What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 8 (St Petersburg)

On Wednesday, August 22, the Furrs sailed into the grips of what had once been known as the Evil Empire: Russia.

St Petersburg, Russia, to be exact.

And I remember the first words I uttered as opened the stateroom curtains and looked blankly toward the shore: “That’s one tall building.” The Russian need to overcompensate for perceived inferiority had once again reared its head: they built the tallest building in Europe miles north of the St Petersburg city center, surrounded by … nothing, looking for all the world like an invading spaceship that had come in for a landing.

That said, we were in St Petersburg for two days, with an overnight stay allowing for extra time to enjoy the city and its environs. We had two days of tours (the exclusive small group tours, which as we found out in Estonia, didn’t mean we’d avoid crowds) booked. On the first day, we were going to be taken to the Catherine Palace twenty miles south of St Petersburg proper, then bus back to the city for lunch, followed by an afternoon at the legendary Hermitage Museum (which is anything but a small hermitage. Jeezum crow, that place went on for miles).

We originally hadn’t had anything planned for the evening of our first day, but Carole had spotted a “folklore dance show” excursion that we could go back out to in the evening, and that had sounded interesting enough to sign up for.

On the second day, we were going to go see a second huge palace, the Peterhof, known for its elaborate fountains, and then we take a hydrofoil back to the city, and then get trundled around to a series of lesser cathedrals and palaces and things. It all sounded good in principle, but in execution, it ran us ragged. We were dead beat by the end of each day.

Of course, before any of this could take place, we had to get off the ship and through customs and border security. In every other port on our itinerary, entry had consisted of walking off the ship, down a dock, and waving idly at the customs employees in their little shed. Not so in Russia. Russia has some of the toughest visa requirements in the world and frustrating-as-hell border controls to go along with them. Even if you’re on a cruise ship and the cruise line has sent all your information to the Russians in advance, you still have what can turn into a multi-hour wait to stand in lines and go one by one up to a window where a bored Russian guard asks you strange questions and decides to let you in. (No, we couldn’t and didn’t take pictures.)

But take our word for it; it wasn’t fun. And we, at least, got a bit of priority — all the tours that had been set up by Norwegian Cruise Lines got to go through security first; only then did the passengers who had booked their tours on their own get to go through. (You couldn’t go onshore under any circumstances without a ticket for a scheduled tour offered by a licensed vendor.) We understand some of the folks who decided to save money by booking their tours directly had a two-hour wait.

A note about money in St Petersburg: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to withdraw cash from a Russian ATM, especially the ones lined up at the cruiseport just after you go through customs. As far as we can tell, they’re not real ATMs and exist only to steal your information. We tried to withdraw some rubles using our American bank card and even though a sign on the machine said you could do that, each time we tried the system took our PIN, asked us what account to withdraw from, etcetera etcetera… then said the transaction had encountered an error. Or words to that effect. So we gave up.

Well, it turns out that starting the moment I tried to withdraw rubles at the port, persons unknown started trying to buy $400 and $500 worth of goods from the Nike online store using our debit card information, goods to be shipped to Russia. Our bank promptly put a freeze on the card, which meant that things like our utility bills that were on automatic draw didn’t get paid until we got back and found out what was going on. (The bank was supposed to have sent us an email if something like that happened, but never did, so we only found out when we got back.) We weren’t out any money as a result of the attempted thefts, but the Russians tried multiple times over multiple days to use our card info. And since the only place we tried using it in Russia was in that ATM at the cruiseport… and since the attempts started that day… well, draw your own conclusions.

We found, later, that our regular credit cards could be used in stores… and even street vendors, like the guy we bought a music box from at the Catherine Palace were set up to use them. (We also found that just about everything in Russia was absurdly cheap. A McDonald’s Happy Meal sold for about $1.05 American in Russia, once you converted the price in roubles into dollars at the official exchange rate. No, we didn’t eat at McDonald’s. There were posters everywhere advertising McFood and the McPrice. The only place we went that wasn’t cheap was a large store we were taken to on our second day there. They were selling faux Faberge Eggs, vodka, Russian matrioshka dolls, furry hats, and so forth — all for about ten times the price that the vendors in the shops at the cruiseport proper were charging.

Anyway…

Once we were finally off the boat and in our little bus, we had about a half hour trip from the port to the Catherine Palace. This afforded us a look at some really grim looking Soviet-era apartment buildings near the port and along the route. It turned out later that a lot of St Petersburg was lovely and scenic and had great architecture, either from the Imperial era or from the post-Soviet years… but that didn’t mean that all the Soviet monolithic apartment blocks had just up and vanished. They were all still there and still occupied. And there were a lot of ’em.

The Catherine Palace was immense. It was located in the Pushkin area, south of St Petersburg proper. Construction of the palace had been started by Peter the Great’s wife Catherine. Tsarina Elizabeth tore a lot of it down and started over, spending money like water and basically bankrupting the country. Catherine the Great, who more or less succeeded Elizabeth (it’s complicated) regarded the whole thing as a tacky white elephant. But that said: Huge palace. Grounds that went on for miles. Room after room with elegant fittings, furniture, art, etcetera. After a while one got sort of numb to it all. (The Russians, to give them credit, had done a tremendous job of fixing the place up again after the Nazis shelled the hell out of it.) It didn’t help that we, of necessity, had to be rushed along if were going to see it all, to say nothing of the endless encounters with other tour groups and their guides all shouting in a veritable Babel of languages.

We had lunch back in the city at a restaurant (“Troika“) that turned out to be the local naughty cabaret (but not at lunchtime) where we were served the traditional Eastern European tourist lunch: chicken, potatoes, salad, and vodka. Carole didn’t want her vodka and gave it to me; I promptly spilled it on the white tablecloth and wound up sopping it up with some bread, which I then ate — an action I dubbed “the most Russian thing ever.” It was while we were going to and coming from the restaurant that we got to see a lot of the new St Petersburg, including the street with all the expensive foreign car dealerships lined up along it, one after another.

Then they took us to the Hermitage museum, right in St Petersburg proper on the banks of the Neva river. (It’s called the Hermitage because back in the day, it was very very exclusive.) The museum is situated in a network of linked palaces and buildings and the collection is just enormous. They don’t have room for everything to be on display, but what they do have on display runs the gamut from ancient Egypt to renaissance Italy and France, neoclassical and impressionist stuff from the 19th and 20th centuries… I mean, basically they have everything worth collecting in the entire Eastern hemisphere. And crowds in proportion to the size of the collection, crowds upon crowds upon crowds. Imagine Walt Disney World on the busiest day of the year, only in an art museum, and give everyone cameras and an urge to photograph everything they see. And that’s the Hermitage.

Now that I’ve seen both the Catherine Palace and the Hermitage, if you asked me to recommend only one of them for a future trip to St Petersburg, I’d definitely choose the Hermitage. Its art collection was absolutely first rate. It wasn’t all paintings, either. Lots of sculpture, statues, artifacts, antiquities, doodads, thingamabobs. You could spend days there and not really do it all justice. Even if there weren’t crowds you’d need days.

After the Hermitage, we went back to the ship and had dinner and a quick swim to refresh ourselves, then rushed right back out to get back through customs for our trip to the “folklore dance show”. We didn’t know if the Russians, just to be Russians, would make us take just as long to get through security as we had earlier (although we knew there would be a lot fewer people going through at 6 pm as opposed to 8 am), but since we’d already been through once and had a certain piece of important paper tucked into our passports (I don’t speak or read Russian, so for all I know it said I was a piano tuner from Addis Ababa), the trip through security took about five minutes.

We were bused to an older district of St Petersburg and taken to a building they identified as the General Assembly House of the Officers of the Army and Navy (aka the Officers House), a lovely concert hall on Liteyny Prospekt, where a nightly show called “Russia through Fairytales” was presented. Tour groups were their stock in trade and it was obvious from the way the employees spoke to us that some groups had paid for the vodka-and-wine-and-crudities-during-intermission and some hadn’t and Heaven help you if you tried to help yourself when you weren’t supposed to. We absolutely loved the show. It was everything we hoped for; the troupe of male and female dancers dressed in what we assumed was classic Russian garb leapt and pirouetted and danced and tumbled and we were worn out just from watching them. We would happily have purchased the souvenir DVD but the sour lady at the table selling them didn’t take any form of plastic and we didn’t have enough paper money in any currency she took on us. C’est la vie.

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