We lost yet another hour the night we travelled to St. Petersburg. That was 2 hours lost in two nights...but the excitement of everyone on board was palpable. Rich and I wanted to see EVERYTHING. Due to Russian VISA issues, we purchased a shore excursion through the ship we were on. We chose the one that would be the longest on land and see the most things. We were definitely exhausted after 9 1/2 hours touring in St. Petersburg for two days, but we were thoroughly impressed by what we did get to see. When we found out that we were going to move to Norway, my very first thought was that I wanted to travel to Russia at some point. Growing up in the Cold War Era, I was always petrified of the U.S.S.R. and all that it stood for. To be able to walk on Russian soil and meet the people and see the culture first hand - well, that was a dream come true for me. The U.S.-Russian relationship to this day is still pretty tenuous, so I didn't want to wait. As you all know, my children go to an international school. This means they don't get U.S. history....they get a lot of world history. During the 7th grade, they have a whole quarter devoted to the Russian Revolution (and they tie this into reading the book Animal Farm. I was FASCINATED by all the Russian history I got to hear about on this trip. So much so that I bought a couple of books on different periods in Russian history to read for enjoyment and furthering my global education. Lucky for us, our guide, Anna, was a high school Russian history teacher. She was a lot of fun, quite funny and very, very knowledgeable on her Russian history, especially there in the St. Petersburg area. She also taught us a couple of phrases in Russian each of the two days, which I loved. St. Petersburg has about a 2-3% unemployment rate, which is pretty good. However, many of the jobs are not high-paying. 5-6% of the population still live in the communal flats that you would have imagined during the 70's. St. Petersburg has about 4.5 million people, making it the 2nd largest city in Russia behind Moscow with 12 million. It is the northern most city in the world with a population over 1 million people. With all the rivers and canals, there are many islands in St. Petersburg, earning it the nickname of "The city on 101 islands." St. Petersburg is commonly known to the Russians as the cultural capital of Russia. St. Petersburg has been known by other names as well over the centuries: St. Petersburg (1703-1914), Petrograd (1914 - 1924), Leningrad (1924-1991) and then back again to the original St. Petersburg in 1991. The Hermitage is definitely a must see if you ever go there. In each of the rooms is an older woman that sits on a folding chair in the corner....watching you, ready to chastise at you if you do anything inappropriate. Our guide, Anna, said that they were ex-KGB...I am not sure she was joking. They were the sternist-looking people I had seen in quite awhile. They had the complete power to yank Anna's tourist guide license if any of her 'charges' did anything wrong. Our first day in St. Petersburg consisted of an hour long open riverboat cruise (with champagne at 8 a.m.!), several hours at the Hermitage (they boast you could stay there for 5 years, spending merely a minute at each piece of art and still not see everything). We then had lunch. That was interesting. It consisted of a salad (that was mostly cucumbers with a small amount of lettuce in it), a shot of vodka (it smelled like paint thinner and tasted even worse), two small potato pancakes (evidently a staple in meals there)with one covered in sour cream and one with roe (red salmon fish eggs)- really oily and fishy-tasting, but I did try it! We then moved onto a soup. On the first day in Russia, we had a butternut squash soup and the second day was a very yummy mushroom soup. The soups saved me, to be totally honest. They were very very good. The main course the first day was plain white rice and pieces of chicken and the second day was some kind of fish. After lunch we got to go shopping for about an hour at the flea market and then onto the Yusupov Palace to see more great works of art and learn about the mystery behind the death of Rasputin....
One thing that I learned about the people of St. Petersburg...they are survivors. During WWII, there was a 900 day stand off with the Nazis. It started June 22nd, 1941. People starved and froze to death. Food was so scarce...they had ration cards that allowed you 4.5 oz of bread each day (roughly 2 slices). People removed the wallpaper off the walls to eat the wallpaper paste. The beautiful Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood became a morgue. In November 1941, with the Neva River frozen, the Russians managed to get some food in by walking on the ice...and got some 250,000 children out of the city. Everything that could be bombed was. Everything was leveled. Over a million people died...mostly of starvation. The city was known as Leningrad at that time and it was known as the city of heroes. The Nazis were never gained entrance to the city.
We returned to the ship around 5:30 and ate quickly and then left again at 7:30 to catch an 8 p.m. show of Russian Folkloric Music and Dance. (see the next blog post for that one - it was awesome!)
How's this for a "little gold room?"
Another case of Faberge eggs Rasputin's murder scene... The mock-up of what the beginning of Rasputin's murder must have looked like...in the cellar of the Moika Palace (Yusupov Palace along the Moika River in downtown St. Petersburg). Rasputin was poisoned, shot 4 times then thrown in a hole through the ice in the Neva River, where he finally died. Russian chocolate...it had a lot of air bubbles in it and not quite enough sugar. It was dreadful...even for chocolate! (which is saying a lot coming from me!) Another picture of the bride in the Hermitage... Rich and Cyndi in the Hermitage One of the many rooms in the Hermitage...you could easily get lost in there...ask my sister-in-law, who went missing from her group for 45 minutes (much to my brother's dismay!) Cyndi on the marble stairs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia Cyndi in front a church with many names. It is sometimes called The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ" or "The Church on the Spilled Blood" because it is on the exact spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated on March 1st, 1881. The actual cobblestones where he laid bleeding on are still there and visible inside the church. The mosaics inside are unbelievable...but you'll see that on my Russia Day 2 blog entry. :o) St. Isaac's Cathedral They have Subway in Russia! :o)Wonder if they have a Russian conterpart to Jared....maybe Vladimir? :o) One of the many bridges in St. Petersburg...The nickname of the city is "Venice of the North." This statue is somewhat unique in that the balance is perfect...the horse in only on two legs. Usually the tail of the horse is also touching the ground to make it more stable. During one of the wars, this statue was left alone while others destroyed simply because of that. I got to see my fair share of Faberge eggs. However, there were several simple wooden eggs that were handpainted with wonderful artistry. They were not cheap though, let me tell you! This is a private theater that was built just for the Yusupov family in their palace along the Moika River. This is aptly named the blue room...the walls are covered in blue silk tapestry. There were other colored rooms as well. (The Yusupov Palace) Another gorgeous view of the city of canals and rivers - St. Petersburg A young Russian bride and groom getting their wedding pictures taken at the Hermitage on the grand marble staircase. This is the queue to get into the Hermitage. Because we were a tour group, we were able to enter early and not stand in line. These people love their national treasures, and this was certainly one of them....the collection at the Hermitage. Our guide, Anna, said that the typical wait time is 2 hours. This is the square behind the Hermitage (and the Winter Palace, which is one of the five buildings that make up the Hermitage) One of the sculptures I feel in love with...of Moses being found in his basket along side the Nile River. This was carved in the 1800's. Not an inch of the place was wasted! It was truly amazing in the Hermitage! Everything was absolutely amazing there! The throne in the winter palace The Hermitage was AMAZING. You did not just have big rooms with white walls and paintings hanging every 5 feet...they were displayed like this...each one important in its own right. There were works from DaVinci, Michaelangelo...so many famous painters and scultors that I had only read about. These are the originals...not copies that are on display. These floors were AMAZING. They are all pieced together by hand with different shades of wood. This was one of the floors displayed at the Hermitage. I think this was in the Winter Palace building. This is the entrance to the Hermitage....one of the single most impressive collections of art in the world. The entrance itself was a bit overwhelming. Some of the sites we saw while on our river cruise through the city on the first morning - Peter and Paul Fortress (which was never used as a fortress but quickly turned into a prison for political prisoners). The red Rostral columns that help lead ships at night through the twists and turns of the Neva River. The knobby-looking things on the sides of the colums are the prows of different ships. In the 1800's, they used gas to light huge torches on the tops of these columns for ships to see at night (like a light house of sorts). St. Petersburg was built upon a swamp. In fact, a great number of the people who first help to build and inhabit this city died from illnesses borne from the swampy surroundings. This includes several children of Peter the Great. Today, the city has a vast array of canals. Not as intricate and overwhelming as say, Venice, but still quite prominent in the city. There are 300 bridges in St. Petersburg and many are lit up at night. One of them is a draw bridge that is put up at night...so you had better make sure you are on the side you want to be on because it doesn't go back into place until 4 a.m.! There are 65 rivers and canals with the main rivers being the Moika River and the Neva River. There is a lot of flooding in this area. The Church on the Spilled Blood...a smaller version of a similar Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow (St. Basil's) with the classic onion-shaped domes. Proof-positive that we were actually there! :o) The statue of Peter the Great that is the token landmark of the city. This was my first glimpse at St. Petersburg...all the water and the gray skies. According to our guide, there is only 50-60 sunny days per year in St. Petersburg. We really lucked out on our 2nd day!