St Petersburg offers a tantalising glimpse into Russia’s chequered past, discovers Liz Jarvis during a Baltic cruise on Celebrity Eclipse
The majestic rose pink, ochre and vanilla buildings lining the Neva River are bathed in early morning sunshine, the magnificent white and aqua baroque façade of the Winter Palace and the golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral illuminated against the azure blue sky. First impressions always count when you’re visiting a city – and St Petersburg is staggeringly beautiful.
Our Baltic cruise on Celebrity Eclipse calls at some of Scandinavia’s most iconic cities including Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn and Copenhagen. With its chic boutique hotel-style atrium and bars, the ship makes the perfect retreat after a day of sightseeing. Our stateroom is luxurious with an excellent-sized balcony, ideal for viewing the constantly changing scenery.
We have cocktails on The Lawn, enjoying the novelty of having grass at our feet on the top of a ship while basking in the midnight sun. But it’s the opportunity to spend two days in St Petersburg that’s the main attraction for everyone on board.
The advantage of visiting Russia by cruise ship is that you don’t need a visa, as long as you’re on an organized tour. Our guide, Alexander, speaks excellent English, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art, history and culture of the city, a good sense of humour and an open dislike of President Putin. Included on our two-day tour is entry to Peterhof Palace, which belonged to Peter the Great; The Catherine Palace; and Peter and Paul, the final resting place of the Romanovs.
At Peterhof, we put on special shoes to protect the precious parquet floors, and trudge silently around the opulent rooms, as Alexander tells us about Peter the Great; his wife, aka the “Russian Cinderella”; and Catherine the Great. Every room is ostentatious, with silk wallpapers and crystal chandeliers, and everything that glitters is almost certainly gold. It stops short of being gaudy, although the Grecian-style statues adorning the fountains in the grounds are definitely crossing the line.
At the Hermitage Museum, we view priceless works of art by Caravaggio and Rembrandt and da Vinci’s Madonna and Child. We explore The Catherine Palace, former summer residence of the Tsars, with its renovated Russian baroque blue, white and gold façade and landscaped gardens.
It seems surprising, perhaps, that the palaces weren’t razed to the ground during the Russian Revolution. But the Government decided to preserve them to illustrate the centuries of decadence and inequality endured by the ordinary Russian people. It works.
Alexander warns us to be careful of pickpockets; it’s passports that are the most attractive to thieves, not because they want to steal your identity, but because they know they can charge hundreds of dollars for returning them to the ships. In Russia, nothing is ever quite what it appears to be.
As a stark reminder of where we are, from the banks of the Neva he shows us the former KGB headquarters. The functional Khrushchev-era apartments on the outskirts of the city are ugly, in sharp contrast to the pre-Revolution style; but when you’re told that before they were built Russian families would live 10 to a building (with one shared bathroom), their construction makes sense. We see the cruiser Aurora, which sparked the October Revolution of 1917; and statues of Lenin all over the city. There’s a giant one outside the Communist Party HQ, a huge building with fountains that make it look like a palace, of sorts.
Our guide takes us to local gift shops, where there are matryoshka dolls in every conceivable shape and design, and an array of Baltic amber jewellery for sale at various price brackets (although nothing to compare to the extraordinary panels in The Amber Room at The Catherine Palace).
Lunch is at Nicholas Palace, former home of a Grand Duke; it’s slightly shabby, but the novelty of eating there is an extraordinary experience – and while the food is simple (blinis and a turkey casserole), the room is decorated as though for a wedding.
There are churches preserved as museums everywhere we go, including the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, with its multi-coloured onion domes. At St Catherine’s Chapel in Peter and Paul Cathedral, with its dazzling gold altar and priceless icons, we see the coffins of Russian royalty. But it’s a dark crypt that everyone shuffles past in respectful silence. The simple plaques on the wall tell us that the huge coffin inside is the final resting place of the Imperial family – the last Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their children, including Anastasia. It’s impossible not to feel moved, while understanding why the Russian people were so desperate for change.
On our last day in St Petersburg we are taken for lunch at a theatre, where we’re served ice-cold vodka and bright purple borscht. Halfway through, two musicians walk onto the stage, one holding a balalaika. As he strums “Lara’s Theme” from Dr Zhivago, my eyes unexpectedly fill with tears, and I look around to find many of my fellow guests visibly moved, dabbing their eyes with tissues. Blame it on the vodka.
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