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13th May, 2015

St. Petersburg

This morning we arrived at the pilot station at the early hour of 5.30 am. After boarding the pilot we proceeded the 28 miles to the passenger port of St. Petersburg passing Kronstadt, which is the naval base for the Baltic. We were lucky as we could see the sun shining on the golden domes of the church and the battleship Aurora, the ship that gave the starting signal to the 1917 revolution, which was there to be refurbished. We arrived in the port at 8 am and were berthed at 8.30.

St. Petersburg, like Venice and Amsterdam, is a floating city, with its main waterway being the River Neva which feeds into the Gulf of Finland. 18th Century architects from Western Europe designed the squares, parks, boulevards, palaces and monuments that make St Petersburg so delightful.

As soon as the ship was cleared by the local officials our passengers could proceed ashore and the tours could be dispatched. Today there were eight tours during the day, and four evening tours.

The day tours were:

“Splendours of St. Petersburg”. This panoramic tour showed some of the many highlights of this wonderful city such as the “bronze horseman”, monument to Peter the Great, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Palace Square, the Winter Palace, the Rostral Columns, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Cathedral of Peter and Paul and the Hermitage Museum.

“Essence of St. Petersburg” offered some of the sights as the tour described above, but also included St Isaac’s Square, St Nicholas’ Naval Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral and the Peterhof Gardens.

“Hermitage & Gold Room”. The Hermitage, founded in 1764 as a private museum, has a collection of around three million works of art. This tour offered the chance to visit some of the different parts of the museum including the staterooms and the Throne Room of the Winter Palace. The highlight however was the Gold Room, which is home to jewellery dating from the Scythians and Ancient Greeks to the 19th century and works by famous jewellers such as Fabergé.

“Glimpse of St. Petersburg Part 1. This tour, although shorter than the Splendours of St. Petersburg tour, offered many of the same sights.

“Peterhof Park & Fountains”. Peterhof Palace, 18 miles from St Petersburg, is the former summer residence of Peter the Great. It was originally commissioned to be a 'Versailles by the sea’ and Peter’s plan was certainly brought to fruition as it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The layout of the 300-acre park includes the Great Cascade which is fed by underground springs.

“The Locomotives and Electric Trains Museum” was a must-see for those with an interest in history, engineering and railways. Varshavsky station, otherwise known as Warsaw station, is the former passenger railway station in Saint Petersburg but has now been turned into the Museum of Railway Machinery. The oldest steam engine goes back to 1897, a 46.2-ton steam engine that could travel at 32kph. Another cargo steam engine, the FD, carries the initials of Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the Soviet leaders who was the head of the first post-revolution secret police and of the railways. There is also the S-68 steam engine, the type of locomotive that transported the first Soviet government from St.Petersburg to Moscow in 1918, the very first diesel locomotive in the world, designed in 1924 on the order of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, and the very last passenger steam engine built in the Soviet Union in 1956.

“Peter and Paul Fortress and Canal Cruise”. Located on a small island this is the oldest structure in St Petersburg. It houses the city's second tallest structure, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which boasts an ornate gilded interior and 18th century paintings. This visit was followed by a fascinating cruise along the rivers Neva, Fontanka and Moika.

“Faberge Museum”. St. Petersburg’s first Fabergé Museum opened in November 2013 at the Shuvalov Palace, close to the Imperial Anichkov Palace. With over 50,000 sq. feet of exhibition space divided into 12 spacious galleries, the 130 showcases are brimming with over 3,000, 18th, 19th and early 20th century objects of vertu, porcelain and silver, including approximately 1,500 works of art by Fabergé.

The evening tours were:

“Exclusive Hermitage” was a once in a lifetime chance to enjoy a music performance by the full symphonic orchestra of the Hermitage Academy of Music, and a wonderful opportunity to wander through this magnificent building without the general public.

“An Evening at the Ballet” was a performance by the Russian Ballet Theatre, accompanied by The State Symphony Orchestra, which took place in the Aurora Hall. And, of course, there was Russian sparkling wine served in the theatre’s spacious foyer during the interval.

“An Evening of Folklore” offered a wonderful evening of lively Russian folkloric song and dance at the Officers’ Club in the heart of St Petersburg. During the interval Russian sparkling wine, vodka and snacks were served.

“White Nights on St. Petersburg Waterways” offered a boat tour along some of St. Petersburg’s network of canals and rivers. It presented a unique atmosphere, and created a glittery mirror in which the golden domes and fairy-tale palaces of the city were reflected. Many of the historical and famous highlights of St Petersburg were seen during this tour.

For passengers staying on board during the day, the Cruise Staff organised and hosted different activities.

The evening on board started with cocktail hour in Cooper’s Bar with Martin Orbidans at the piano and in the Drawing Room with the Perfect Mood Duo. After Dinner the Britannia Lounge featured the Saga Sapphire Grand Quiz followed by a Classical Evening with The Tiffany String Quartet presenting their “Music of the Centuries”. This was followed in the Pole to Pole Restaurant by The Saga Sapphire Late Night Russian Buffet featuring a mouth-watering selection of hot and cold freshly prepared dishes with live music from the Perfect Mood Duo, and in Cooper’s music and laughter with Martin Orbidans at the piano till late.

On day two it was a prompt start for the passengers going on an excursion as the first passengers left the ship at 8 am. The tours were:

“Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Salo”. This excursion visited a masterpiece of world architecture, Catherine Palace. This lavish and imperial building, with its 300m long baroque façade, was gilded with 100kg of pure gold that glittered so powerfully in the summer sun that visitors complained that it blinded their eyes! Viewed were the Great Hall, Green Dining Room, Blue Drawing Room and exquisite Amber Room. This was followed by a walk in the landscaped grounds.

“Catherine Palace and Pavlovsk”. This tour also visited the Palace, but after lunch there was also a visit to the less well known Palace of Paul I in Pavlovsk. This was designed by Catherine the Great’s official architect, Scotsman, Charles Cameron. Before World War 2 the palace was a family museum housing the finest 18th-century French furnishings, paintings, sculpture and porcelain. During the war most of these treasures were hidden and the palace torched. After the war the Palace was restored to its former glory and the hidden treasures were put back in their rightful place.

“Royal Palaces and Parks of Peterhof”. During this tour our passengers visited beautiful Peterhof, the summer residence of the Russian Tsars, and saw the staterooms, dancing and audience halls, the White Dining Room and Peter the Great’s oak study. This was followed by a visit to the Lower Gardens, and after lunch with a visit to the Cottage Palace to see Alexandra’s study, the grand drawing room and the private rooms.

“A Taste of the Hermitage” was another opportunity to explore the magnificent halls and staterooms of the elegant Winter Palace. This time it concentrated mainly on the works of 14th-19th century European artists and other exhibits such as porcelain, pottery, silverware, furniture and antiques.

“Oreshek Fortress”. A short boat ride from the sleepy provincial town of Schlisselburg lays Nut Island, which houses this highlight, one of the oldest Russian Fortresses. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a rich history as strategic fortress and a notorious one as a prison for those who threatened Tsarist Rule. Visited were the early ruins and the later additions such as the Secret House and the New Prison.

“Glimpse of St. Petersburg Part 2”. Following on from yesterday’s tour the coach followed a panoramic route passing the Academy of Fine Arts, the 3,500-year old Sphinxes on the Neva River embankment, the St Petersburg State University, the Rostral Columns, the white colonnaded Stock Exchange, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the cabin of Peter the Great and the Smolny Cathedral. The Cathedral is a stunning blue and white building, considered to be one of the architectural masterpieces of the Italian architect Rastrelli, who also created the Winter Palace.

“Visions of St. Pertersburg” offered a combination of a coach, to view many of the city’s highlights, and a trip along the Moika and the Fontanka Rivers.

“Spilt Blood Cathedral and Canal Cruise” offered a cruise along the Neva, Fontaka and the Moika rivers and an in depth visit to one of St Petersburg’s most beautiful churches – the Spilled Blood Cathedral. The Cathedral, which is one of the finest examples of the Russian revival style, was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881.

“St. Petersburg Cathedrals” enabled our passengers to visit the magnificent St Isaac’s Cathedral (1818-58) in St Isaac’s Square. This Cathedral was designed by French architect August Montferrant and is named after St Isaac of Dalmatia. Next was Kazan Cathedral, constructed by Russian architect Andrei Voronkhin . This is an outstanding example of early 19th-century Russian architecture. Last, but not least, was the Spilled Blood Cathedral.

All on board was at 5.30 pm, and soon after we let go of the lines, turned the ship and headed back the 28 miles to the pilot station, where we disembarked the pilot and set course for the next port of call, Tallinn.

The evening started with Celebrity Crime and Cocktails hosted by Stephen Tompkinson and Neil Stuke in the Drawing Room, or there was cocktail hour in Cooper’s Bar with Martin Orbidans at the piano. After Dinner the Britannia Lounge featured Showtime with Explosive Productions presenting their “Hollywood Nights”, a song and dance spectacular, featuring “Singing in the Rain, The Wizard Of Oz and many, many more favourites.

Captain Kees Spekman

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.