On Wednesday, Regatta will cruise into the port of St. Petersburg. Most every Oceania Cruises’ itinerary that includes St. Petersburg also thankfully features an overnight in this fascinating city. In both name and history, the city has come full circle. Originally named St. Petersburg after the patron saint of Tsar Peter I, it was changed to Petrograd, to Leningrad and then back to St. Petersburg. The city has seen the wealth of tsars, the ravages of war, the cries of revolution, near economic collapse and recent rebirth — and this is just in the last century.
I found St. Petersburg to be one of the prettiest, most colorful cities I’ve ever visited. Most of the historic buildings are painted in beautiful shades of green, pink, blue, or gold set against brilliant white moldings. While many cities have street vendors selling their art, here is where I chose to purchase a few watercolors, as St. Petersburg is a city that demands to be painted. (My husband chose the famous nesting matryoshka dolls — created in the images of Russian leaders. Putin is inside Gorbachev inside Stalin inside Lenin, an amusing and novel souvenir, which I believe currently resides in our hall closet.)
Numerous rivers, channels, and bridges also contribute to the city’s beauty and have earned it the nickname, “Venice of the North.” While Moscow is distinctly Russian, St. Petersburg does have a more Western European feel. It also has a very low skyline, as a law has been in place for centuries that dictates that no building shall be taller than the Winter Palace. However, just last month a Russian court gave the controversial go-ahead for construction of a 403-meter skyscraper in the heart of the city. So keep your eyes on the skies here. The view may soon be changing.
If forced to label two highlights as “must see,” the first I would choose is the Hermitage. If you took one minute to look at each piece in the museum, it would take eleven years to see them all. Needless to say, I recommend booking an excursion with Oceania Cruises for this visit. I don’t think we would have even made it through the line to get in without our esteemed guide and her special privileges. But thanks to our tour guide, we bypassed the line and were quickly but gently guided to some of the museum’s greatest gems. The Hermitage has the largest collection of paintings in the world, from famous Madonnas by Da Vinci and Rafael to works of Picasso and Matisse, not to mention the sculpture, the jewelry and the prehistoric artifacts. Even the museum itself is a work of art, as the main collection is housed in the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian Tsars.
I’m excited to arrive at Catherine Palace.
The Hermitage began with the private collection of Catherine the Great, bringing me to my next must-see — the Catherine Palace. The palace was largely destroyed during World War II but has been restored to its former glory through immense restoration efforts. I joined the Oceania Cruises’ excursion, Grand Imperial Evening of the Tsars — a heady title no doubt — and I was curious to see if it would live up to its billing. We began with a private after-hours tour of the palace. Our group felt quite exclusive as we toured through the quiet halls undisturbed. We even had an escort of Royal Guards, who appeared silently and at attention from moment to moment. I was unsure whether it was appropriate to take their picture, so as you can see I was quite stealthy in sneaking a photo. I’m sure the guard didn’t even notice.
It can be difficult to find historic sites that are in truly original condition, so having seen many reconstructions, I have to say one of the most impressive is certainly the Amber Room in Catherine Palace. The effort and expense to reconstruct this famous room, over a period of almost 25 years, have created a current incarnation that must be as stunning as the original. The entire room glows with amber and gold leaf. Add to this the history (and mobility) of the room — how it was constructed in Prussia, gifted to Peter the Great, installed in the Winter Palace, moved to the Catherine Palace, then looted and lost in World War II — and you have a thing of legend. Yes, the entire room disappeared, and the fate of the original Amber Room remains a mystery, one you’ll often find referenced in fiction, television and film.
After the tour we were treated to a visit from Catherine the Great herself (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) in full regalia, welcoming us to her ballroom for champagne and a display of Russian dance. As I sipped my champagne, I was struck by how just over 100 years ago, dignitaries from all over Asia and Europe were being hosted in this very spot by Russia tsars. And just 30 years ago, as a child during the Cold War, I never imagined I would even be allowed to visit this country. Now here I was, learning its history and culture first hand. It most certainly was a grand imperial evening.