St. Petersburg Day 1: Pastel Palaces, Fabulous Fountains & The River Neva
It was the colors of St. Petersburg that surprised me the most. Palaces painted in beautiful shades of apricot, mint green and azure blue. Roofs the color of celadon. Cathedral domes bejeweled in sapphire and emerald. It was a pastel world designed to bring brightness to a land of long winters, and it was a feast for the senses even on a summer visit.
Our Baltic cruise on the Crystal Symphony was docked in St. Petersburg for two nights and three days. Because my husband and I had booked the ship’s excursion to Moscow on day two, our time in St. Petersburg was split into two separate days. Visas are not required if you arrive by ship, depart within 72 hours and are accompanied by a local guide. But even with a bilingual private guide to navigate the city and get you to the front of ticket lines, there is an impossible amount to see in just a few days. I had put together our wish list, emailed the tour company and hoped for the best.
We began our day at Passport Control, a required stop to verify passports and tour plans every time anyone left the ship. From there we were directed to another area for travelers who were meeting their guides. Our tour with Anastasia Travel began with a couple of glitches: Our guide would not be the woman I had been emailing (no problem); the non-smoking car and driver we had booked would turn out to be very smoky (that was a problem, and Anastasia quickly and graciously found a replacement).
With logistics resolved, we headed with our guide Eugenia to the town of Pushkin, about 30 minutes south of St. Petersburg, and my first look at one of the luscious colors from that Crayola box of pastels – Catherine Palace. Named after Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, the palace was commissioned by Peter in 1717 as a summer residence and completely rebuilt in the mid-1700s by their daughter Empress Elizabeth. We were told that the Empress wanted the palace to be a grand splendor in the rococo style, sparkling in gilded richness and rivaling the French palace of Versailles.
The interior of Catherine Palace was as elaborate as its exterior. We toured the Grand Hall, dining rooms, state rooms and the famously recreated Amber Room, whose treasures were looted and mysteriously disappeared during World War II. Photography was allowed everywhere in the Palace except the Amber Room.
Back outside, we took a brief walk through the gardens and then drove to a nearby restaurant called Krasny Kabachok for a lunch arranged by the tour company. It was our first Russian meal – salad, stroganoff and a donut-like dessert that was eaten with a fork.
After lunch we headed to Peterhof Palace and Garden, Peter the Great’s homage to Versailles. We passed the stunning Grand Palace and Upper Gardens before reaching Peterhof’s main attraction and engineering feat: The Grand Cascade fountains. Sixty-four fountains and more than 200 statues and decorations line the staircase to the Palace’s Lower Gardens, providing an ethereal bridge between the Palace and the Gulf of Finland.
Beyond the Grand Cascade, interesting and varied fountains are found throughout the grounds. Peterhof is a beautiful place to wander, and despite the crowds, it never felt crowded.
We returned to St. Petersburg by hydrofoil, sailing from the Gulf of Finland down the Neva River. The hydrofoil is a popular transport between St. Petersburg and Pushkin, taking less than an hour, avoiding road traffic and offering a different perspective for viewing the city.
Back in St. Petersburg, we set out on our final activity of the day – a canal boat on the Neva River. When I had booked with Anastasia Travel, I had mentioned that we wanted to take one of the city’s canal boat tours…what I hadn’t requested was a private boat tour, meaning that we would be the only ones on the boat!
Eugenia went inside the covered part of the boat and narrated over the microphone as Herb and I sat on the outside deck. It felt a little surreal as we passed other tour boats, and I imagined passengers wondering how we warranted one all to ourselves. But as we traveled under beautiful bridges and along the magnificent riverfront, my uneasiness quickly evaporated into the history and architecture of the great city. It had been a wonderful day in St. Petersburg, and I couldn’t wait for the next one. But in between, there would be Moscow. (St. Petersburg to Moscow by High-Speed Train.)