Cruising: Saint Petersberg, Russia

As is always the disclaimer with a “Cruising” post, 99 times out of a 100, you’re better off actually visiting the city for more time than the ship allows.  This is especially true here.  However, being Russia, it’s never quite that easy.  That being said, plenty of sightseeing information, DIY or otherwise, below!

Most posts won’t come with a prologue, but I think this one warrants one.  If you’re looking to get right in to St. Petersburg information, scroll until you see the picture of the church.  If you like stories, keep reading.

When I was offered a contract to work on the Jewel of the Seas, Russia was what sold me. 

When I had left the Voyager, I had asked not to be assigned a contract right away.  I had been accepted to teacher’s college for the fall and, frankly, didn’t know if I’d have time to complete a full contract, so I wanted to give our head office a bit of a heads up about when I would have to leave, making sure it was worth their time and mine.

Once I got the start dates for my then-choice of school, I called Miami and checked what was available.  Given my availability, most of what I was offered wasn’t great.  Lots of Caribbean ports I had already been too, shorter runs with repetitive itineraries and extremely short turnaround times.  The best run of the bunch was the Navigator, which at least alternated between the Eastern and Western Caribbean.  I hummed and hawed and figured, since there would be zero harm in asking, why not see if anything short-term was available in Europe.

Our scheduling co-ordinator clacked away at her keyboard and said there was a spot opening up on the Jewel in July, which would take me to Northern Europe, including Saint Petersburg, Russia, then switch to an Eastern Canada run out of Boston, then switch to the alternating East/West Caribbean run.  All this on the newest ship in the fleet.

Problem is, it was all the way in July, two months away.  Also, it was a six-month contract.

So, I had a choice between a six month contract which would take me to cities I had never been to before, like St. Petersburg, Russia, or a three month cash-grab someplace I wasn’t too hyped on being so I could go to school in Saint Catherines, Ontario.

Saint Petersburg, Russia vs Saint Catherines, Ontario.

…yeah, end prologue.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and… St. Issacs.  Well, at least one of you got a cool name… or twenty.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, also known as the Church on Spilt Blood, also known as the Church of the Saviour on the Blood, also known as Church of the Resurrection, also known as a lot of other stuff, was built by Czar Alexander III on the site where – wait for it – his father Alexander II spilled blood when he was assassinated in 1881.  It’s actually the prime example of medieval Russian architecture in Saint Petersburg, in spite of being built a few hundred years after the medieval ages.  Inside, you’re going to find more mosaics than any place in the world – literally.  Every single wall is done in mosaic style, with the typical scenes you’d expect in an Orthodox church.

It’s fantastic to see all the detail and, if you can get in there when there’s not a tour group, it’s a great place to wander around.

Now even though the Church of Every Name Plus Blood got the bulk of the names, St. Issac’s Cathedral got the bulk of the bulk. 

Ranking behind only St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, they used 200 lbs of gold on the dome of this beast.  Unlike St. Paul’s, which kind of blends into London, or St. Peter’s, is built almost as a centrepiece with colonnades and squares around it, it seems almost as if St. Issac’s was given a city block, a considerably wide berth to allow traffic to flow around it, and unrestricted views.  As a result, the building has a mass that makes it look bigger than just about any cathedral I’ve seen.  There’s some beautiful interior work and it’s another must see.

You’d also be missing out if you didn’t at least check out the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect (St. Petersburg’s main strip, filled with lots of its high-end stores) and the Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is the final resting place of Russia’s Czars, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II.  Not sure about Czar Paul.

Columns of Victory, Signifying Nothing

So, wanting to find out a bit about the famous Rostral Columns of Saint Petersburg, I did some Wikiresearch and I learned that these columns were usually built by the Greeks and, as with most things originally built by Greeks, later by others, to signify important naval victories.

These ones were built to flank a stock exchange.

A really NICE looking stock exchange, flanked by really nice looking columns, with a REALLY nice view of the Neva, Peter and Paul’s Golden Spire and the Winter Palace.  So it’s worth a walk across the bridge to get the view, to be sure.

Just mind the traffic.

Like, really, mind the traffic.

Russian drivers will not stop for you, don’t seem to be worried about hitting you and, best I can tell, might be more pissed off than sympathetic if they did.  I seem to remember some kind of stop light system near the banks of the Neva.  I don’t seem to remember anybody adhering to it.

Look both ways, and assume that Hanoi’s “Cross Slow and Confident” technique will get you a Lata in the leg.

Hermitage – Place of Relaxing Retreat, A Religious Retreat, or a Hermit’s Dwelling
Or, most kick ass museum I’ve ever been in, hands down, full stop, no, YOU’RE wrong.

The Hermitage doesn’t just house the most paintings in the world, or span six buildings, one of which is the Winter Palace of Russia’s former emperors, or have a massive Egyptian and classical collection, or a piece of art from just about everybody who ever mattered ever.  It has all of that.  The art itself is insane in its breadth and depth, but the fact that it’s housed in a palace that still looks like a legit palace is relatively mind blowing.  While I’m not always the guy to say “Get a guide”, as useful as the map I had was, this would have been a place to get a registered guide.  So much to see and you definitely need a day to do it.  If you are cruising St. Petersburg and one of the tours says “Hermitage and…”, then don’t do it, because you’re not going to see nearly enough of this amazing collection. 

Yeah, this is what Victory looks like.
Palace Square, built (oddly enough) right outside the Winter Palace, was planned about fifty years before it was commissioned, and was meant to be a monument to Russia’s victory of Napoleon.  So what the Rostral Columns lack in victory, this thing makes up for.

It’s hard to say where to begin here.  You could start with the two massive Roman triumphal arches flanking the Building of the General Staff, which provides a great visual curve to the square.  Or the 500 ton, tallest in the world (47.5 m) Alexander Column, which was laid so perfectly that it doesn’t actually need additional support to the base to stay standing. 

In true “Pimp My Square” style, the square opens up to another nearby square, because I heard the Russians like squares in their squares. 

Seriously, I feel bad that the picture I chose is the best one I had of the square.  I was a digital rookie at the time, it was the best I could come up with.  Send me back now, I’ll do the thing justice!

In case you like Palaces…
Two must-do day trips outside of St. Petersburg proper are the Pushkin and Peterhof Palaces.

Pushkin Palace, also known as the Catherine Palace, is famous for its Amber Room, which is exactly what it sounds like, except more impressive.  Alexander Palace is also nearby and makes for some great outside views.

Nothing beats the fountains at Peterhof, however.  The whole grounds seems to be sprouting water, but the main attraction is the Grand Cascade, a massive series of golden statues and fountains that rivals anything you’re going to see at the much better known Versailles in France.  Both are massively crowded, and rightfully so, so if you can get to either of them without a group, or at least get yourself a small tour group, do.  When I was working aboard the ship, I had the good fortune to be able to go to Peterhof for free, but the misfortune of auditing a tour group while I was there.

Piece of advice.  When the Russians say “be back in 5 minutes”, you need to be back in five minutes.  People weren’t.  Habitually.  As a result, the Grand Cascade amounted to a mere walk-by (from above, which is the worst view) and the only reason I got the pictures I got were because I faked losing a guest and told the guide I’d go look for them.  It was a zero risk move for me as, when I found my way back to the bus after getting the view I wanted, I just pointed to a couple of passengers who were spending too long at a souvenir stand, and who had wandered off from the main group before, and said “Found them.”

One of them may have been named “Tibor”.  If you get the joke, give yourself a million points.

Legit Russian Black Market
So before the Internet ruined bootleg movies for everybody, you could pick up some relatively good quality bootleg movies in St. Petersburg proper.  However, if you went outside of town to a massive market that I couldn’t tell you the name of, but any cab driver knows as the “Black Market”, you could find bootleg everything, including bootleg music, bootleg pistols and probably a bootleg suitcase nuke (in a knock-off Gucci handbag).  I don’t advocate it, but it made for an interesting day.  Me being a goodie-goodie, I only bought things that were readily available in stores.  So it was half-stealing.

Your Sex-Trade Worker Placed Rohypnol in My Frosty Beverage.
Russian Nightclubs.

Look, unless you look Russian, you’re going to stand out at one of those things.  Even as a guy who is half-Ukrainian, I stood out like a sore thumb.  Just be mindful because, even though everybody is there for a good time and, at some clubs, you’ll be treated to hardcore dance acts followed by a stripper followed by a backflipping dog followed by a Backstreet Boys cover band, there are shady types.  One of my colleagues turned down a girl at the bar and soon found himself really woozy, with the same girl coming on to him.  Fortunately, the crew (and his actual girlfriend) were there to bail him out, but if it feels sketchy, be careful. 

The Venice of the North, due to location and canal access
St. Petersburg isn’t nearly as canal-filled as Venice, nor are the canals quite as romantic, and I think pretty much any city with a nice canal and some history has been named “The Venice of It’s Location” at some point in time.  That being said, the canals you do come across do lend a nice ambiance, there are some great views over the Neva, and river cruises are a definite option.  The coolest ones to go on, from what I’ve heard, are the White Night cruises.  Not named after any of the Neo-Facist stuff that Russia is sometimes famous for, the White Night cruise refers to the time of they year (early summer) when the sun only sets for an hour, and even then, it doesn’t reach real nighttime levels.  File that under the “Never got to do it, but would have liked to” banner.

In Capitalist Russia, tour books you!
So in the majority of ports you’ll visit on a ship, you have the option of getting off and doing your own thing.  In Russia, this isn’t an option.

Well, not a cheap option.

Whether it’s trying to squeeze every last dollar out of interested tourists, or a desire to cling to old Cold War mentality, you need a visa to get in to Russia, and they’re not cheap.  If you’re on a ship, however, you can work around this by signing up for a shore excursion, which allows you to see some of the absolutely amazing city, albeit in a group of 40 tourists.  So you have to weigh the idea of spending money on a tour, where you’ll probably be comfortable, versus spending much more money on visas to do it yourself, where you might be out of your comfort zone, but see more stuff.  The choice is yours.

Alternatively, you can book smaller tours with a private car, which is a more expensive, but definitely better way to go, as it allows you some freedom and keeps you from following the infamous Cruise Ship Lollipop.

That being said, you can get out there and see some amazing things in St. Petersburg with or without the tour group, and there are lots of parts of the city that are walkable, if you don’t mind blistering your feet a bit.  My personal opinion is that, when you see the scope of the place, you won’t feel like being herded around and will actually want to explore the place by yourself.

Overnight Stay?  That makes it better…
So on the ship, St. Petersburg is a two-day stop, and the ship stays in port.  This allows for maximum tourist coverage in the amount of time given and also gives the more ambitious guests a chance to fly to Moscow and back, because why not buzz through two major cities and not really get a sense of either? 

You DON’T see enough by staying overnight!  This is a definite 5-Day City.  Two or three to see the city proper, one to see the Hermitage, one for each of the Palaces.  Anything less than that, you’re seriously shortchanging yourself.

So if you’re cruising and you see St. Petersburg on the itinerary, you can’t consider the box “ticked” if you see it.  It’s more like a circle that’s partially shaded in.

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