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Discovering St Petersburg on a cruise with All Ways

by Véronique and Mike

3 August 2015We stayed three full days with our VOYAGER in the magnificent city of St Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian Empire. On top of that it was sunny all the time, apart from one very rainy afternoon in the gardens of Peterhof. Knowing that this city only has approximately sixty days of sun per year, it is not exaggerated to say that once again we were very lucky people.

St Petersburg was founded on the mouth of the river Neva 27 May 1703 under the reign of Peter I. The Emperor managed to create a magnificent city on an area of marshy land. Tsar Peter the Great opened the doors wide open for everybody who wanted to help develop his city. Many European artists, architects and sculptors where invited to add their touch to the creation of his dream. St Petersburg is also unique because of its geographical location: on the edge of Russia and an important Russian port on the Baltic Sea. It is also considered as the most Westernized city in Russia. 

These days we joined the All Ways excursions as we did not have an individual visum. It was a pleasure to meet Natalia, a Russian lady who speaks a perfect Dutch (that she learned from a Dutch teacher in St Petersburg). She teached us about the surprising history of city which had several names: St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and back to St Petersburg. Also she talked about life in Russia and gave us some fun facts. As she explained Russians work hard and always think about solutions. They don’t have a government who is there to support them for long periods when they don’t have a job.  

Our excellent guide Natalia at work

She took us back in time, to the era of the tsars with Peter I, Catherina I and their descendants. By giving them nicknames such as the fat one (Catherina I), the ugly one (Ana)… it was easy and fun to follow. Or how she told us how to recognize the people in the statues, most of them representing either Lenin (bald) or the famous and popular Russian author AlexanderPushkin (curly hear).

We want to tell the story of the excursions we joined by showing some pictures accompanied by a short text. 

First excursion was a visit to Puskin Palace or Catherine Palace. The summer palace of Catherina the Great, a barock palace surrounded by a royal parc.

Picture HallCaroline and Yves of FocusIWTV @work in front of Pushkin Palace

In the afternoon it started raining. Mind you, the only rain we experienced during our stay in St.-Petersburg. 

This 18th and 19th century architectural park ensemble was the favourite place of Peter I. There are approximately thirty buildings and one hundred sculptures in the park. The fountains and hydraulic system (with a gravity-fed water system) were installed later on. The park is inspired on Versailles. It has a view on the Finnish Bay.

On the second day the bus stopped briefly on the spit of Vasilevsky island where the two Rostral Columns stand, important landmarks of the city. 

Another stop was to greet the sphinxes in front of the Imperial Academy of Arts, quite an unuasual sight in Saint Petersburg. Two ancient spinxes where transported from Egypt to Russia in 1832.

Later during the morning we visited the Peter and Paul Fortress (1712-1733). The main building is the Sts Peter and Paul cathedral. When built it was the tallest building in Russia. The style of the church is a typical example of combining traditions of western religious architecture and ancient Russian church design. In the cathedral  you can see the graves of the members of the royal family.

The fortress never served a military purpose; the enemy never made it as far as its walls. It was however used as a political prison and torture place, soon after it had been built.

The conspicuous church with the golden dome which we could see from the ship is the St. Isaacs Cathedral (1818-1858 by architect Auguste Montferrand). The cathedral is 101,5 m high and covers over one hectare of land. The cathedral was intended to be the grandest in the Russian empire. It is the fourth largest domed cathedral of its type in the world.  The interior and in particular the central dome are spectacular. Also worth a mention are the mosaics inside the church. The accuracy is impressive.

Inside the dome of St Isaacs Cathedral. Note the white dove in the middle, representing the Holy Spirit.

The church below is called the Church on the Spilled Blood (Church of the Resurrection) 1883-1907. Tsar Alexander II was murdered here. The builders had to incorporate the spot where the tragic accident took place. Part of the carriageway and railings that were stained with blood at the time of the assassination can be seen in the western part of the building. Inside the church there is not a single painting. The walls are almost entirely covered with mosaics.

The outside of the church is largely covered with mosaics, the cupolas are covered with enamels and the roofs with coloured tiles. According to our guide even the Russians are of the opinion that this church is a bit too much. It did not bother me though. This is definitely not a boring one. 

The Nevsky Monastery was next. It was founded by order of Peter I in 1710. The monastery is almost as old of the city. Named after St Alexander Nevsky, a 13th century holy prince and statesman who was declared patron saint of St Petersburg by the Orthodox church. On either side of the entrance lies a pair of cemeteries. Many Russian writers and artists are buried here. One of them is Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Another is Dostoyevsky's grave.

We also visited the Chesme Church of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (1777-1780) on the same domain. Architect: Yuri Velten.

Russian composer Tchaikovsky's grave by Piotr Kamensky Dostoyevsky's grave by sculptor Nikolai Laveretsky

One of the only short moments of freedom. We were dropped of near Nevsky Prospekt. This street was declared in 1738 St Peterburg’s main street.

All the buildings have more or less the same height. By the end of the 19th century it had become the commercial and financial centre of bourgeois St Petersburg.

Singer building (1902-1904). House of Books.

I would never have expected this, but this was actually was one of the highlights of our stay in this wonderful but mysterious city. We attended the "Feel Russian" show. A show full of folkloric dance, music, singing and atmosphere. The energy and drive of the dancers, musicians and singers were amazing. Truly an entertaining and relaxing evening.

The highlight of course was our visit of the Hermitage, Winter Palace. It was the home of the Russian emperors from 1763 to 1917.  Today the winter Palace is one of the five buildings that house the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, the art collection counts around 3 million art pieces. And imagine this, we were the first to enter the museum, one hour before the official opening time. Thanks to the local agent and All Ways. 

Afterwards we walked to the adjacent Palace Square that dominates the historical centre of St Petersburg. It was laid out by Carlo Rossi in 1819-1829. In the centre there is the granite column with the angel on top. 

Maarten at workThe Winter Palaces Main Staircase where you enter the museum is in white marble, has painted ceiling sculptures, mirrors and has twin flights. It still looks the way it did when it was installed.My favourite: Etienne Maurice Falconet (1758) : Cupid Menacing with His Finger.

Our last excursion was a refreshing canal tour through the city. A good end of a very interesting but also exhausting three-day excursion journey.

Text: Véronique

Photos: Mike (and a touch of Véronique)

I found and used most of the information above in the guide we bought in Saint Petersburg : "Saint Petersburg and its environs" (Natalia Popova).

We travelled on board VOYAGER with Belgian cruise tour operator All Ways, discovering the Baltic Sea and St-Petersburg. Mike often joins the excursion, while I mainly go explore myself. In the evening we gather our stories and share on the blog the things we loved most.