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Lucille Pucciarelli
Lucille Pucciarelli

St. Petersburg, Russia on a Baltic Cruise

by Lucille Pucciarelli last updated on 10/30/2009 Disclaimer

There are two ports in the city and apparently we docked at the older one, which meant VERY long lines in immigration. Though this port is closer to the city, the other has newer facilities with shops and better immigration staffing. Most people were quite upset as it was an extremely protracted process to go through immigration the first time you arrive, and then on each successive disembarkation. The lines are tremendous, and Russia is EXTREMELY regulated; the ship cannot embark nor disembark passengers until they give their OK. Many passengers waited 2-3 hours to go through immigration and subsequently had their tours cut short by 2-3 hours. Needless to say, there were hundreds of complaints and just before we left the Captain himself got on the loudspeaker and apologized for the entire situation.

St. Petersburg takes a while to get to know. Yesterday morning, when we first took off from the pier, everything looked used and abused to me, and it was difficult for me to understand how or why this could ever have been the government capital, an imperial and art capitol of Russia. There is a lot of graffiti, incredible traffic, and people drive like maniacs. In the first half hour we saw 10 car accidents and even more waiting to happen. Our guide, Anna, was lovely and all three of our bus drivers were excellent. I expected the area around the port to be dingy and dirty and the city to be full of palaces and mirror a European city. We started our exploration with Peterhof Palace, outside of the city, and it was nice but not truly impressive. Then we went to Yusupov Palace, which was interesting, but again, not very palatial. It wasn't until while we were eating a very uninteresting, if not inedible lunch, that I realized that though Peter the Great modeled his city after the great cities of Europe, you cannot compare it to any, given the people and it's history. St. Petersburg has endured two world wars (the second of which destroyed almost every building in it), three revolutions, poverty, extraordinary weather issues, and that's only the beginning. By the afternoon, when we visited the Church of Our Savior of Spilled Blood, which truly was magnificent, my attitude had changed. The evening at Catherine Palace was wonderful, and one of the best evening/special events I've ever experienced anywhere. The Hermitage and the rest of the visits we made today truly exceeded my expectations. The Hermitage's art collection is beyond anyone's comprehension and the museum itself is a marvel and just spectacular.

A few things to note . . . There are holes in the streets and uneven steps and concrete everywhere, some from remains of wars/revolution, which they quickly point out to you, and some from faulty workmanship during the Communist era. The city is in a state of flux, and while it is already one of the most expensive cities in the world, the infrastructure, among other things, is far from modern. A lot of walking and stamina is required if you have a full itinerary as we did with our shore excursions.

One of Princess’ former cruise directors, who is now THE acknowledged expert on the Baltic area and Russia in particular, is on board for the whole season. John Lawrence gives 2-3 lectures a day (which are also broadcasted on TV) and the ones on Russia including history, the revolution, Stalin, The Romanovs, the Tsars, etc. need to be watched and understood to prepare you for your visit. Otherwise, you're just seeing buildings and art, and cannot possibly understand the turmoil and meaning behind what you are experiencing. If you're lucky you’ll get a guide like we had who spoke English very well and was able to give us a bit of history and background on what we saw. Nonetheless, knowing the whole story ahead of time helps a lot. I felt that we understood more than most because we stayed up late watching the lectures and I did some further research in the library on board.

The city is very high in crime. People come close to you and you don't even realize you're being picked pocketed. Some people started on the first day with back packs, which the guide warned against, and they quickly converted to small purses for a few reasons. First, you cannot take large purses or bags into Peterhof nor the Hermitage so you have to spend time checking them and then retrieving them. Secondly, two of our bus members experienced the locals opening their packs and removing camera equipment. The ship warned us not to hold your camera or purse out in the open for long as someone will snatch it. The guides tell you when you can stop for photos and what you should and should not photograph. If you take photos of people, they might demand money from you.

Despite all of this, St Petersburg is one of the most fascinating and interesting cities I have ever visited. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, folklore and seeing something completely different.

This review appears on Russia and Cruising.