We arrived in St Petersburg yesterday at 6.30 am and what an interesting time the last two days have been.
As we arrived into the port, we sailed down a very narrow channel and we could see a reef running only forty metres or so from the ship. We tied up at the wharf and if you’ve ever imagined a Russian industrial complex, we are right in the middle of it. We are tied up at the steel wharf. Opposite our cabin is collection of rusty bulk containers and two railway lines with trains shunting on them. In front of us is a mountain of pig iron billets and further up the wharf is a mountain of scrap metal. The ship oppoisite us is unloading large rolls of steel and wire which are being stacked on the wharf. Somehwerwe in between this hodge podge of metal, the tour busses weave their way towards the ship taking people on their tours. This must be a very busy port as when we have been on the ship, we can see a continuous procession of ships travelling along the same channel – just like aircraft in a landing pattern at the airport.
As we have booked a tour through the ship, we don’t need a visa – we get a blanket visa and pass for the day. The immigation centre is in a square collection of containers on the wharf where you line up and show Svetlana or Irena the immigration officers your passport. At the moment there is a brass band playing for money on the wharf. You can tell when a bus has returned to the ship as the band starts up again. They have a good collection of songs – all of which are played to the same kind of oom-pa-pa beat. At the moment, they are playing continuously as the last tour buses are returning (very late because of the traffic in St Petersburg) before we sail tonight. The gangway was due to be removed at 5.30, but its after that now, so I guess that we will be a little late.
We set of yesterday for a city tour in the morning which led onto a four hour look around the Hermitage Museum. It was raining a lot yesterday so we didn’t get a clear view at many of the sights, so we resorted to buying a few postcards as a substitute for a lack of photos.
Some highlights of Russia are:
1. Women Russian military guards in camouflage and high heels
2. Beautiful old cathedrals that are now museums – although their has been a rise in the number of active churches since the 1990’s
3. A city that is almost a living museum. Many of the city buildings are splendid examples of lavish architecture – gothic columns, gilt, and onion domes. They are set on canals and waterways and they make beautiful streetscapes. This is a place that everyone should put on their travel agenda.
4. Continuous clusters of suburban blocks of soviet style apartments that I can best describe as looking like run down housing commission flats.
5. Every major tourist site has a band that plays for money and greets you at the entrance, just as ours is playing now.
6. Continous traffic jams full of old cars, decrepit buses and trams. When you look below the surface, this is clearly a third world country. The roads are patched, buildings look tired and many things look as though they are in need of repair.
7. People who look consistently bored, depressed and morose.
8. Russian tour guides who apologise for their strictness, but act ln the way as one guide book described “being like the Kremlin with tits”. Nina yesterday, would often interupt her commentary with commands like “No Napping”, I must have your attention”, or “Listen please”!
9. Tour bus drivers who have a business on the side selling bottles of vodka to the passsengers
10. A an apparent love of statues and monuments of battles or important figures (not Lenin or Stalin anymore).
11. Interfence to block the satellite Internet serve while we are in port. Strangely enough, I can make calls on my mobile phone.
12. A forest of old fashioned and inefficient green and yellow cranes along the wharf. Where is Chris Corrigan?
Back to the Hermtage. This is one of the world’s great art musems and countains hundreds and thousands of masters. It was the original site of the Tsar’s winter palace but was nationalised after the 1917 revevolutiopn. (It seems strange that the Russians would swap a despotic tsar for another totalitarian soviet government). We walked around rooms for nearly four hours looking at Da Vinci’s, Botticelli’s, Titians, Rembrandts and then upstairs to see the impressionists. The building looks tired and needs a coat of paint in many places, but the art works are spectacular.
We missed our American dinner companions last night as they had gone to the opera. Instead, we sat at the next table and chatted to some other Australians.
This morning, we were on the go at 7.30 am for a trip to Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace at a little town about an hour from St Petersburg called Pushkin. This building was almost destroyed when the Nazis circled St Petersburg in a 900 day seige during WWII. I was surprised to find that it was restored by the Soviets after the war. I might have thought that they would have seen it as an innapropriate symbol, but apparently they considered it to be a national treasure and since it now belonged to the state it was worthy of restoration.
The palace is a typical palce – an enormous series of buildings on a very large estate. It is built in the boroque style with lot of gilt and elaborate decorations. Most of the furniture and artwork was saved during the revolution by the patriots and stored in the country so it now on display.
We were back on the ship at lunch and had one of those banned naps in the afternoon. Tonight we are sailing to Helsinki. Our last taste of Russia will be travelling past the Kronstadt Naval Base. Perhaps after then we will get our satellite connection restored and I can upload this blog.