St Petersburg – focal point of our Baltic Cruise
Prompted by customer feedback, Celebrity Cruises decided to have a three-day stop-over for the first time in the incredible city of St Petersburg – the initiative was fully justified, as there is simply so much to see. Instead of taking any of the shore excursions offered by Celebrity, we did our own pre-cruise research and opted to go with a local independent company, Red October www.redoctober.ru, and we were very happy that we did. Sara liaised by e-mail advising what we wanted and an itinerary was drawn up.
Well, we were not in a large group. The six of us had our own personal guide Tanya and driver Dmitri. We sped around the city in a Mercedes Sprinter avoiding any traffic jams, taking short-cuts down small little side streets, stopping wherever we wanted. Big buses can’t do that! So we saw a hell of a lot. By day three, we were bamboozled with so much culture and history, our brains almost went into shut-down!
I went with a large group tour once before and it annoyed the hell out of me when some people constantly kept everyone else waiting and never arrived back at the designated meeting place in time. None of that in a group of six. We stuck together like birds of a feather.
Tanya was superb. We struck up a rapport with her early on and she got our Irish sense of humour quickly. A former teacher of English, she had given that up to become a tour guide, a far more lucrative career, she told us. Becoming a tour guide is a pretty rigorous procedure and you need to be licensed by each museum, which means sitting a separate exam for each one. It wasn’t just her knowledge of Russian history, it was her delivery, her recapping of events every day to ensure that we understood, and her intuition to know when we were tired, that made her the perfect guide.
Our tour operator had also worked out a clever itinerary which avoided any major queues. Times had been booked in advance and we sailed by large groups and walked straight into palaces and museums, all the time smiling smugly and reminding each other how clever we were.
It was only when we got back to the ship and chatted to others that we realised how much we had seen and done. Larger groups had not even managed half of our daily schedule.
Of course, some people prefer to go with the ship’s offerings and that is their option – if you are a regular client, you can avail of discounts on the shore excursions.
Oh and there is no problem with visas. Once you have booked a shore excursion with a registered company, they will send you a letter which you can present to customs when you disembark. The unsmiling customs official will give you a piece of paper which you will keep inside your passport all day and which he/she will then take back that evening. After that, they will just look at your stamped passport and stamp again. You are allowed 72 hours without a visa when you travel there on a cruise. We were all worrying about nothing. You can also disembark when you want and don’t have to wait for the ship’s shore excursions to go first.
Anyway….what to see.
St Petersburg must have more palaces (imperial and other) than any other city in the world (according to Tanya it is 37) one more beautiful than the next. Beginning in 1721 with Peter the Great, Russia’s first emperor, palaces were built as presents for children and grandchildren and even Catherine the Great gave one as a gift to one of her lovers. Know something of the colourful history of the Romanovs before you go; it will certainly help.
OUR TOP PICKS
- City tour
A tour of the city on day one will give you an idea of its beauty; the panoramic view of the palaces either side of the river will not fail to impress, but you will also be charmed by the canals and bridges and in awe of the churches and cathedrals with their glittering golden spires glistening in the sun. Note the alliteration there! We stopped at many landmarks, walked around public squares, took photos of buildings, churches, palaces and statues, all the time oohing and aahing!
- Avtovo subway
The subway stations are certainly worth a visit. We took a ride on the metro and were blown away with Avtovo, the oldest metro station, with its stunning architecture.. Where else would you see chandeliers, lamps, mosaics and marble decorated with emblems of valour? The theme of the station is the defence of Leningrad.
Equally impressive was Kirov station which was dedicated to socialism and is filled with icons from Soviet times. None of our photos do justice to their magnificence.
- Catherine’s Palace
You will not be disappointed with a tour of the palace and a visit to the Amber Room, completely destroyed during WW2 and now restored completely. The park with its pavilions and fountains and statues is worth spending some time in also.
We all agreed that this was our favourite. Often referred to as the ‘Russian Versailles’, the stunning arrangement of fountains that lead up to the beautiful palace will not fail to amaze. Some of the rooms in the palace are decorated lavishly in the baroque style where you can see inlaid parquet floors, gilded wood carvings and painted ceilings, but more were re-decorated in the elegant, classical style preferred by Catherine the Great. There are even dining tables set for lavish feasts with elegant porcelain.
- Church of the Spilled Blood
Our favourite church, we loved the history associated with it (it was built as a memorial to honour Alexander 11, who was murdered on the spot by terrorists) but also we were impressed by the magnificent mosaics in the interior.
- The Hermitage Arts Museum
Housed in The Winter Palace, Tanya told us that if you spent only thirty seconds with each exhibit, it would take three years to get through the entire museum! We spent nearly three hours there and, guided expertly by Tanya, we were impressed by the halls and the art on show, particularly the European Masters. We also visited The Diamond Room (at an extra cost) and were a little underwhelmed or maybe we were just tired!
- Canal Trip
There was some dissension among the group regarding this. Personally I enjoyed it, but because we had also taken the hydrofoil to Peterhov we were covering some of the same ground (well, water) for the second time.
- St Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest orthodox cathedral in the city has an impressive gilded dome with an impressive interior filled with colourful mosaics.
- Summer Garden…lots of fountains (the Russians do love their fountains) and newly-weds being photographed.
- Peter and Paul Fortress
We finished our three-day tour at the cathedral within the Fortress where the remains of nearly all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas 11 are buried. It was really quiet and Tanya gave us a tour of the tombs in chronological order, reminding us of the salient points of each emperor and empress. Then we were treated to an impromptu private concert from five monks singing acapella in a private chapel, perfectly ending our perfect time in this historical city.
Thanks once again to my fellow cruisers Bill and Dave for their photographic contribution.
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