Day 2 of Russian Marathon
For day 2, immigration was much easier. Our passports had already been stamped for the two days we were in St. Petersburg, so all the immigration officials had to do was check the passport stamps that were lined up right next to each other on the last page of your passport. Easy!
Our trip this morning was to head to Peterhof Palace & Gardens. Our guide wanted to get us there as early as possible so that her little “army” could be one of the first groups to enter the palace. When the van dropped us off, she told us not to stop for pictures – we would get the opportunity to do this later. Instead, she led us in getting our morning dose of “Russian exercise”, by getting us to walk very quickly to the entrance to Peterhof. And, it worked as we entered, got our special “booties” on, and became the second group to tour the palace. Again, like Catherine’s Palace, everything was “over the top.” We also learned a lot about how much damage was done to the palace during the Second World War – and how much had to be restored in order for us to see the beauty of this building.
We then got to see the gardens. The main fountain that lead to the Grand Canal was based on the gardens at Versailles, however there are some major differences, the biggest being that all the statues around the fountains are covered in gold-leaf and the grand canal opens up in to the Baltic Sea, making this one way to come to the palace from St. Petersburg. Also, the fountains are powered through a system of gravity – no electricity. We were still a little early, so the fountains were not on yet, so we got to see more of the gardens. These gardens were made for pleasure and for surprises.
There are several little buildings, each for a specific purpose. One was a “pleasure house” where you could have a romantic rendezvous. The servants would not know who was there, yet meals would be “raised’ to the “pleasure room” when called for by those using this building. There were also some trick fountains – a little gazebo or a bench that, if you did not know the secret, you would step on the stones and get splashed by the fountain – or you could walk safely and sit on the bench or in the gazebo and then be hidden from prying eyes. There was also a building that was used to house Catherine before she finally ceased the throne and locked up this “prison” that held her. And, because the grand canal opened to the sea, there was a pier on the Baltic.
The true magic came with the fountains were turned on and started to dance. Sparkling water cascading from golden statues and tumbling down the steps into a pool – it was an overwhelming and glorious sight! As we left Peterhof, we did get the take the final pictures that our guide promised us – our last look at this amazing building.
We then headed back to St. Petersburg and for our next adventure – taking a ride on the subway. Now, if you live in a big city and ride on a subway daily, like I do, this may not seem to be a “highlight”, however the subways in St. Petersburg, the subway is a magnificent example of the Soviet building and propaganda. The subways are vast museums with sculptures that celebrate the workers, the army and the heroes of WWII. They are very deep because they run below the rivers and canals that crisscross St. Petersburg, and I am very glad that we were able to add this experience to the day. Even the escalator was interesting, as it was one of the longest and fastest I’ve ever been on. I’m sure the locals on the trains were wondering why the silly people would want to partake in something they do every day – but truly it was a fascinating experience.
Getting back into the van, I had to move everything I’d left on the van so I could take the subway. As with all subways, pickpockets are prevalent. However, as I tried to arrange my seat, my pocket camera slipped off my wrist and I heard it hit the floor of the van. I tried looking for it, but it was not under my seat – at least where I could see. So, I had a bit of a panic as this meant I would have no pictures of the subway!
Our next stop was a noble family’s palace, the Yusupov Palace. There are a couple reasons this is an important palace to visit. One is that this was the home of one of the four conspirators that lured Rasputin to his death and the place where he came and was ultimately shot in the alley outside. Second, it had a theatre where they still do performances by music and dance troupes.
Next, we went to a traditional Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nickolas. This was an active church that remained active even during the Soviet Regime. Our guide’s father had been baptised in this church. She explained more about the iconography that is an important part of the church and some of the traditional ways to properly enter and worship. There was a service going on while we were there.
By now, it was past time for lunch. We opted for another traditional and local option. In addition to the “pies” that we had on the menu the day before, we also had “Russian ravioli” which I would describe more like perogies or dumplings stuffed with meat and served with sour cream.
Our last stop was the Peter & Paul Cathedral & Fortress. This was the oldest part of St. Petersburg – the original fort used to define and defend the city. With its walls is the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for the monarchs of Russia, including all the members of the last Romanov family. It also has a resident cat.
Once we got back to the ship, there is a final place to buy Russian souvenirs: dolls, lacquer boxes, Soviet military memorabilia, etc.
Then it was back on the ship to head to our next port of call.
My final thoughts on St. Petersburg:
It is a city of dichotomies – large ornate palaces and museums, and bland, stark housing blocks. Stunning churches, yet religion is not necessarily an important aspect in everyday life, especially for young people. The subway is good, but again a few of the stations are museums in their own right. I loved the food and the vodka! The people do not seem to smile much – at least not until you get the chance to get to know them.
I highly recommend using SPB Tours. They know the city, and can navigate and easily change an itinerary based on the group’s needs and what is going on in the city. Our tour guide was amazing! Thank you, Viktoria and Catherine!