Tag Archives: Oceania Marina Visits St. Petersburg Russia

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.

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.