This is the fifth in a series of essays
The idea of visiting Russia on this Baltic Sea cruise intrigued me the most. Mine was a generation obsessed with the Cold War, Khrushchev and Sputnik and had air raid drills under our desks. To think I could walk on that soil so far from the corn fields of the Midwest was breathtaking. From the minute I stepped off the gangplank in St. Petersburg to meet Heidi, our guide, I remembered all those strange stories of unrest and fierce competition.
It was then that I noticed at least four other massive cruise ships docked in the harbor, with hundreds of other curious tourists eager for views of Russia and this gilded city. Thankfully, the eight of us were whisked away in a van with Heidi and Sergei (of course) our driver. Heidi immediately handed out ear pieces, which confounded me until I realized my earring was in the way.
We drove out of the immediate city environs passing row after row of bland apartment buildings, where most Russians live, in three-room flats with questionable plumbing and heating. If one has a balcony, it is not for sunbathing or mini gardening, but storing a bike or other awkward things. As we neared Peterhof, a series of palaces and gardens that Peter the Great modeled after Versailles, the contrast was startling.
Since I am a visual learner (and half deaf), the majestic and golden glory of the Peterhof complex captured me and there were times when I barely heard Heidi’s detailed descriptions of the thousand acre building and park ensemble decorated with over 100 golden statues. The Great Palace’s throne room has an area of 300 meters and the Ballroom sparkles with double rows of windows interspersed with ornate mirrors. At one point, one of my companions suggested I close my gaping mouth. I laughed and then gasped again as we entered the Portrait Hall with windows on either end – one overlooking the Upper Park and the other the Lower Park and the Grand Cascade.
Imagine a perfectly parallel water fall of 30-foot wide levels flowing into a canal filled with over 60 fountains, all powered by gravity alone – that is the Grand Cascade. We strolled, along with hundreds of others, around the Lower Park to see a few of the over 200 bronze statues depicting Russia’s military prowess in allegory form, the largest of Samson opening the jaws of a lion.
From this glorious place, we were treated to a typical Russian lunch of borscht, salad and, of course, more pastry. And then on to the Faberge museum, where we women oohed and aahed at the pretty pedestaled eggs and the men kept glancing at their watches, thirsty for beer and eager for the end of Day One.
Day Two brought us to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum, overflowing with large groups of tourists who inadvertently tried to break up our little group of eight by surrounding us at every junction. Nevertheless, we persevered and viewed Catherine II’s collection of over 200 European Masters and over 3 million exhibits collected over two centuries. Again our eyes tried to take in the ornate decor and breathtaking tapestries and we knew our little iPhones could not reflect what were seeing.
We needed to go over one of St. Petersburg’s many canals to our next stop, but we were stymied by, of all things, a marathon! The “politsia” were at every intersection, protecting the runners, and even when there was a large gap in the pack, we and many other vans holding tourists weren’t allowed to cross. I’d been to marathons so I understood, but the angry drivers didn’t and were on a tight schedule to get all of us back to our ships on time. Giving up, we climbed out of the van and Heidi guided us to the infamous Metro, the deepest in the world, where we traveled nearly 300 feet down on an escalator to take the underground and bypass the runners.
We were headed to the iconic Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood, one of the most striking examples of religious Russian architecture. With its onion domes and colorful ornate facades, its exterior is duplicated on postcards and guide books of St. Petersburg. Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered with over 7000 square meters of mosaic and I just kept turning in circles to take in all I could in such a short time.
Driving back to the ship after this long second day, we passed Senate Square and a massive statue of a horseman.
“Who is that, Heidi?” I asked.
“Who do you think?“ she laughed, and I realized this entire city was an homage to Peter and Catherine the Great. I smiled and thanked my lucky stars I was fortunate enough to witness it.
To be continued ...
Yvonne Ransel lives in Bristol and occasionally writes essays for The Elkhart Truth.