St Petersburg – a jewel of the north

The entrance to Catherine’s Palace

The domes above the chapel at the palace

The next stop on our Baltic cruise would be a two-day stay in St Petersburg, Russia. We watched the ship being nudged into the dock by tugs. The liner didn’t need help but I expect that was part of the port dues. Whatever. We were in and ready to disembark after clearing immigration, the stations ‘manned’ by mainly dour-looking women in uniform.

Although the Russians had loosened entry restrictions to the country, we all needed a visa, which was provided by the tour company we travelled with. Pete and I had checked out the tours available via the Norwegian Sun before we left home and had a look for a better price (and a smaller group) from local providers, so once again, we didn’t go walkabout with our fellow travellers. We were met by our guide, a pleasant young woman whose name I’ve forgotten. We’ll call her Irina. We’d booked to visit Catherine’s Palace followed by a boat trip around the canals, with lunch at a local restaurant for today. Then tomorrow a trip to the Hermitage and a shopping opportunity at Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s premier shopping strip, finishing mid-afternoon. Our guide asked if we’d like to change to the other tour, which included visits to the Peterhof Palace as well as the famous subway stations. It would have been too long a day for us, so we declined – which meant we had a private tour just for us. Our guide stressed that we should not even think about playing hooky and coming back to the ship after the visa had expired tomorrow at 2pm. We would get into trouble. And we didn’t want that.

Czar Peter the Great

Statue of Lenin outside government buildings

St Petersburg’s port is some way from the city and Catherine’s Palace is on the other side. Our driver – let’s call him Ivan – drove off, while Irina commentated. Pete took some pictures out the windows as we passed various buildings and monuments while I kind of hung on in terror. You know those video clips of Russian drivers? They’re true. Road rules are suggestions, parking is where you can fit your car (on the pavement is just fine), pushing in is the only way to change lanes. However, we arrived at Catherine’s Palace in one piece. A small band waiting for us when we alighted from the car played a few lines of ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

Catherine’s baroque summer palace is quite a pile. It’s also very popular. One nice thing about being with a group is you get to avoid the queues, especially when it’s a group of three. We walked up the stairs with Irina and put on the issued soft booties to protect the beautiful floors from tourist footwear.

The great hall reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Note booties.

Every time I go to one of these palaces it’s no surprise to me that the peasants revolted. The over-the-top opulence is breathtaking. Most of it was for show, of course, to impress other Europeans heads of state of Russia’s power and wealth, with more than a touch of anything you can do we can do better.

Gold decoration everywhere

St Petersburg, known as Leningrad after the Russian revolution, was besieged by German troops from Sept 1941 to Jan 1944 but Catherine’s Palace, which is outside the city limits at Pushkin, was under German control. The inhabitants suffered terribly in those years, with many dying of starvation and cold. Read more about the siege of Leningrad here. I have a friend whose grandfather, a young officer in the Red army, lived in the city during the siege. He wrote a dairy which his granddaughter translated into English. You’ll find The Ring of Nine here. Let me quote from a review of the book.

Treat yourself to this beautifully written amazing history of a period and a situation that most of us couldn’t imagine. Can you imagine no food or seeing frozen bodies wrapped and laying on the sidewalk outside your building in the morning or no electricity or fearing being a victim of cannibal gangs or surviving sub-zero, dark winters? He did. Be inspired by his courage. Beyond this, I am left speechless. It is a unique period in history and we are afforded a window into this nightmare by a man who lets us look in through his very human style.

When the Nazis left in 1944 they took with them priceless art and stripped all the amber from the famous amber room, then trashed and burnt the building. When the war finally ended, Josef Stalin made the restoration of Catherine’s Palace one of the country’s priority projects, perhaps a little strange for a man who was supposed to be a communist. But really the palace was a monument to Russian might and power in older times. Just as when it was built, its resurrection was a message to the Western world. “We can STILL do this.” Work still goes on here and there. Like all of these old buildings, maintenance is continuous. The amber room has been rebuilt with new amber – sorry, no photos allowed. No one knows what happened to the original cladding, another lost Nazi looted treasure.

Before and after photos showing the extent of Nazi damage

On a side note, while we in the West see WWII as being between 1939 and 1945, the Russian monuments to the fallen all had 1941 – 1945, 1941 being the year the Nazis attacked Russia. That meant they didn’t include Soviet attacks on Finland and Poland in 1939.

And on another side note, the city is not named after Peter the Great. Czar Peter was a very religious man and he named the city after Saint Peter.

But back to Catherine’s amazing palace.

A mannequin modelling one of Catherine’s formal gowns (must weigh a ton). Note that tiled stove in the corner. Peter came across this manner of heating rooms in the Netherlands. Yes, that’s Delft blue.

We walked through room after room filled with gold, fine porcelain, priceless paintings, gold-framed mirrors, parquetry floors, painted ceilings. Inside the building there are no closed-off passages with doors opening into the rooms. In those days, personal privacy wasn’t really a thing.

Crowds held back

A dining room setting

The ornate garden designed to be seen from above

Then it was back into town. Irina took us to a restaurant in the city for a typical Russian lunch of borscht and bread before we went on our boat trip around St Petersburg’s canals.

Riding the canals

St Petersburg isn’t a city where everybody speaks English. Our commentary on the boat was delivered via the little oval MP3 players popular in 2011. The boat’s speed was carefully controlled to match the narration. Except mine was a bit off because I pressed a wrong button somewhere. I can imagine the Russian crewman rolling his eyes at the daft old Australian after he fixed it for me. Never mind. I managed to compensate by looking back at what we’d passed.

The admiralty buildings and the Hermitage from the river

Superficially it’s a bit like Venice, drifting past rows of opulent upper-class mansions but unlike Venice there are parks and gardens, too. We caught a glimpse of the colourful onion domes of the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood through the trees and passed by Czar Peter’s own modest Dacha.

Cathedral of the spilled blood

Peter the Great’s modest summer palace, a stark contrast to Catherine’s version

The fortress of St Peter and St Paul

Out on the River Neva, with the wind as cold as we were warned it would be, we had a great view of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul on Hare Island in the Neva River. Peter the Great imprisoned his son Alexei there after he was found guilty of plotting against his father. Peter apparently despised his son as explained in this article from Russia Beyond. It’s worth your time just to look at the pictures.

Tomorrow we would be off to visit the world-renowned Hermitage museum, which we’d seen from our boat.