Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There's a rumor in St. Petersburg...

....and it's not that Anastasia was alive; it's that Maggie was coming!

Let's face it--the highlight of this cruise was always going to be the two days we were docked in St. Petersburg. And as luck would have it, it was the jewel in our vacation crown. But before I get into the details of our visit, how about some historical background? It's kind of my favorite.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great and was modeled on the great cities of Western Europe. After touring the other cities of Europe, Peter was determined to "modernize" Russia and build a city as beautiful as Paris, Venice, or London. He hired French architects and built the city on a series of islands spanning the river Neva. St. Petersburg was the capitol city of Russia from 1712 to 1918 and is currently the second largest city in Russia with 5 million people (Moscow is the largest). The city has also had several name changes in its time; during WWI it was called Petrograd as the Russians changed all German-sounding names in the country. It was then renamed Leningrad in 1917 following the Bolshevik revolution until 1994 when the residents voted to restore the original name of St. Petersburg.

My first impressions of the city were that it was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. It's full of buildings dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Russians prefer to restore existing buildings rather then rely on new construction. I was also surprised by how many of the architectural details remain; I assumed during the Soviet era many of them would have been torn down, but the truth is that any damage done to the city was caused by the Germans during WWII. It's loaded with palaces (as each Romanov was given their own palace and there were 60 of them in 1916) cathedrals, and other beautiful old buildings.

Our first stop on our grand tour was the Hermitage museum. It's the second largest museum in all of Europe and houses the largest collection of Renoir paintings in the world. There's also an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings including Monet and Van Gogh (who was Dutch but did his best works in France). It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1862 and is currently comprised of 5 buildings including the Winter Palace where the ruling Romanov tsars had their home in St. Petersburg. Our tour guide, Tanya, was incredibly knowledgeable about almost everything in the museum and took us on a path that avoided most of the other tour groups. Coupled with the museum opening an hour early to accommodate the many cruise tours, we had an experience few people get (as the museum becomes impossibly crowded during the summer).

The tour began in the main stairway of the Winter Palace and then curved through the official receiving and throne rooms of the tsars. Each room is filled with not only exquisite pieces of art including paintings, sculptures, and antique furniture, but the rooms themselves contain impressive gilding and floors. There was so much to look at it, but my personal favorites were the Impressionist paintings and the marble sculptures which looked ready to come to life at any moment.

Entrance to the Hermitage, aka, the Winter Palace

Grand Stairway of the Winter Palace

Rooms inside the Hermitage

The Three Graces, in the lobby of the Hermitage

We spent the entire morning wandering the rooms until after noon when we headed to a hotel for lunch. Russian food is very hardy, and we had a typical Russian meal which of course includes vodka. The first course was a light salad with raw salmon and caviar. The second course was a thick potato soup (which was delicious). The main course was chicken kiev, which as soon as you touched it with your knife and fork virtually exploded with butter and garlic and herbs. For dessert there was a thick cream with berries and as I said, vodka.

After lunch we spent the afternoon on a panoramic tour of St. Petersburg seeing the most famous sites such as St. Isaac's Cathedral,a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that took 40 years and 3 tsars to construct. It was also designed by a French architect and includes 48 columns weighing 114 tons. The interior reminded me a lot of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, but with even more icons and mosaics. We also got a look at one of St. Petersburg's most famous landmarks: the Church of Spilled Blood. It's coloful exterior and onion shaped domes are quintessentially Russian and it's now the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the city (you should google it--seriously).

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Statue of Peter the Great with the dome of St. Issac's in the background

Church of Spilled Blood

After some time shopping (where I got some Russian nesting dolls--so cute!) we were back on the bus for the ride back to the ship. When I write it out like this it doesn't seem like very full day, but trust me--it was a long day.

Coming up next: St. Petersburg Day 2, with even more palaces!

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