In many respects, I think
But the sheer opulence of the churches, palaces, and galleries, combined with the overall layout of the city with its canals, river, and decorative buildings, was very impressive. You have to see the Church of the Spilt Blood. The interior contains 7,000 sq.m. of magnificent mosaics, and yet for years it was used to store potatoes and other goods.
We spent four nights: three on the ship, and one at the Hotel Saint Petersburg, a large Soviet-era property overlooking the river. Our room was noteworthy for its fire safety equipment. In addition to sprinklers and smoke alarms, we found a fire emergency kit with gas masks and other equipment. It was a bit unnerving.
On our first day, following a brief drive around the city, we were given a guided tour of the Hermitage. Although I had seen an exhibition of some of the works in
In the afternoon, we went to Peterhof, one of the summer palaces outside of the city. It is known for its very spectacular gardens and fountains that amazingly operate without any pumps. (I thought this would be a good idea for UniverCity, until I learned that it requires a system of reservoirs and locks to create the required pressure. We would have to take down all the buildings to have enough room.) We arrived by tour bus; but when you go, take the sputnik era looking hovercraft from the city centre.
The next day we visited Catherine's Palace in the nearby town of
We also spent an hour at a museum that housed, amongst other things, Peter's personal collection of curiosities. From all accounts, he was a truly remarkable man with very interesting hobbies. He liked to practice dentistry and some of the diseased teeth he extracted are on display. He was also interested in medicine and enjoyed attending autopsies. He was fascinated by birth defects, and collected specimens in jars. The display included row upon row of deformed Siamese twins.
Our evenings were most varied. The first night, we left the ship at 12:30 am on a tour bus to watch the drawbridges being raised about town. This has become a tourist attraction, not unlike driving around
Another evening was spent at the ballet, since I was feeling somewhat guilty about missing the Bolshoi in
That night, we returned to the ship by subway. SP has a very impressive system. While the stations aren't as attractive as those in
There is also an extensive tram system. We were advised to avoid it, but did try it once. We got very lost, and traveling in the cars made us feel like we were back in the Soviet era. They could not have been more basic with dull, worn seats, and an equally dull and worn ticket seller. Every once in a while, the lady conductor stopped the train, and got off with a beaten up metal rod to switch the tracks.
At the same time, around the city, new apartment developments are being constructed that could be in any major North American city. There are also new shopping malls that could be on the outskirts of
After four days we were both ready to leave. SP is one of the great cities of the world, but it was challenging to be a tourist. Few people speak English, and many Russians seemed cold and difficult, especially when compared to most of the people we have met on this trip. Just buying a subway ticket could be an unpleasant experience! Attendants certainly didn’t go out of their way to make us feel welcome. I read in a guide book that Russians tend not to smile since they regard people who smile a lot as idiots. Maybe that was our problem!
While we were ready to leave, we have already decided that we would like to come back in about 10 years. By this time, even more buildings will have been restored, and the tourist infrastructure will likely be vastly improved. But I recommend that you not wait that long.
Now as for the cruise, Sally and I are split on whether to recommend it or not. While it was not as enjoyable as other cruises taken on the Black Sea and
We've been told that Viking Cruises offers a similar itinerary with both Russian and International menus. That might be worth considering. There may also be better Russian ships than the Ivan Bunin. We just didn’t do the research nor have the flexibility on dates to consider other possibilities.
But notwithstanding the disappointments, this has been a very good two weeks, and I will never forget coasting along the river, past magnificent onion domed churches and abandoned old industrial plants, with a good supply of vodka and herring. Nor will I ever forget the rows of jars containing Peter’s collection of Siamese twin fetuses!