This post is the sixth installment in a journal of my cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltic states in 2012 on Norwegian Cruise Line –– for an overview and a map of the entire cruise, go here. Throughout the cruise, I’m highlighting each port, with photos and tips on what to see and how. Today, the fourth port: St. Petersburg, Russia.
The morning of Day 5, and we’d reached the eastern end of the Baltic Sea, cruising into the Gulf of Finland. For many of us, that meant we’d come to the highlight of the cruise: St. Petersburg, Russia, with its palaces, museums, onion-domed churches and rich history. As well, we were here for two whole days, one of the reasons I chose this particular Baltic cruise on NCL. With all the sights to see, we were going to need every minute.
It wasn’t going to be that easy, though. While the ship arrived in port around 7:30, high winds kept us from docking for at least an hour: a strong wind can drive a big ship into the dock and cause major damage. We finally got the all clear, and passengers trooped off the ship to form long lines in the port building and show their passports to stone-faced customs guards.
If you’ve visited Russia, you know that entering the country isn’t as simple as just showing your passport. Even arriving for a day trip on a cruise, you’re not allowed off the ship unless you have either a Russian tourist visa or a reservation for an organized tour. And since getting a Russian visa is a time- and labour-consuming process, most of us chose the second option.
The organized tours are not cheap: my two-day tour ended up costing about $300. After looking at Norwegian’s pricey offerings, I opted for a private tour company, SPb Tours, on positive reviews by a number of people on Cruise Critic.
It was a blow to the budget, but the tour was good, and considering the amount of ground covered and the sites included, I considered it a fair deal. So off we went, on a tour bus bound for one of Russia’s major showpieces.
The summer palace: Also called Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great is about a two-hour drive from downtown St. Petersburg, so we were happy we had a comfortable ride. And the palace was well worth the trip: called Russia’s Versailles, it’s the Tsar’s attempt to recreate the splendour of French nobility, and he didn’t miss by far.
While the view from the front is not that grand, the palace became gradually more impressive as we moved back and walked through acre after acre of formal gardens, woods and squares ornamented with beautiful statues and fountains.
The farthest reaches brought us to the fairly modest buildings where the royal family actually spent their time, and a bit of humour: a trick walkway that sprayed water when you stepped on the wrong stones. Apparently Peter was a bit of a prankster.
The way back to the palace, however, revealed Peterhof’s real splendour, the Grand Cascade: an extravaganza of fountains studded with statues covered in what the Russians claim is real gold. This stunningly extravagant display fronts the palace as it faces the sea, and heads a channel that runs down to the royal docks.
Strangely, we weren’t allowed into the palace itself, but on the way out we toured a display of WWII photographs showing how the Germans had plundered and almost destroyed the palace during their occupation. Almost all of what we had seen was a restoration, but an impressive one.
Lunch in the country: The lunch stop was in a dacha — Russia’s answer to the summer cottage — and it was as rustic as you’d imagine, right down to the wooden outhouses. The food was pretty authentic, as well. There was cole slaw, borscht and dumplings (perogies to those who know Polish food), all served with lots of sour cream. Not to everyone’s taste, but if you don’t like cabbage, beets and potatoes, you might as well skip Russian food.
The Catherine Palace: This was an unexpected bonus, and a real eye-opener. Built by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine around 1717, the originally modest palace was turned into a showcase by their daughter Elizabeth. The result was a huge blue, white and gold fantasy that measured about a kilometre around and spared no expense in its decorations.
We were allowed into the Catherine Palace (with protective booties over our shoes), and the interior was just as glittering as the outside. The highlights were the huge public rooms like the Grand Hall (seen here), but each room held something special: the dining rooms set with royal table ware, the amber room panelled with precious stone, the picture gallery completely wallpapered with 17th- and 18th-century paintings, and a replica of one of Catherine’s ball gowns.
A look at Russia: The drive back to St. Petersburg was a good opportunity to see a little of the real Russia. The local countryside is relatively flat but pleasant, dotted here and there with industrial buildings, including an unexpected view of a Coke factory.
Coming into town, the way was lined with big government building complexes and statues depicting workers and the heroes of the revolution in dramatic poses. Meanwhile, the Russian people went about their business, oblivious to the political monuments around them.
The Peter and Paul Fortress: The last stop of the day was a site little known to the rest of the world, but significant for two reasons. First, this little fort on a small island in the Neva River delta was the original citadel of St. Petersburg, erected to defend against attack by the Swedes. Second, it houses the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III are buried.
The cathedral is an odd-looking structure, but its interior is impressive, replete with marble walls, gold fittings, religious paintings and a beautifully painted, vaulted ceiling. But of course, the attraction is the dozens of stone sarcophagi arranged throughout the church, holding the bodies of Russia’s royalty. Even after seeing some of the ossuaries of Europe, it a pretty strange display — a beautiful indoor graveyard.
The Peter and Paul Fortress is also noted for two other things. It’s the site of the national mint, where Russia’s coins are made. And for many years it was used as a jail where the country’s political prisoners were held. Its unwilling guests included Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, and before them, Peter the Great’s own son Alexei. Oddly, our tour guide didn’t mention this.
Back to the ship for dinner in the Seven Seas, and the evening’s entertainment. But the day wasn’t necessarily over: there were evening tours if you wanted to take them, including a city-by-night tour, the Russian ballet, and a vodka tour. If you took the latter, your memories of the next day’s tour could be a little fuzzy.
I opted for some live music in the Windjammer lounge, where I watched out the window as the Costa Fortuna, which we’d been chasing since we both left Copenhagen, slid out of port. Apparently it had a one-day stop here. But we had two, and some of the best sights were still to come as we continued touring St. Petersburg on Day 6.