Yesterday and today, we were docked in St. Petersburg, Russia. I booked the two-day tour that covered all of the highlights of the Russian metropolis and the surrounding areas. There is nothing in the modern world that even remotely approaches today the craftsmanship, design and sheer display of of wealth, opulence and extravagance as the heritage left by Russia’s tzars. St. Petersburg has come full circle. It started as St. Petersburg, then Petrograd from 1914-1924, next Leningrad during Communism’s reign and in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it again blossomed as St. Petersburg, a thriving city growing more affluent by the day. The extreme excess on display in the former palaces and museums is strikingly juxtaposed with Soviet era concrete architecture, along with bee-hive-like apartment buildings that are massive in size.
First on our tour was a cruise on the canals and the River Neva, which Peter the Great conceived as the main thoroughfare of the city, so that it could transport people and merchandise alike. St. Peter, with its many canals snaking through the city, is referred to as the Venice of the north.
Next, we walked through Palace Square and visited the Hermitage Museum, which is the tzar’s former Winter Palace. I was absolutely blown away by the magnitude of the Hermitage, which consists of four additional buildings. The Hermitage collection rivals the Louvre, including over three million artworks, including examples from the masters, Da Vinci, Moet, Rembrandt and Renoir. It is perhaps the building itself, that actually takes away from the artwork, even in the “Gold Room,” which features such extravagant items as a horse blanket decorated with 16,000 diamonds. The marble, intricate wood floors, crystal chandeliers and thrones on display are quite literally breathtaking. One could spend a lifetime and never take it all in.
The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is restored and boasts a dramatic “Russian-style” exterior of onion domes that is often associated with St. Petersburg, through photos on travel sites, enticing visitors from around the world. The church is built upon the site of the March 1, 1881 assassination of Tzar Alexander II and is decorated with countless, tiny ceramic tiles arranged in mosaics depicting saints and religious icons and Biblical stories.
The afternoon was spend at Yussupov Palace, the site of Rasputin’s murder. The former private residence boasts an intimate theatre and, like all of the other places we visited, is simply astounding in its extravagance.
After a brief, one-hour respite aboard our ship, we headed off for the one hour drive to Pushkin, home of the Catherine Palace. Not to be outdone by her predecessors,, Catherine the Great had her own palace built in 1717. It originally was covered in solid gold until 1773, when another empress, Catherine I, had it removed in favor of olive paint. It has been torn down and rebuilt six times; growing to its current immense grandeur. Like many of the majestic sties of St. Petersburg, some of the original opulence of Catherine Palace was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. It has been undergoing reconstruction since 2003. We were treated to a private tour with classical music and dancing. Then we attended a private dinner with a Russian Folkloric show.
Day two of our St. Petersburg extravaganza began with a drive to the Peterhof Palace, know n as the “Russian Versailles.” This ornate palace overlooks the Gulf of Finland. The Grand Cascade fountain features Samson prying open a lion’s jaws as water cascades down terraced steps.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral enchanted us before lunch. The cathedral’s central gold dome is one of the largest in the world, and is covered with 220 pounds of gold. It was commissioned by Alexander I in 1818 and took more than three decades to complete. The interior featured cement columns that were covered in malachite and lapis lazuli, with a German stained glass centerpiece featuring Jesus Christ.
In the afternoon, we visited Peter and Paul Fortress, which was built to protect the city from Swedish attack. The fortress was a place for for containing political prisoners. The ornate interior now boasts the tombs of many Tzars, including Peter the Great, the giant tzar, who stood nearly seven feet tall.
Peter was a complicated figure who modernized Russia. Serfs by the tens of thousands built his city, which started with the laying of the first stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress on May 27, 1703. St. Petersburg is a complicated, melancholy, beautiful and joyous city. It is a giant portal, melting time, blending east and west. It’s a gateway into the mysteries, secrets and fabric of Russian culture. For a world traveler, St. Petersburg is simply one of the must-see experiences of a lifetime.