Sunday, July 3, 2011

Honeymoon Day 7 – June 7 – St. Petersburg, Russia

We started the day with breakfast in our room again (provided by Jeff), and we could see buildings off to the distance. Because of Russian immigration rules, no one is allowed to go on shore unless they are part of a official tour escursion. Jeff and I had read this on the department of State website, so we had booked a tour online quite a while ago (and Noelle had gotten part of it as a gift for our wedding)!

The tour started fairly early – there were about 40 people on the tour – 4 Americans, a couple of Greek people, and a big group of Indians – all taking the English-speaking tour. We started by taking the bus to the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is essentially the birthplace of the city. Peter the Great built it while Russia was still at war with Sweden over the area. When Russia eventually won the war, Peter decided that St. Petersburg should be the new capital, and forced everyone to re-locate from Moscow. St. Petersburg was essentially a swamp at that time, and Peter made them all bring their own stone with them to build houses. Apparently, people were not happy about it.

After a gift shop stop, our tour went to the Hermitage – a huge art museum with art that Catherine (not sure if it was the first or second) started collecting. The museum is so big that if you spent one minute looking at each piece of art every time the museum was open, it would take you 7 years to see the museum. (This is the same type of statistic that I’ve heard about the Vatican, though I heard that there it’s 9 years – I’m not sure whether they have more art or shorter opening hours…) The Hermitage was an incredible building – lots of the rooms were just amazing. We walked through the Winter Castle, too, which is connected, and saw throne rooms and other really cool spaces. And the art is really impressive, too – Leonardo Davinci, Michaelangeo, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, and many more famous artists were displayed. You could take pictures of everything (generally without flash) except for the impressionist paintings. The paintings were all bought from the Hermitage by a couple of Jewish men before World War II, and then taken by the Nazi’s, then they were eventually given back to Russia by Germany as reparations after the war. But then some decendents of the original owners filed suit to get them back. Now the Hermitage has to keep them on house arrest until everything is decided – they can’t move the exhibit, they can’t advertise it or put it on their register – and that’s why we weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the paintings. Really interesting, I think.

We had lunch at a restaurant of the 18th floor of a hotel downtown. When we pulled up to the building, Jeff and I both thought the sign with the name of the hotel was backwards, but actually it was just in Russian. Lunch was good – mushroom soup, chicken and potatoes, and cake – and it came with a glass of champagne and a shot of vodka. A bit much for lunch, but it was fun to at least have a sip of vodka while in Russia.

In the afternoon we toured major sights in the city, including the main square where there is the parliament building and a major church. One of the highlights was definitely the Church of the Sacred Heart (also known as the Church of Spilled Blood because it’s built on the spot where Tsar Peter was assassinated). This is the really colorful church with the onion domes that you always see when you see pictures or postcards of Saint Petersburg. It was really fun to see it in person. It’s only a museum now, and no services are held there – we actually only managed to see the outside of it on our quick stop. I also bought a copy of “Pushkin’s Fairy Tales” at the tourist market across the street. When I was little, my mom had an old book called “Gypsy Fairy Tales,” which was full of all these fairy stories that to this day I’ve never found or read anywhere else, but that I absolutely loved. I thought it might be fun to see what kind of stories I’d find in Pushkin, and to give the book to Wally, so maybe he’ll have a similar fun memory of unique stories. (He’s growing fast - he just rolled over for the first time while Jeff and I were on the cruise, so I figured he’ll be reading any day now.)

We were back to the cruise in time for dinner, but Jeff and I were both exhausted since it had been a long day, so after we ate, we decided to just read on the balcony for a bit and then have an early night. In Saint Petersburg, they call this time of year the “White Nights,” because it only gets dark for about 40 minutes each night. Jeff and I ended up staying up until after midnight (when we pulled out of the port at Saint Petersburg) enjoying the white night. We didn’t need to turn on any lights at all to be able to see our books – even at midnight it was bright enough outside to read.

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