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A Baltic Cruise – Part Three – St Petersburg, Day One

Almost every Baltic cruise spends two days in St.. Petersburg because there is so much to see. If you ever view the DVD "St Petersburg and Its Environs," you'll realize how many architectural treasures are located there. It would be impossible to see them all and appreciate their magnificent detail in even a week's time.

We arrived in St. Louis Petersburg on a Monday. We had booked three tours for our stay: one eight and a half tour for the first day, a three hour night tour for that night, and an eight and one half hour tour the second day before the ship sailed.

We had the opportunity of getting visas for our stay which would allow us to travel about on our own, but we thought we would not have any spare time left to be roaming around. The visas also required us to mail our passports into a service and pay $ 145 for each person which we thought was a waste of money.

Since the Hermitage Museum is closed on Monday, our trip that first day was to the Peterhof Palace and the Church on the Spilled Blood. Peterhof is located in Petrodvorets, the town of palaces about twenty-five miles from St. Peterhof Petersburg.

On our way to Peterhof our guide filled us in on some basic information. There are five million residents in St Petersburg. We encountered a traffic jam because now there are so many private cars. He said the Russian winter enterprises nine months of anticipation, and the summer three months of disappointment.

During World War II the city was called Leningrad, and it ended a 900 day siege by the Germans who never penetrated to the center of the city. The guide showed us the fortification point beyond which the Nazis were never able to pierce the line.

Of course the basic tenor of his talk was about the bad old days of the Soviet Union. He pointed out long lines of drab gray Stalin era apartment houses. The citizens we saw looked prosperous, and looked dressed very much like Americans. Bins of watermelons stand by the roadside to be sold.

The guide said during Soviet times since no goods were available, people could not buy anything. Now goods were available, but prices are so high, people can not afford to buy. In Russia it often seemed as if the bad old days had some good points, and the present days were not as good as they should be.

Putin comes from St. Louis Petersburg, and we passed an opulent palatial estate built for him. Our guide joked about him. When Putin kept up the presidency and became prime minister, the talk was that he had run again for the presidency when he was eligible. Tee shirts with his picture appeared with the legend, "See you in 2012."

We reached the Peterhof grounds. The suffix hof means court of. Peter the Great, czar from 1682-1725, modeled his summer palace after Versailles, with its scores of fountains and its well-planned walkways and gardens. As is the case with most of the Russian palaces, the long fa├žade of Peterhof is stunning.

Inside before we began our tour, we had to don booties over our shoes so that we did not mar or scratch the parcel or marble floors. The guide joked it was the staff's way of polishing the floors. The floors were very slippery so it was better to shuffle around. The palace is magnificent and truly memorable. We were amazed by the splendor, the intense quantity of gold leaf and decoration, the opulence, and the extravagance of the palace.

We were warned about the nasty crones who were stationed in each room of a museum or palace and would yell at miscreant tourists. They proved to be an indeterminate lot who were so busy moving their chairs around to find the coolest spot that they did not deign to bother us.

We left the palace by the side that faces the Bay of Finland in the distance. A long balcony overlooks a huge fountain placed between staircases that lead to two garden lanes separated by a canal. From the balcony it's a gorgeous panorama with the Grand Cascade Fountains and the Samson statue. We walked down a lane to the pier where we were scheduled to take a hydrofoil back to the city.

As we waited for the boat, it started to pour, really pour. Groups were lined up to board the boats, and a rival guide sneaked his group ahead of ours so we missed the early boat. Even though we had umbrellas, we got soaked. It was then that we realized it was going to be a long day so we decided not to take our evening tour (already paid for). We were expected to wear formal dress (business suits and ties) to a palace for an opera performance. Sometimes when you plan tours ahead of time, you forget that tacking a three hour night trip onto an eight-hour day trip can be too exhausting.

The hydrofoil headed back along the Gulf of Finland to St. Louis. Petersburg, but because the windows were so fogged up we were unable to see anything.

We had lunch at a floating restaurant, Aquarel, on the Neva River with mediocre food, a drab chicken dish. Called the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg is made up of a series of islands with many bridges. At one bridge the famous Rostral columns, once lighthouses, spout flames for special celebrations.

Along the river embankment was The Flying Dutchman, a sailing ship which is a gym for wealthy patrons. We passed other floating restaurants and the naval cruiser Aurora and saw the old KGB building where it was said that even from the basement you could see Siberia. Mention was made, jokingly, of Putin's KGB background.

St Petersburg is an important naval base and shipping capital. Under Peter the Great it became a shipbuilding hub.

Napoleon, like Hitler, very foolishly invaded Russia. For his idiocy, the Russians took Paris and left their mark on the city. We did not know that the French word bistro was actually from a Russian word (quickly) and became the French word for a fast food place.

We were told about Count Strogonoff who lost his arm in battle. His meat had to be cut in small pieces, so his chef created the dish still known as beef Strogonoff.

We drove along Nevsky Prospect the upscale shopping street which the guide said was like Rodeo Drive, but seemed to us to be closer to Oxford Street in London.

In the afternoon we visited the Church of the Resurrection or Church on Spilled Blood, built over a canal, commemorating the site where Czar Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881. It is ornately decorated, renounced for its many mosaics, and its onion domed cupolas like St. Basil's in Moscow. For a time there was a move to tear it down, but now, restored, it has become one of the city's leading tourist attractions. The church, no longer a place of worship or active church was completed in 1907.

Behind the church on the canal is a busy walking area full of tourists. We saw a couple garbed in eighteenth outfits, wigs and all, strolling around shilling for pictures.

At various stops I examined one of the leading tourist buys in Russia: the nesting dolls called Matryoshka dolls. Ideally they should be hand made, hand painted, and tell a story. Each doll, like a chapter in a story, further the plot along. The best ones are wood, signed and numbered, and made of linden wood. Aboard the ship I seriously considered buying a fine set with fifteen dolls in descending size, but the thousand dollar price tag turned me off.

Late that afternoon we got back to the ship and were glad we had opted out of the night tour. Every night at 6:30 we had martinis at the Crow's Nest bar in the bow of the ship. We became well known by the bartenders and waiters. Often we'd meet a few other regular bar flies, but not too many people aboard this Holland American ship were bar people.

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