The highlight of our recent cruise dubbed, The Ultimate Scandinavia and Russia Cruise, had us spending three nights in historic St. Petersburg. Most lines offer just one or two nights which really doesn’t allow for enough time to see the major sites. Thank you Royal Caribbean for offering this wonderful cruise!______________________________________________________________
In two days, with tours lasting more than 10 hour each day, we visited four, major sites and made brief stops at a few minor sites. St. Petersburg is Russia’s cultural capital. It’s a city celebrated for its art, dance and music. While many of the more historic sites were beautifully preserved, we saw a number of buildings there that appeared to be almost crumbling. As we passed through the city on route to our destinations, I noticed something else – no one here ever smiles. Granted, this is a big city and as city’s go, they tend to be a little more rushed and impersonal than say a medium sized town. But even in New York people are more animated than here. Whether they were alone, on the phone, or talking with others, there was never a smile. Never. Nada. Zip.
Day one begin with a visit to Catherine’s Palace located just outside of St. Petersburg in
nearby Pushkin. This quickly became my favorite. This was the summer residence of Russian tsars. It was named after Catherine the first, wife of Peter the Great, who ruled the nation for two years after her husband’s death. The Palace was completed in 1756 and following a number of renovations over the years, remains as spectacular as the day is was finished.
We stopped for lunch at a place where we got a typical Russian meal. To my chagrin, there were no beets. I was a little surprised that in addition to heavy soups and gravy laden meats; we got small portions of caviar and vodka. To the delight of a British woman sitting next to me, I don’t drink, so she inherited my vodka and that of most of the others at our giant table. I got her caviar.
After lunch, we were off to The Peter and Paul Cathedral. This breathtaking structure was built in Baroque style, a radical departure from traditional orthodox churches. While the architecture of this church is remarkable, the major attraction here are the graves of most of the Romanov rulers, starting with Peter the Great. The walls of the Cathedral are embellished with paintings featuring various bible scenes from the mid-18th century. The church was completed in the early 1700’s.
The following morning, we headed to Peterhof Palace, commonly referred to as the
Russian Versailles. While we were allowed to take photos without flash at the other sites, we were not permitted to do so in this one. From memory, the inside was as spectacular as the others, but what makes this place special are the fabulous gardens and fountains. Every day at around 11 a.m., the fountains are turned on. Thousands of visitors gather to witness the stunning display. While the fountains are striking, the gardens are amazing with or without the fountains.
Our final stop was what I hoped would be the highlight of the two days of touring. Instead, the Hermitage was a huge disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. It was as exquisite as any of the other buildings we saw here, but there were lots of reasons it ranked at the bottom of my list. I have visited the major museums of the world: The National Gallery in London; the Louve in Paris; the Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I was excited to be able to cross the Hermitage off my bucket list.
I thought it was very odd that we were permitted to take pictures here, so long as we did not use flash. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a museum that allowed you to so much as carry a camera.
There were space problems here. I don’t think they ever said no to someone purchasing a
ticket. The place was packed, so much so that it was easy to lose your group and difficult to see art in any given room. In rooms where there was lesser known art you might actually get close enough to at least get a peek. But in most rooms, it was nothing to have hundreds of people pushing and shoving to try to get a glimpse of the paintings.
The place was boiling hot. It was a warm day and the Hermitage had no air conditioning. Not only did you have people getting sick from the heat, I had to wonder how these paintings managed to hold up in these conditions.
There were people rubbing their hands on paintings – the ultimate no-no as the oils in your hands break down the paint. Yes. There were a few people who used flash. Now normally I would take their camera away myself, but it didn’t matter here. Why? Because they had these huge picture windows that let plenty of light in every room, so much so that
photos I took without flash had huge hotspots on them from the sunlight pouring in.
We spent three, long, disappointing hours here. While I am thrilled to have seen the Hermitage, I was sorry to have seen it under these conditions.