Adventures in the Nation of Nyet

Dosvedanya! We are winding down after two fascinating and arduous tours of St. Petersburg, Russia, also known as Petrograd and formerly known as Leningrad (or maybe still known as Leningrad in some areas of town). We arrived yesterday (6/18) around noon local time, which is ten hours ahead of MDT. The Mouse docked at a huge and very nice, new port facility on the outskirts of town, sharing facilities with other large cruise ships like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. Smaller ships, like the Regatta (Oceania Cruises) that we sailed on in March, can dock near the heart of the city on the Neva river. In fact, we saw Regatta today during our city tour; the Regatta is in the midst of a 14-day Baltic cruise.

Russia has very strict visa requirements, so we had to fill out a landing card and stay on an organized tour for our visits ashore. We decided to do two excursions, which we thought seemed extremely energetic, but many folks on our cruise signed up for four excursions, running ragged from one sensory overload experience to another. Sleep is apparently for the timid and weak!

Our first tour ashore began last night at 6:30 pm. We had tickets to the ballet in the Palace Theater, which hosts a local company that specializes in tourist-friendly productions of the classics, like “Swan Lake”; the theater is located in the heart of the city on Italianskaya street, one of the oldest avenues in St. Petersburg. We eagerly proceeded through the passport control at the dock, where we experienced our first encounters with the smiling, friendly populace of this historic city founded by Peter the Great. I say that with a wink & a grin, because the native St. Petersburgians were, with a few key exceptions, the most unsmiling, dare I say, unfriendly citizens we have met in a long time, and we have been to France and New York (which were both very friendly and smiling, actually). Must be the ~ 35 days of sunshine they get every year, plus the somewhat challenging times they have lived in for hundreds of years. We are fortunate, because we got two of those rare sunny days yesterday and today (well, sort of), and no challenging times or sieges, other than the barrage on my poor knees.

Our bus trip to the theater took us through the city streets labeled with bewildering Cyrillic signs and hampered by horrific traffic due to the International Economic Forum, plus the planned June 19th Crimson Sails music festival. Every 100 yards or so, there were policemen or army guards posted to ensure security for the forum. Many streets were closed, so we ended up walking a couple of blocks to the Palace Theater. The ballet (yup, it was “Swan Lake”, with a Hollywood happy ending) was quite delightful, with good performances and a great orchestra.

We finally made it back to the ship around 11:30 pm; it was still light outside and we had a late snack on the deck. It never really got dark all night and the sun was back before 4:00 am. We got about three hours of sleep, then sprang into action (hah!) for our day-long City Highlights and Hermitage tour.

This time, we brought the travel wheelchair, as my knees are now barking like the Dog Pound in “Lady and the Tramp”. This tour was advertised as “wheelchair accessible” on the Disney site when I booked it and I checked (twice) with the shore excursion staff and was assured that it was accessible. Sure enough, our unsmiling tour guide Alexandra (it seems like 80% of the population is named Alexander or Alexandra) told us that wheelchairs were just not possible in the Hermitage, as the monstrous four building museum complex only had one elevator. Well, I went a little funny in the head at this point and Alexandra was on the phone to the Mouse to discuss the situation. In the meantime, we meandered through the city streets, stopping to view landmarks and churches and even rolling by the former KGB building (creepy). Most of the photo stops required a lot of walking because of the closed street situation and the plethora of tour buses jockeying for position. We also had a 45-minute stop at a tourist trap souvenir joint peddling Matrushka dolls, Faberge eggs (yeah, right) and other assorted dust collectors. At every stop, Alexandra warned us about pickpockets.

We finally stopped for lunch at a restaurant right near the picturesque Church of the Spilled Blood, which is one of those onion dome marvels with gold and bright colors. Lunch at the “pectopah” (anglicized Cyrillic for restaurant) was served by an unsmiling staff who gave us a salad, borscht soup (very good), and chicken and potatoes. We washed this repast down with a free glass of Russian champagne & a shot of vodka.

When we got back on the bus, we headed over to the Hermitage. After getting into the building, Alexandra informed Steve and I that we would have our own private tour guide who would take us around to the highlights and allow us to use the the elevator. This turned out to be wonderful; our guide was a delightful, charming young lady named Helen who knew her art works, smiled a LOT, and guided us through many rooms to view the treasures and glorious architecture of the Winter Palace of the Czars. A great experience!

We’re now back on the ship, planning to skip dinner and go to bed early. Tomorrow we have a fairly long tour of Helsinki and Porvoo, Finland (hope I can walk). Steve has posted a few pictures. Thanks for the comments from Ken and Craig! A pleasant good evening to all from the Mouse!

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