Review: Saint Petersburg
St Petersburg, Russian Federation
St. Petersburg 2011
156 people found this review helpful
A word of warning – be prepared to see the words: Wonderful, incredible, unbelievable awesome and fantastic repeated many times.
On leaving the ship we were directed to Passport Control. There were several booths and small queues at each. You have to present your Passport, ship card, visa or a shore excursion ticket. As we had booked our tour with Alla Tours online we had printed our tickets and this was the proof of a group visa. The scrutiny seemed quite daunting but was really straightforward when our turn came so we were through quickly.
Once through Passport Control we were met by Alla who directed us to modern air-conditioned Mercedes mini-bus. We were taken to another cruise terminal to change buses and join other passengers from Celebrity Serenity and HAL Prinsendam. There were 12 in our party, 10 adults and 2 children. Our guide, Slavi, introduced himself and the driver and we set off. Our first sight of St. Petersburg after we left the terminal area was so exciting. I couldn't believe we were actually here in Russia.
First stop was a Farmers Market. We arrived before it was opened. A huge hall with stallholders setting out every kind of fresh food you could imagine. We wandered round and asked questions about foods we didn't recognise. Although this was an old building it was spotlessly clean and the people behind the counters were very friendly.
From here we were taken on the bus to a Subway station. The entrance hall is obviously a source of pride, the walls and ceiling of the entrance hall being decorated with mosaics depicting Roman scenes. I didn't have my camera prepared and missed the chance of a photo as we were quickly descending what seemed like miles on the elevator to the platform. We travelled one stop and then back again. Both the stations and the trains were also noticeably very clean. As it was Sunday morning the trains were not too busy but apparently on weekdays it would be like any other major city metro.
A brief stop after the subway on The Embankment of the Neva River was a good opportunity for a cool drink and some fresh air. For the first time around this area, and we were to see more of them elsewhere, was the meticulous attention of street cleaners sweeping the cobbles on the dock and streets with old fashioned tied brooms.
As we had a 10-12o'clock booking for The Hermitage we swiftly made our way there. Outside the queue was very long but we didn't have to wait and went through a different gate. The Hermitage museum is one of many magnificent buildings in St.Petersburg but inside is quite the most incredible exhibition of art and history I think I've ever seen. It is was very busy even this early in the day. Lots of large groups but our group of 12 made it possible for us to move quicker and by-pass some of the larger groups. We had been provided with ear-pieces on the bus and our guide gave us a running commentary of the rooms we were viewing and the history of the various collections. This was the first of many jaw-dropping, oh! my goodness places that have to be seen to be believed.
Back on the bus and thank goodness for the air-conditioning as it was now extremely hot outside. Next on the itinerary was a ride across the river by Hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace and Gardens. We had to queue at the Hydrofoil landing and the heat was quite intense. It was a relief to eventually get on it for the half hour ride as the queue was not very disciplined and it seemed at times there was no way we were all getting on.
Peterhof is a very popular place to visit in summer for local people and being Sunday was very busy. The fast food outlet was crowded and wasn't really very fast. When we got our first glimpse of the Palace after lunch (Another superlative called for) the Cascade Fountains with the Palace in the background was a beautiful sight. The sky was blue and the sun was shining making all the gold decoration seem to sparkle. Away from the palace it was less crowded and we had a pleasant walk through the Lower gardens, where we noticed a much nicer restaurant !. We made our way up quite a steep slope towards the road on the other side of the park to meet our driver and wonderfully cool bus.
It was around 30/45mins on the bus from Peterhof to Catherine's Palace which was a good opportunity for some to catch 40winks. I honestly didn't think anything could top what we had already seen but Catherine's Palace did. The ballroom has to be seen to be believed, gold leaf everywhere, magnificent floors and ceilings and of course the famous Amber Room. This was the last venue and we made our way back to the ships via a very modern motorway system.
After an early night and a good sleep we were ready to leave the ship at 8am. Once more smoothly through Passport control, only Passports needed today as all other information stored from yesterday. No smiles or welcome from these officers either yesterday or today. You feel as if they are trained to make you feel nervous. It's a must cost a lot of money to man all these separate booths in every cruise terminal.
Once we were all on the bus and started chatting it was obvious that we were not the only people who were exhausted by Day 1. One couple had been booked for an evening excursion to the Ballet and cancelled. I would say that if you were thinking about a Ballet or Folk Show in the evening to be aware how tiring a full day's excursion can be.
This morning we had to go to Alla Tours to pay for our bill. This could be the only criticism of the company. Where you pay is in a souvenir shop and it is chaotic to say the least. Two long queues merging into one at the small desk where Alla checks off your name and passes a slip with an amount on it to one of two young girls using an old fashioned slide credit card scanner. At the same time as all this is going on people are coming and going in and out of the queue trying to pay for souvenirs. The organisation could be better. Incidentally, you can also pay in cash with dollars, euros or roubles. Although we had been quoted a price in $s it was charged in roubles on the day but was exactly what we had been quoted when converted.
Thankfully the weather was a little cooler and we made a brief stop outside St. Michael's Palace, which had been the home of Catherine the Great's son, Tsar Paul 1and where he was assassinated.
From here we travelled across the city to one of the many canals to board a River Boat. Although we had seen a lot of the city's magnificent buildings from the bus a different view of how the city and it's islands were related gave a better picture.
When we disembarked at the boat landing we were on a quiet street with a few shops and offices. Slavi suggested if we wanted lunch we could go to a cafe he knew which did good food at a reasonable price. After yesterday's dreadful lunch at the park we were all anxious to try some real Russian food. We were not disappointed as we were treated to some superb authentic Russian soups, stews and pies with delicious sweets or cakes to follow.
We had seen The Peter and Paul Fortress and spire of the cathedral from the river and this was where we were now heading across the city on the bus. The Fortress was established for defence by Peter the Great. On top of the cathedrals’ gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. This weathervane is one of the most prominent symbols of St Petersburg, and at 404 feet tall, the cathedral is the highest building in the city.
Inside the church itself is lovely but is especially interesting because it is where all the Tsars from Peter the Great to Alexander III are buried. A quite moving moment was when we viewed the monument where the bones of the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family are kept. They were recovered from the place they were murdered by the Bolsheviks and after DNA testing interred here in 1998.
Our next and last place to visit was The Church on the Spilled Blood. We had been seeing it's familiar domes throughout our travels around the city but here we were at last entering this famous church. Queues here too but again we entered on a group ticket at a side door. The church was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II. There is a roped off monument where you can see the actual pebbles his blood was spilled on.
This was the end of our itinerary for the day so with an hour to spare before we had to be back on board we had some time to walk around an area of Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping area. What strikes you on this street as every where else, are the beautiful buildings. St.Petersburg is the most incredible city and the contrast between the opulence of the churches and museums with the buildings that were erected during the Khrushchev era leaves you a lot to think about.
I cannot praise our guide, Slavi, enough. His knowledge of his city, its past and recent history was inspiring. He was rightly proud of his city and eager that we should see it at it's best. His willingness to answer our questions about how the people felt about the political changes in the past decade or so led to some really interesting conversations about jobs, wages and income tax as well as the new billionaires and how they made their money.
I would recommend Alla Escorted Tours to anyone visiting St.Petersburg. You do not need to apply for a visa, they have that organised. All museum entry tickets, the subway, the boat trip and hydrofoil charges are all included in your quoted price. The only extra is a recommended 10% gratuity for your guide. In our opinion, compared to the ship's excursions, we had excellent value for our money.
156 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.