Tuesday, October 03, 2006

St. Petersburg, Russia

Going to St. Petersburg was truly the experience of a lifetime. Who knows when or if I'll ever be back there, but I was extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a total of 6 days in St. Petersburg during my employment on the Voyager. Here is the first of 3 emails I sent home from there.

I apologize for the length of this travelogue in advance. It's just that there is so much to say about St. Petersburg I hardly know where to begin. It is a city of such wild contradictions. The wealth of its history and cultural treasures will astound you while the scope of its decay and desperation will break your heart. Its corruption will infuriate you while the warmth of its people will move you.

We pulled into the Port of St. Petersburg on the 4th of July and were greeted with a brass band playing Souza's "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue." I must admit I got a little choked up by this. But following this warm greeting were stern warnings from our staff captain and tour managers: don't go anywhere alone, watch your belongings at all times, stay out of the nightclubs, don't get into a cab unless there is a taxi sign on the vehicle and always negotiate the price before getting in, don't take a cab alone, don't buy caviar, jewelry or vodka from street vendors, don't appear impatient in the customs line, don't, don't, don't...

Indeed, there is almost a feeling of lawlessness here or that the city is under the grip of such organized crime even if something did happen to you here you would have little recourse. Passengers and crew alike came back with tales of the incredible sights they saw while others had stories of being taken by a vendor or cab driver who pretended he didn't understand them, drove them around to every cruise terminal in the city except the one where we were docked, ran out of gas, had his "friend" pick them up, etc, etc.

I would not recommend trying to see St. Petersburg or traveling in Russia on your own. It is an exercise in frustration. The way to see it is on an organized tour or a cruise ship. That said, it is an impressive city built over 300 years ago by Peter the Great on the marshy delta of the Neva and Moika Rivers. Palaces literally line the banks of these rivers. Most of them belonged not only to royalty but other nobility as well as the richest families in Russia. After the revolution of 1917 most of the palaces were carved up into apartment blocks or used for government purposes while the city's grand cathedrals were used as warehouses, storage facilities and in one case a skating rink where some of the best Soviet figure skaters trained.

The pictures below are: A view from December Square across the River where some "palaces" can be seen, A line of palaces including the one on the right which is the Wedding Palace where Soviet couples applied for marriage licenses and were encouraged to have their wedding ceremonies instead of a church (many weddings are still held here today), the Fine Arts Palace which is the best art school in Russia, More palaces with the dome of St. Isaac's in the distance, A bronze monument to Peter the Great in December Square, And finally St. Isaac's Cathedral which Catherine the Great had built during her reign.

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