The Celebrity Constellation finally docked in St. Petersburg. I wasn’t really surprised at how early we docked. According to the schedule, we should be able to disembark the ship at 7 AM; however given what we would have to go through at immigration, I figured the ship would have a lot of paperwork as well.
Also, because everyone would be trying to head off the ship at 7 (or close to 7) there was an “express breakfast” being service in the main dining room, in addition to the buffet. I figured the buffet was going to be a real nightmare, so I thought I would try the express. Not sure what I was expecting, but it was not the “express” I thought. Basically, it was one menu that included scrambled eggs, bacon sausage, toast, juice and coffee. Should be fast, right? Well, we still had a bit of a wait but at least there was none of the frantic mad dash that would be happening at the breakfast buffet. With breakfast done, it was time to try to get off the ship.
To get into Russia still takes Visas that can be very expensive and take at least 3 months to obtain. The easier option is to arrange a tour. If you opt to take one of the many offerings of the ship, that is taken care of for you. If you opt to arrange a more private tour, the tour company should also arrange for this as part of the package. Again, working with members of our Cruise Critic Roll Call, several vans were arranged with SPB Tours. This is an amazing organization and I highly recommend this tour company. Viktoria and her staff did everything to make this an experience to remember. They even told us what documentation we needed to have to get off the ship – and that we should be allowed off the ship at the same time as the ship’s tours.
Well, there was some sort of a delay and I’m not sure why but we finally got off the ship and headed to immigration. And here was our second delay. If seemed that, if we were on private tours, there were only 3 immigration lines opened – the rest were “dedicated” to the ship’s tour. Now, I could be wrong about this, however there seemed to be two streams of people going through the doors.
Russian immigration is an interesting thing. You can almost time it. It takes 60 seconds to process each person. You stand behind the yellow line until the green light indicates you can go forward to the booth where a lady that does not smile looks at your passport, immigration form, tour tickets and tour confirmation. She then takes half of the form and stamps your passport on the last page, preferably at the top corner – precisely at the top corner. Then the gate opens and you are in Russia.
SPB tour agents met us at the front doors of immigration and we were given our vans and tour guides, I was in Catherine’s group and our driver was Andrew. There were 16 people in our van – a perfect size for a tour group. Catherine has been leading tours for 13 years. She studied linguistics and knew more about the English language than most English speakers. She also had a connection to Toronto, as she was the translator that assisted a Toronto architect who designed the new opera house in St. Petersburg. And she was amazing!
Our first stop was to see the sphinxes that adorn one of the bridges in St. Petersburg – and to put our hands in the mouth of the griffon so that we would have good luck on our journeys in Russia. I love traditions like this, but trying to get a picture of the griffon without people I did not know was a challenge!
Next, we drove to Palace Square and St. Nickolas Cathedral which we going to be the site for a celebration for the 310th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. From there, it is a short drive to the Hermitage Museum. It was, of course, packed (however if you have faced the crowds in the Louvre, it is similar). The building itself is truly over the top. This was used a palace – actually there are 5 buildings or palaces that make up the Hermitage and somehow we made it through 4 of them!
This is also where we learned the depth of our tour guide Catherine’s knowledge. Not only did she know the history, but she was also well-versed in art and art history. She also asked us where we would like to spend more time – with the Italian Masters or Impressionists. I was very happy that the group opted for the Impressionists (always my favorite). This did not; however stop her from showing us some of the highlights of the Italians. On our way to the Impressionists gallery, I noticed a painting that seemed to be tucked away in a corner. Something about that light made me stop and examine the description – a Caravaggio! After my first trip to Malta and seeing Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John in the Co-Cathedral, I’ve been fascinated by his work (thanks again to another excellent tour guide who had a special love of Caravaggio’s work).
But back to the Impressionists! I was very happy and the Gaugin and Matisse pieces were especially nice to see.
Since this was my first museum in Russia, it was also my first experience with the “Russian grandmothers” – the elderly ladies who sit quietly in the rooms until you do something stupid, like use flash cameras or try to touch something. They reminded me a lot of the Greek grandmothers I upset so much in Athens (I guess putting a stuffed monkey on a statue to take a picture is not appropriate). Let’s just say I did not upset any grandmothers on this trip!
Next, we headed to the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Spilt Blood. This is an over-the-top Russian Orthodox Church and was painstakingly reconstructed after WWII. Catherine’s grandfather actually worked on some of the mosaics, so we got to get a personal insight into this. It is an amazing building, both inside and out.
Lunch was at a local restaurant where we could get Russian “pies” (she called them perogies, but they were different from the Slavic ones I’m used to). They were more like pastry with some sort of stuffing – meat, chicken, mushroom, apple, etc. This was a place where locals would go for lunch, so it was fun to order from the counter. I tried a meat pie, which was delicious.
We next drove out of Petersburg to the town of Pushkin. This was the home of my palace (oops excuse me) Catherine’s Palace. In order to tour the building, we had to put the stylish booties over our shoes. Our tour guide said it was really to help polish the floors (I think I’ll get some of the booties for my cats and see if it helps clean my floors!). Once we were all “boot-ied”, it was time to see this beautifully restored palace. Room after room was more impressive than the next. Dining rooms were set with china, silks covered the walls, ornate furniture and carvings filled the rooms. Then we got to a room that strictly forbid ANY pictures. This was the infamous Amber Room. All I can say is WOW! To all my amber aficionado-friends, you would never want to leave. (I wonder if there is a garnet room somewhere for me?) We then walked through the gardens, after depositing our special booties, of course. I wish the weather was a little better as it was rainy and a bit cold, but I loved the lushness ad green of these gardens. As we left, there was a man playing a flute – it created a fitting atmosphere for the afternoon walk in the gardens.
Our last stop of the day was to a Russian gift shop before more driving through the city on our way back to the ship.
My evening was topped off with vodka and a performance by a Russian troupe.
That was a long day – and there is still more. The last thing I noticed is that even with 18 hours of daylight, once the sun was down, it was still “light” outside. It never got dark. I think I kind of understand what is meant by Russian White Nights.