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Gliding past rusted and abandoned factories, shipyards and piers, Nautica approached the city through what appeared to be the wreckage of Soviet-era industrialization. But when we tied-up at our birth along Leytenanta Shimidta Embankment in the Neva River we felt surrounded by the Baroque former Russian Imperial capital. And this is mostly the Saint Petersburg we saw during the next three days.
Catherine's Palace Interior Room View of the Palace Portrait of Czar Nicolaus II
Our first day's guide, Melitina, led our coach-load on a tour of Catherine's Palace and other historic sites, all the time filling us in with facts about her city.The population is around five million and a two-bedroom apartment cost around $150,000 US. During the WWII siege of Leningrad, as the city was then called, one million residents died out of four million, mostly of starvation. The siege was the deadliest episode of a pretty bloody history. She also mentioned that when they held a referendum in 1991 to change the city's name from Leningrad back to Saint Petersburg, the vote was very close -- a lot of residents, especially older people, were quite attached to the Leningrad name.
Catherine Palace, named after Peter the Great's second wife, is located about 30 kilometers south of the city center. The current, massive and opulent structure was completed in 1756. Three hundred twenty-five meters long, its vast exterior was once gilded with 100 kilograms of gold. This was the first of many edifices and artifacts we visited that helped make the Russian Revolution more understandable.
This day we also toured the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Czar Alexander II's assassination, and Peter & Paul Cathedral located within a fortress of the same name. The Romanoffs, the Russian royal family, are buried here. It's also the site of the city's 1703 founding.
Peter and Paul Cathedral
Efficiency and charm marked the serving of our lunch at a small restaurant. The food proved memorable, beginning with caviar canapes accompanied by a shot of vodka. A Greek salad, then a delicious mushroom soup was followed by "Russian Ravioli," a meat-filled pasta served with sour cream--yum!
Day two featured a cruise on the Neva River and a canal called the Fontanka River, through the heart of the city. During a brief stop at St. Nicholas church, our guide, Oksana mentioned that it had never been closed by the Soviets. The feature of the day was the Yusupov Palace, infamous as the site of Rasputin's murder. The gruesome murder angle is the draw.
St. Nicholas Cathedral
As our guide spun the story, Rasputin seemed to possess supernatural powers. In 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov, heir to the family title and fortune, instigated a plot to murder the priest whom many in the nobility considered a misguided and unhealthy influence on the royal family. It unfolded in the basement of his palace where the prince tried to poison Rasputin. When the poison seemed to have no effect, Prince Felix shot Rasputin and left him for dead. Returning a short time later, the prince discovered the body (?) missing! He and his co-conspirators tracked the priest down in the courtyard and shot him twice more, when he finally succumbed.
The palace, though, is worthy of a visit in its own right. The Yusupov family was one of the wealthiest in Russia in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, owning 100,000 acres plus factories, mines, railroads and more. They acquired and renovated the palace in 1830 and resided here until the Revolution, furnishing and decorating it with exquisite art. Though much of their collection is now in the Hermitage Museum, enough remains to convey a feeling of an opulent and sophisticated life-style.
We devoted our final day in Saint Petersburg to the Hermitage, a museum that is itself reason enough to visit the city. Everything about this place is impressive, not least the organization that allows an average of around 10,000 visitors per day to actually see and appreciate some of the world's greatest art. In less than three hours we toured four buildings: Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Old Hermitage, as our guide, Ayhura shepherded us skillfully through the labyrinth.
Natasha, our guide at the Yusupov Palace Scenes from the Hermitage
We enjoyed the architecture, including the Grand Staircase, magnificent parquet floors, marble, gold leaf and lapis lazuli ornamentation, almost as much as the Western European masters such as daVinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyke. We were fascinated with an incredible peacock clock. The entire museum is almost overwhelming.
Our time in Saint Petersburg came to an end before we were ready, but then we were anxious to see our next ports of call --Helsinki, and Stockholm. We'll save them for the next postcard.