St. Petersburg - first morning

Trip Start May 20, 2011
Trip End Jun 06, 2011

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Saturday, May 28, 2011

We arrived in St. Petersburg about 6:30am to a soggy morning. The cruise port is very modern and there were at least 4 other cruise ships in port, one arriving at the same time as us and another shortly after. We disembarked at 8am, being cleared through immigration for the first time on the trip. At all other ports we just walked off the ship but in Russia you must go through a more formal process, filling out a landing card and then being inspected by a rather dour customs lady.

We met the rest of our tour group at the terminal and set off for the day.  It was overcast and drizzly as we started the day but the weather improved as the day progressed.  We were a group of 5; us, 2 Brits and 1 Australian, with Julia our guide and Slava the driver in an 11 passenger mini-van so we had lots of room.  It turned out to be a good thing we had a small vehicle because it made it easier to get around town and close to our destinations.  This proved to be a challenge today as it happened to be the anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, so there were a number of special events on and associated road closures.   Several detours were required throughout the day but Slava managed to deliver us to the various sites in spite of this.

We started the day with a visit to several cathedrals.  The first, St. Nicholas Cathedral, was the only one we visited that still functions as a church, the others being primarily museums at this point.  Because it was a functioning church no photography was allowed inside.  The exterior of the cathedral is very attractive, robin's egg blue with white trim and topped with gold cupolas.  There is an associated matching bell tower.  The interior of the cathedral was quite dark but warm.

From there we drove into the center of town, past several palaces including the Yusupov Palace, infamous for  being the place where Rasputin was killed (which took a number of attempts to accomplish).   We stopped in St. Isaac's Square by the Nicholas I monument across a square from St. Isaac's Cathedral, which we would tour later. The monument to Nicholas I, riding a horse, dominates the square.  Around the base of the statue are reliefs commemorating key events during his reign.  Directly across the square from the cathedral is the Marinsky Palace, also called Marie Palace, originally built by Nicholas I for his daughter.

We then drove across to Vasilevski Island and along the Neva River past a number of impressive buildings.  We stopped in front of the Academy of Sciences where there are two large sphinxes in front of the building on the riverbank.  Across the river was the Winter Palace and the other buildings of the Hermitage Museum which we would visit in the afternoon.

At the tip of the island is Vasilevski Spit where there are two large columns, the Rostral Columns, which commemorate naval victories.  The columns feature statues at the bases representing the major rivers of Russia, and pairs of prows of ships on the columns themselves.  The columns were originally built as light-houses and later in the day there were flames at the top of each column as part of the city anniversary celebrations. Across the street from the columns is a building in the Greek Revival style.  It was originally the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange and is currently a Naval Museum.  Mounted above the portico is a statue featuring Neptune. 

We proceeded to Peter and Paul Fortress which was the first settlement in St. Petersburg and was built to defend the city.  Within the fortress are a number of buildings including the Cathedral of the Apostles Peter and Paul which features a very tall slender spire.  That was our next tour stop.

Inside the cathedral are the tombs of many of the czars, including both Catherine the Great and Peter the Great.  The last Czar Nicholas, along with his wife Alexandra, were re-interred in a side chapel in 1998.  It was difficult keeping all of the royals sorted out, but it seems that killing off or usurping of relatives was popular.  Sons killed fathers, wives usurped husband …  After touring the cathedral we were ushered into a small side chapel and treated to some medieval singing by a group of monks from the cathedral.

We were then loaded back into the van and driven to our morning rest stop for tea and/,or something stronger, a bio-break, and the opportunity to purchase a fine selection of tacky souvenirs. We resisted the temptation to buy Britney Spears nesting dolls. 

On then to yet another cathedral, the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood as it is built on the spot where Czar Nicholas II was assassinated.  It looks much like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, with the colorful onion-shape domes.  It is primarily famous for its mosaics which pretty much cover the entire interior.  It had been heavily damaged during WWII and then used as a warehouse during communist rule, but has since been restored to its former glory.

Our final morning stop was at St. Isaac's Cathedral, which we had passed by earlier.  Getting there proved to be a challenge for our driver as by then they were closing some roads.  However he managed to get us right to the front door.  This was certainly the grandest cathedral of them all, rivaling St. Paul’s in London for size, with huge pillars all around the outside and an enormous dome.  Like all of the others other than St. Nicholas it was now a museum, although it had a chapel that was still used for religious services.  It too had suffered extensive damage during the war and has subsequently been restored.

We rejoined our driver outside the cathedral and headed off to lunch, passing Senate Square in front of the cathedral, passing The Bronze Horseman, a large statue of Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg.  The statue is considered one of the main symbols of the city.  It sits on a stone called the Thunder Stone, which weighs some 1500 tonnes and is considered to be the largest stone ever moved by man.

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