Our first taste of Russia, the view of St Petersburg from the ship, was unimpressive to say the least. It’s a mile or two outside the city and all we could see were some shabby, grey tower blocks. And when we disembarked from the ship, we soon discovered that the security in Russian ports is as strict as Heathrow airport.
Still, once we’d had our passports stamped there was a coach waiting for us, complete with a tour guide. She must have been about 60, and as mad as a hatter. As the party filed onto the coach, she said:
And now I count you in Russian like precious stones – один, два, три…
Our first destination was the Hermitage – a museum comprised of several palaces. There are hundreds upon hundreds of rooms, each of them filled with sculptures, paintings and lavish decoration. The ceilings and walls were covered with gold leaf – I simply couldn’t comprehend how much of the interior (and exterior!) of the Hermitage was gold.
Of course, photos can’t do justice to such grandeur, but here are a few of my favourite shots. This first one is the small throne room.
Yep, this is all gold too.
You guessed it – this is the large throne room. Although if I were the Tsar of Russia, I would probably want a small table to put my drink on.
Oh look! More gold!
This urn is huge! (Yes, yes, I know. Those people are just far away). It’s carved from solid malachite.
Leaving the Hermitage, the sun had just come out.
We were taken to an old, converted palace for lunch. It had grand marble pillars, and we were served a traditional three-course Russian lunch, including caviar and, of course, a shot of vodka.
A traditional Russian band with singers and dancers performed for our entertainment. After a few songs, they grabbed some of the tourists and made them play musical instruments on the stage. My brother Edmund was selected to be the conductor, and given a wooden spoon and a hat, much to his embarrassment (and our delight).
St Isaac’s Cathedral
After lunch we were taken to see St Isaac’s Cathedral. It took 40 years to build and at the time of its completion, it was the tallest church in Russia. During the Soviet era the building was turned into a museum of atheism. These days it’s a general tourist attraction.
The exterior, while being large, tall, and grand barely hints at the lavish opulence of the interior. And if you were wondering, yes, that’s real gold on the roof.
The interior is incredibly grand, covered with gold leaf, paintings, sculptures and precious stones. Here’s a view looking up inside the centre of the building. In the very centre of the dome there is a metal sculpture of the dove of peace.
The inside of the cathedral is lined with yet more malachite, this time in the form of columns. Apparently each column weighs 114 tonnes!
The columns were apparently lifted into place using a huge wooden framework, with ropes and dozens of labourers. There was a model of the setup in the museum.
Above the door as we left, I saw this enormous sculpture.
And here’s the family, standing outside the cathedral. (You can see the above sculpture in the background). Aren’t we cool with our tour radios and earphones?
We went into a shop which claimed to have all traditional Russian goods, and was aimed at tourists. The shop served free coffee and vodka – and they just couldn’t give you enough of the stuff! But the products were high quality and with a couple of vodkas inside me, what better way could there be of spending the holiday rubles?
All of the Baltic countries we’d visited seemed crazy about amber, so I bought a silver and amber pendant for Hannah, while Edmund bought a shapka (which showed up on the receipt in Cyrillic script as Шапка).
Outside the the shop, I asked Edmund to try and look cold and hungry, and I took this photo.
This is the Russian ship Aurora, which fired a blank shot to signal the start of the assault on the Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage).
Of course, no visit to Russia would be complete without the obligatory shot of a Lada. These cars are everywhere!
This is me standing in front of the Church of the Spilled Blood. The blood reference comes from the fact that Alexander II was fatally wounded on that site in 1881.
In the evening I managed some night shots of the city skyline, as seen from the ship.
Overall, I thought that Russia was a strange juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty – but certainly a fascinating country nonetheless.
To be continued…