Category Archives: Russia

Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg


Where St. Petersburg Originated

Although yesterday afternoon was  cloudy, it was still good weather. Now on our third and last day, we have drizzling rain and a sky so dark it feels like twilight.  We identify with a favorite St.  Petersburg saying about summer weather: “Nine months of expectation, three months of disappointment.”

Our morning excursion is called the highlights of  St. Petersburg, which includes brief a drive-by of two of the cathedrals we visited yesterday.  Our main interest is the city’s oldest landmark,  the Peter and Paul Fortress constructed in the shaped of a six-pointed star on Rabbit (Hare) Island.

Our guide admits that although St. Petersburg may be a splendid city now, when the Peter and Paul fortress was built– the first structure built here–no Russians wanted to live in the area.  If the low swampy terrain and pesky summer mosquitoes weren’t bad enough, there was the added problem of wolves attacking and eating people. So, she continues, most of the early residents were forced to live here, including the nobility. No wonder many of their  descendants find it difficult to smile.

Peter and Paul Fortress St Petersburg, RussiaPeter and Paul Fortress on a dreary St. Petersburg day

As our bus approaches Peter and Paul Fortress, I scan the sand beach near the fort wall. It’s deserted today but on a sunny day this beach can be packed by those eager to soak up the sun when temperatures  may seem uncomfortably cool. But for those who experience  only 20 hours of sunlight in  December and January and whose daily high temperature  from November through February stays several degrees below freezing , these hardy people have a different understanding of what it means to be cold. There is an obvious irony that the average winter low here is 15 degrees, when in St. Petersburg, FL, it’s 74 degrees.  Florida’s St. Petersburg   was named after this Russian city, in 1888, by Russian railroad builder Piotr Dementyev (Peter Demens) who was born in  frosty St. Petersburg, Russia.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter the Great began construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress   in 1703  to defend the city from attack during the  Russian war with Sweden (1700-1721) . When the stronghold was completed in 1740, the Swedes were long subdued and Peter the Great was dead. However, the fort did not sit idle during this time. As early as 1720, it was the  barracks for the city’s garrison  as well as a place to store political prisoners.

The fort’s main attraction is the Cathedral  of Saints Peter and Paul. The cathedral’s towering 400-foot high golden spire is one of the city’s most noticeable landmarks.  There are other attractions besides the cathedral:  exhibits about St.  Petersburg’s history and Russian space flight and  a tour of the once dreaded prison cells of  Trubetskoy Bastion.  Following a tradition originated by the  Tsars, the fort fires a cannon at noon each day.

Peter and Paul Cathedral interior                                    Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

Our tour is limited primarily to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, not that the weather would allow us to spend much time walking around outside. The cathedral alone could consume a good part of a morning but we have half that time.  The cathedral may be several hundred years old but it  obviously was maintained well by Russian nobility and apparently by the Soviet government.

In fact, the radiant  golden iconostasis   with its 43 icons appears so new it could be recently installed.  The paintings have been refurbished regularly, which explains why they are so bright, and deteriorating items such as the church doors were replaced.

An unusual feature of the church is its pulpit, used only a single time. That was to excommunicate the great writer Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy, however, had already openly excommunicated himself from the institution. (In recent years, Tolstoy supporters have requested the church to reconsider the writer’s status. Tolstoy remains excommunicated.)

Crypts of the Tsars

Almost every Russian Tsar from the time of Peter the Great  rests in Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is easy to locate the marble tomb of Peter the Great among those of the other tsars,   A bust of the Tsar is on the fence surrounding his marble tomb. People still place flowers on the grave; some are present today.

The crypt many westerners most want to see is that of  the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate in 1917.  Nicholas II and his family were kept as political prisoners in St. Petersburg, then moved to Yekaterinburg, a major city 900 miles east of Moscow.  On the orders of Vladimir Lenin, the family was executed when it appeared  that Russians rebelling against Bolshevik rule might be able to rescue them.

To make the corpses unrecognizable, they were burned and doused with acid. Then they were buried at a secret location so Romanov supporters would not turn the gravesite into a shrine.  The tragic story of the last tsar captured many people’s imagination, nourished by stories, books and films like 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra  based on the 1967 book of the same name still available from Amazon.

In addition, from the time of the tsar’s death, rumors persisted that one of the tsar’s children had survived.  It was an international sensation when a new mass grave was uncovered near Yekaterinburg and DNA tests identified the bodies of Nicholas II, his wife but only three of the children.  In 1998, those  remains were brought to Peter and Paul Cathedral and  buried in the small Chapel of St. Catherine there.

In 2007, yet another grave near Yekaterinburg yielded the DNA-verified remains of the missing two children. The bodies of Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria were transported here to join their family.  But they have no marble tomb like the other tsars, only ones of imitation marble.  Supposedly because there isn’t enough money for real marble.

After viewing the royal crypts, it’s time to return to the Oceania Marina. The gloomy day outside corresponds to my mood after this regal display of death. It seems so contradictory that Nicholas II and his family would be brutally exterminated, yet the numerous tombs of  Romanov royalty in the cathedral apparently were never violated. Churches were plundered but never demolished  during the godless days of communism.

Where did all the Bolshevik violence lead? Nicholas II and his family are considered saints by the Russian Orthodox church, an honor about as high as any mortal can attain.  Lenin, too, became a sort of saint of Russian communism.  Lenin was embalmed after his death in 1924 and put on public display in a glass casket under Red Square. He’s still there on display, like some deceased holy man. (Photo of Lenin under glass)

According to Lenin’s widow, the revolutionary wanted to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. She made this request of Russian authorities: “Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name.”

Weather Forecasting Upcoming Ports

Our final St.  Petersburg tour  scheduled for the afternoon is a canal cruise along the Moika and Fontanka Rivers to view the historic architecture. The weather turns so foul we decide not to bother. It’s a disappointing end  for our last hours in St. Petersburg.

Yet we’ve been fortunate to enjoy good weather until today. The concierge advises me that rain is frequent in the Baltic after August 15. He says numerous ports were washouts the previous week.  So there could be more bad days ahead.

I decide to check the weather forecast for tomorrow’s stop at Tallinn, Estonia, a place we’d like very much to see. I go to the only  weather site that gets it right most of the time: yr.no.   Americans unfamiliar with  yr.no  should keep it in mind for any European travel. It is a Norwegian website provided by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The forecasts combine Norway’s  weather information with data from other meteorological organizations around the world, allowing yr.no to provide forecasts for an astounding seven million locations.

I discovered yr.no last year while touring Ireland, where weather needs constant checking. Yr.no was superior to any of my usual sources, Weather Channel, Weather Underground and the like. The only drawback of using yr.no  is converting the temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. But the site is hard to beat for overall forecasting accuracy in Europe and sometimes back home.

The wireless speed on the Oceania Marina is surprisingly good. But  yr.no’s  next day forecast for Tallinn is miserable: significant rain for the entire day. This is one time I’d like yr.no to be wrong.

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg

A Night of Russian Entertainment and Patriotism

This evening we attend what the Oceania Marina describes as a private performance of Russian song and dance by a large troupe of talented singers, dancers and musicians. That’s a vague description, which means it could be really good or terribly bad.  If happens to be a play performed in Russian, it would be incomprehensibly bad. On the other hand, if it’s a folkloric song and dance show, it should be pretty good. Russia is known as the land of the triangular-shaped instrument known as the balalaika, the well-known folk song “Kalinka” and Cossack sword dancing.

We have another new guide, who explains that the men and women performing for us are in the Russian military. She says they were given the choice to sing and dance or be sent to the Russian front (that would be the Ukraine). So I expect they will be singing and dancing their hearts out.

We caravan to the theater in three Oceania tour buses, the largest tour group I’ve seen to date. After we’re parked in a restricted area in the middle of an intersection, our guide says the bus will remain here and easy to find after the show: the theater is just down the street and right around the corner, less than 10 minutes away. And we must remember our bus number when returning: No. 1.

At the theater, we discover getting to the auditorium requires a bit of effort. Just inside the entrance door is a long ornate staircase leading to an open landing. From there, we must climb two more sets of lengthy stairways to reach the auditorium.  It’s quite a climb: 123 stairs in all according to someone’s count.

The large auditorium easily absorbs our three busloads, with hundreds of empty seats still left. As the first here, we sit wherever we want. (During the performance, a Royal Caribbean group quietly files into seats behind us.  We don’t realize they’re present until the intermission.)

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St PetersburgMale soloist sings a Russian patriotic song

The show is better than most of us probably expected. We finally learn the performers are called the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg. The core performers are the male chorus and orchestra, whose roots trace back  to the first official Russian armed forces choir–the Red Army Choir– created early in World War II to help inspire the country’s morale. Although a dance ensemble was added to the choir, the chorus remains the essential component.

The Red Army Choir

The Red Army Choir has an impressive history. It was formed and led by the legendary Alexander Alexandrov, who during World War II also composed the official Russian national anthem . (Hear the Red Army Choir sing it,)

Today the Red Army Choir performs all over the world and is considered the world’s most famous military choir.  Within just the past month, the Red Army Choir had a viral video shown on most U.S. network news shows: see “Happy” featuring a dancing Russian traffic cop on the streets of Moscow.  In 1994, the choir appeared with the cult Finnish rock group Leningrad Cowboys at the 11th annual MTV Music Awards singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” They also stole the opening night of the 2014 Sochi Olympics singing Sex Bomb.

Although St. Petersburg’s Russian army song and dance ensemble may be the minor leagues compared to the Red Army Choir, they’re still very good. The choir’s powerful, patriotic songs, especially those by soloists, draw genuine applause, not polite clapping. Understandable since I think many Americans enjoy an honest display of patriotism since at home we keep ours hidden until something like 9/11.

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St PetersburgThe women dancers add considerable color and flair

The real entertainment comes from the men and women of the dance ensemble who perform a series of entertaining folk dances while dressed in the traditional costumes of different Russian nationalities. Several male dancers perform a series of amazing acrobatic dance feats. Most memorable is the Cossack Calvary dancer who crossed the stage in nine rapid dance splits, an achievement that still hurts to think about. The brightly costumed women were standouts in the traditional Russian dances that are much livelier and more amusing than their names: such as the  Soldier’s Dance and the  Sailor’s Dance, in which the women take the lead.

For me, the energetic song and dance ensemble performance is the most enjoyable part of our St. Petersburg visit. Best of all, Linda now understands why occasionally I like to listen to Russian songs even if I don’t understand a word . Not surprised to see she’s enjoying this as much as I am.

Russian Champagne Tasting

During the intermission, I make the trek to a lower floor to use the facilities. Few other passengers make the descent, unfortunate since a refreshment room was set up for us there.  To fortify myself for the trek back upstairs, I visit the refreshment room and a table with small glasses of Russian champagne. I’m curious to see if it tastes the way I remember it. Hmmm…first glass doesn’t hold enough to tell. I need another sip or two to decide. Hmmm…think Russian Champagne really has improved. Trying the champagne is an unexpectedly uplifting experience, as someone directs me to a hidden elevator to the auditorium.

After the show, outside the theater we find the human equivalent of breadcrumbs: tour guides spaced along on the sidewalk with their arms pointing to the left to lead us back to the buses. Each of the three buses has a number next to its entrance. We find bus No. 1 where we left it and settle in for the ride back.

Our guide pops through the door and asks, “Is anyone missing?”  How would anyone know?

“Are you sure you’re on the bus you came on?” she queries.  We’re all sure. She takes a passenger count. Darting off the bus, she announces, “Well, someone is missing!”

We wait as the other the other buses take census. Our guide climbs back on the bus, with a huge grin. “Can you believe it?” she says, laughing. “They’ve lost a tourist!”  She shakes her head in disbelief, wondering how this could happen.

Linda and I look at each other. Yeah, we believe “they” can lose a tourist. It’s eerily familiar. But tonight it’s not me! This time, they make a real effort to sort it all out. Our bus starts up and we head back to the Oceania Marina. Seems that tourist still is MIA but since it’s not anyone from our bus, not of our concern.

I suspect the missing person may have used the first floor restroom, took too long and the guides were no longer in place. Or perhaps he discovered the champagne room and lingered.

With three busloads of theater goers and some of us still believing a passenger went astray at night somewhere in St. Petersburg, I expect that at some time there will be an announcement of the person’s return. No need to give their name, of course. Have heard them on other cruise lines under similar circumstances . Possibly there is such an announcement that we don’t hear.

There are few announcements ever on the Oceania Marina, which I usually appreciate.  Still, the Marina seems an unusually silent, impersonal ship. That could be one of the reasons we’re feeling so little attachment to the Marina, the last thing we ever expected. We’ve  treasured Oceania for so many years.

St Petersburg Trinity of Cathedrals

Three of St. Petersburg’s Most Famous Churches

Following lunch on the Oceania Marina, we’re off to visit three of St. Petersburg’s most prominent cathedrals.   Russia is a land of paradoxes and nowhere is that more apparent than the country’s attitude toward religion in the last century .  After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and atheism became the country’s official  doctrine, churches were  stripped of their valuable  objects and closed.

Churches were converted into whatever the government needed them to be: storehouses for vegetables or warehouses for equipment, an ice skating rink or a  swimming pool.  When religious freedom returned in 1991, the majority of Russians went back to their Russian Orthodox faith. However, many churches badly needed repair and restoration due to wartime damage and decades of Soviet neglect.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Our first stop is the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia’s largest church and the fourth tallest cathedral in the world.  Its gleaming gold-plated iron dome is a landmark visible from many parts of the city. St. Isaac’s reportedly cost six times more than the Winter Palace and took 40 years to build. One of the greatest engineering problems was to make a stable foundation for the church in St. Petersburg’s mushy, marshy soil.  To accomplish this, entire forests were cut and turned into  pine logs. The timbers then were coated in tar, driven into the ground and covered with compacted stone.

St. Isaacs Cathedral Cupola Interior St Petersburg RussiaEye in the sky, St. Isaac’s cupola interior

Inside the church, I find the soaring interior dome especially impressive. It’s decorated with a magnificent fresco of the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints and angels, all looking down on us from a lofty 260 feet. (If you have the time and energy, you can climb the  300 steps up to the dome base and view St. Petersburg from the observation walk there.)

At ground level, the cathedral has lavishly colored mosaics, tall columns and fine statuary.  There is so much here it’s impossible to describe this colossus adequately.  For more information, click here and herefor more photos, here.  The Soviets converted St. Isaac’s into a Museum of Atheism so it doesn’t suffer as much as some others. The cathedral continues to function largely as a museum, holding regular religious services in one small chapel, not the main building.

You won’t find anywhere to sit inside St. Isaac’s.  There aren’t any seats or pews because most Orthodox churches don’t have them.  Worshippers are expected to stand before God during services. Also missing from St. Isaac’s is a church organ. It wasn’t carted off by the Soviets because there wasn’t one. The only musical instrument used in Russian Orthodox churches is the human voice.  What a difference from the rest of Europe where a  massive organ is a famous feature of many churches.

Lady of Kazan Cathedral

From St. Isaac’s it’s a short drive to Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, notable for its semi-circular 96-column outdoor colonnade that encircles a fountain and garden area in front of the church. This elaborate decoration is something you’d expect outside a palace, not a church.  Kazan Cathedral is special, built in the early 1800s to be the home of a famous icon of the Virgin Mary found almost a half century earlier near in the city of Kazan. The icon, known as The Lady of Kazan, was famous for its miraculous powers associated with various Russian victories in battle and with the country’s destiny.  It was so popular that exact replicas of it were made in several places in Russia. All were said to perform miracles like the original.

Kazan Cathedral St Petersburg RussiaInterior of Kazan Cathedral

The icon went missing early in the 1900s–or did it? A popular  belief states someone stole it from the church around 1903 or 1904 for its jewel-encrusted frame.  Others claim the icon never was lost but in the possession of various Orthodox clergy in the following decades.  There were even reports that Leningraders marched it around the city in World War II.  What does not seem to be in dispute is the icon’s present location: the state of New York, in the possession of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad where the icon is venerated as the Kazan Mother of God. But is it genuine?  At the same time, Pope John Paul II had a Kazan icon, too, which may have been made too recently to be genuine. Regardless, the Pope returned it to Russia.

The interior of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral contains an impressive array of columns   equal to any found in many palace halls.  The statues here are noteworthy—fashioned only by Russian sculptors, not a common practice at the time when Westerners normally made the city’s religious statues. The overall décor of the  Kazan Cathedral is simple yet elegant, certainly more relaxing and less overpowering than St. Isaac’s. And there is  a greater religious feeling, too, as people pray and light candles in an intimate atmosphere.

Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

Our final stop is one of St. Petersburg’s most popular churches. Its name is a mouthful to say: the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, or Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Locals refer to it as the Spilled Blood church, so named because it sits on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The cathedral, built by Tsar Alexander III to honor his father’s memory, is dramatically different from St. Isaac’s, Kazan Cathedral and most other city churches built in the European Baroque or Neoclassic style.  Spilled Blood is designed in the traditional Russian style with multi-colored onion domes and other eye-catching decorations. The ornate façade exhibits not just a riot of colors but scores of smaller embellishment, many appearing as icons.

Church on the Spilled Blood St Petersburg RussiaChurch on Spilled Blood onion domes

As a religious memorial to Alexander II, the extravagantly decorated church was never officially consecrated and never conducted religious services. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the church was looted and the interior turned into a garbage dump.  After World War II, Spilled Blood became a storage house for vegetables, prompting locals to call it the Savior on Potatoes.  For many years it was commonly believed the building would be torn down due to extensive damage, yet it remained standing.

Spilled Blood’s salvation came in 1970 when St. Isaac’s Cathedral brought it under its management and its museum fees paid for the 25-year restoration of  Spilled Blood. Fully restored , the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood reopened its doors in 1997 containing walls and ceilings decorated with more brightly colored mosaics than perhaps any other church anywhere.  Never consecrated, the cathedral is both a museum of mosaics and a memorial to Tsar Alexander II.  The dominant theme of the murals is said to link Alexander II’s killing with Christ’s crucifixion.

Spilled Blood is a reminder how often history is full of strange contradictions and inconsistencies.  On our first Baltic cruise stop in Helsinki, we see the popular landmark statue of Alexander II erected in Senate Square by the Finnish people to honor the “good tsar” who granted them greater political freedom than the Russian leaders following him. Here in Russia, Alexander II  is best known for freeing the serfs from their masters and instituting other radical reforms. Now we stand at the very place a bomb killed the tsar considered to be the greatest reformer since Peter the Great. What a weird world we live in.

Touring the State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg

State Hermitage Museum Is A Former St. Petersburg Palace

The State Hermitage Museum is one of St. Petersburg’s must-see attractions, normally choked with as many as 35,000 tourists daily in summer. We appear to be the first ones entering the museum today. There’s a reason for this: cruise ship tour groups enjoy early admission to the Hermitage well in advance of the museum’s normal operating hours. And we’re on an Oceania Marina tour.

The State Hermitage Museum art collection,  housed in the Winter Palace and four additional buildings located side by side near the Neva River, began when Empress Catherine the Great purchased several hundred paintings from the city of Berlin modestly in 1764.  She probably never could  have  imagined what that modest beginning would grow into. Who could?

An estimated 2.7 million art objects are now held by the Hermitage. One of the world’s largest collections, it’s far too large for all ever to be exhibited there. In recent years, the Hermitage has opened exhibition centers to share more of its collection with the world. The satellite Hermitages  are located in Russia and several cities in Europe, including Amsterdam.

Interior of the Winter PalaceWalls and walls of painting, State Hermitage Museum

Arriving at the Hermitage, our guide stresses where our bus will depart from in case anyone loses contact with the group. Inside, she indicates where we’ll exit the museum. Perhaps my Peterhof experience yesterday is responsible for these essentials being pointed out? Or is this the standard procedure and something our guide yesterday ignored?  No telling.

Lost In A Throng of Art Work

For the next two hours, we experience a cram course in European art history. We explore the exhibit rooms and hallways of the Hermitage, pausing occasionally but more often advancing steadily. There is so much to see and our several hours are so little time. Surprisingly, we can take still photos and video everywhere. No flash, of course, so anything in a dark room is a problem,

About half-way through the tour, for me it all becomes slightly overwhelming, an excess of color and shapes displayed on canvas, on porcelain, in marble and in bronze. Yes, it is a rare privilege to see so many great works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Rubens and others. Yet so many distinguished works are merging into a blur.  Sensory overload.

Rembrandt Painting State Hermitage MuseumOh, just another Rembrandt…

Our final stop is a small, once forbidden room that guides still often bypass. It is the controversial exhibition of French Impressionists with works by Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The exhibit is controversial because the Soviets took the works from Germany and then forbade their display or for them to be studied until the paintings were made available for public view in the Hermitage in the 1990s.  See a few of the paintings here.

I’m not the only one feeling a little foggy headed as we prepare to leave the museum. Fortunately, the State Hermitage Museum has an excellent website depicting a fairly extensive and growing display of its artwork, a scrapbook containing much of what we see. It is a way to relive what we see, though it can never match actually being there.

Hermitage Museum Staircase-1Staircase in the Winter Palace

As we exit the Hermitage, its doors are just opening and a jostling crush of visitors is just entering. Glad we didn’t have to be part of that. Sometimes it really pays to be a cruise passenger, especially when the Oceania Marina pays for your tour.

We did not have time to shop.   No matter The Hermitage offers online shopping of reproductions of some of its famous canvases and other art media at surprisingly reasonable prices.  For instance, Faberge eggs sell from $25 to $249.  Linen canvas reproductions of Da Vinci’s “Madonna and Child” are only $19.  Shipping is from the U.S. and depends on the item’s weight. There’s a U.S. 800-number for questions   You can also download a shopping app from the Hermitage Facebook page. Very capitalistic, these Russians.

Evading The Peterhof Curse

Finding The Tour Group: Time Runs Out

(In case you’re coming in at the end of this  three-part tale, it  begins at the end of this post, continues in the next one and now concludes here.)

Continuing to search for my Oceania Marina tour group, I  leave Peterhof’s Lower Gardens and go to the one spot where we should meet at some point. The overlook above Peterhof’s famous Grand Cascade with its 64 different fountains, and more than 200 bronze statues and other decorative objects. This iconic spot is a place any decent tour group should visit. It also turns out to be both a good observation post for overseeing the Lower Gardens sidewalks as well as nicely situated near Peterhof’s main exit on the right side of the palace.

I stay there, glued to the Grand Cascade overlook, never going anywhere else for photos. Yet never a glimpse of Linda or our group. I estimate the bus will depart around 12:45 p.m. since the tour is supposed to be back at the Marina at 1:30 p.m. When the group fails to appear by 12:45, I decide to search the parked rows of tour buses lining the roads behind the palace.  No Oceania bus and not a single bus driver who speaks English! It doesn’t look good for getting back with the others. At least there’s no worry about the Marina sailing without me. It’s only the first of our three days in St. Petersburg.  Still, I’ll pay dearly for getting separated; it’s bound to be an exorbitant taxi ride to the Oceania Marina.

Peterhof Grand Cascade, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe famous Grand Cascade. So much to see but not today.

At 1 p.m., I play my last option, visiting the information booth next to the main exit. Thankfully, the woman there speaks English. I explain my predicament, that undoubtedly the bus has left without me. (although deep down inside I’d really like that bus magically to appear). What I need to do is inform the Marina—and for them to let Linda know–that everything is fine despite my disappearance.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.

The woman closes the information kiosk and leads me to a large building adjacent to the main Palace. She suggests I take a chair and then walks behind closed doors into what I presume is an office area.  I sit and watch Russians talking and sometimes laughing as they come and go through the entrance hall.

My Very Strange Day

Several things about today seem odd.  Despite Linda’s usual quiet manner I’d expect her to create a memorable disturbance to have me found.  She and I are out of touch because we didn’t bring our cell phones on this trip. With unlimited internet on the ship, we didn’t think we’d need them. Worst of all, we left behind our small walkie talkies for staying in contact aboard ship. Those walkie talkies have a range of five miles, perfect for this situation.

The woman from the information booth reappears with a colleague who asks me a series of questions in Russian. Those  are translated into English for me and my answers converted into Russian for her. What easily could be a complicated dialogue is efficient and brief.  Interview over, the two women disappear back behind the office door.  I glance at my watch: 1:15 p.m. That Oceania bus definitely is long gone.

The other thing that seems odd about today: our guide does carry a cell phone and yet no one at this main office has been notified about a wandering American tourist now MIA for more than two hours. Losing a tourist in Russia used to be a very bad thing for a guide. Maybe not so much anymore?

The office door abruptly swings open again and the two women reappear with a colleague. In fluent English, the newcomer says “Your bus is waiting. It’s just around the corner. Come with me.”  The relief I experience is hard to describe. I ask her how she can possibly know where the bus is. Or know who I am? As we briskly walk to the left of the palace– the exact opposite side of where I searched–from our conversation I come to realize this woman essentially is the-boss-of-all-guides. And Marie only has just phoned in that I am missing. The big boss does not look pleased.  Is she upset with me or Marie?

An Unexpected Outcome

After perhaps two minutes of walking, we reach a row of craft shops, turn left at a corner and standing there are Linda and Marie, with our bus parked behind them. I profusely thank the woman who reunited all of us, clamber up the bus stairs and immediately apologize to the group for making them wait so long. They probably have waited for at least 30 minutes yet no one seems upset. Thankfully. I plop into my seat beside Linda. I tell her I’ve searched everywhere for the bus but where we are now is so far from the main exit—I had no idea this small out-of-the-way area even existed.

She updates me about her day. “We only got on the bus 5 minutes ago,” she says. “I let Marie know you were missing as soon as we lost you this morning. But she never did anything.  When we found the bus and you still hadn’t shown up, I told her this bus wasn’t going anywhere without you. Some of the others felt the same way. Only then did she start making phone calls.”

How did everyone disappear so quickly this morning? Turns out the prolonged restroom search consumed almost all of the group’s time at Peterhof. From the Chessboard Fountain where I’d lost everyone, Marie marched the group a short distance before taking a sharp right to walk away from the Lower Gardens and into a forest with thick tree cover.

Marie’s promised 5-minute stroll instead took around 20 minutes before reaching a remote area with little for tourists to see but trees. No wonder the restrooms were empty. From the time we boarded the train tram until everyone had restroom access must have been over an hour.  If I’d been on Linda’s expedition and had an urgent need I’d have watered the forest. Wasting everyone’s tour time like this was senseless considering the restrooms available before the tram ride.

Linda says that from the restrooms Marie retraced their route until reaching a bridge over the canal flowing between the palace and the Gulf of Finland. Everyone crossed to the other side, then continued plodding through a wilderness of trees. Once they reached Peterhof’s open Lower Gardens and its fountains, the group then ascended the stairs beside the Grand Cascade, never pausing long enough for Linda to take any video.

Instead of taking the group to the Grand Cascade overlook, Marie immediately exited everyone through an out-of-the-way turnstile far from the main exit. Then she gave everyone time for craft shopping near the bus. “You saw a lot more of Peterhof  than we did because we saw hardly anything,” Linda points out. “And I wasn’t the only one looking for you. Some other passengers were, too.” While being lost wasn’t the best of times, it was a lot better than being part of that ridiculous, unnecessary trek.

Riding back to the ship, I reflect on my decades-long curse at Peterhof. Was it active yet again today? My cameras may have worked well but I don’t get to use them much because I spend most of my time at the Grand Cascade overlook. Having my tour guide receiver cut out as it did is strange yet fortunate. That malfunction allows me to avoid joining Linda’s walking tour to hell and back. At least I get some photos. But it doesn’t compare to what I normally take on such a perfect sunny day.

One thing is certain. This is my last time at Peterhof.  For whatever reason , I am forever jinxed there.  It is a place of bad juju for me.  This is my forever farewell to it. .

 

 

The Curse At Peterhof Palace St. Petersburg

One of St. Petersburg’s Most Popular Attractions

It’s about a 45-minute drive from the Oceania Marina to the palaces and gardens at Peterhof, often called the “Russian Versailles.”  Peterhof Palace is a place I look forward to with anticipation and dread. (Note: See previous post for origin of the curse)

Our lively guide Marie briefs us on the past of St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin. We pass through countryside that is green and eye-catching. There isn’t a single visible scar from the horrific 900-day German siege of  St. Petersburg, at the time known as Leningrad. When the Germans attacked Leningrad in 1941, the city was an important industrial center as well as the country’s second largest city.

One of the first Russian prizes sought by Germany, Leningrad was nearly surrounded and its major supply lines cut off. The effort to keep the city from falling to the Germans was both heroic and horrific. An estimated one million Leningraders and Russian soldiers died in the conflict here. It’s believed hundreds of thousands of city residents perished not from bullets or bombs but from starvation and cold.

Lower Gardens fountain, Peterhof, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe fountains operate only from May to mid-October

Peterhof palace and its surrounding grounds were occupied by German troops for 28 months. Leningraders knew of the impending German attack and Peterhof staff and volunteers were able to remove numerous pictures, statues, and thousands of art objects, sent by train to other parts of the country. Unknown to the Germans, many of Peterhof’s marble and bronze sculptures were hidden beneath their boots, buried in the ground. Anything left standing was stolen.

Peterhof’s Great Palace was almost destroyed by an explosion and various palaces and buildings elsewhere on the grounds were also badly damaged. A third of the 30,000 trees growing there were cut down. After the war, the Soviet government restored or replaced Peterhof’s eight palaces and more than 150 of the fountains at tremendous expense. Strangely, our guide Marie never mentions any of this on our bus ride.

We begin our tour of Peterhof in the 284-acre Alexandria Park located east of the main palace grounds. The park is named after Empress Alexandria, wife of Tsar Nicholas I, who granted her the land as a present. The property became one of the imperial summer residences of the Romanovs.

At Alexandria Park we’re supposed to take a “miniature train” to Peterhof. I’m not sure what kind of miniature train I expect, probably something similar to the ones at Disney parks, certainly something that runs on tracks . The “train” turns out to be a regular parking lot tram with a locomotive-shaped engine pulling the carriages.  Most carriages are open air but we’re herded aboard one with windows  that don’t open.

When Things Start to Go Wrong

Before boarding the carriage, several Oceania passengers ask to use the restrooms located  about 10 yards from the tram.  A sign with the letters WC–denotes Western commode or water closet but also a flush toilet–points the way.  Marie insists everyone wait until our “train” arrives at Peterhof.  So we sit there, perhaps another 5 to 10 minutes, waiting for another group to arrive and board their carriage. We have more than adequate time for a quick restroom break.  Marie’s refusal to allow us to use those empty restrooms will create a series of needless problems.

Alexandria Park train tram, Peterhof, St. Petersburg RussiaThe train tram at Alexandria Garden: note the WC sign

Rocking and swaying, our train tram travels non-stop along a wide walkway shared with pedestrians.  Bright glaring reflections cover our locked windows,  making photos impossible. Too bad since some of the park’s buildings are intriguing. My favorite is an elaborate Gothic-style building the imperial Romanov family used as their private church.

It takes the tram over 20 minutes finally to reach Peterhof’s Lower Garden and the long awaited restrooms. Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg and the restrooms have agonizingly long lines. Thankfully the men’s queue moves efficiently. Waiting for the other passengers to return, I test my wireless tour guide receiver. This nifty device will enable us to hear Marie’s descriptions as we navigate the palace crowds.

One passenger complains the women’s line isn’t moving, an exaggeration since several from our group are just outside the restroom entrance. To the annoyance of the women  who’ve  already waited 30 minutes for relief, Marie calls them back immediately. Instead of touring, she will now lead us to a more remote restroom “just 5 minutes away.” She guarantees fewer people there. Our Peterhof visit is disintegrating into a restroom quest.

When Things Really Go Wrong

On our walk we soon encounter the Checkerboard Fountain where water spills over a long sloping checkerboard. As it happens, a group of musicians start to play long Swiss-style horns in front of the checkerboard display. Several of us stop for photos. I pay attention to Marie’s comments as I quickly check that my camera hasn’t crashed as in the past. The camera works well. Images are recorded for my first time ever!

Abruptly, Marie’s commentary ends in mid-sentence. Her words don’t gradually fade away but suddenly cut off.  Scanning the area, I don’t spot anyone from our group, including Linda, who is seriously interested in finding that next restroom. But they all were here only seconds ago.  I even saw Linda out of the corner of my eye while I checked the camera.

The sidewalks of the Lower Garden are filled with tourists, making it increasingly difficult to pick out anyone even a short distance ahead. Marie’s logical route should be the restaurant in the Lower Grounds, though that’s also likely to be crowded. But it’s the only possible place within her promised “5-minute walk.”  Wrong location. Plenty of people but none from our group. Yet there are no other buildings anywhere nearby. Perhaps on the upper terrace near the great Palace?  That would probably take more than five minutes but I check it out anyway, hoping to hear Marie’s voice in my earbuds. Not there, either.  I check my watch: 11 a.m.

Normally losing track of one’s group isn’t a serious concern since a guide typically details a departure point and at what time. Not today. Marie briefly mentioned our bus would leave from a different place but she never said where that would be. And I don’t recall her stating a departure time, either. Still, by now she must know she’s lost one of her group. I search again back in the Lower Gardens restaurant in case she shows up there.  Again no luck.  I have no idea where to look next. This is turning into a bad morning.

Oceania Marina Visits St. Petersburg, Russia

Exploring St. Petersburg

Probably the main reason we book the  Viking Trails cruise is the Oceania Marina  three-day visit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the free tours offered for this port. Linda and I each schedule six Oceania St. Petersburg excursions two months before departure. Normally, the tour packages would cost close to $1,000 for each of us.

Aboard the Marina, we meet frequent Oceania passengers who ignore the ship’s no charge tours in favor of using a local tour agencies like SPB which caters to smaller groups.  Among those touring independently are the new friends we make the first day over lunch. They do not want to be herded around with 40 other Oceania passengers as on previous cruise tours. That may have been a problem elsewhere but in St. Petersburg, our large bus tours aren’t a problem.

On my two prior visits to St. Petersburg, I enjoyed having complete freedom to explore the city on my own any time of day or night. That’s not an option now due to Russia’s high visa fees for independent U.S. travelers: between $200 and $300 a person. Cruise ship passengers, however, do not need visas for stays up to 72 hours as long as they join government-authorized tour operators when they go ashore.

Marine Facade St Petersburg RussiaMarine Facade Terminal, St. Petersburg

We arrive in St. Petersburg early enough for a 9 a.m. tour departure. We dock at the mouth of the Neva River beside a cruise terminal with the odd name of Marine Façade.   Well, the terminal building is a façade of sorts for now, filled with lots of empty space that easily could be made to accommodate much greater numbers of passengers. Outside, in front of the cruise terminal, is a huge expanse of barren ground temporarily occupied by a flock of sea gulls. No doubt lots of development is planned for this land, too.

Immigration & Politics

As in the Cold War days, Russia remains security conscious. In St Petersburg, we must not only carry passports ashore but pass through immigration in the terminal each time we leave and reboard the Marina. Entering the Marine Façade, the cheerful morning atmosphere disappears, replaced by a cold official reception. The immigration officers are all business, never smile, never offer a hint of friendliness. These passport stampers act annoyed at our presence.

Perhaps they are, considering the disdain Russian President Vladimir Putin has for President Obama. St. Petersburg is very Putin friendly. This is his hometown, where he was born, where he graduated from law school and, according to one Russian guide, where he routinely allocates generous projects to benefit the city.  Moscow may be the capital but Putin also has an official residence here at Konstantinovsky Palace, also called Putin’s Palace, which is open to visitors.

Putins Palace St Petersburg RussiaRussian presidential residence, a.k.a.  Putin’s Palace

The Russian immigration staff may appear permanently grouchy but the average Russian in my experience is almost always friendly towards American tourists. As one Muscovite told me during the Cold War after we sled raced down a steep snow-covered hill well outside Moscow, “We are all the same. It’s the leaders who create the differences.”

Some of the ship passengers are troubled by their immigration experience. They voice their concern to our guide. She attempts to defuse the cold St. Petersburg greeting by reassuring everyone, saying “In St. Petersburg there is a saying that only fools smile for no reason.” She explains the absence of smiles also reflects the St. Petersburg temperament due to the freezing Russian winter here which can bring 19 hours of darkness during the day. Her explanation seems to mollify those upset, even though I think she’s just advised them to stop behaving like smiling fools.

This morning we visit my old nemesis, the famous parks and palace of Peterhof built by Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) about 20 miles from St. Petersburg. Originally known as Peterhof (“Peter’s Court” in German), Peterhof was de-Germanized to Petrodvorets (“Peter’s Palace”) in 1944.  The Peterhof title returned in 1997 following the Soviet era, although the area around Peterhof is still known as Petrodvorets.

Peterhof’s assembly of palaces and gleaming golden statues, one of Russia’s most recognized landmarks, sustained heavy damage during World War II. By 1947, the grounds and structures were largely repaired and for the 300th anniversary celebration of St. Petersburg in 2003, everything was restored fully.  Which means the gardens and statuary will be more impressive than my last visit, and I was thoroughly impressed then.

The Peterhof  Curse

Peterhof, built at the beginning of the 1700s, is most famous for its spectacular series of spewing fountains spread over several acres.  No pumps of any type ever powered the fountains. Instead, large reservoirs built at palace level above the statues provide the immense water pressure to power the fountains and the famous statues depicting ancient gods, goddesses, horses and fish.  Peterhof’s most important formation is The Grand Cascade, a series of terraces, fountains and statues that stretch downhill from the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal.

Despite two previous visits, I have not a single picture of the palace or the fountains or the statues. Oh, I definitely tried to take photos each time, several years apart. I even used different pairs of Nikon SLR film cameras on each trip; I always carry two cameras in case one fails. A lot of good that did at Peterhof. On both visits, cameras that worked perfectly before and immediately after my Peterhof tours inexplicably stopped working while at Peterhof itself.

The cameras simply would not function there. Naturally I changed camera batteries, did everything I knew how to do to make those damn cameras take a picture. My equipment seemed cursed. Or perhaps it was me. No one with me experienced camera problems.

I never suffered such total camera paralysis anywhere afterwards, at home or while photographing on all seven continents.  Another similar camera disaster can’t possibly happen again today. I come loaded for Russian bear, carrying three cameras this time. It’s inconceivable every one of them mysteriously will break down again. The weather is perfect this morning. I take that as a good omen. This time, no camera or anything else possibly can ruin my Peterhof visit…I hope.