Visiting Russia by cruise ship is certainly the easy way to do it. Travelling independently is possible but it can be challenging (and expensive) to get a visa. If you are on a cruise (or other organised tour) you can visit without a visa, but you must remain with the tour group at all times. For this reason we signed up for 5 tours over the two days we spent in St Petersburg, hoping to get the most our of our first visit there. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
St Petersburg was very crowded, and everywhere we went there were multiple tour groups. The Viking tour guides use the QuietVox system, where the guide wears a small transmitter device and the group members wear small receivers with earphones, so we don’t disturb anyone, and you can wander away from the group a bit & spread out to get a better look at the thing you came to see. Sadly not many tour groups do this, so as well as the crush of people, you have to listen to shouted commentary in multiple languages and groups of tightly packed tourists that can’t be bypassed. Can you feel my blood pressure rising?
If I had my time again, I would go to the trouble and expense of getting a visa for Russia!
Having said that, we saw some amazing art, incredible palaces & churches, beautiful architecture (and some awful Soviet era architecture) so I’ll stop complaining now!
Our first tour was to the Hermitage Museum, the second largest art museum in the world (points if you can tell me which one is the largest). It was founded by Catherine the Great in the 1700s, and consists of several former palaces along the Neva River. You couldn’t possibly see all that is on display – there are hundreds of rooms, and even so we were told only about 5% of the museum’s collection is on display at any one time. The opulence and grandeur of the buildings themselves is magnificent, though the seeds of revolution are very apparent in the excess of glittering gold & marble. Oh, and there’s some impressive art there too.
We did get to have a “real Russia” experience while we were there. There was a big world economic forum happening in St Petersburg while we were there, so traffic and security were worse than usual. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe paid a visit to the Hermitage at the same time as we were there. This meant that sections of the galleries were temporarily closed, but it seemed no-one knew which sections and when or for how long. We kept getting turned around by security guards and wandered in circles for a while until eventually getting trapped in a corridor between two security guards who didn’t know what to do with us. Our lovely guide Olga said “You can see art anywhere, but now you see the real Russia!”
The Yusupovs were the richest family in Russia (after the Tsar), and they decorated the 18th century mansion now known as Yusupov Palace in a style befitting their wealth and influence in 19th century Russia. The family lived in the palace from 1830 till the revolution in 1917. Apart from sumptuous decoration and truly impressive art collections, the Yusupov Palace is interesting for the dramatic events that unfolded there in December 1916. Young prince Felix Yusupov and several others conspired to kill Grigori Rasputin in this house. There is a display of very life-like waxworks in the basement telling the story. Reports of what actually happened differ, but it seems Rasputin was poisoned (unsuccessfully) then shot (but didn’t die). He escaped up a hidden staircase but left a trail of blood, so they found him and this time shot him dead. They tried to dispose of the body by dumping it in the river, however in December the river is frozen, so he was found and the perpetrators caught. Felix was exiled from St Petersburg (after squirrelling away enough jewels and a couple of Rembrandt paintings to sustain his lifestyle), which was probably a piece of good fortune for him given the events of 1917. He lived a long and happy life and died in 1967 in Paris.
No trip to Russia is complete without a visit to the Russian Ballet. We saw Swan Lake in a small theatre which is part of the Hermitage. It was built for Catherine the Great in 1787, and has been restored and used for regular performances since 1991. The ballet was lovely and a perfect end to the day. We even were treated to a glass of champagne at interval. We were allowed to take photos while the dancers were taking a bow.
PS Apologies for the awfully punny title. I couldn’t resist! 🙂