27 July 2013

Sprint across St. Petersburg tourism day 2

Day two we were not late so no debasing treatment from the tour guide. St. Petersburg, Russia here we come.

First the subway ride in the brand new Admiralty stop. The first escalator is about 10 stories continual escalator. Crazy. The trains are old  and beat up looking but the stations are new. I think the Kiev, Ukraine station I was in last year was more impressive and older but they really work to make the stations impressive and regal. No graffiti like I'm used to in Spain.

Quickly back to the tour bus and the early entry of the Hermitage. Biggest museum in Europe (quantity - wise) only 7% is on display. It is housed in three palaces at least the display part. The palaces themselves are worth a visit even without the art. The impressionist exhibit was very nice. Some Van Gogh I wasn't familiar with and Cezanne as well as a lot of names I recognized. Some early pieces of Monet that were darker palettes before he moved on to lighter colors and light play were an interesting contrast to other paintings I'd seen in other countries. Rembrandt section is the largest in the world and super crowded. Ridiculous. We saw the prodigal son which had been used for a sermon in Spanish church and I really liked seeing it live. It was quite large.

It was really worth it to have a guide for the Hermitage both for the early entry they get and for guiding you to see specific things. The place was enormous and you could spend and entire day wandering and not see what you were looking for.

One thing that made me pay attention was that Oksana our guide would describe the people who had collected say the impressionist paintings and then at the end say:  and it was confiscated by the Communist government where normally you hear it was donated to the museum. Then in the tour they would have the biggest of say the Rembrandts in the world, the european silver collection biggest in the world. If the government simply confiscated everyone's everything from all the rich people in such a huge country and put it in the museum seems it would be an easy way to get the biggst collections of a lot of things.

We walked thru the grand and large Revolutionary square. You could see St Isaac's golden basilica in the distance. 4th largest in the world  or Europe or something (or maybe a lot of place I've been claim to be in the top five??) She mentioned four including this one and  Brussels, Milan and Rome.

We visited the church of the spilled blood. Most mosaics in the world. 7000 inside one church if I'm remembering right. I thought it would be the spilled blood of Christ, but it was where Emperor Alexander II was killed. There was a second (at least) attempt on his life with a bomb. It harmed some people and not him and he felt it was his duty to get out and attend to the people. So the conspirators threw another bomb and got him and so they built a church literally on the spot - they moved the bank of the river and kept the pavement and the railing wheere he was killed inside the church they built. He had freed all the serfs from the feudal system/slave system still going on but did not give them the land they lived on. The church was colorful inside and out. Russiana Orthodox so no pews.

All mosaics! The whole place was covered.
That little low railing in the back is the sidewalk railing and inside the marble fence is the original pavement where the royal blood flowed. Never seen anything quite so specific.

Church of the Spilled Blood from outside. Picture doesn't do it justice very colorful.

A quick walk down a shopping district (not to shop to show us -- a blog on tours later) We got out no money the whole time. They just marched us around very quickly and stopped us at particular shops.

Then a dramatically quick stop at the Peter Paul Fortress to the St.Peter St. Paul church, orthodox russian where all the Csars are buried including the last one and his assascinated 5 children -- they did NOT receive the royal crest on their tombs. They were found in a mine shaft where their bodies had been thrown  80 years later or something like that and dna tests verified them. Oksana was adamant that none survived that it was legend from books.

Nothing was leisurely but we did see a lot in a very short time.

22 July 2013

Impressions of St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia ---

We did a river cruise first and I didn't realize there were so many old palaces there. Many of course have been converted into museums or other things. They are mostly a classical (I'm guessing) 18th century look of sort of row palaces along the river (like row houses). Many had white stone corners and lintels while the facade was painted bright colors. Totally did not expect the bright colors in Russia.  I didn't expect miles upon miles of them along the canals.  The river trip was a bit of a blur but there was weak warm sunshine that made a light jacket just right in June!

We took a hydrofoil ride to Petershoff castle. I slept thru the ride. The time difference of two hours from Madrid and getting up super early for the tour was really painful. We were getting up at like 4am our time. What a whiner I am - I could have had jet lag if I'd come from the US!

We just toured the gardens of Petershoff which were Versailles-esque. Peter was influenced by Versailles and wanted to have something equally impressive. The fountains were lovely and gravity fed which was impressive.

We got lots of history from the tour guide Oksana thru out the two days.
Catharine the great was from Prussia (part of Germany depending on the century). She plotted with one of her lovers to kill husband Peter III and become empress for 35 or 40 years! She was known for having many lovers. She built the one who helped her kill hubby Peter a palace on the river called Gratitude palace.

A long bus ride to Pushkin followed where the palace of Catharine is. Catherine's palace was huge from the outside, light blue, white and gild nearly in a circle but the small buildings on the opposite side were kitchens and staff quarters. The anterooms and the throne room were recently restored (since the 1970s) after being burned by the Nazis on their way out of Russia (we were told this several times). The public rooms had so much gilding, pounds of gold leaf! I think a second rococo style. It was so ornate and grand. Definitely worth the trip and effort  to go there. The entire palace is still not restored from the Nazi exodus. I did not expect the Soviet era to have taken such an interest in their history. I guess I thought they were busy rewriting or doing away with history, so this was interesting to me. Perhaps a pride issue?

We signed up for an evening folk dance show so the tour dropped us in a coffee shop in downtown where a tour minder stayed with us (I assume so we didn't wander off and have to report us to the police again). The girl was in her first year in University in philology and was studying Spanish so we practiced Spanish and talked about Spain and Russian life.

She took us over to yet another palace where the hopping and dancing was in the ballroom. Whistles and amazing glittery trimmed costumes accompanied the dancing. I often find the tourist shows a bit cheesy but this one was well done. It was just the dancing, no schtick in-between things.  At intermission, the Asians in the crowd (the majority) shoved me out of the way to get to the crackers and champagne. Shove may be too gentle of a word actually. I guess they are used to conditions so crowded they just shove and push to get what they want. Or maybe it's a vacation urgency thing. It was harsh but we enjoyed the show and recognized that this was local artists and dancers trying to make a living at their art who probably had other jobs they had to work as well like most artists.

Next time Day 2 of the sprint around St. Petersburg.

14 July 2013

The harsh welcome in Russia

Russia requires a visa for American tourists. In order to get off of the ship in Russia, we had to be associated with a tour company or else apply for our own visa. We did look into the process of getting a visa, but visiting the Russian embassy in Madrid didn't work into our schedule at the time, so we had to find a tour to take.
We were too late to get in the ship tours, so we found another company that had decent reviews and signed up for the two day St. Petersburg comfort tour. Comfort meaning you walked less or something. 
After waiting in line for a while to get off the boat thru security, we joined another line. The passport control in Russia was ungainly and stressful and is often the case we seemed to have chosen a line that it was the person's first day on the job.  Each person had to show a visa or a tour company invitation/guarantee. It became more and more tension filled for us as we realized the meeting time for our tour had come and gone. The information they sent us said that someone would be waiting for us no matter what, but we felt bad.

We finally got thru about a half hour late. We are not habitually late people so we were stressed by this. We came out and similar to an airport lounge there were many people with signs but with the names of tour companies. We scoured the signs. None with our company. Uh. Oh. We asked one of the other guides, "Do you know if anyone from Alla is here?" She looked around and said no she didn't see anyone. We saw buses outside so we went to investigate. No signs so we asked a couple bus drivers if they knew of our company or if it was there. No dice.

We tried to go back inside and check the signs again, but a police officer guarding the door forbade it. He said we needed to wait outside and our tour company would find us. After 10 minutes or so, it was evident that this was futile.

We saw the hop on and hop off buses waiting in the parking lot and we were considering if we should do that. We knew we were supposed to be with the company that showed on the visa, but what do you do when you are abandoned? Stuck in St. Petersburg.

We went around to another entrance back into the port terminal. The policeman at this entrance was distracted by people talking to him so I slipped in. I looked at the area where people were holding signs. Still no one for our company. I gave up and turned toward the shops at the other end hoping I would find an ATM so we could get some money.

As I'm walking, someone on a bench starts yelling at me, "No, no, no." I was startled and I stared. It was a woman sitting on a bench not holding up the sign lying in the seat next to her. She picks it up and it says "Alla Tours." Before words come out of my mouth she starts angrily saying this is unacceptable  over and over again, so I cannot speak. "There is no excuse. No excuse." Being in line for an hour and a half was not good enough for her. Actually she wouldn't listen to me and just kept  yelling about unacceptable and no excuse.  I was stunned because she wasn't even trying to hear me or be polite or anything. We have contracted for a very expensive service and this is our greeting. Yes we are late but we are customers. I know customer service is weak to non-existent in Europe, apparently the same in Russia. Then she said she had to call and stop them from reporting us to the police because they'd sent someone to report us! Yikes. We've been in Russia 30 minutes and already we are getting reported to the police. I'm guessing all the old Soviet ways haven't worn off completely. She got on the phone and stopped someone from reporting us and rudely handed us off to an underling to drive us across town to meet up with the tour.

It got better from there! (more next time on St. Petersburg)