Aboard the Seabourn cruise ship Ovation, I stepped into the golden glitz and glamour that is St. Petersburg, Russia, today. The first thing I saw as the ship pulled into the harbor was an enormous phallic-shaped building. I later came to find out that it is the tallest building in Europe, the Lakhta Center, reaching over 1500 feet high and 86 floors. It’s a mixed-use building which will eventually house a restaurant, offices, sports and science centers, etc. Scott immediately started referring to it as ” Putin’s D#&k.” It was this “torpedo” that greeted me each morning when I opened the blinds from my seaside bedroom.
My three days in Russia were packed with sightseeing in order to fit in all the palaces, museums, and major sites within the city center. I hired a private guide (and driver) who answered all my questions in complete honesty and who helped to educate me far beyond my stereotypical view of Russia that I had acquired from primarily watching cartoons, TV shows, and reading spy books.
I learned from our guide that following the 1917 revolution, the cities name was changed to Petrograd, then Leningrad, and eventually back to St. Petersburg in 1991. The city was patterned after the canals of Venice, the grand boulevards of Paris, and Peter The Great’s love of architecture and art. Russians from St. Petersburg frequently travel outside the country and enjoy vacations all throughout Europe.
While the Russian educational system is top-notch, our tour guide chooses to have her 2 children attend school in Cyprus, where her parents live. She has a busy schedule and occasionally travels for work outside the city to guide tourists she has previously met. She is an avid ballet aficionado and attends performances every evening, as that is her passion. She was quite candid in her opinions about Russia, Putin, medical care, etc., and we were pleasantly surprised and at ease in asking our questions.
The architecture in St. Petersburg was remarkably preserved, for a city founded in 1703. Baroque style abounds (The Hermitage), with “age of antiquity” features such as columns, statuary, and golden grandeur on display. The eighteenth-century Russians believed that the more gold one was surrounded by within a room, the closer to God one would become. I think this fellow feels the same way.
I ran into him while touring the Hermitage, along with thousands of other tourists. Many of the tourists from China had illegal group tickets, and their group leaders had conveniently bribed their way through the entrance doors. We shuffled our way together through room after room of the most flamboyantly designed palace rooms I could have imagined. It was spectacular in a gold, glittering, Trumpian, Vegasy, style! My mind was blown, as I journeyed on room after room, palace after palace.
Next stop was the Faberge museum, home to the world’s largest collection of works by Carl Fabergé, including nine of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs, regarded as the finest jeweled works of art in the world. The museum is located in the Shuvalov Palace on the Fontanka River, one of the many canals and waterways winding through St. Petersburg. The first Fabergé egg was crafted for Tsar Alexander III, who had decided to give his wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, an Easter egg in 1885, possibly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their betrothal. As I pressed my nose up to each and every glass box housing a jeweled egg (along with the hordes of other tourists), I admired their attention to detail and their whimsy. “Surprises” (also jeweled) were hidden inside each egg. Personally, I would have rather WORN the jewels than received them in an egg that sat on my shelf….but I guess if you already have all the jewel crowns and adorned jewelry, an egg is next in line? There were only 50 eggs produced by Faberge, and today just 43 remain. If you wanted to buy one of these 43, it could cost you up to 20 million dollars.
Ready for our first Russian lunch, we stopped into a popular local restaurant which just happened to sell colored vodka from a cart on the street. Indoors, the dining room was quaint and cozy with draped booths and carved wood upholstered banquets. I ordered a chicken salad, and received a mound of egg, celery, mayonnaise with a chicken thigh on top. Thus began my education on Russian cuisine.
The next day, we ventured off to some more palaces, this time by Hydrofoil. After a 30-minute high-speed cruise along the water, we arrived at the summer residences of Russian Tzars Pushkin and Peterhof (Peter The Great). Approaching the Peterhof is like approaching Versailles, walking through a long garden of shooting water fountains featuring over 150 golden statues of gods and heroes. Once I got to enter the palace, the baroque interiors impressed me just like at the Hermitage. The white, red, and gold decor of the Audience Hall was stifling (along with the crowds).
Todays lunch was another lesson in more casual Russian fare. We sampled a sort of “mashed potato pizza,” some beef stroganoff, and some dumplings with sour cream. I was really starting to crave lettuce and fresh raw vegetables.
Next stop was Pushkin for Catherine’s Palace, home of Catherine The Great, built in 1717 in Rococo design. The spectacular sight to see at this palace is the “Amber Room,” which actually disappeared during WWII. It has been recreated and is known as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Supposedly, it’s a room made out of amber. I must write “supposedly” because as I was in line to get into the palace, a fistfight broke out between two male tourists who couldn’t fit through a small doorway, and all hell broke loose! At that point, my friends and I turned around and decided to “skip” this palace. On our way out, there were over 8000 people still lined up. Here is what that room “supposedly” looks like:
The rest of the day was spent sightseeing around town and getting a feel for the city streets and neighborhood.
Our final day was spent going to churches and seeing some shops, along with a boat ride down the river. I was a bit “under the weather” so I stayed on board our ship. I happened to mention to Scott that if he stumbled across a fur shop, I’d love a fur coat! Guess what happened at dinner that night?
- Mink Mittens
- Russian Fur Coat
I left Russia with the feeling that it’s a much more open, friendly environment than I had assumed. It’s more European than I had anticipated, and most people I spoke with wanted to be accepted and understood for who they authentically were, not for some stereotype that had been placed upon them. Culturally, there were many similarities and of course, many differences. That’s the exciting part of traveling….even if you do get some wacky food every once in a while. Nostrovia! (Cheers!)