CZARS, BALALAIKAS, WHITE NIGHTS AND ONION DOMES
The Church on Spilled Blood
To go into Russia, U.S. citizens need a visa. Unless your intent is to wander the streets on your own, this is really no big deal, certainly less of an issue than getting one to go to Brazil, for example. If you are going to use a certified tour operator like Alla Tours or Red October in St. Petersburg, or take your own ship's excursions, you don't need to do anything. Except for the guides and the staff in stores that tourists frequent, English is not spoken and there is no signage that is understandable, and I cannot imagine going off on your own.
From everything I had heard and read, I pictured being kept on a very short leash while on tour in St. Petersburg. Tourists are required to stay with their guides but the experience isn't as stifling as I expected it to be. Although I would have liked more time at the open market near the Church on Spilled Blood (the one that's always pictured, with the colorful onion domes), it came at the end of an excursion and we only had a few minutes. In fact, we made it back to the ship after that with only 20 minutes until sail-away, so to say that everything is tightly controlled might be a slight understatement.
My expectations as a first timer to St. Petersburg were certainly met, and in many ways exceeded. To be in the land of Peter the Great, Tolstoy, Lenin and Stalin; to see first hand the incredible architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, and then the blocky, functionary architecture of the communist 20th century was exhilarating. The grounds of the Versailles-like palaces, the colorful gilded onion domes of the churches, the coffins of the Czars lined up in a church nave and the exquisite statuary around the city left me breathless.
Folk Singer, St. Petersburg
I was disappointed that we were berthed quite a distance from the city in a fairly industrial area. For weeks I had watched Regatta's Webcam as the ship came to rest right in front of the first bridge in the city, practically opposite the series of palaces that now comprise the Hermitage Museum. If you caught the Webcam at just the right moment you could see the bridge in its upright position, which happens every night for a couple of hours to allow ships to pass up the Neva River. I couldn't wait to be there too, but when we docked before even getting into the main river, it was a huge disappointment. Our views were of parking lots, massive cranes, and oil tanks. Now there is a new cruise terminal and all ships will be docking at that facility; it opened shortly after my cruise to the region.
The only other down-notes were well-known: crowds and heat. Buildings in St. Petersburg are not air-conditioned and during the summer it can get quite close and hot, especially with the crowds. Not every visitor comes by ship, but on one of the days that we were there, there were also potentially 10,000 other cruise passengers enjoying the touristy sights of this city and added to that, it was a special holiday, Navy Day, so the Neva was filled with gray battleships, sailors on display, and thousands of gawkers.
The disappointments were few but the highlights were plentiful. I chose to take ship excursions, partly because I had booked late and partly because I was traveling alone and didn't feel 100% comfortable joining groups that had booked Red October and the like. The Northern Europe boards on Cruise Critic are filled with helpful suggestions and groups looking for others to create a private tour but I decided to stick with Oceania's offerings.
Minuet at Catherine's Palace
The two excursions that really, really stand out for me are the Russian folk music experience, which literally had those of us in attendance bouncing in our seats, and the Imperial Night of the Tzars that's Oceania's signature excursion. Other cruise lines might have a similar program but Regatta's small passenger base makes it ideal; the cruise line has a private tour of Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, followed by a little concert of Baroque music, a minuet display on the beautiful grounds, a walk through a museum of horse-drawn carriages from plain to ultra-elaborate, and finally a sit-down Russian feast in a Pushkin restaurant. It takes hours and is costly but I have never experienced anything like it. The entire Palace was ours to explore, closed to everyone but guests of Regatta. We even got to photograph the Amber Room, where every wall is covered with a mosaic of Baltic amber, and which, during regular opening hours, is off-limits to photography. Amber can be damaged by light so to ensure that no one takes flash photos, no photos are allowed at all during regular hours. The Amber Room's walls consist of 16-foot panels covered with carefully-placed pieces of amber; the room that's on display is a painstaking recreation of the original, which went missing during World War II and has yet to be found.
The included supper featured vodka and wine, potatoes, fish, caviar, pork chops, salad, vegetables, bread, coffee and dessert. During the meal there was a folkloric show, particularly enjoyable by those who had not gone to the folk music show of the previous night. The trip back to the ship afterwards was quiet as we relaxed after such a long evening. Even though it was almost midnight, it was barely dusk in St. Petersburg, and the Neva glinted with the purple sky and the lights on the bridge as we made our way back through the city to our ship.
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