundance of gilding and light from mirrors and a magnificent parquet floor made of maple, walnut, light and dark oak. The throne room is the biggest room in the Palace and there is a portrait of Catherine the Great on horseback wearing the full dress uniform of the colonel of the Semionovsky regiment with the blue ribbon of the Order of St Andrew and riding the horse ‘Brilliant’. The Picture Hall contains 368 pictures, mostly of unknown women, made by Pietro Rotary. These are displayed in regular blocks, as would be stamps in a stamp collection. The impression is of a palace very much in style with Catherine’s Palace in term of the decoration, gilding, flooring as well as the blue and white heaters and the glass chandeliers and expensive Imperial Porcelain. We finally exited through the main entrance and out onto the terrace.

Looking down from the terrace we could appreciate the extent of the Lower Park with its cascades, fountains and pavilions. The fountains and layout is largely due to Peter the Great who had spent a long time studying the mechanisms in Europe, in particular at Marly. There are 144 fountains in the park which are fed by 40kms of pipework. The highlight is the Great Cascade, 64 fountains 142 water jets and 37 gold statues, including the Samson Fountain opening the jaws of the lion (an allegory for Peter’s victory over Sweden). Even the ‘ordinary’ gilded statues on the Eastern Cascade Stairway had magic. Many of the statues started life as gilded lead but were replaced with gilded bronze or marble over the centuries.

After a rest in the shade to admire the Great Cascade from below we set off on our walk, passing the beautiful gardens with the French and Italian fountains and then the Adam Fountain, with four summer houses, until we reached the waterfront on the Neva Estuary. It is here that the highspeed hydrofoil arrives from St Petersburg, an alternative to a bus journey. Peter had chosen the site because it was opposite to St Petersburg with easy access by boat and with views of his city. Boats could berth right up to the bottom of the Great Cascade in the early days.

The Monplaisir Palace sits on the edge with superb views and is a small ‘cottage’ where Peter the Great preferred to stay. The wide Monplaisir Avenue leads directly to Chessboard Hill and the Dragon Cascade. It is more fun to wander to the side, and see the aviaries and the Sun Fountain which continually rotates. The lifesize statue of Peter the Great, who was over 6 foot tall, stands in the middle of the Monplaisir Avenue at the crossing point with the Marly Avenue. Further along there are lots of trick fountains, including the oak trick and the mushroom trick, designed to get the unwary wet when they tread on particular stones. Young children were having great fun. The Two Roman fountains were an important halt; there was a souvenir stand and toilets. When everyone was back in the group we climbed up alongside the Dragon Cascade, before then turning down to the Triton Fountain, next to the Orangerie which is now a cafeteria.

We finally climbed up to the church and we were back on terrace level with its cafes, souvenir shops and our bus parking.

We had expected a quick fast drive back to the port and the QV but instead we had more sights to see. The first was nearby - the Konstantinovski Palace which was built at Strelny. It was the first site chosen by Peter the Great for his Russian Versailles but was then abandoned and work began instead at Peterhof. After the revolution it suffered, finally being abandoned after a fire in 1986. In 2001 it was selected to be the location for the forthcoming Russia – EC Summit of Heads of State and the entire palace and grounds were reconstructed in just 18 months. The meeting, hosted by President Putin, took place in the Marble Room in the centre of the palace and the conference table is left set up as it was then, in memory of the historic event. The formal conference photograph was taken in the Blue Hall on 31 May 2003. The Blue Hall is also used for a range of events, and G-8 meetings in 2006 were held here.

Returning to St Petersburg we passed by the green Narva Triumphal Arch, and then by the Troitsky cathedral with its white facade and blue onion shape domes. Then we were back on familiar ground, into Theatre Square again, passing the Mariinsky Theatre, and back to the QV. Looking at our maps and books, we found that we had actually managed to see all the important and historic buildings, as well as visit the three most important Palaces, if only superficially in our two days but it would take weeks to do them justice. At present a cruise is probably the best way to get an introduction but hopefully it will loosen up enough for a safe independent visit in the near future, certainly there was evidence of a lot of Westernisation with even plenty of McDonalds in evidence as one has come to expect in any UNESCO Heritage Area.

The next part covering Helsinki Oslo and Kristiansand starts here

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