This post is the seventh installment in a journal of my cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltic states in 2012 on Norwegian Cruise Line –– for an overview of the entire cruise and a map of the itinerary, go here. Throughout the cruise, I’m highlighting each port, with photos and tips on what to see and how. Today, Day Two in the fourth port: St. Petersburg, Russia.
The second day in St. Petersburg promised to be as exciting as the first. We were going to see one of the world’s most famous museums: the Hermitage. There were other highlights on the agenda too, and some of them would turn out to be much more than we were expecting.
The Hermitage: We didn’t have to wait long to see the Hermitage — it was first on the itinerary. We didn’t have to wait long to get in either, moving right past the people lined up outside. That’s one of the advantages of taking an organized tour: if you only have a few hours in port, you don’t want to spend them standing in line.
The Hermitage occupies what used to be the tsars’ Winter Palace, along with a few associated buildings. That means it’s huge, and every room is filled with art and artifacts from around the world. We went from room to room, gazing at Old Masters paintings, Roman statuary, Egyptian and Eastern art, classic furniture, antique gems, objets d’art … the offerings were endless.
While much of the art was collected by Catherine the Great, who bought up whole collections from European aristocrats, there’s also some art from the modern era. Some of our group were anxious to see the museum’s collection of impressionists, and impressive it was, with major works by Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and van Gogh, among others.
As wonderful as the art was, however, the building — or buildings — we walked through were just as awe-inspiring. From the grand entrance to the formal halls and throne room, almost every space was a showpiece. Even the doorways from one room to the next were often worthy of a photo in themselves, like this one.
For more on the Hermitage and more photos of its treasures, check out my recent post, Exploring the treasures of the Hermitage museum.
The Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood: This stop was a real eye-opener. The Church of Spilled Blood wasn’t high on my list of must-sees, and probably on anyone else’s either. But it was a revelation, almost worth the trip to St. Petersburg by itself. In fact, Tripadvisor lists it as number 8 on its list of the top 25 landmarks in the world.
First, though, whose blood are we talking about? As it turns out, it’s the blood of Emperor Alexander II, assassinated in 1881 when revolutionaries threw a bomb at his carriage on this spot. So the royal family commemorated him with a grand church, and they spared no expense.
The building (at left and at the top of this post), is designed in the classic Russian style, and it’s an extravaganza. Its exterior is studded with mosaics and ornamental stonework and topped by spectacular, fanciful domes in various styles and colours, including one that’s plain gold — probably real gold, if the rest of the city’s grand buildings are any indication.
The church only got more extravagant when we stepped inside. Every inch of space seemed to be covered with huge religious mosaics, soaring upward to the ornate vaulted ceiling, where the face of Christ looked down in a blaze of light. The sheer scale of the building was impressive enough, but the detail was just as amazing, with gold and precious stones glittering out here and there.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral: The Church on the Spilled Blood was followed quickly by another grand church, this one less colourful but just as monumental. St. Isaac’s was once the city’s main church and the largest cathedral in Russia, and its gilded dome is still a landmark in St. Petersburg. The heavily decorated exterior was more sedate than that of the Spilled Blood church, but the interior (below) was hardly any less ornate. Seeing the two back to back was like religious art overload.
The subway: Another surprise on the SPb tour was a trip to the St. Petersburg subway. Why visit the subway? For one thing, it’s the deepest subway in the world, and descending into its depths was a real journey, down two of the steepest escalators I’ve ever ridden.
Russian subways are also famed for being very ornate. And though the St. Petersburg system, built in 1955, isn’t as lavish as the Moscow subway, it still puts most others to shame, with huge mosaics and paintings depicting Russian history and arts. As well, it was nice to see workaday Russians going about their daily commute.
Yusupov Palace: This is one of the few palaces in St. Petersburg with its interior still intact, but that’s not its main claim to fame. The Yusupov Palace is the place where, on a famous night in December of 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov and his accomplices assassinated Rasputin, the “mad monk” who held the Russian monarchy under his spell.
The tour here included the basement room where Yusupov — a relative of the royal family — lured Rasputin and fed him poisoned food. The scene is enhanced by a mock-up of a table laden with desserts and wax figures depicting the holy man and his attackers. When the poison didn’t work, Yusupov shot him. Then the assassins followed him out into the garden (seen here) and beat him. But that didn’t kill him either, so they threw him into the nearby Malaya Nevka River, where he reportedly died of hypothermia.
The palace itself is an interesting look at the life of the Russian nobility, and while it’s not as grand as I expected, it did boast its own theatre, an ornate affair. Fun fact: since the nobles didn’t want actors coming into their houses, they played all the parts themselves.
That was the end of my two-day stay in St. Petersburg, and while I didn’t spend much time walking around the city — an unfortunate part of taking a tour — I did see most of the city’s highlights in a pretty short time, and it was a memorable experience. This is truly one of the world’s great destinations if you have a taste for art and culture.
It was time for dinner and a drink, and late in the evening, a walk up on deck to witness the wonder of the midnight sun: here it is just about to set, and as my watch testifies, it’s about 11 o’clock at night. We’re truly on top of the world.
Next port, Helsinki, Finland, another treasure of the north.