Author: Karen R.
Date of Trip: May 2008
As a freelance travel photographer, I am forever intrigued by the architecture, art treasures, and the many cultural differences of Europe. So much so, I have traveled through the continent five times in the last year, producing thousands of photographs and making many memories.
Most recently, my husband and I, along with our favorite travel buddies from California, flew to London where we spent 3 days prior to boarding Celebrity’s Constellation for a 14 night cruise. The Constellation’s itinerary included Oslo, Copenhagen, Tallinn, Warnemunde, Helsinki, Stockholm, and St Petersburg. The jewel in this crown of fascinating ports was a two-day portcall to St Petersburg.
Having spent much time researching tour options for our Russian port of call, the four of us reviewed and agreed upon a customized tour offered by Red October Tours (www.redoctober.com). We were able to build our itinerary to suit our personal interests and backgrounds. Red October provided us with a private van with an owner-driver, and an extremely knowledgeable tour guide for two days of all-inclusive exploration of Russia’s city of art and culture. The price, which included lunch each day, and entrance to the Hermitage, the Peterhof, the Palace of Catherine the Great, the Peter & Paul Fortress, St Isaac’s Cathedral, two souvenir stops, and a synagogue, was less than $800 per person, and allowed us to substitute places of interest at our discretion. Excursions offered by the cruise line were similarly priced, but offered large groups on tour buses with inflexible itineraries.
Our first day in St Petersburg began with a welcoming brass band at the St Petersburg dock. We were serenaded with great American songs including “Stars & Stripes Forever” and “When The Saints Go Marching In”. On the following evening, as our ship departed, the same band serenaded our sail-away from St. Petersburg.
Nailya, our Red October guide, who held a Master’s Degree in Russian History, was a veritable encyclopedia of information about her beloved home city. Our first stop was the Church on Spilled Blood, followed by a photo stop outside St Isaac’s Cathedral, as we headed out of the city to the Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. The palace grounds cover thousands of acres, and include amazing architecture and water features. Sasha, the owner-driver of our Mercedes van, provided a comfortable and safe ride, as well as bottled water and a secured vehicle in which we could leave our belongings as we hopped in and out for photos and tours. At our request, “Nelly” arranged a last minute tour of a Jewish Temple prior to lunch at a designated “typically Russian” restaurant, and an impromptu stop for coffee at a “Starbuck’s wannabe”. Next came the crowning jewel of St Petersburg, The Hermitage. It is said that one might tour the Hermitage every day for eight years and yet not see everything there is to see. Able to avoid the long line of tourist waiting to purchase tickets, we were guided through room after room of amazing art and cultural collectibles unmatched anywhere in Europe. It was Versailles, the Louvre, and the Vatican all rolled into one tremendous grand palace of art.
Our second day began as our first, with the Russian Brass Band, observable from our balcony. Required to clear customs again, we met Nelly and Sasha at the dock at 8 o’clock for another day of Russian history and art education. A drive through the countryside beyond the city brought us to Pushkin, and the Palace of Catherine the Great, preceded by a stop at a memorial stone erected to the memory of the Jews and others who were hanged by the Nazis during their occupation of St Petersburg during WWII. During their retreat from St Petersburg, the Nazis bombed Catherine’s palace, destroying priceless works of art and architecture; fortunately, it has since been restored to it’s previous opulent glory. One could spend an entire day touring Catherine’s palace with the more than 400 rooms and manicured grounds, but we still had places to explore.
Stepping out of the glare of the sunshine into St Isaac’s Cathedral was breathtaking. One could easily assume she had stepped into St Peter’s in Rome; the similarities are notable. Dramatic high ceilings, gold-gilded statuary, enormous stained glass windows, along with large mosaics and icons were all stunning. Our two-day tour, 10 hours on day one and 8 hours on day two, finished with a canal cruise, in and out of the Neva River, past the Hermitage, the Peter & Paul Fortress, and many of the landmarks of St Petersburg.
We parted company reluctantly with Naillya and Sasha, having enjoyed two days experiencing the wonders of St Petersburg, while forging new friendships with two of the city’s best tourism professionals.
While we agreed our “Constellation” itinerary provided us with many awesome ports of call, we also agreed St Petersburg was our most memorable experience.