Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Even though I've been back in America and preparing to leave for Costa Rica since Sunday, I somehow haven't managed to get even halfway through my cruise postings. So, here goes.

On Saturday, 9 August, we docked at Saint Petersburg, Russia. Saint Petersburg was the turn-around and halfway point of our cruise, and we spent two days there instead of the usual one. Unfortunately, no one in my family realized that we would need Russian tourist visas to explore the city on our own until about a week before I left for Tanzania. Because you have to mail off your passport to get a visa, it was a no-go for me, and luckily my loving family decided not to desert me. Since we didn't have visas, we had to stay on cruise-sponsored tours/events the entire time we were there. We went on three tours the first day and two the second.

Saturday, 9 August

On Saturday morning, we took a tour of the State Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage is, according to our guide, the second-largest art museum in the world (rivaled only by the Louvre in Paris). The Hermitage collections include over three million works of art, and its six buildings include the former residence of the Russian Czars, the Winter Palace. My favorite part of our tour was the Golden Rooms, which house items, figurines, and jewelry from as early as 4000 B.C. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the Golden Rooms, which made me pretty sad. Some notable paintings we saw were Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son" and "Old Man in Red" and El Greco's "Saint Bernard."

^The line outside of the Hermitage as we were leaving.

That afternoon, we took a tour of the Russian Museum and then the Church on Spilled Blood. The Russian Museum is essentially a large collection of Russian art, and it provided a great context for lots of history lessons from our guide. The Church on Spilled Blood was probably my favorite building of all that we visited on the cruise (!!). Its construction was completed in 1907, on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is certainly eye-catching from the outside, but its interior is what I found most intriguing. Pretty much every inch of the interior is covered with beautiful, colorful mosaics... see the pictures.

^Church on Spilled Blood, from the outside.

^Church on Spilled Blood from the inside - everything is mosaic.

^A little piece of the interior up close.

Finally, on Saturday evening, we returned to the Hermitage for a private ballet just for our cruise tour in the Hermitage Theatre. It included excerpts from various ballets such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and it was an absolutely beautiful performance - especially from the second-row seats that my family managed to grab.

^Ballet at the Hermitage theatre.

Sunday, 10 August

After returning to the ship for the night, my dad and I went on a walking tour the next morning. Because of the lack-of-visas situation, this was really our only chance to walk around the city and feel like we had actually been there, so I was really glad we got to have the experience. It was a rare beautiful, sunny morning, and we walked along and near the Neva River for about three hours. Among the sights we saw were the Peter the Great monument, Senate building, Building of the Ministries, General Headquarters Building, Royal Stables, and Michael's Park.

Our last tour in Saint Petersburg was that afternoon, before the ship left at 6 PM. For this, my dad arranged a private tour for our family. First, we stopped at St. Nicholas's Church, which is a famous Russian orthodox church. It is customary for women to cover their heads when entering a Russian orthodox church, and I was glad to have grabbed one of my African scarves on the way out that morning. Our next stop was St. Isaac's Cathedral, which is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The most striking difference between the Russian cathedrals we saw and other European cathedrals I have seen in the past was that there are no pews in the Russian ones. Worshipers - even royalty and the elderly - are expected to stand during services as a gesture of respect. After leaving St. Isaac's Cathedral, we visited Peter and Paul's Fortress. We stood at the burial sites of Peter the Great, Catherine I & II [the Great], Paul I, Elizabeth, etc etc - pretty much all the Russian czars who were buried were buried at Peter and Paul's Fortress.

^Tomb of Peter the Great. He's actually buried in the ground, underneath the empty coffin.

All in all, our visit to Saint Petersburg was a wonderful and memorable one. Although it is generally known as an unhappy place, our guide told us that the people of Saint Petersburg are currently experiencing a generally very happy time. This was evidenced by the ridiculous number of wedding couples we saw while we were there - at one point, we saw about six wedding couples and wedding parties standing on the same bridge trying to take pictures at the same time.

^How many wedding couples can you find?

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