City Scene: St. Petersburg

DSC_0353 (3)St. Petersburg, Russia was a two-day stop on the Baltic Cruise we took for our 35th anniversary. It was a mixed bag of experiences, both enjoyable and not so much! We started off with a nonexistent welcome from immigration. The official didn’t smile or utter a word – he just looked at our passport, looked at us, then back at our passport. A nod of his head was our only indication to proceed through the gate. An air of unfriendliness continued throughout our visit, but the sights of the city were magnificent none the less!

The agenda for the day included a tour of Catherine’s Palace, lunch in the Czar’s Village, a visit to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, then a drive by the Palace Square, the Arch of the General and other highlights; but we weren’t the only tourists in town! Traffic was terrible, security procedures were strict, and it was crowded everywhere we went. It must be a daunting task to herd large numbers of people through historic structures while protecting them from potential harm. All that aside, Catherine’s Palace was spectacular! Even Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna was not this impressive! Although Peter the Great presented this estate to his wife Catherine in 1710, the Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered it completely redone. The result is why the Palace is now ranked as one of the masterpieces of world architecture.

Inside (where you had to pay to take pictures) the WOW factor continued! From the main staircase where the ceilings were decorated with 17th & 18th century paintings, to the Grand Hall with its gilded mirrored walls, to the State Study of Alexander the 1st, each room was stunning! None more so than the Amber Room! This famous room was originally constructed with over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber, but the Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during WW II and they have never been found. Russian artists began recreating the room in the early 1980s and it was re-opened to the public in 2003. Outside on the Palace grounds, we listened to an A cappella singing group perform for the crowd at one of the two garden pavilions near the lake.

Back on the bus, we searched over 30 minutes for the location of our restaurant for lunch only to discover it was back on the Palace grounds. Disappointment with our inexperienced tour guide and bus driver was setting in! After lunch we toured the Hermitage Museum—home to one of the greatest collections of art in the world! The building itself is a work of art, but the masterpieces inside it were barely visible because of the swarms of people surrounding them. There were Raphael’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s, to name a few, all right there under one roof, but we could only get a glimpse of them through the crowd. I’m sure it would have been an extraordinary experience under better conditions. If we ever do this again, we won’t go in June and we’ll spend the extra money for an “after-hours” tour! We were running late due to the lunch debacle, the snarly traffic, and the packed museum so we didn’t get to drive by all the planned highlights. We did, however, find time to stop at a souvenir shop where they were offering free samples of Russian Vodka. I think everyone needed a drink at that point, so why not! We bought a few sets of Babushka dolls as gifts, plus a charming Russian Egg Christmas ornament for ourselves. We ended the day aboard ship, and after a lovely dinner and show, we went to bed hoping for a better day two in St. Petersburg.

At 8:30 the next morning we got on the bus and were immediately relieved that our tour guide was not the same one as the day before. This one was pleasant, confident and informative – she even knew how to smile! Traffic was terrible once again, but we made it to our first stop at Peterhof, the summer palace complex of Peter the Great. We waited in line for an hour before entering the Grand Palace through its formal gardens. Although the front exterior was not as elaborate as Catherine’s Palace, the interior was equally lavish starting with the ornate ceremonial staircase followed by room after room of rich colors, intricate parquet floors, painted ceilings, fine silk wall coverings, gilded statues and massive portraits of the royal families of Russia.

The gardens behind the complex were amazing, with upper and lower fountains adorning the landscape between the palace and the Baltic Sea. It is the largest network of gravity-fed water fountains in the world. We ended our tour of Peterhof with a walk from the prominent center fountain, called the Grand Cascade, along a canal that flowed through the gardens to a pier where a hydrofoil took us back to St. Petersburg.

We enjoyed our jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Neva River. Approaching St. Petersburg by water gave us a new appreciation for the beauty of the buildings on the waterfront. The Hermitage, for instance, was dazzling from a distance!  After a nice lunch at the City Café, we hopped back on the bus for a drive by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the battleship Aurora, and the Rostral Columns before stopping at the most gorgeous sight in St. Petersburg—The Church on the Spilled Blood!

The church was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the gruesome name). Both the exterior, designed in the traditional Russian onion-dome style, and the interior are decorated with bright shades of marble and detailed mosaic tiles. According to restorers, it contains several thousand square yards of mosaics – more than any other church in the world. The church was closed in the 1930s when the atheist Soviets, who were offended by religion, began destroying churches all over the country for being “inappropriate symbols of Christianity”. The church remained closed and under restoration for years and was finally re-opened in 1997, not as a place of worship, but as a Museum of Mosaics. The pictures we took of this church are some of my favorite travel photos!

It’s hard to comprehend the damage the city has endured from various disasters including fires, floods and wars, especially the cruel Nazi occupation of WW II, but all the sites we toured have been restored to their original glory. Architecturally, the city ranks as one of the most splendid in Europe. The historic district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. While I didn’t find St. Petersburg to be a particularly congenial city, clearly there is a fondness for art, opulence and beauty here. With construction and/or re-construction continuing everywhere you look, it will one day be even more magnificent than the current city scene!

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Other City Scene posts:

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Auckland

There are many reasons why I think Auckland, New Zealand is a delightful city. It is picturesque, vibrant and friendly; and it’s geologically fascinating as well, since it has two large harbors and was built on a large volcanic field. It is also where we met up with our brother-in-law and his new wife to begin a cruise around Australia and New Zealand together. They proved to be the perfect travel partners – pleasant and laid back – just like Auckland!

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We arrived at The Rendezvous Grand, a beautiful hotel superbly located in the cosmopolitan center of Auckland and within easy walking distance to numerous city landmarks. Our companions had arrived a day before us, but on the afternoon of January 3rd they were waiting in the hotel lounge where they welcomed us with a drink and a toast… cheers to a wonderful trip ahead!

The four of us spent the late afternoon and evening walking up Hobson Street, passed St. Matthew-in-the-City, around the Sky Tower Complex, and back down Queens Street jammed with shopping, art and nightlife. Along the way we found Federal Street, one of Auckland’s newer foodie precincts for dinner at an open-air restaurant, complete with friendly birds who were loitering at the table next to ours, no doubt hoping for food. It was a perfect evening to be outside, quite unlike the winter weather we left back home.

The next day we were rested and anxious to see the city. The first order of business was to book our Auckland City Express Tour. Lucky for us, a bus was scheduled to depart just as we walked to the counter for tickets. Better yet, we were the only ones there. Timing is everything! It turned out to be a private 3-hour tour showcasing the highlights of what makes Auckland so special. From the many volcanoes, working farms and gorgeous gardens, plus learning about the Maori culture and history along the way, it was the best possible Kiwi experience.

On the tour, we visited Bastion point where the harbor views were stunning, drove past the glamorous houses on Paratai Drive, and stopped at Mt. Eden, the highest volcano in Auckland. This, and the 48 other individual volcanoes that surround the city, are all considered extinct although the volcanic field itself is merely dormant. We drove through Parnell Village to visit the historic Holy Trinity Church, and over the Harbor Bridge for a view of the Waitemata Harbor and to learn a bit of maritime history at the Viaduct.

We stopped at One Tree Hill to see a working farm on our way to the Auckland Domain. The Auckland Domain is the city’s oldest park where the explosion crater and most of the surrounding tuff-rings of the Pukekawa volcano can still be seen. I found it wondrously beautiful considering how destructive it once was!

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After the tour, we stopped briefly at the hotel for our city maps, then headed off on foot to the Sky Tower. The iconic Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and offers breathtaking views for up to 80 kilometers in every direction. As we walked around the observation deck, we spotted our hotel and our ship among the many amazing sights below and beyond.

Back down on solid ground, it was a short walk to Albert Park, home to some of the most majestic and distinctive trees I’ve ever seen.  On one corner of the park is the Auckland City Art Gallery and Gardens, and on the other is the original park-keeper’s cottage, now a museum. The park has earned a special place in the hearts of Aucklanders and visitors alike.

By mid-afternoon, we met back up with our travel partners who had opted to tour outside the city that day. We headed to Princes Wharf where cruise ships dock at the Viaduct Harbor. Checking in at the ship was quick and easy, so we returned to the pier to explore the area before embarkation. The harbor was full of handsome yachts, including those used in the America’s Cup race. We saw the KZ 1, a sailing yacht used to challenge for the 1988 America’s Cup, now on display near the National Maritime Museum. We toyed with the idea of having a nice, cold beer at The Ice House we passed, but we didn’t have enough time to warrant the cost, so we stopped at a cozy little bar next door and toasted once again to the cruise ahead.

We sailed away from Auckland at sunset just as a golden glow spread over the city. The sky was soon glazed in shades of orange; and with the Sky Tower and Mt. Eden in the background… it was the perfect final image of this City Scene.

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