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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

St. Petersburg: From Russia with Love

We arrived in St. Petersburg on Sunday morning, August 14th and were off the ship
by 7:00 AM.  We had chosen an independent tour company called Alla Tours. They were less expensive than Princess Tours but more importantly, we would be a group of 16 instead of 60. Also they offered a night tour and at my request, focused ours on night photography opportunitie. We met our guide Anya and our bus driver, Vladimir.  Half our group spoke another language, similar to Russian, but we made friends with a couple from Toronto, Canada, Giovanni and Eleanor and a couple from San Diego, Jane and Harris.
Our first adventure was a drive around St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 when he defeated the Swedes.  He built a fortress there and then began designing the city. Russia was a monarchy ruled by Romanov Czars. The revolution began in 1905 culminating in 1917 with the abdication of Czar Nicholas who along with his entire family, was shot by the Bolshevists. Russia then began its communist history.
St. Petersburg was an epic battleground in WW2 when the Germans invaded. The Germans were stopped at the gates of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and in retribution stopped all food supplies into the city for 300 days. During that time they waited and watched the people starve.

Backing up in history, during the reign of the Romanovs, the Czars accumulated an enormous art collection which is housed in the Hermitage Museum AKA the Winter Palace.  Peter the Great also built a summer palace known as Peterhof.  Catherine, his wife, not to be out done, built her palace in the opposite direction.  We visited both palaces and there architectural style is what I can only describe as “Gilded Russian Decadence.”
Part of the day 1 tour was a subway ride.  To find the train one descends down, down, down on an escalator, at least 300’ below the surface.  As subways go it was about the same as Barcelona’s or Paris’, except everyone on the train looked tired or depressed.  We got off the subway and took the escalator up, up, up and walked across the street to a Russian market where merchants sell vegetables, fruit, meat, and bread.  I could have prepared a great meal with what was available. 
Church on Spilled Blood
Next we visited two churches: St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Spilled Blood. I thought the Spilled Blood referred to the Crucifixion, but soon found out it referred to the spilled blood of the Czar Alexander II who was assassinated there. I took a lot of pictures here because it is overwhelmingly beautiful.  
Our lunch stop was at a local Russian restaurant and we were served a coleslaw like salad, borsht (beet) soup, chicken croquets with a sauce, boiled potatoes, ice cream, coffee or tea.
Next was The Hermitage. Once a residence of the Czars. Today it is the State Museum of Art, housing the largest art collection in the world.  If you name any master artist in history, something from his work can be found here in the Hermitage.   Personally, I have never seen so much opulence and extravagance in my life.  I can see why the people revolted and how Communism came into being. 

Interior Church Spilled Blood

We made it back to the ship at 5PM on the first day and MA and I prepared for the night photo tour. In addition to us there were 10 others who signed up. For the tour, I had offered to share night photography tips with my fellow photographers, some of who had never even read their camera manuals. 
We met Alexis, our tour guide and Vladimir was again our driver.  It really didn’t get dark enough for good night photography until 10PM so in the meantime, we checked out some interesting bridges and a really beautiful blue and white chapel. It was there where we saw a glimpse into young-people’s idea of a night out.  They rent stretch limos loaded with champagne and drive around town seeing the sights and drinking. Things had apparently gotten a little out of hand and two of the guys got into a fist fight and were left behind when the limo took off without them.

While waiting for darker skies, we photographed the Hermitage from the outside, also the Teva River front.  Everyone had a great time. I hoped I had inspired some up and coming photographers.
Day two began at 8AM when we met Anya and Vladimir outside the passport control building.  Our tour took us to the river front where we boarded a hydrofoil for a cruise to Peterhof, another palace built by Peter the Great, said to rival Versailles.  It sits on a beautiful 300 acre manicured park that has at least 150 fountains.  I can only describe this place as “gilded opulence gone wild”.  We weren’t allowed inside, but from what I saw on the outside, I can only imagine what it looked like. 
We met our driver again and picnicked on the bus as we headed for our next stop.  Lunch was typically Russian: a sandwich of chicken between two soft “blinis”, (like crepes), an apple, apple juice and a chocolate bar.  The best part was the apple. MA liked the chocolate bar best!


Our last stop was the Winter Palace or Catherine’s Palace, about a 45 minute ride from downtown.  No expense was spared in building this place. Gold seemed to be the design theme.  There is a room with walls of amber called “The Amber Room” and we were told not to take pictures in this room, although I never figured out why.  There was a sleepy-eyed Russian woman guard in there who kept her eye on me.  I discreetly fired off several no-flash shots while she dozed off.  It’s what I call photo shooting from the hip.  I was expecting the KGB to stop me at the exit but I got away with it.
Amber Room

Our tour bus took us back to the ship in plenty of time for sail away.  MA and I were both tired of going and going and climbing and climbing stairs and were glad to be back on board.  The ship’s next stop was in Tallinn, Estonia, so stay tuned.


1 comment:

  1. Wayne,

    Fantastic shots and commentary - I've been waiting on this one. Looking forward to your future gallery from this trip. Glad you and MA are having these great experiences. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    My grandson fell in love with Estonia and spent considerable time there with locals he met.

    Keep the updates coming - they are great!!!

    HAVE A GOD BLESSED DAY - dave b.


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