The stop in St. Petersburg is the pinnacle for most folks on a Baltic Cruise. There is so much to see and do here that the ships stays for two nights. We think ships should do so more often, but spending so much time in one place on a cruise is unusual. The rubles we brought from home were issued by the Soviet Union, so it’s been a while since we were here and we were curious to see how things had changed under new management.
We docked at a new terminal which not only looked good from the distance, it looked like it was built to last - a real change from the past. However, our first introduction to the new Russia had us thinking that nothing had changed and wondering why we had made the effort to return. In the old days to set foot on the soil you had to be on an Intourist tour; your life was programmed for you 24/7. Today you can get a visa and travel independently, or in our case get off the ship to take organized tours and then get right back on. That’s what most folks chose to do. The ship issued us landing forms to turn in when our passports and tour tickets were checked and tried to make it as simple and easy as possible.
The Russians had other ideas. The first day it took us 1-1/2 hours to get off, horribly delaying the first tour. The ship’s crew took us off the ship in batches so we wouldn’t have to stand in line too long in the terminal. When we finally got to the agent they took our forms, stamped the passport three times, typed stuff, looked at us closely, typed more stuff. Each person took 2 - 3 minutes. Thinking we were done with the bureaucracy we were shocked to return from that tour and have to go through the whole passport check business once again to get ON the ship. We were behind some Asian looking crew members. Each one of them took about five minutes to process. There was a bus load of us behind them and only one immigration agent on duty. With varying lengths of wait time depending on time of day and how many of us were trying to get off or on, this is what cruising to St. Petersburg is like. The check in and check out wasted huge amounts of time we could have spent sight seeing and enjoying they city. It felt like the Soviet mindset had not changed.
But as we traveled around the city, there were signs that this would be a simple, but inaccurate conclusion. One of the things that makes St. Petersburg so special is the huge downtown that is full of old buildings, many Texas sized, that were built in the 1800’s or rebuilt after World War II to look like that. These buildings are jaw droppingly beautiful, but impractical to live in or run a business from. They are also expensive to maintain and heat. Initially we got the impression that retail business had increased very little, but since we could not read the signs and none of these buildings have windows to display goods, it was impossible for us to know what was going on inside. We were taken to one of the best restaurants in the city for a tea break and from the outside, we could have been going into a prison.
Visits to some of the Romanov castles are a must on any tourist’s list. We went to two, but the way we saw them made all the difference in the world. There are so many tourists here, even the efficient Germans would have a challenge managing the crowds. Even after the guide had our group tickets for Peterhof, we had to stand in a large line/herd and inch our way to the door. It reminded me of Tokyo rush hour. Once we got inside we stood in line to put on booties, a requirement in every Russian building we ever visited. Then we passed the cloak room where it was required that we turn in our jackets whether we wanted to or not. We were told not to take photos, but it really was not a choice. When they tried to take Ken’s camera away from him and put that in the cloak room, I thought we would have an international incident. As we moved from one spectacular room to another, we traveled as a herd behind other tour groups. If our guide lingered a bit too long as she explained what we were seeing, a fierce guard would chide her to keep going. Then we would find ourselves waiting in a little hall with nothing to look at. It wasn’t quite as bad as our last and final visit to Versailles where the crowds were so thick my feet did not touch the ground and I was swept from room to room, but it was not a pleasant experience. The rooms we “saw” in Peterhof were beautifully restored. Someone has and continues to spend beau coup rubles to retrieve the Russian patrimony. The gardens outside were lavish, but also a work in progress. There were many water features; some were ornamental fountains and some were light hearted spots where a secret gusher would come on as you walked by. It would have been wonderful to wander and spend more time, but the immigration folks had sucked up much of the designated tour time.
In the evening we went to Catherine’s Castle on an exclusive tour for only 300 of our fellow cruisers. The booties were the same, but the no photos rule was gone. Perhaps we had paid enough?? Mirrors decorated with gold were a constant feature, placed to reflect the candles on gold fixtures around them and to reflect the light from the mirrors across the way. I was thrilled to see the recently completed Amber Room. Amber is petrified tree sap, usually golden in color and commonly sold as jewelry here. At the moment it retails at around $500/pound and as you work it, about 70% of the amber goes up in dust. So to make a whole room walled with amber was an indulgence and excess beyond belief. As World War II started the walls were taken down and hidden, but, wouldn’t you know it? - after the war no one could find them. So the room has been recreated from scratch relying on black and white photos and people’s memories of the original.
This visit to one of the many palaces of Catherine the Great included listening to a string quartet while we sipped champagne in the hall of mirrors. An actress playing the queen shared a toast with us and dancers performed for her and us. Out on the grounds a military band serenaded us and we had caviar. We toured the “garage” which housed carriages and sleds decorated in gold. The current Queen Elizabeth would have approved. After this glorious evening enjoying an amazing castle without battling the crowds, we returned to the port and the passport ordeal. We were near the front of the line, but at the rate it moved, by the time passengers returned from the ballet and folkloric show late than we did, it could have been 3am before they all got back on board.
After all that royal stuff, it was time to see how real people live. We took a walking tour that included a ride on the metro. Building the metro was a huge challenge here since the ground is so swampy. We rode down the escalator about 400 feet to get below the much to the bedrock that contains the train tunnels. Both here and in Moscow the metro stations are often works of art, decorated with marble and lit by fancy fixtures. The subway was clean; no litter or graffiti. The trains come every 2 - 4 minutes and cost $1 a ride - less if you buy a metro card. St. Petersburg also still has trams powered by overhead wires. We can’t judge the whole transportation system from one experience, but we were impressed.
We went to a market in an ancient building featuring fresh fruits, vegetables, honey, meat, fish, baked goods, etc. Our guide said the prices were reasonable and bargaining was the name of the game. This was a huge contrast to the foodstuffs we saw for sale last time we were here. The food was nicely prepared and arranged and good enough to be for sale at Whole Foods. No one stood in line here or any where else we traveled to buy things. It warmed our hearts to see how this has changed.
On the edges of town and in the suburbs, we saw modern buildings and subdivisions of homes that could satisfy any American. There were big supermarkets, hardware emporiums, and other commercial opportunities that would feel familiar and comfortable to any Westerner. But to have these sorts of creature comforts, you had to travel a considerable distance out of town. The only new buildings that have been built in the city proper, were built on the sites of the churches that the Soviets had knocked down. In some cases they just repurposed the churches. One they used as an ice skating rink.
People don’t like to change, even if what they are doing isn’t working very well. But even in this superficial visit we could see that things have improved for the life of the average Russian. We were glad to see it with our own eyes, but coming back here any time soon is not high on the travel list.