Note: This is a special feature post by travel writer Jean Newman Glock of www.jeannewmanglock.com.
For most cruisers, the highlight of a Baltic Sea cruise is the stop in St. Petersburg, Russia. For most of my fellow travelers on Azamara Quest, this was the reason the booked the cruise. We had three full days to explore the former imperial city. And most importantly, because of the size of Azamara Quest, we were able to dock right in the center of the city.
Here is our view from the ship with St. Isaac’s Cathedral glistening in the background.
When visiting St. Petersburg, you have so many treasures and so many choices. How to choose? This post is about some "must sees" for the first time visitor. My next post will uncover some other treasures in the city of Peter the Great.
The Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum
Right in the center of St. Petersburg and just steps from your ship stands the iconic Winter Palace, founded by Catherine the Great. Your focus should be on the art and the living quarters of the royal family in the palace.
The unparalleled art collection with Da Vinci’s, Impressionists (now in the nearby General Staff Headquarters), Antiquities and so much more was collected by the Imperial family through their 300 year rule. Also many of the works were confiscated from noble and wealthy families after the revolution of 1917. The Gold Room, a separate entrance is well worth the time and money. Half the jewels of the Russian government are held here. The other half are in the Diamond Fund at the Armory in Moscow.
But as most visitors rush to see Da Vinci’s or Matisse’s, you might want to walk through history by visiting some of the rooms in the living quarters of the Romanovs. Walk through the stunning Malachite Room and you will find the inner world that only very few were allowed to enter prior to 1917. I love seeing the decorative arts and furniture of the Tsars. Finally, if you have time, there is a new, state of the art Hermitage Storage Facility housed about 15 miles outside of St. Petersburg. This facility was built with the visitor in mind and instead of art works and furniture hiding in vaults, you walk through glass hallways with all the treasures on display to see.
A 30 minute drive or 40 minute hydrofoil ride from the ship is the magnificent Peterhof. This was built to rival Louis XIV’s Versailles and that it does. Tour the Palace, but save most of your time for the gardens and treasure houses in every corner. Be sure to find a good spot to view the turning on of the fountains every day at 11 am.
Pushkin or Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village)
As you drive the 45 minute drive to Pushkin, don’t miss the cannons just 17 km outside St. Petersburg. Left as a memorial to the Siege of Leningrad ( as St. Petersburg was called during Soviet times). This siege, during World War II, or the “Great Patriotic War” as Russians know it, lasted 872 and was one of the most costly in terms of human lives, the world has ever known. Important too to know because Nazi troops occupied Pushkin during this siege and destruction of the palaces and gardens was extensive. Most have been restored but you will be able to see many pictures of the destruction at the end of the war.
Today, the summer retreat for the Tsars and nobility is once again a village of magnificent proportions. The centerpiece is the Catherine Palace. Enjoy touring the Palace of which over 30 rooms are now renovated and open with many original pieces. Be sure to save at least two hours for the gardens. Your visit to Pushkin will remind you that the Romanovs were the wealthiest dynasty the world has ever known.
But at the turn of the century there was a family even wealthier in St. Petersburg and that is my next highlight….
The Yusupov Palace
The Yusupov’s were a merchant family purported to be even wealthier than the Romanovs and it is the only “non-royal” palace in St. Petersburg. All of their lands and belongings were taken over by the government after the Revolution of 1917 but you will see many of their treasures in every museum.
Touring the formal rooms of the Yusupov Palace is impressive, but most travelers visit to see the scene of the murder of the infamous Rasputin. The heir to the fortune, Felix Yusupov, conspired with others (including it is now known the British Secret Service) to murder this “holy man” or starets that many feared controlled Empress Alexandria. She felt he alone could help her son, the Tsarevich Alexei with his frequent bouts from hemophilia. Felix and many others feared his control and bad advice would lead to the downfall of the monarchy.
Scenes are recreated from the evening of his murder, which you may find bizarre, but they do let you experience life as it was just before everything fell apart for the very wealthy of St. Petersburg.
There is so much more to see and do in St. Petersburg and these are just a few of my favorite highlights. You might prefer to just step off the ship and walk down the main shopping street of the Nevsky Prospect and window shop, as many have done before you at the turn of the century, as the Gilded or Imperial Age was falling apart around them.
Azamara Club Cruises has six voyages planned to St. Petersburg for 2016 and 2017. View them here.
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