St Petersburg – the great city of superlatives!

15 June 2018

Ian and I managed to shower (hurrah, the water was back!) and dress before Cornelia woke up this morning, who then couldn’t decide if she should have a shower this morning or tonight. She very nearly ran out of time to make her choice (it should’ve been easy really, as having one tonight would use up some of her valuable play time at kids’ club!) but eventually we “coaxed” her in and gave her a quick hose down.

Those with children under 6 were asked to go to Deck 4, which itself was a challenge, as the lobby of Deck 5 was rammed with tourists refusing to move out of the way, as they waited to stampede down to Deck 4 when they were allowed. All elbows in full use, we muscled our way through, and joined the fairly short queue of parents and kids. It was a long hot wait for the queue to move but when it did, we were through and into the port pretty quickly. Then we joined the passport control queue, with only one family in front of us, and one family being checked. They were “very thorough” taking an extremely long time to verify the movements of the two families. One family was Moroccan and one Iranian – here for the football – and it took ages for them to be approved.

Ian went into a separate box to be authorised, while Cornelia and I went in the other. Barely a word was spoken, other than Cornelia chanting “Humpty Dumpty” on repeat as she sat on the shelf at the passport desk, but within five minutes, we were all stamped and through. After a quick stroll through Customs, we found our City Bus (the only approved mode of transport into the City on a 72 hour visa-free ticket) and chugged our way to St Isaac’s Square. The outskirts of the city are oppressive and dark and concrete with lots of construction going on, but little maintenance, as Ian remarked. Maybe we just felt like that because of its history.

Then we reached the riverfront, and everything was the complete opposite! “Huge” doesn’t seem to do it justice… colossal, perhaps, buildings dominated both sides of the river, with golden domes and spires poking through the gloomy sky and brightly-coloured structures.

St Isaac’s Square is the home of St Isaac’s Cathedral, again, an impossibly colossal church, with that dark Russian Orthodox feel about it. It was almost cartoon-like with its enormous pillars and unbelievable detail. Quite stunning.

We all needed breakfast, and quickly found a quaint little cafe down a side street. It had a really good breakfast menu, and I went for Russian oatmeal with milk, cream, homemade cherry jam and crunchy flakes. Absolutely scrumptious. Ian had an omelette, and Bugsy was allowed pancakes with chocolate sauce, which she wolfed down more quickly than I’ve seen her eat anything before! We took our time to learn some Russian phrases: Hi, please, thank you, bye, toilet, and that was delicious… and managed to use all of them in one sitting, which clearly pleased the owners who were suitably charmed by Cornelia. Speaking of being suitably charmed, we were stopped in the street by a couple of guys who were clearly in awe of our gorgeous little blonde toddler, and wanted to have their photo taken with her. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but it was all perfectly normal somehow, and they were delighted that she was so friendly to them!

After breakfast, we sauntered down to the Hermitage Museum (the Winter Palace being the main building)… and this time, colossal seems inadequate to describe the size of this place! Monumental in size, it is impossible to imagine The Square in front of the palace ever getting full, and even with the excited gatherings of Iranian and Moroccan football fans, women dressed in turn-of-the-century gowns who were posing for photos (for money), and the other groups of tourists, it felt almost empty.

The exterior of the palace is painted in a sort of eggshell greeny-blue, with white trimmings and gold ornamental decoration, and is really breathtakingly beautiful. The Palace and indeed, St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great as a gateway to Europe in the early 18th Century.  It was the capital of Russia until the Revolution in 1917, when the Winter Palace was stormed and ransacked.  It is somewhat poignant that our ferry is named Princess Anastasia.

Getting in was unnecessarily disorganised. Cornelia and I stood in a queue for a long time, while Ian went to figure out the ticket machine. It took ages and as we waited in line, I heard an announcement saying that the next entry to the museum wouldn’t be until 13:15, which was an hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure whether we should stay in the queue, but then Ian reappeared with tickets in hand waving me over to the other side of the courtyard. We waltzed straight in without any further delay, only to discover that Cornelia needed a child ticket (the complete opposite of the advice he’d received from the lady at the ticket machine outside). She walked us to the front of the line, and with our great British apologies, we queue-jumped a trio of Iranians, who were very understanding and forgiving. Water necked, bags through scanners, and finally we were inside.

I am simply not verbally competent to describe the extraordinary collection of art, furniture, clothes, artefacts and history this palace houses. The photos simply don’t do it justice. All I can say is: It was magnificent. We could’ve stayed all day, were it not for a toddler in tow, and the need to be back at the bus to return us to the ferry. The museum was heaving with tourists from seemingly all corners of the world, all being carefully watched by the Russian caretakers (mostly female), who rarely seemed to smile. Ian particularly struggled with them, reacting very grumpily at being told that Cornelia should take her feet off the chair she was resting on, and then that she had to come off his shoulders, being surprisingly rude back to them. Cornelia and I entertained ourselves by trying to spot different animals hiding in the paintings (there are a large number of cats poking their heads out in paintings spanning all eras!) and she rested a while on a bench (with her feet on my bag, not the bench!!) as I gazed at Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child duo.

We didn’t touch the second floor, as we’d been there for a couple of hours already and we still wanted to explore some more. But on the way out, we were once again captivated by the Ancient Egyptian tombs, sarcophagi and relics dating back over 2000 years. Absolutely staggering.  Both Ian and I agreed that it was the combination of the Palace itself, together with all its contents that made it so extraordinary.

Once we finally emerged, it was time for lunch. We decided to try our luck down another side street, but this time, there just didn’t seem to be anything around and the streets were jam-packed with enthusiastic football fans, chanting and being raucous (although perfectly well-behaved and friendly). Some of the Iranian fans were in traditional outfits, specifically designed for the World Cup. The atmosphere was very merry but definitely under control!

Ian finally spied a restaurant advertising Pizza, Burgers, Grill, and we went upstairs and waited a while to be served. When our waitress finally attended to us (it wasn’t at all busy) she informed us that there was a 3000 rouble deposit to eat there. I explained that we didn’t have that much cash with us, but we would pay for the meal by card. But what she meant was that we had to pay that amount just to have a seat there, never mind our food on top of that!!! And we didn’t get that deposit back – literally nearly £40 just to sit there. No wonder it was empty!! We left immediately and almost despaired before we spied an insignificant little cafe and ventured in. Thankfully, Cornelia and Ian were up for a croque monsieur and I had a very healthy and crunchy chicken and pine nut salad.

Having wasted a chunk of time in the original lunch venue, we didn’t really have time to do much else other than walk back to the bus stop, via the souvenir shop for some Russian dolls (of course!) and our obligatory fridge magnet and return to the Princess Anastasia. Sadly we ran out of time to do anything other than press our noses against the polished windows of the Faberge store….!

On the way back to the city bus (and indeed while we were in the Hermitage), we saw various brides and grooms swishing their way through the crowds for photo opportunities in the glorious surroundings, so it was a peculiar sight, especially with the Iranian and Moroccan supporters and various other football nations who appeared from time to time!

Once back on board, (which was no trouble at all by comparison to the morning’s wait), we held an improvised treasure hunt for Cornelia in our cabin, before taking her to kids’ club just to completely exhaust her! Only one parent is allowed in, so I went up to the top deck to watch the ship leave the port.

It is, as the theme of St Petersburg seems to be, a huge port, and we slowly manoeuvred past vast piles of coal, salt and steel (I think!!), all surrounded by more construction works, with those golden domes glimmering in the background.

We ate supper in the New York restaurant, and once again Cornelia managed to polish off a great plate of fish fingers and chips, before it was obvious that she just needed to go back to the cabin and to bed. Ian took her back and by the time I’d settled the bill and returned, he was reading a Paddington story to her in bed. She fell straight to sleep, and Ian went back out again for more football and a beer, as I relaxed on my bottom bunk, writing up this blog ready to post when we are back in signal range!

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