This Experiences review covers our cruise stop in St Petersburg. Moscow and ports in between are discussed in other entries.
During the Soviet era, the expression Potemkin Village meant a misleading showpiece village making
Russia look better than it actually was. The Soviets were good at this, and Moscow and St. Petersburg are
Potemkin Villages on the grand scale. The great advantage of a Russian river cruise is that it also stops at
more typical villages, towns, and cities which gave us a much better picture of Russian life than what is
seen in the great cities, but, the great cities, even if not the real Russia, were definitely worth the time allotted
by the tour, if not a few days longer.
Peter the Great built St. Petersburg in the 18th century to be the great capital of the great Russian Empire,
and for 300 years, St. Petersburg, not Moscow, was the seat of government. Only Paris rivals St.
Petersburg for monumental buildings, but Paris is built of cold gray stone while the palaces of St.
Petersburg are a riot of pastel colors.
Like Washington, DC and Brasilia, St Petersburg is one of the handful of national capitals that was
originally constructed as the nation’s capital. Peter the Great started the job in 1703, creating a city
designed to impress, and impress it does.
Day 1: Morning trip to The Hermitage. It is not clear exactly what the Hermitage is. Simply put, it is one of world’s greatest art museums—350 rooms, 2,700,000 works of art—but it is also more than that. It consists of 1,2, 3, or 4 buildings, depending on how you want to count. The Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage, displays art in the grand rooms of the Tsar’s official home. The decor overwhelms the art. The Large Hermitage was built by the Tsars as an art museum. The Hermitage Theater is only used for performances, no tour visits. Our guided tour took us through the most of the major palace rooms and works of art—Da Vinci, Renoir, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Rubens—but if you want to see all the grand place rooms, abandon the tour. Afternoon bus tour of St Petersburg. With a number of photo op stops, and a visit to a souvenir shop near
the university—with very attractive prices.
Day 2: Morning tour to Peterhof, the Tsar’s summer place on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, about 15
miles west of St Petersburg. Peterhof consists of 7 to 8 palaces and churches set in a large park, English
garden on the ocean side of the Great Palace, a French garden on the other side. Our tour took us through
Catherine’s Palace, because, according to the guide, there was not enough time to tour the Great Palace. In
addition, we saw the Great Cascade and the English garden with its fountains and follies. If I had to do
over, I would leave the tour and go through the Great Palace and visit the Grand Cascade, which is next to
the Great Palace. Catherine’s Palace was too modest. I’d rather see the Grand Palace's more ostentatious
display of gold and velvet. That afternoon’s 75 minute Canal Boat tour was a highlight of the trip. This is the way to see St Petersburg. I wish it had been longer.
Day 3. Morning tour of Catherine’s Palace in the nearby town of Pushkin. This is a “don’t miss” while in
St Petersburg. By now, I had lost track of how many palaces the Tsars had, but this was their favorite.
The first room visited is the aptly named “Grand Hall", with a short concert, CDs, $20. The star of
Catherine’s Palace (named for Peter the Great’s Wife, Catherine I, not for Catherine the Great, is the Amber room, a room where all the walls are covered with a mosaic of amber. The German Army occupied Catherine’s Palace during The Great Patriotic War (WW II). After the German retreat from St. Petersburg, the Amber room had disappeared. The KGB searched for the room for 45 years without luck. Finally, a reproduction was made, being completed in 2003. There are several photos in the palace with pre-post WW II scenes showing the destruction caused by the war. We had a choice of optional tours or free time for our last afternoon in St Petersburg. While she packed for the return home, I ventured into the city via metro. This was an experience, and it has or will have its
own “Experience” review, “Getting Around”. That evening, we went to the ballet at the Hermitage Theater, built by Catherine the Great.