|(STOP!! And enjoy St. Petersburg! It's my chance to experience totalitarianism.)|
St. Petersburg. A thousand years ago I studied some Russian in college. It was one of the first classes I signed up for, and I learned very quickly that living a substantial distance from the university campus and having no car and scheduling a five-day-a-week 8:AM class in a difficult foreign language did not constitute a brilliant strategic plan.
So I got to take beginning Russian twice!
I managed to get through that first year and another couple quarters of Russian language before I was allowed to take the rest of my foreign culture credits in art and literature classes (at which I showed, if possible, even less aptitude. Hard to study literature without, well, reading the literature). That's all a very long time ago, but I was interested in Russian culture at the time and have remained so, though from a distance. So I've always wanted to visit Russia, and Moscow particularly. Well, Moscow will have to wait. And St. Petersburg is not my first brush with Russian culture, having spent a number of days in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan for work. But St. Petersburg is my first visit to Russia proper, and the city is a jewel in Russia's crown. We were in town for about 36 hours, giving us two full daylight cycles to take in the sights (this--an overnight in a place with the ship docked--is a first in our decade of cruising).
Our guide said that Moscow and St. Petersburg are kind of locked in a mutual dislike because each vies to be "the" representative Russia, and St. Petersburg--the capital from czarist times--is more European than any other Russian city. I suppose Muscovites see this as a concession to the West. But it does have a European feel, Europe with a Soviet twist. Much of the housing in St. Petersburg is the kind of anonymous, stucco-covered blocks of small, grimy, identical flats, typically a zillion to a building and with several buildings in a unit. This seems to be how people live here. The city itself seems vibrant and with many busy shopping streets. Roads are jammed with folks going about their business, with a rattling and VERY tired-looking tram system rather than buses doing the heavy lifting of mass transit. (I did not see a subway system.)
All this had to be discerned from the windows of a tour bus, as we had no Russia visas which would have let us wander on our own. Russia, we were told, is the strictest country Holland America visits as far as visa restrictions, and without separate Russia visas--which would have required me shipping my passport off, which for work reasons I cannot do--we were restricted to doing only ship-sponsored activities, which were covered under the ship's visa. We generally avoid ship-sponsored activities, and having to stick with a group was the greatest restriction for us. Still, that was our choice: see the major touristy spots of St. Petersburg with a group of cruise ship denizens or not see anything at all.
Well, with one lucky exception: we stopped for lunch for 90 minutes downtown on our second tour day, and we used that time to walk Nevsky Prospekt, one of the major thoroughfares of the city. But for this hour spent knocking about, we might have had no sense of the real city whatsoever. And that hour was pretty sparse at that, but it was still something other than the long lines of tourists clogging the Hermitage--the Winter Palace and three other of the five total buildings--the Peterhof gardens, St. Katherine's Palace with its famous Amber Room, and St. Isaac's Cathedral. We also stopped for five minutes to take photos of the Church Of The Spilled Blood, the most picturesque Russian Orthodox cathedral in St. Petersburg (though unfortunately we were not in a good position for pictures).
I think I could happily have spent a week there looking at stuff. It's a big city, and with all the water around and all the architecture it's a fascinating place. Our tour guide for both days was a young woman studying art and film at the local university. She was well-versed in her subject matter, and the tour moved pretty briskly.
I 'd be happy if circumstances brought me back here, but I don't know that I'd put out the effort to come back when there are so many other places I'm dying to see.
|(View from the ship. Beautiful new cruise ship facility.)|
|(Driving into the city on the bus, crossing the Neva river.)|
|(Pulling up at the Hermitage, the Winter Palace.)|
|(The entry hall. Everything is gilded. Russians love they gold.)|
|(I'm sure it's an iron-on decal, right? Right?)|
|(The Throne Room. (No, not the WC.))|
|(That ain't gold-colored Rust-Oleum.)|
|(Thousands of us treading on the exquisite inlaid floors. Hard to see the wisdom in this, though the palace was completely gutted by the Nazis, so these are new-ish.)|
|(Some general. Looks skeptical.)|
|(Detail of a massive mosaic floor.)|
|(Susan found this lovely painting on a bureau door.)|
|(Back in the bus, headed to the Peterhof.)|
|(Tracks like these, the trams can't be very fast or comfortable. Buses have to crawl over these intersections.)|
|(Gardens at the Peterhof.)|
|(Back thru town, headed for the ship.)|
Next up: pictures from the second day.