St Petersburg: Day 1

The day dawned overcast and cool with forecast of showers.

Arrival at St Petersburg Arrival at St Petersburg

We were up early and ready to go before 8am which was scheduled disembarkation time.  Hiccup number one, we were not allowed to leave the ship as the ship had “not been cleared by Russian customs”.  Along with hoards of others waiting in hallways and stairwells becoming increasingly impatient, it was noted that streams of people were in fact leaving the ship – but only those who had purchased their trip via the cruise line.  The rest of us (and there were hundreds) were made to wait …. until a few of us registered our complaints with reception, not that they took much notice, but after a while and people being made aware of just what was going on (45mins later) the doors were suddenly opened.  So we all tripped off the ship only to be met by Russian passport control.  This is the first port that we have had to go through passport control.  It should be noted here that at every other port the ship has its own control whereby you present your room card and are quickly allowed off the ship, and for each return, room cards are swiped and then bags go though scan to check that you are not bringing fruit or alcohol back onto the ship, in particular alcohol as they want you to purchase their alcohol at exorbitant prices!!

With paperwork/visas/passports checked we were soon through and off to meet our tour guide.  We were the only ones on our tour, so along with guide Anna and driver Michael we set off first for a quick tour around the city then onto our first stop by the River Neva and the Sphinx statues.

Sphinx beside the Neeva Sphinx beside the Neeva

This was our first experience of the Russian/St Petersburg penchant for rubbing various statues for a wish to be granted. There were two lions below the Sphinx and one rubs their paws and wishes.  So we did our own wishes and hoped for the best.  Another St Petersburg feature was apparent here, as soon as we pulled up and stepped out of our car we were accosted by people trying to sell all sorts of items.

We followed this stop with photos of the many gold covered domes in the city. By this time the weather was turning rather cool and the rain had set in rather steadily.

Golden domes Golden domes

On to Catherines Palace.  Surprise of the day was arriving to a small brass band who started playing the NZ National Anthem as we approached!

Brass band at Catherine's Palace Brass band

Through amazing gold gates and into the grounds and then the Palace. What is truly amazing is how this has been restored after its destruction by the Germans in WWII, from the artwork, to the amazing ballroom, to the famous amber room.

Entrance to Catherine's Palace Palace Entrance

Domes on Catherine's Palace Domes on Catherine’s Palace

One of the first rooms we entered was the ballroom. This was absolutely amazing.

Ballroom at Catherines Palace

A room of approximately 1000 square metres, 286 mirrors surrounded by 696 candles. There are no chandeliers, but there is a magnificent mural on the ceiling. This is in fact a large canvas, originally in three pieces. Along with this canvas, almost all of the items from the original palace that were rescued before the German invasion, were rescued by women who worked in the Palace after the men had gone off to war. The items were returned after the war, although some were lost forever notwithstanding the women’s best efforts.

We then proceeded through a further seven rooms each decorated differently but as faithfully as they could be to the original.  Each ahd a heating unit in a corner or along one wall.  All of these were works of art in their own right.

Heating unit Heating unit

From here we went out into the gardens for a walk back to the car before moving on to the next destination. It is hard to give an impression of these rooms so you will have to wait until we return!!

marquetry on floors Parquetry on the floors


We exited the Palace into the gardens but really did not linger as it was continuous rain at this stage.  However there was time for one photo.

Snow in the gardens  Snow in the gardens

On the road we passed a large number of Dachas.  These are like a weekend house where people retire to at the end of the working week from their apartment in the city.  A lot are being used to grow kitchen gardens, apparently a very widespread activity in St Petersburg.

We proceeded through Strelna to Peterhof and the amazing gardens and fountains. We first walked through the upper gardens which were very precisely laid out and presented in exceptional order.

Upper garden Peterhof Upper garden fountain

We then made our way to the front of the Palace building where a magnificent view of a plethora of fountains, in a setting involving a series of steps, into a large pool at the base, then a canal leading into the Gulf of Finland.

Fountains and canal Peterhof Fountains and canal

Each of the individual fountains was gilded, each was different from any other, and each was not driven by pump.  The whole of the 147 fountains in the grounds were driven by a gravity feed from a source above the palace some three kilometres away. 

Detail of fountains

We then moved through what is known as the lower garden and spent time looking at the female side of the garden. The garden is effectively cut in half by the canal with the female side being on the right as one looks to the sea and the male being on the left.  

Snow at the canal Snow at the canal

We stopped at a cafe in the gardens for lunch and then continued our walk. The grounds were maintained meticulously which reminded us of someone at home.

Anne Sim was here Anne Sim was here

Also we saw a number of Squirells on the paths.  .  They were not at all afraid as apparently they are well fed by people waliking in the park.

Bernice's squirell Bernice’s squirell

We passed a large number of the fountains including three which were trick fountains. These were controlled by semi hidden people who switched the fountains on when people walked by, or they were driven by pressure switches so when people sat or walked on certain points the fountains would erupt and spray water on them. There was also a unique children’s fountain where there were a series of ducks chased by a dog swimming around and also one could hear the duck’s quacking all done through water pressure.

Duck fountain Duck fountain

We had been told earlier in the day that the metro stations in St Petersburg were exceptionally decorated. So our next adventure was a metro trip through three of the stations. Although not the oldest metro in the world, it is the deepest at over 100 metres below ground level so that it can pass below the Neeva River. We boarded at the first station built which was lavishly decorated with marble pillars, walls and ceilings, ornate chandeliers and statues, we went to the next station where we hopped off and looked around, mosaics, chandeliers and pillars in yet another style before boarding the train to our final destination. We were not allowed to take photos of any of the stations so will see what we can find.

We then paid a visit to the obligatory souvenir shop, where we obtained free coffee and a free sample of Russian Vodka (very good in the eyes of a couple of ex professional vodka drinkers). After looking at numerous Russian dolls (in fact they were first made in China), lacquered boxes, Faberge style eggs, icons and folk art of all descriptions, we bought several postcards and called it quits.

We then proceeded to St Isaac’s church. This was a building surrounded by mammoth pillars each of which was made from a single granite piece weighing 20 tonnes.

Not quite Not quite able to span

These were then lifted into place using a specifically designed scaffold.

Model of scaffold

The most amazing sight here were some of the “paintings” on the walls and ceiling of the interior. Whilst they looked for all the world like paintings they were in fact mosaics.

A painting A painting

No a mosaic No a mosaic

But one had to look closely to see that this was the case. Also in this church were very large columns of porphyry and malachite. These were in fact again a type of mosaic invented by the Russians in the 1700s. We could not get close enough to see the detail of either of these techniques but were promised that we would see them tomorrow.

Our guide was particularly knowledgeable about the Russian Orthodox religion and the history of the Royal family of Russia. This led to in depth presentations on all aspects of both subjects which were of course entwined with the palaces and churches that we visited.

This ended our first day in St Petersburg. Entirely impressive.


One Response to “St Petersburg: Day 1”

  1. James Says:

    You make me nostalgic for my days as a student in Leningrad! And I wish I had remembered to send you to the Lomonosov porcelain factory store to pick up a soup tureen in my pattern!

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