Two whirlwind days in St. Petersburg, Russia
You want gilded gold, you got it
July 11-12, 2015
St. Petersburg was the primary reason we chose a Baltic cruise and overall, it met our expectations. And even though you're expecting dripping opulence, you're still taken aback.
On our two-day tour, we got a taste of the highlight attractions but did not get to explore nor connect with natives.
The famed metro with chandeliers, sculptures and artwork, serves 2.15 million passengers daily. One of the deepest in the world with escalators akin to Rosslyn, VA. Amusing to see the signs warning of complicated train/schedule changes, just like New York subways.
Yusupov Palace is where Rasputin was assassinated in 1916. Multiple times. The mystical influencer had become a trusted advisor to Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Prince Yusupov and others plotted a murder that included poison, and ended up shooting at Rasputin three separate times before discarding his body in the river. The culprits were exiled. This was an unexpected, captivating stop that combined lavish decor and historical intrigue.
The Hermitage museum. Catherine the Great started collecting in 1764 and kept building extensions to the Winter Palace in order to house her artwork. There are now 3 million objects, including the world's largest collection of paintings, spread across five public buildings just for you and 3 million other visitors. We went during the mid-afternoon and the crowds were overwhelming, as was the grueling 2.5 mile gallop to see the top pieces. You really couldn't enjoy them as you should. Try to get in first or last!
Catherine’s Palace. This summer residence at Pushkin, about 15 miles from St. Petersburg, was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth, who wanted something flamboyant. Well. Unveiled in 1756, it was about a fifth of a mile long with 220 pounds of gold on the facade. Germans destroyed it after the siege of Leningrad, and seized the famed Amber Room, which had been a gift from the Prussians in 1716. With its 13,000 pounds of amber, gems, mirrors and candles, it was sometimes called the eighth wonder of the world. Reconstruction took until 2003 and the result is spectacular, especially when you get to be among the first tours to go through. Pictures aren't allowed in the Amber Room.
Peterhof is Peter the Great's attempt to establish a Russian Versailles on the shores of the Gulf of Finland near Pushkin. His granddaughter Empress Elizabeth had the palace rebuilt in 1740. It, too, was destroyed by the Germans in World War II and was reconstructed. The gardens are spectacular with 64 fountains feeding the grand cascade centerpiece, allegedly designed by Peter. Alas, we did not have time to go inside, though some report Catherine's Palace is more impressive.
St. Isaacs, which took 40 years to build, is really really big--you can see its golden dome from virtually everywhere. I couldn't confirm its overall ranking in size nor the height of its cupola although our guide said it's the third highest cupola after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. The interior has luscious columns, frescoes, marble and previous stones. Notable: during the 900-day Nazi blockade from 1941-44, the grounds were planted with cabbage to help feed the 3 million residents. The church has a view from its rotunda that I would have dearly loved.
Church of the Spilt Blood or Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the spot where Czar Alexander I was assassinated in 1881. Completed in 1907 and modeled after St. Basil’s in Moscow, it has possibly the most mosaics of any church. So it's breathtaking inside and out. Opposite the altar is a shrine on the exact place of Alexander's death. During World War II, this church was used as a temporary morgue, and as a warehouse for vegetables.