Welcome to my first day in St. Petersburg!
As part of my two-week cruise in Europe, I was able to spend a weekend in Russia. This was the only country that we were able to visit for two days. Honestly, I had mixed feelings about this. With all of the history that St. Petersburg has to offer, two days barely allowed me to scratch the surface. For that, I am grateful that we spent a whole weekend in Russia. But if I am being completely honest and true to myself, I wish we had spent the two days in either Belgium or Denmark instead.
In order to even get off the boat in Russia, one had to be a citizen, have a private tour booked, or a Russian VISA. The option to walk around the port or take public transportation into the city was nonexistent. Luckily, I had a two-day tour booked, and in this post I am going to recap day one.
Unlike the other countries, we did go through customs in Russia. Passport control offered me two things: a fresh stamp in my passport and my first taste of Russian strictness. No smiles, no “What do you have planned during your stay?” Just a once over and a firm “Next.”
Having barely dried off after the downpour in Estonia, I was disappointed to see (the completely typical) gloomy weather in Russia with a forecast of rain. I was hoping as it was only 4:30AM, the weather would change for the better. By the time I met my group at 6:30AM, I could tell that it would be an overcast day, but chances of rain luckily seemed slim.
Once my group of 35 was through customs, we boarded our coach and set off for a one-hour drive to the industrial suburbs of St. Petersburg (SPB).
Here are some facts I learned:
- SPB is 313 years old.
- SPB has been the capital of Russia twice.
- SPB has 5 million inhabitants.
- SPB is ~600 square kilometers with 80 rivers and canals that form 42 islands.
- There is not a single monument to Stalin and we never heard a mention of the Communist era.
- Only 60 sunny days a year
Right after leaving the customs department, my first real taste of St. Petersburg came in the shape of four stray dogs lying on the partition of a busy road. We would come to see many more (although surprisingly not one homeless person), and it was the first glimpse of the stark poverty I would see throughout Russia. Although our tour guide never mentioned this part of Russia’s history, remnants of the USSR were everywhere.
Lifeless, concrete apartment complexes meshed into the bleak, sunless sky. The town looked depressed and oppressed as we drove around. Buildings were covered in graffiti, which, in a way, breathed some life back into the structures.
The poverty level was brought into stark contrast when we arrived at Peterhof Palace. The opulence of “Russia’s Versailles” just made the disparity between the citizens and rulers even greater. Something about walking past colorless and cold buildings prevented me from fully enjoying the splendor of the Royal Palaces when I entered them. No wonder there was a revolution…
Nonetheless, Peterhof was gorgeous. Unfortunately, pictures were strictly prohibited, a rule I have never encountered in all of my travels. As I spent more time in Russia, I learned that at some museums you had to pay to be able to use non-flash photography. To me this seems selfish, greedy, elitist, and exclusive. As this was the first tourist attraction, I again tasted a little bitterness in my first bite of Russia.
After putting away our cameras, checking all outer layers (by the time the docents were satisfied, I was wearing only a tee-shirt), and donning covers over our shoes to preserve the original word floors, we were finally ready to enter the palace. Here are pictures of postcards I purchased to give you an idea of what we saw:
My absolute favorite thing about Peterhof were the chandeliers. Because the glass was mixed with gold, it became a fair and transparent purple color and was like nothing I had ever seen before.
After touring the palace, we were given a little free time to walk around and told to meet outside at a certain time. Unfortunately, I found that ‘outside’ makes for nondescript meeting point when you are on the Peterhof Grounds.
Ultimately, a third of our 35-person ground congregated in one ‘outside’ meeting spot and waited for the tour guide. When the meeting time arrived and our tour guide did not, we decided to walk back to the bus as a safety precaution (maybe we had misunderstood her and she said “meet outside the bus at this time” ??). Our group of 10 slowly began to grow as more and more people returned to the bus after unsuccessfully locating the tour guide. After nearly 45 minutes had passed, we began to worry that perhaps the tour guide was waiting for us in the Palace. I took charge and approached our bus driver…who spoke as little English as I speak Russian (which is ничего, or nothing). After a failed charades attempt, I resorted to my Google Translate app, which I had preloaded with Russian. Finally, success! After an hour of waiting on a stationary bus, we were reunited with our group. I discovered later that myself and the others had missed a tour of the Grand Cascade Fountains. Disappointed? Yes. But I made the safe decision to return to the bus to avoid being stranded in Russia, the one country on my Europe trip where I was not allowed to be on my own.
We then went to the Yusupov Palace, famous for the assignation of Grigori Rasputin by Felix Yusupov. Again, I was blown away by the opulence of this household, and the Yusupov’s were not even a royal family!
It was soon my favorite time of the day: mealtime! We were carted to an old palace that is now used to host tour groups for lunch. At first I was a little disappointment that we might not get an ‘authentic’ Russian experience by going to a tour-oriented restaurant, but the food was delicious. We were served a Russian chicken and vegetable salad, mushroom soup, a beef entree, and a raspberry pastry cake along with water, champagne, and vodka.
The next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the fourth largest cathedral in the world and able to accommodate 14,000 worshipers.
Having spent a week in Europe already, being relatively well traveled, and just departing from two magnificent Russian palaces earlier that day, I would have thought little could drop my jaw. I was wrong. Upon entering St. Isaac’s I let out an audible gasp.
The cathedral was 100 times more breathtaking than I can describe in words. Mosaic paintings covered the walls and ceiling of the cathedral.
What wasn’t mosaic was pure gold leafing covering ornate woodcarvings. This is a must-see if you are in Russia.
Special thanks: During my time in Europe I got to know many wonderful people while on the ship or in port. As I had signed up for a two-day tour, I quickly became close to my fellow members, especially since I was a young girl traveling alone (my grandmother opted for less walking-intensive excursions). Some fellow passengers that I became closest with while in St. Petersburg were Doug and Jill from Florida and Melanie and Chase from Georgia. So kindly, they offered to take my pictures throughout the trip. I thank them for sparing me from having to post selfies!
The final stop of the day was at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This was the most visibly appealing building to me from the exterior. I loved the vibrant blue and a green colors that speckled the Church. Like a peacock, the Church of Spilled Blood attracted the gaze of all passing by. Its bright colors and gold domes were only made more beautiful against the overcast skies.
This church houses the final resting place of Alexander II after his assignation, the Tsar liberator who gave freedom to the slaves.
Interestingly, the beautiful and surprisingly colorful church was closed to the public for 80 year and was used as food storage! Can you imagine something so beautiful only being enjoyed by bags of grain?
I found Russia to bring forth some mixed emotions personally. To me, St. Petersburg is stifled. The people were strict, the buildings were cold (not all could be covered in a gold blanket), and even the sun feels welcomed to shine only 60 days a year. I was left hoping that my second day in the city would leave me with a better impression.
What are your thoughts on St. Petersburg? Let us know below.