Monday, August 12, 2013

Thursday, July 25, 2013 – St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 1) – Mostly Cloudy – 68F

Helsinki to St. Petersburg: 143 Nautical Miles

Local Information:  St. Petersburg, Russia was founded by Peter the Great in 1703.  Contrary to popular belief, the city is not named after its founder.  It has a population of 5 Million people and is home to such sites as the Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Church of Spilled Blood, and St. Isaacs Cathedral.  From 1914 to 1924, the city’s name was changed to Petrograd (to make it more Russian sounding). During the Soviet Era, it was called Leningrad, but, in 1991, a popular movement resulted in the restoration of the original name.  The town of Peterhof (population 60,000) lies on the southern shore of the Bay of Finland.  The city was founded by Peter the Great in 1710 and is the home of the magnificent Peterhof Palace.

We are in St. Petersburg, Russia for the next two days and it is not raining. 

We had room service for breakfast.

Note on Immigration. We filled out both halves of our “Landing Cards”, which we will need to show Immigration along with our passports.  They will take one half and leave the other half with our passports.  This is a process that only occurs on the first entry into Russia.  We also need to carry our passports/landing cards on our person while we are on Russian soil.

There are several ships in the port today.  One of them is the MSC Musica.

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MSC Musica

Ellen is on an all day tour (early morning start) and I am on an afternoon tour so I can take it a bit easy until I need to meet my group.  Russian Immigration requires that you show your passport as well as a tour ticket to leave the port.  ShorEx had sent over two tour tickets labeled “Tour Escort” during the night.

The Sculpture below had nothing to do with the day’ activities.  I just wanted to take the shot.

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“David Letter-Man” Sculpture

I grabbed a late second breakfast (bagel/lox/cream cheese) in the Ocean View Café, got my papers together and headed to Immigration at Noon  (meeting time 12: 30).  There were no lines so I would certainly be early.  The girls at Immigration (there are always young girls manning St. Petersburg Immigration windows) said I couldn’t go through because my Tour Ticket said “7:00 AM”.  I tried to explain that this was what was given to me.  They are very unsympathetic at Immigration so I did as they said (“Go back to ship”).

I went to ShorEx and explained the story.  They said it was indeed the wrong ticket and gave me a new ticket.  They also said I was going down there way too early and I should be there around 1 PM.  I killed the next hour or so in the very quiet Rendezvous Lounge before heading back down through Immigration.

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Pier Terminal (Beyond Immigration)

The Pier Terminal, while being a few years old, looks brand new and very clean (especially the washrooms).  There are a number of vendors in the terminal area and “cheap” WiFi on the second floor.  It’s a good place to hang out until your tour starts.

My tour is Peterhof Gardens and Train Ride for Families”. 

After successfully clearing Passport Control, I went around the corner to the bus pickup area.  My bus was not there.  In a few minutes, a white van pulls up at an unsafe speed.  We are not in a bus but rather in a van and our total passenger count is 16.  I took the uncomfortable jump seat by the sliding door. 

Our guide introduced her self as “Kate” but she was really Katarina.  Later on the tour, I asked her if she was named after Catherine the Great and she said she was “Catherine the Small” (she is not even 5 ft. tall).

We headed out from the Harbor Area, located on reclaimed land from the Gulf of Finland.  Kate told us that there plans for additional piers to handle five more cruise ships.  We drove past the statue of Peter the Great in front of a very posh looking hotel and headed down the main street of St. Petersburg.  Kate got a cell phone call and indicated that two of our passengers were on the wrong tour and we were going back to the port to drop them off.  That done, our tour officially re-began.

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Peter the Great – Fronting a Hotel

We were in the middle of St. Petersburg on our way to the far coast of the Gulf of Finland when one of the passenger indicated that several folks need a rest stop.  The only free bathrooms in St. Petersburg are in McDonalds and none were in sight so our resourceful driver took us to a gas station.  The facilities were substandard but worked for most everyone.  The passengers also got the urge to buy some food.  Unfortunately, Russia only accepts plastic and rubles so unless you wanted your MC or Visa card out there for a bag of chips, you were out of luck.

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Our Unscheduled Rest Stop

Our trip on the tollway system (very few cars) to Peterhof took us through wooded countryside.  We saw what our guide called “Khrushchev” houses – built in the Soviet Era by Nikita Khrushchev. They looked like ordinary apartments but probably were communal in nature.

We reached the other side of the Gulf and just prior to arriving in the town of Peterhof, we saw the single family homes – dachas – that some Russians own.  They look pretty much like homes everywhere but to get them you have to move out to the country.

Peterhof (Петергоф) (Petrodvorets) (Peter’s Court in German) is a fair sized town – 60,000 residents – and much bigger than I remember it from 2001.  There are several large hotels and numerous restaurants all there for the tourists visiting the Peterhof Palace. 

We disembarked the bus and I tried to herd my group through the ticket turnstile.  This was not easy since there were several groups of tourists visiting today.

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Our Ticket to Ride

Peterhof Palace was built (directed by Peter the Great) over nearly half a century starting in 1714 and continuing until 1755 (further work continued well into the 19th Century).  The incredible fountains of Peterhof, designed by Peter the Great and his architects and engineers, are powered solely by gravity.  Much of the Palace and fountains were destroyed or vandalized by the Germans during WWII but restored over the intervening years.  Our tour did not enter the Grand Palace but rather started at the Upper Gardens.

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The Lower Gardens

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The Grand Palace at Peterhof

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The Lower Gardens (Western Side)

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The Sea Canal and Fountain Alley

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Lower Gardens (Eastern Side)

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The Grand Cascade

One of the more interesting statues lining the Grand Cascade was one of Perseus holding the head of the Medusa.  In this case, Perseus had the face of Peter the Great and poor Medusa, the face of the King of Sweden.  More war symbolism.

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Perseus and Medusa

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The Base of the Grand Cascade (Samson Fountain)

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Samson Fountain

The Samson Fountain – commissioned on the 25th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Northern War – depicts the strongman Samson prying open the jaws of a lion (symbolic of Sweden).  The Lion is on the Swedish Coat of Arms making this statue a more powerful symbol.  Installation of the Samson Fountain marked the end of the use of the Canal as an entrance to the Palace. The statue was stolen by the Germans during WWII and was restored using photographs and back in place in 1947.

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The Grand Palace and Grand Cascade

The Palace grounds are also the site of the Peterhof Chapel.

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Peterhof Chapel and Fountain

The tour continued on the Eastern Side of the Lower Gardens. We passed beautiful landscaping of the Orangery Garden.

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The Orangery Fountain in the center of the garden is home to another striking fountain. This one depicts Triton (the son of Poseidon) wrestling with a sea serpent

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Triton and Sea Serpent Statue

It takes a lot of work to keep the gardens in shape.  Two garden workers are shown below.

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Peterhof Fountains and Gardens

The main feature of the Eastern side of the Lower Gardens was the Dragon or Checkerboard Hill Cascade.  It has an Asian feel to it perhaps due to the three dragons – who appear to be fighting - at the top of the four tiered cascade.

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Checkerboard Hill Cascade

Peter the Great apparently had a sense of humor.  He designed a series of “Trick Fountains”.  These fountains, disguised as trees or other objects, spray unwitting royals (back in the day) or tourists (today) as they walk by.

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Peterhof Trick Fountains

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Peter the Great

Just beyond the Statue of Peter the Great, we caught a miniature train that would take us on a 10 minute ride to the neighboring park of Alexandria (named after Alexandra Fedorovna, wife of Nicholas I). The “Toy Train” was decked out in Peterhof style colors.

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Train to Alexandria Park

The train route took us past the shores of the Bay of Finland and through wooded areas.

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On the way to Alexandria Park

Our train stopped a few yards shy of the Cottage Palace.  Tsarina Alexandra was not comfortable with the stuffy atmosphere of the St. Petersburg Palace and wanted a more relaxed home in the country.  The Cottage Palace became the Summer Home of the family of Tsar Nicholas I.

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The Cottage Palace

The Palace grounds were beautifully landscaped and even had “Bum Warmers” – seats you could sit on that were heated.

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“Bum Warmers”

On the way to and from Peterhof on the tollway, we saw an Aeroflot airline jet (sans four engines) sitting by a group of buildings.  I think the Kate said that they use the plane for training – sometimes, old planes are used to train fire crews – but this plane did not have any burn marks.  My best guess on the type of plane is an Ilyushin Il-86 (a Soviet built wide body jet retired in 2011).

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Ilyushin Il-86 Aircraft (stripped)

In about 40 minutes, we were back in St. Petersburg and in the middle of some traffic.

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Some of the passengers wanted a shopping stop so the bus left the main streets and headed through the side streets on the way to the designated store.  Kate pointed out an amazing site:

The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg (Bolshaya Sinagoga [Great Synagogue]) is the second largest synagogue in Europe. It was finished in 1888, and dedicated in 1893.  The building of this synagogue required special permits from Tsar Alexander II, who eased restrictions on Jews residing in St. Petersburg.  Between 2000 and 2005 the synagogue was renovated after a single family donated 5 million dollars. Today, the synagogue is an Orthodox congregation.

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Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg

We stopped at one of the usual shopping venues for about 30 minutes.  It was a welcome stop for everyone in that it has washrooms, bottled water, tea, and vodka.  I gave the vodka a whirl but it just didn’t go down smoothly.  The rest stop, however, was welcome.  Soon everyone was back on the bus and we were headed back to the port.

We passed over what I took to be the Neva River.  Several Naval Ships were docked and ready for the big Celebration on July 28.

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Naval Ships and St. Isaacs Cathedral

We also got a nice view of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, part of a complex, which includes a monastery.  This multi-domed cathedral was built between 1895 and 1897 and was the first church in the city to have domes covered in aluminum.  In 1956, the Soviets converted the church into Leningrad’s first indoor ice rink (all the frescoes and paintings were covered in paint).  The Church was handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991 and modern technology has been used to recover the artworks.

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Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Neva River and Russian Ships

No tour would be complete without seeing a statue of Catherine the Great.

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Catherine the Great

The small van got us back to the cruise terminal right on time.  I went through Immigration much quicker than earlier today and soon I was back on ship. 

Ellen’s St. Petersburg Adventure

Ellen’s full day tour of St. Petersburg involved a visit to the Hermitage Museum

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The Hermitage Grand Entryway

In the Small Dining Room, members of the Provisional Government were arrested in November 1917 (new Calendar) by the Bolsheviks; the small clock reads 2:10 AM, the supposed time when the arrests were initiated.

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Small Dining Room

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The Clock says: 2:10 AM and All is Not Well

Ellen took the opportunity to record her visit with a mirror picture.

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The Throne Room

After visiting the Hermitage (which always builds up a strong appetite), the tour headed for lunch at the Nikolaevsky Palace (first owned by Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich, the third son of Tsar Nicholas I and Alexandra).

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Nikolaevsky Palace

It was like dining with Russian Royalty (if Royalty had potatoes and a salad like Ellen did).

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Lunch is Served

The afternoon was spent touring St. Petersburg.  One of the sights I did not see during my tour was the Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas.

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Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas

The original Naval Cathedral (“Sailor’s Cathedral) dates back to 1743 or the time of Peter the Great.  This cathedral was one of a small number of churches not closed during the Soviet Era.

Before any tour is complete, a shopping stop is required.  Ellen managed to get someone to take her picture in front of the famed Russian Bear.

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I met up with Ellen and we had dinner up in the Ocean View Café.

No show tonight.  Instead, entertainment was provided by the “Stars of St. Petersburg”, a local troupe of singers and dancers.  The only problem was that the show was scheduled for 10:30 PM – way too late for wanderers like us.  We spent the rest of the post-dinner evening reading and coming down from a big day in St. Petersburg.

Bonus:  Good weather…

Pedometer: 4615 steps; 2.85 miles; 320 calories; 1 hr.

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