Saturday, 23 July 2011

St. Petersburg

Saturday 23rd July 2011

'Vodohod' berths for cruise ships and hyrofoils on the north bank of the River Neva at Utkina Zavod, St. Petersburg.

During the night, we completed our crossing of Lake Lagoda and entered the River Neva to complete the last 50 km of our marathon journey from Moscow. It was noticeable that, whilst the industrial sites we'd passed on our trip had been run-down, we passed some modern premises as we approached St. Petersburg. We came to an area bristling with new high-rise apartments of the type you can find in any major city and passed under a modern cable-stayed road bridge which I'd cross a number of times during our stay in St. Petersburg. On our right, there were a number of moored River Cruise ships, all flying the red 'Vodohod' pennant and a collection of hyrofoils. It appeared that we were at our destination. I'm afraid it was a while before I had grasped that we were at the newer river terminal of Utkina Zavod on the north bank (not shown on the map I had) rather than the older terminal a short distance downstream on the south bank. We manoevred together with another river cruise ship: it seemed to be a case of one out, one in.

We moored at the River Port on time at 8.0 a.m. and disembarked at 9.0 a.m. to visit the Hermitage Museum. Our passengers made the usual procession through other moored ships and the landing stage to reach a waiting 'Meteor' class hydrofoil. Once we were all distributed around the three cabins of the hydrofoil, we roared off downstream to the centre of the city. It certainly seemed a great way to reach the museum because we disembarked at a landing stage right opposite the main entrance to the museum, merely waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green before crossing the busy road en masse to join the crowds already milling around.

Our entry had been timed for 10.0 a.m. (when the museum opened) to avoid the worst of the crowds. Although, unusually, photography is permitted in the museum, bags and bulky coats are not so we made use of the cloakroom before passing through the electronic turnstiles. The original Hermitage was built to house Catherine the Second's collection of artworks but the State Hermitage Museum now also incorporates the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre. About three million exhibits are displayed in over three hundred rooms - whatever you've read about this world-famous museum doesn't prepare you for the sensory overload of being there. The quality and breadth of the exhibits quite knocked me out.

The Armorial Hall, designed in 1839, was intended for formal receptions and balls.

Money has been lavishly expended in returning the buildings to their original grandeur, a breath-taking amalgam of baroque and classical. We made our way up the main staircase of the Winter Palace, originally used by Ambassadors being given audiences in various state rooms and toured a number of the main rooms with our guide, Dmitri. Dmitri's style in rushing us around the major exhibits so as to give us some free time to re-visit places of particular interest was not very popular with some members of the group I was with. Needless to say, the two and a half hours we spent here is nowhere near enough time - two and a half weeks might be more appropriate. My pictures taken in the State Museum are here. Be warned, some of these pictures are dreadful - the low light, the continual press of other visitors, the shortness of time and, yes, my sheer excitement conspired to produce rather disappointing results.

Around 12.30 p.m. we left the Hermitage and boarded a number of waiting coaches which drove all the ship’s passengers to the 'Academy' restaurant nearby. Here, we enjoyed a set 4-course lunch. There was a little time to walk in the gardens opposite the former Stock Exchange (now the Naval Museum), flanked by the two red-painted Rostrol Columns before boarding the coaches for a City Tour with various stops for visits or photographic opportunities. We spent some time in the Peter and Pault Fortress and marvelled at the restoration of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. We stopped to wonder at the elaborate exterior of the Church on the Spilled Blood. The inside has the most intricate mosaics but there was insufficient time to queue to visit the interior. The church was built to mark the place where Alexander II was fatally injured by a bomb in 1881. Construction of the Church and its mosaics took from 1883 to 1907. Despite the church's rather gruesome origins, we saw two newly-wed couples being photographed in its precincts.

Many sights we were only able to take in from the coach, such as the Kazan Cathedral. This Church was built between 1801 and 1811 (during the Napoleonic Campaigns) and is now regarded as a monument to the valour of the Russian army. The church is flanked by two massive curved colonnades said to be inspired by the Vatican. The present Saint Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth to stand on the site, was built between 1818 and 1858. We saw the Admiralty building, made a brief photographic stop at the Mariinsky Palace (built between 1839 and 1844 and now occupied by the City Council) and saw a number of the city's many canals. Each of the canals seemed to have a procession of trip boats of various sizes but, to my surprise, some of them didn't seem very well patronised. Another stop was made at the Smolny Monastery. This was built between 1748 and 1769 in baroque style to the design of Bartholomeo Francesco Rastrelli. Here, we saw two young men with their friends, apparently having made (I presume) a civil partnership.

This was our last stop and the coaches took us directly back to our ship. The weather had been very hot and I think most of the passengers were exhausted by the time we arrived back at the ship at 6.0 p.m.

My pictures of our arrival at St. Petersburg and then of our City Tour in the afternoon are here.

Pictures of the River Terminal are here.