Friday 29thJune 2018
Today was a combination of amazingly good and amazingly bad. The bad – People had to book their time off the ship. As we had an 8:30 start to the tour, we had booked to get off at 8:00 am – so Group A. We had been told that this group had to be in the Breakaway theatre by 8:00 am. We had planned to be there at this time, however they made the announcement at 7:45 am. We weren’t ready for that. We headed downstairs at 7:55 am and it was bedlam. There were people everywhere! The cruise staff were directing people through a line around O’Sheehan’s Bar into the auditorium. This was only for people who had booked private tours. The people who had booked on the ship’s tour had customs process them on board the ship and I presume that they were fast tracked off the ship.
Anyway, for the rest of us peasants, the cruise staff were filling up the auditorium and going through some explanations. Kim was ready a little earlier than us and so she had gotten into the auditorium and saved us some seats in an earlier area – thankfully!
They let out the first part of the group – about half of the auditorium. There was about a 20 minute wait and then we got to go out of the auditorium. We walked out of the auditorium, down to the gangway and off the ship. We headed to the customs building and walked in the door and stopped! There were massive lines everywhere. We got into a line and it was a big mistake. Phil had wanted to go on another line, but this line was shorter. Now we knew why. The customs guy for our line was taking SO long. It was already after 8:30 when we arrived into the customs area. We didn’t get through customs until 9:30. When it was FINALLY our turn to go through the customs area. The guy scrutinised us and our passport photo – twisted our passport (we are presuming to ensure that it was genuine). It was so weird. He then gave us a piece of paper that he left in the passport. Kim had run into some Americans in the line who declared that they didn’t have a tour booked but they couldn’t force them to stay on the ship! No the ship can’t force you to stay, but customs can refuse entry. Luckily for us they weren’t in front of us (there were 15 of them). We all finally cleared customs and made it through. We found a lady holding an Alla tours sign who directed us outside of the terminal to the main group.
This was where we met Elena – who was one of the best tour guides we have ever had. She was amazing! We had a group of 14 so far – one couple from South Africa / London initially who were now living in Florida and a group of 9 Americans who travelled together frequently and the 3 of us. We waited for about another 30 minutes as our group was supposed to have 16, however Alla Tours made the decision to send us off and the other 2 people could join the next group. We were off with mother Elena and father (the driver). Kim was sitting at the front and Phil and I were in the back seat. Our first stop was a souvenir shop (that had clean rest rooms as the next stop was an hour to get there).
We headed straight to Peterhof. This was the site of the summer palace. The grounds were amazing. The palace wasn’t open to the public, just the grounds that were exquisite. There were amazing fountains that were created after Peter the Great toured the great gardens of Europe. They were founded in 1704. There was a flood in 1777 which destroyed the original system of pipes and fountains.
Elena was explaining that the flowers, that were blooming, were changed out every 3 – 4 weeks so there was always flowers that were blooming in a particular section of the garden. Other sections of the gardens were designed in an English style fashion in terms of woodland style. As we were walking through different areas, Elena was explaining different things. She explained how the ladies of the era would walk through the gardens with young men or with other ladies. Peter the Great, would hide behind bushes and have trick fountains hidden. When the young ladies and men walked through he would turn on the fountains and get soaked. The ladies were not happy as it ruined their dresses and hair. The men weren’t particularly happy either, however Peter found it hilarious. He had several of these trick fountains strategically placed throughout the grounds, that he operated at his whim, including trees, out of seats – that one of our group got wet by. He seemed to like it when the joke was on other people.
We then finished in the gardens and headed to a local restaurant. It was very grand, but clearly only caters for the tour groups. They had the table set up with our first course already on the table. It was some kind of egg salad. We then had mushroom soup followed by minced chicken in the shape of a chicken breast with mashed potatoes. We then finished with dessert. It wasn’t a fabulous meal -but was ok. Elena had explained that lunch is their main meal of the day.
After here we headed to the Tsars Village – Tsarskoye Selo – this was where the Catherine Palace was. The building was so imposing from the outside! It was so opulent. You can seriously see why there was such a revolution when the Tsars spent money indiscriminantly and most Russian people were struggling to put food on the table.
We went into the Catherine Palace. The rooms were stunning and were designed to impress – which they did. The highlight for most people was the amber room. I liked it, but wasn’t that impressed. Elena was explaining that amber was found naturally throughout Russia. It’s a natural stone and is the sap of a tree that has been petrified. The high quality amber is only found in certain places in Russia.
The Amber Room jewels were removed from the walls and stored somewhere safe, during WWII to prevent the Nazis from getting them. The problem was that after the war, they were unable to find the original panels. They spent some time searching for it and then decided to replicate the walls from photos and memories of people who had seen it prior to the war. During the restoration, a panel of the original wall was found and you could not distinguish between the original and the restored panel. They decided to use both of the panels in the restored room.
The different coloured amber was used to create patterns and to decorate the room. One of the reasons of the importance of this room was due to the supposed healing powers of amber. It was pretty, but not a highlight for me. Unfortunately no photography was allowed in this room. Whilst we were walking through Catherine Palace, Elena had been talking about different Tsars and emperors. She then referred to Putin as Emperor Putin. We all cracked up laughing, including Elena, even though all of the old ladies in the Catherine Palace (the workers) were telling us to be quiet. It was so funny.
After the Catherine Palace, we headed into the city and had a drive through different areas. The South African / American couple had heard about the second oldest Jewish cathedral in the world was in St Petersburg.
Elena and the driver took us there and let us go inside. It was so pretty. We were in awe of how lovely it was. It was pretty late by now. We had pushed the evening tour back to 7:30, but we weren’t dropped off at the restaurant until 7:00.
Just before Elena left us, Julia arrived – our guide for the evening. The restaurant was called Sadko and was exactly what we wanted. Kim and I each had Draniki (pan friend potato pancakes) with sour cream. For main meals Kim and I had another entrée – Kim had Russian vegetarian golubtsy (cabbage rolls) stuffed with vegetables and rice, oven baked with tomato sauce. I had mushroom julienne in pancakes. Phil had lamb in spicy herbs with grilled vegetables. The food was amazing. Whilst we were there the waiters and waitresses sang a song and played traditional music. Our waiter played some kind of instrument. Julia joined us for a drink and explained about her family and life in St Petersburg. She has just finished university and studied English and German. Her English language was excellent, but she feels that her German needs work, so she is looking for work in Germany maybe as an au pair.
We had a lovely meal and then started our tour. We headed to the Church on the Spilled Blood as I wanted to try and get low light photos of it, but it was still daylight. We were in St Petersburg during their white night time. That is when the sun doesn’t set until after 11:00 pm and then not really set at all as there is still blue sky in the distance and then rises again about 3:30 am. We did manage to get some photos, though with hardly any people around, so that was a win. We didn’t go inside the church, as we are coming here tomorrow – although in hindsight, we probably should have as it would be less crowded than during the day. I was disappointed as there was scaffolding around one of the domes, which meant that I couldn’t get great photos. We asked Elena the next day and she said that they were cleaning it. I was surprised that they wouldn’t have it finished given that June / July were their most popular tourist months and also the World Cup was on, bringing in even more tourists.
When we were finished here, we headed to St Isaac’s Cathedral. We had seen this church from the outside when we were driving around and Elena had indicated to Kim that it was beautiful on the inside. Julia and our driver took us there. We pulled up to get tickets, with Julia assisting us. When we were lined up, there was a bit of a problem. Firstly, it appeared as though some guy had pushed in, although we weren’t really focused on where he was beforehand.
Then this big guy comes up and wants to fight him. Phil was worried that one of them would try to pick his pockets (which we had been warned about all throughout Europe as this is the high tourist season – so also high pickpocket season). Kim (and Julia) were asking the guy at the ticket booth to get security. The guy buying tickets walked away and then the drunk guy started on Phil. Julia told him to go away – in Russian. We then looked around and realised that the bus driver had seen what was going on and he had gotten out of the bus and was also standing there. Security arrived and they asked him to move on. The drunk guy get a little aggressive with the security guy, however the drunk guy walked away.
The entrance to the church was around the corner and we were prepared to walk, but Julia and the driver insisted that we get on the bus and they would drive us to the entrance, as the drunk guy was walking down where we would need to walk. We got into the church, without any further incidents, and were absolutely stopped in our tracks. It was stunning! Honestly! Jaw dropping – even Phil was speechless (again I know!). There were mosaics decorating every surface. We were gobsmacked at just the entry, then we turned the corner and saw the altar. Wow! It was exquisite. It was a Russian Orthodox church. We were all surprised with how stunning it was inside. After we had finished here we asked Julia to take us where we could buy some souvenirs at a reasonable price.
We had a stop at McDonald’s so we could use the toilet and get something to eat. She took us to Nevsky Prospect (the main shopping area – near the Church on the Spilled Blood) and went to go underground, however all the shops were shut down there, which was unfortunate – although it was almost 10pm on a Friday night by this stage.
Instead she showed us this beautiful store across the road. It was an old building that was owned by a successful merchant. The building itself was grand and then we saw the windows. They had animated characters depicting well known fairy tales. We went inside and were blown away by the opulence. It is currently a very fancy shop catering mainly to tourists and very well off Russians. Everything was exquisite and the prices reflected that. They had edible shoes, delicatessen area, ice-cream and cakes that made your mouth water.
We were all pretty tired after the massive day (and it was almost 10:00 pm). Julia asked if we wanted to add another hour for 30 USD, but we decided to call it a day and headed back to the ship. Julia left us and our driver took us back to the ship.
We got to bed around 11:00pm, because it took some time to get through customs again. It was almost dark. We plan to be off the ship at 7:00 am tomorrow as our tour starts at 7:20 am.