Access to St Petersburg by ship from the Baltic is via the River Neva, which twists and turns through an archipelago of islands. Modern history and years of the cold war have shrouded Russia in mystery. When one thinks of St Petersburg, one immediately thinks of classic Italianate buildings and Tsarist excess, the architectural vision of Peter the Great, the tragic end of last Tsar Nicholas and his family and the Russian revolution.
St Petersburg had its beginnings in 1703 at the behest of Peter the Great. It was not a great place for a city, built as it was on marsh land, grim weather for most of the year – a fact that did not go unnoticed by subsequent Tsars who built their palaces about 20 km outside the city in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin). The result is an enclave of princely homes that defy description for their scale, artistry and decoration. Today you can still see the original gates to the Catherine Palace and others in the grounds, as well as the original cobbled drive.
On reflection, I think it a mistake if you are in charge to live out of the city, it gets you out of touch with the people somehow. Versailles and Catherine’s Palace – two revolutions that began with disgruntled citizens at the king’s gate! Tsarist fantastical excess and vision is our gain. St Petersburg bursts with artworks and buildings of such architectural magnificence that they take your breath away. There is too a poignancy about the place . The Russians are doing much to restore the Romanov legacy – Soviet disdain for nobility and the landed classes is today replaced by national pride.
It is a wonderful thing to sail into St Petersburg by ship – provided it is small enough to navigate the Neva River, and then one can berth up close and within a few hundred meters of the Hermitage and the centre of the old city. Our ship the 3000 tonne 694 passenger (and 400 crew, an enviable industry guest-to-staff ratio) Azamara Quest was able to do just that.
The journey up the Neva River estuary from the Baltic to the city takes a couple of hours – the ship slows to a suitably stately pace – for safety reasons no doubt, but you get to linger sufficiently to take in the sites for this is a place that is majestic in every sense of the word.
Our captain recommended an early rising at 6.30 am in order to catch glimpse of the Soviet sign marking the entrance to Leninskye (Leningrad). There it is in all its glory thudded in chunky cubic cement. The aging dockyard facilities, with a myriad of cranes bowing in silent vigil, mark the city’s years under soviet rule like rings the age of a tree.
St Petersburg’s founder Peter the Great was a naval man and so it was entirely apposite to enter the city by ship. Once called the Venice of the North, transport across the city initially was entirely water borne, until the now famous raised bridges were constructed in the 19th Century. Peter used his considerable wealth and power to commandeer Europe’s finest architects, designers and artisans to execute his vision of a capital city to rival the finest on the continent.
Today the city overwhelms with the opulence and excess of the Tsars and Russian nobility, the former splendour now settling into slight tawdriness and decay, serves only to enhance the authenticity of the place. The scale and spectre of the sites, and the poignancy of Russia’s modern history so evident everywhere really moved me.
To visit St Petersburg, you need a Russian travel visa. Visitors via a ship are given a 72-hour free visa, which may be organised through accredited tour operators prior to your sailing. The advantage of doing so is a greater choice in terms of what you can see and do. The ship organised our tours and visas and I was grateful to take their lead given that it was our first time in the city. There were folk on board the ship who organised private tours and some who were enviably taken off the beaten track to some forgotten places. Read about some of them in Jean Newman Glock’s post
We took in the Hermitage museum, Catherine’s Palace and the Church of the Spilled Blood, all in themselves overwhelming and worthy of far more time than the three hours we spent at each.
St Petersburg is every thing I imagined and more. I LOVED it. The Hermitage Museum is a wonder all on its own, and even despite its scale, the museum’s ambiance is one of intimacy, delicacy and grandeur. The art collection of some three million is breathtaking, despite having to dodge selfie sticks and the bobbing lollipops of the many tour leaders. The Hermitage is flooded with three million visitors between May and September, each year, and in August we caught the swell. The beautiful rooms each different in theme and decoration hold treasures ranging from ancient Roman marbles, to works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt as well as vast portraits of various Romanov descendants. The Gold Room, whose walls are adorned with gold leaf, houses an exquisite personal collection of cameos and seals.
Something to remember is that the famed Impressionist and early 20th century collections are now housed across the square from the Winter Palace in the Staff Quarters. Spill-over collections can also be viewed at the modern storage rooms across the city. Here you will find a collection of carriages, and reportedly a pair of Empire-style chairs belonging to Josephine Bonaparte.
Catherine’s or the Summer Palace is situated at Tsarselo Skoye or Pushkin about 24 km east of St Petersburg, along with the Alexander Palace which was home to the last Tsar Nicolas 11 and his family. The palace, which was virtually destroyed by the German army during WWII, has largely been restored. I remarked on the beautiful marquetry floors, and was told by our guide that the originals were inlaid with mother of pearl. The culmination of the tour was the Amber Room. Originally constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the Amber Room was a gift to Peter the Great by Prussian King Frederick Willem. The amber panels were looted by the Nazis during WWI and disappeared thereafter. The room was recreated in 2003. Before the room was lost, it was considered an Eighth Wonder of the World.
In the midst of such magnificence, St Petersburg is place where hustle happens. There is a system at work in the streets – perhaps I have just seen too many spy movies – but there is a rawness in the atmosphere that seals the city’s authenticity. Tough people, tough history and beware of pickpockets! I came away with such an appreciation for this city and the country, and what they have had to overcome. Russian scale is epic. Tsarist excess extreme, people’s loyalty and national pride – monumental. Na Zdorovie (Naz-dro-vyeh)!! Til we meet again and again and again!!