St. Petersburg, Russia A Glorious City
Last summer we took a river cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg and I fell in love with St. Petersburg. So when the opportunity of a Baltic Sea Cruise included the “City of Czars,” I was delighted.
Our ship arrived at the majestic city, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and the capital of Russia from 1712-1918, and was met by a private guide. We had hired him through Stu’s Internet search. Since we had been there once before we wanted to see things that the cruise shore excursion didn’t include. To be on our own we needed visas for the two-day visit for $300. If we stayed with the cruise group, it wouldn’t be necessary. So I must admit that when we found our private guide I sighed with relief.
The guide drove us to the heart of the city to visit Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and fortress. The cathedral is a brilliant yellow building with a golden spire and angels atop acting as a weather vane in the former fortress complex.
In the church are the former czars’ burial vaults. Amazingly, in 1998 the remains of the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, and his family were brought there. He had been shot to death in 1918. Their remains were identified through DNA tests with samples taken from the reopened vaults of their ancestors. Ironically, Anastasia, their daughter who some believed was still alive, was also identified.
The fortress also once served as an infamous prison, holding and torturing such luminaries as Dostoevsky, Vera Figner, Maxim Gorky and Leon Trotsky.
Now the site draws thousands of visitors and there’s talk that perhaps the descendants of the last czar might be called back for the creation of a monarchy once again. My guide doubted it, but I saw over 20 photos displaying the czar’s descendants who had been identified.
A must-see is the majestic, enormous Catherine’s Palace, with its restored Amber room — covered from floor to ceiling in amber of all colors. I never knew amber came in deep red, yellow and brown.
Another site not be missed is the opulent Peterhof — Peter the Great’s summer palace on the Gulf of Finland’s Southern Shore. It is a one-hour drive from St. Petersburg, but worth the trip. Its fountains, gardens and buildings far surpass its rival, the French palace at Versailles. In fact Peter built his dream city of St. Petersburg to have better canals than Amsterdam, larger palaces than France and England and more lush marble architecture than Italy. Talk about keeping up with the Joneses — Peter invented the theory! How lucky we are that he did.
Stu had wanted to have lunch at the historic Astoria Hotel. Located opposite the majestic St. Isaac’s Church, it was the place where Hitler made reservations and printed invitations for his celebration of invading St. Petersburg. Remarkably, the city withstood the 900-day siege from September 1941 to January 1944 and Hitler never had his meal there, but we did!
My second visit to this colorful and historic city enabled me to return to the world’s most massive art collection (more than 2.7 million pieces) in the stunning, gold-trimmed, green and white palace, the Hermitage. It was built on the banks of the river Nova in 1771. This time we went to the enormously popular and crowded museum with a private guide. Last time when we visited in a group we were rushed through the overwhelmingly crowded exhibitions. You could barely get close to most of the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci or the numerous Rembbrandts or the Impressionists. It was a luxury this time just to sit and absorb the great works hung throughout the fabulous palace. The original palace features great works of art set against mountains of marble, gilded walls and ceilings, enormous glittering crystal chandeliers, intricate parquet floors, and enormous malachite and lapis vases.
The czars and their court lived a life of opulence and extravagance. They brought gifted craftsmen from all over Europe to build their palaces. We are forever in their gratitude that now we are able to share the grandeur of their world.
There never seems to be enough time to explore all this magical city has to offer, but then, there’s more reason to return again.