Saturday, August 10, 2019

Saint Petersburg Russia with a Rick Steves Tour

Friday, August 9,  2019.  The Train to Saint Petersburg Russia.

We say good bye to Helsinki and walk briskly to our train. Thirty minutes before departure, we board Allegro, the fast train that will take us between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. We sit with Brian and Kathy of Castro Valley, California. Ester, our guide passes out lunch boxes and tells us what to expect from both the Finnish and the Russian border guards. She tells us to remain in our seats and not talk or smile during the process. The train departs on the dot of 11:00 A.M. and it is not until then that Ester coaches us about how to fill out our immigration forms. We must print in all capitals and there can be no mistakes or cross outs. Even without the swaying of the train, writing this information clearly in the tiny boxes would be challenging. Brian needs three forms before he manages to complete the form correctly. I make a mistake on formatting my birthday but I correct it legibly and Ester lets me slide. Our “bento” lunch boxes have tasty pickled vegetables but the fish spread roll leaves much to be desired. There is a constant line for the bathroom and two hours into the trip and shortly before crossing into Russia, the line dwindles down to one. Our seats are close to the bathroom and I stand waiting my turn when the Russian border guards come into our train car. The unsmiling but kind female guard looks at me quizzically and  I point to my nearby seat and make a move to sit down. She indicates that I may stay where I am and wait my turn and proceeds to begin checking passports. Whoever is in the bathroom is taking a very long time and the boarder guard knocks on the door. In a few concise words she both motions and tells me to “go to car number 7 ” to use the toilet. Art scowls at me as I pass our seat and proceed to the next car. There are several passengers waiting in the toilet line of #7 so I nervously return to our car resigned to having a full bladder. My return is so quick that the same female guard looks at me questionably and I mutter that there was a line.  The bathroom line to our car is now short and she motions me to pass her and to wait for the toilet in our car. When it is my turn and I finally sit to pee, I am so anxious that it takes me a minute to relax enough to relieve myself. In an effort to hurry, I forgo washing my hands and return quickly to my seat just in time to hand over my passport and receive the coveted entry stamp. 

Arriving at the Saint Petersburg train station
We arrive at the St. Petersburg train station and gather obediently on the platform until our tour has completely disembarked and all are accounted for. We follow Ester to a waiting bus, load our suitcases in its open belly and climb onboard. We drive into St Petersburg, an impressive and awe inspiring expanse of rivers, canals, bridges, palaces and churches. The elegant city is blend of Paris, Venice and Amsterdam laced together by bridges and canals. Our bus stops on the island between the left and the right bank and we have 15 minutes to stretch our legs and take photos. 

Art along on of the many Saint Petersburg River bridges
Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral

From there we go to the golden- spire Peter and Paul Cathedral. Although there are a half dozen tour buses parked outside the gates, the tours disperse in the immense courtyard and the site is surprisingly un-crowded.  I smile at a group of middle school Chinese students all dressed in bright pink and in striking contrast to the cream, yellow and gilded gold of the cathedral. 

Chinese students, Peter and Paul Cathedral
Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral

Inside, immense crystal chandeliers hang from cherub painted domes and gilded baroque arches and doorways delinieate choirs and naves.  All our heads are craned backwards as we gawk upwards at the opulence.  After a visual sensory overload we are ushered into a tiny chapel by a half dozen priests and find seating along the walls. When the chapel door is closed, they burst into song. The acoustics are astounding and the alto voice of one man sends chills down my spine. I don’t want the a_cappella singing to ever end but when it does, one of the priests announces that we can purchase CD’s of their music recorded in this very chapel. This closing sales pitch cheapens the experience somewhat but I am seriously tempted.

Interior panoramic view of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral
Crystal chandeliers
Gilded interior

Crystal chandeliers
The opulent gilded interior of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral

The highlight of the afternoon is visiting the Church of the Spilled Blood, a Russian Orthodox Church, completed in 1907.  Parts of the exterior are covered by scaffolding, obscuring the central onion dome but the surrounding domes are colorfully and whimsically painted and tiled.
Brick and tile facade of the Church of the Spilled Blood
Church of the Spilled Blood
Wrought iron work

The interior is stunning. The walls are patterned with intricate mosaics and the tiny golden tiles shimmer with iridescence. The interior of the domes are decorated in biblical scenes and afternoon light streams through the clearstory windows. Whatever one’s faith, being inside this church is a spiritual experience. The immense and ornate alter door is embellished with icons framed by sculpted gold and silver borders. The door looks like a giant piece of cloisonné.  There is no surface left unadorned. Even the floor is intricately patterned in various colors of marble.

Church of the Spilled Blood, mosaics
Interior, Church of the Spilled Blood

Entryway, Church of the Spilled Blood
Looking up

Ornate doorway, Church of the Spilled Blood
Saint George and the Dragon

We exit the church from an opposite door and walk past the ground walls topped with gorgeous wrought iron scroll work. Artists have their paintings propped along the walls and street musicians play for rubles. I take a distant photo of the scene and one artist growls at me.

Back exterior of the church
Street musicians and sidewalk artists 

Our hotel, the Putin Inn is just a block from the Hermitage Museum and faces one of Saint Petersburg’s many canals. Art and I are fortunate to have a spacious ground floor room with a sitting alcove.  Our welcome group dinner is in the hotel’s adjoining restaurant and our vodka toast is accompanied by balalaika and accordion music. Our group claps in rhythm to the spirited music and a couple of our tour members are invited onto the dance floor which adds to the gaiety. Our appetizer is a creamy potato and egg salad followed by beef Stroganoff in a mound of mashed potatoes and thin crepes with berry compote for dessert.

Welcome group dinner
Welcome to Saint Petersburg dinner

Sherrod and Craig enjoying the music
Balalaika and accordion music 

Ester leads us on an after dinner walk of the district, pointing out a few good restaurants we might consider for the two nights that we will be on our own for dinner. She leaves us on the main street and we all find our own way back to the hotel.

Street musicians along the main boulevard
Mobile cafe

Nighttime view of Church of the Spilled Blood
Motorcyclists along the boulevard

The boulevard is swarming with pedestrians enjoying a relatively warm evening out and the monuments and canals are illuminated. From a canal bridge we can see the Church of the Spilled Blood illuminated in the distance.  There are numerous street musicians and we stand and listen to the music. Two bands in particular are very good and we put money in the expectant hat. This is not the Russia that I experienced in 1971.  Art has been especially anxious about visiting Russia and I see him relaxing some. We stroll and people watch for an hour before heading back to our hotel.

Saturday, August 10, 2019 – The World Class Hermitage Museum 

An elaborate buffet breakfast is served in the adjoining hotel restaurant.  The spread caters to all nationalities. I forgo the eggs, bacon and quiche and enjoy lox, tomatoes dressed with vinaigrette, lingonberry crepes and a tiny croissant.  Two cappuccinos later and fully fueled, I walk with our group towards the Hermitage Museum, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764.

Hermitage Palace square, Saint Petersburg
Cats are honored at the Hermitage

 Our tour has early entry and we are 45 minutes ahead of the main crowds. We ascend a wide staircase and pass through gilded and mirrored rooms. The interior of this Rococo palace is like a frosted wedding cake decorated in pastel colors with curvaceous sculpted moldings,  gilded friezes and crystal chandeliers. We glide across intricately patterned floors of inlaid wood and crane our necks to admire the trompe l’oeil ceiling frescos of floating cherubs.

Hermitage Palace staircase

Hermitage Palace

Inlaid wood floor
Hermitage museum hall

Mosaic floor
Decorative gilded Griffin table supports 
Griffin table base

Our four hour tour is of the highlights of the museum and we try to absorb all the spender and history but it is a sensory overload. Showcases display bronzes and porcelain, jewelry and religious icons.  We spend time immersed in the Italian Renaissance and then move into the galleries of the Dutch masters. There are long halls filled with marble statues and other halls draped with tapestries.

Hallway of marble sculptures
A grande gallery room
Mary Magdalena, Titian

The Rape of Proserpina 

Marble frieze
Snake jardinere
Muscled victor with snake

After three hours in the main Hermitage Palace we cross the Palace square to the annex building that house the Impressionistic collection. We have a short break at the museum café and eat two small salads before exploring the galleries. We easily identify the various styles of the many impressionists and viewing these paintings is like visiting with old friends but there are Gauguin’s, Picassos, Monet’s and Van Gogh’s that we have only seen in art history books. I happen to glance outside a window and notice a fashion photo shoot taking place on an opposite roof top. I find it hard to concentrate on the art when I fear that the model, leaning against a flimsy rooftop railing, may fall to her death. The museum guard is also facinated.

Picasso, Girl with a Ball


View of the Palace Square
View of a photo shoot from the Hermitage

A risky roof top photo shoot, viewed from the Hermitage museum.
1907 Charles Hofbauer
When our guided tour ends we decide to forego lunch and visit other floors of the contemporary wing but this detour proves to be a disappointment.

We hurry back to our hotel to recharge my phone and take a much needed 30 minute break. I suggest we grab a sandwich but there is really no time and we imagine that there will be food available at Peterholf Palace and Gardens.

At 2:45 we meet our group to fast walk to the hydrofoil that skims us out to the Peterholf Palace. The 30 minute hydrofoil ride takes us past modern skyscrapers along the outskirts of St. Petersburg and into the Gulf of Finland.

Modern Saint Petersburg

Our tour boards the hydrofoil to Peterholf Palace

Saint Petersburg bridge
Modern Saint Petersburg

Arriving at the Peterholf Palace docks, we follow Eszter towards the entrance and she helps us with our bearings before setting her duckings free to wander the opulent palace grounds. It is a glorious sunny afternoon and we have over two hours to enjoy the immense park. A snack is in order but Art realizes that he has no cash and the many park kiosks do not accept credit cards or Apple Pay. I have intentionally left my purse and valuables back at the hotel and our stomachs grumble as we wander through manicured gardens and gaze at cascading fountains.

Cascading fountains at Peterholf Palace 

View of the canal and fountains from Peterholf Palace terrace
The gilded domes of Peterholf Palace shine in the afternoon light and I understand why the palace and gardens are referred to as the Russian Versailles. 

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Peterholf Gardens

Peterholf dock

Marty at the Peterholf Palace canal
Peterholf dock

Our tour returns together on the 5:00 P.M. hydrofoil and Art and I quickly regroup and head out in search of dinner.  We choose one of Eszter’s recommended restaurants, Arka which looks and feels very trendy and upscale.  It is early and although there are a few patrons at the bar, no one else is in the upstairs restaurant. Ordinarily, this would deter us but we are hungry and take the chance. We start with two house crafted cocktails, both of which are delicious but as usual, Art prefers my drink over his. His “Shuskin” cocktail is maple syrup based and mine is vodka with jalapeño and lime. We share a duck salad, potatoes with truffles and an artfully rolled sea bass entree.

Arka Restaurant, Saint Petersburg
Cocktails at Arka

Skewered Sea Bass entree
After dinner we wander along the main boulevard again, listening to the street musicians and enjoying the ambience of the night.  We stop in an Irish pub for a disappointing after dinner drink before returning to our hotel.

No surprise, a disappointing nightcap at an Irish bar in Saint Petersburg