Thursday, August 30, 2012

From Russia With Love

Our time in Russia was a whirlwind of activities. Fortunately, we were able to spend two days in Saint Petersburg, but I could easily have spent a week or more. This city was the main reason we booked a Baltic Cruise. Dan's family is from the former Soviet Union (his dad's from Belarus and his mom is from Azerbaijan), and Russian is actually Dan's first language. I heard so many great things about Saint Petersburg that I was worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It not only lived up to them, but exceeded them!

Peter and Paul Fortress

Months before we set sail we booked a private tour company for our time in Russia. We knew we wouldn't be allowed off the boat without an official escort. We got a good tip from my parents to look on Cruise Critic to hook up with other people from our boat. We were able to get a great discount on a semi-private 2-day tour with TJ Travel. If you're ever in Saint Petersburg, I highly recommend TJ's. They were fantastic.

Since we only had two days though, we ran around like chickens with our heads cut off. First up was the Peter and Paul Fortress. This was built during the war with Sweden in 1703, but it never saw military action. For years the fortress, nicknamed the Russian Bastille, served as a political prison. Inside is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where Tsar Nicholas II and his family are buried.The whole church is made out of sandstone  painted to look like marble.

Tombs of Tsar Nicholas II and family

Next we went to Peterhof, the summer home of Peter the Great. It is sometimes known as the Russian Versailles, and it's easy to see why. This was one of my favorite stops of the entire cruise. It is stunning! Of course it didn't hurt that we had absolutely perfect weather. When he planned the city, Peter the Great wanted buildings painted in bright colors to offset the fact that Saint Petersburg only gets 40 days of sunshine a year. We were blessed with two of those forty days!

Peter's wife Catherine had her own palace. Known as the Russian Cinderella, Catherine started her life as servant named Marta. Peter fell in love with her and sent his first wife to a convent.

Each room in this palace was incredible and opulent. The paintings, the Dutch tiles, the gold's overwhelming.

What is more incredible is that the majority of this palace has been skillfully restored. It was mostly destroyed during WWII.

Catherine Palace post WWII

We were able to customize our tour to see the Grand Coral Synagogue. This synagogue, Europe's second largest, has operated continually since 1893 --even during the soviet era when religion was officially banned.

Prayer books in Hebrew and Russian

Unlike the Grand Coral Synagogue, St. Isaac's Cathedral was stripped of its religious connotations during the Soviet era and was turned into a museum. Today it hosts religious services only a few times a year. This is the fourth and largest church built on this site. Construction lasted 40 years! Peter the Great married Catherine I in the second St. Isaac's Cathedral.

I love how lavish Russian Orthodox Cathedrals are. This one was pretty amazing, but nothing compared to the Church of Spilled Blood that we saw the next day.

We had time for a little bit of goofing off in a souvenier shop before heading back to our boat for the evening. Don't worry, there's lots more to come tomorrow!

Read about our other ports of call:
First port: Copenhagen, Denmark
Second port: Stockholm, Sweden
Third port: Helsinki, Finland
Fourth port: Saint Petersburg, Russia (day 2)
Fifth port: Tallin, Estonia
Sixth port: Gothenburg, Sweden

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