The second stop on the cruise was Russia! I never thought that I would ever go to Russia. It was never on any list of places that I wanted to see, but when we began looking at Baltic cruises with Russia in the mix, I started to get curious. The main things that I thought of when Russia came to mind were the Cold War, Ivan Drago (from Rocky), vodka, communism, and freezing cold weather. And besides Ivan Drago, you can definitely feel the effects of all the above (even though we got amazing weather while we were there).
St. Petersburg is the furthest east we have traveled and almost the furthest north. As you can see above, Helsinki is slightly further north. We got incredibly lucky with the weather at all of our port cities. It was around 75-80 degrees and not a cloud in the sky for our trip to Russia. I have to give credit to Tara’s parents because the same thing happened last year when they came on a weeklong trip to Scotland with us. The weather we got in the Baltic was a lot warmer than the weather we left in England. Not sure how that works, but it made for a great experience in the Baltic.
It isn’t that straightforward to enter Russia. You either have to do a bunch of visa paperwork and pay a hefty fee or you can buy a cruise excursion with a private guide. The latter sounded easier to us, so we toured around Russia with our very knowledgable guide Vlad. We had a driver, a guide, and a 15 passenger van for the 6 of us.
The first stop on the tour was the summer Palace of the Russian Czars which was located about 15 miles south of the city. It is also named Catherine Palace after Catherine I who decided to build it in 1717. This place was pretty extravagant. It reminded me of the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris which we visited last May. We didn’t get a chance to walk all of the grounds because we were on a tight schedule, but it still seemed quite massive.
On the way outside, we caught a glimpse of some other visitors to the palace.
After walking around the grounds for a bit, we piled back in the van and headed back to town to check out some more sights. On the drive, I asked Vlad if we could stop and get some quick authentic Russian food. He was nice enough to oblige and take us to the local coffee and doughnut shop.
I was pretty skeptical about going to a doughnut shop for lunch, but this place was packed with Russians who looked like they had never seen Americans before so it was definitely authentic. Vlad tried to explain to me how to order but there was no hope. The Russian language was impossible for me. The letters are weird, the sounds are different, and everything has way too many syllables. With Vlad’s help, we ended up with some delicious doughnuts and some sweet tasting coffee. It was very good, and very cheap. 14 doughnuts, 3 coffees, and 3 waters cost about 6 US dollars.
Next up was the Church on Spilt Blood. It got its name from the site on which it was built. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated here and the church was built in his honor. He was known as the liberator and did a lot with his time as Czar, but he also had a lot of enemies. 6 major attempts were made on his life. The 6th one was successful…
On our way to the next museum, we stopped at a souvenir shop so that Tara and Mona could get Russian nesting egg dolls, also known as Matryoshka dolls. The men did not complain about the amount of time spent in this shop because they provided complimentary vodka.
In the morning, we did the summer palace. In the afternoon, we did the winter palace. This palace was converted into a massive museum of art from all over the world. Vlad told us that if you spent 1 minute looking at every exhibit, it would take you 11 years to see everything in this huge museum. Luckily, we just had to follow Vlad around and listen to him take us through the highlights. It was like our own personal Russian Rick Steves. It was great.
And then we headed into the museum. One of the most memorable parts of the museum were the hoards of incredibly rude Chinese tourists. They had no respect for your personal space. At one point, a Chinese man pushed his way through my dad and me while we were standing shoulder to shoulder and he didn’t say a word or even make eye contact. Vlad agreed with us and said there’s nothing you can do.
The winter palace was interesting, but the crowds were starting to get annoying and my feet were tired. By the time we got to the end, I was glad to be out of there. We made our way back to the boat and got some grub. After dinner, we had enough time to take a nap before sunset because it was the latest sunset ever! Maybe not ever, but the latest one that I have ever seen. St. Petersburg is 3 timezones over from England, so that makes it 8 from the east coast, and 11 from the west coast. Add that to the fact that we are approaching the longest day of the year and the fact that Russia is very far north and you get a super late sunset. These pictures were taken a little before 11:00 pm.
That’s it for Russia. I kind of wish we could have explored it on our own (which wasn’t really possible), but Vlad was an amazing tour guide so I can’t complain. If I was designing the itinerary I would not have chosen to see two palaces in one day. I probably wouldn’t have even chosen 1 palace to be honest. They just seem to be the same as every other extravagent palace in my mind. I get it, the nobles were crazy rich and spent taxpayers money on ridiculous displays of wealth. While it’s fun to pretend you would have been in the palace, I’d rather check out other things with limited time in the city.
Anyway, overall it was a really unique experience. I should have taken more pictures of the buildings but we weren’t walking around that much due to the van. Most of the buildings were large and bland so it was nice to see my communist pre-conceived notions upheld.
I can’t leave out the food collage.
And here are Tara’s Russian nesting dolls.
Next up, Helsinki, Finland.