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12th August, 2016

St. Petersburg

The sky was leaden behind us as we passed the old naval base at Kronstadt, a gloomy omen for the day already forecast to be at the very least ‘damp’. And so it was, but at least it stayed dry until the tours had all disembarked and filed past the rather serious looking immigration officials. Over the two days there were 24 different tours on offer, so plenty of choice and plenty left for a second cruise to the Baltic sometime in the future.

Mrs R and I managed to join the evening excursion to the Hermitage, an exclusive visit when this amazing museum at the Winter Palace is closed to the general public. We strolled through the various state apartments and magnificent halls, taking in the priceless artefacts and paintings, guided by an enthusiastic Russian and followed by another who, with certain firmness, closed each door after we had passed through. There was an excellent recital of popular classical music played by a 36 piece orchestra, held in the stunning Large Italian Skylight Hall where the acoustics just powered the sound to a higher plane. What a night, and finished off with bubbles before returning to the ship to enjoy Executive Chef George’s ‘Russian Buffet’, a gastronomic extravagance.

The following day promised better weather so we took the coach out to the small town of Gatchina and the Palace completed in 1781 for General Count Orlov, a favourite of Catherine the Great. It later became the home of Emperor Paul I, was used often by the Royal family and Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar spent his youth there. Becoming a museum after the Revolution the Palace was very badly damaged by the retreating Nazi army during World War 2. It was one of the last Palaces to begin restoration and of the hundreds of rooms there, are less than a dozen rooms complete that one can presently visit, even so, well worthwhile.

Our guide led us out to the gardens and the ornamental lake where there was a competition taking place for model boat enthusiasts, their remote control vessels proudly on display. Below the Palace grounds a very large park surrounds Lake Serebryannoe, and despite it being a Friday, many locals were out walking and even several brides having their wedding photos shot against the idyllic background. One thing that did catch my eye was a painted sign near the entrance. Although completely in Russian, the very obvious 15 symbols prohibited everything from climbing on the statues to breaking the plants and sunbathing. Quite right too.

The weather had changed and we sailed off in glorious sunshine, our grinning pilot, familiar from a previous visit, assured me that our draft, now much deeper since taking fuel bunkers, was OK, but in the same breath telling me that a previous vessel had run aground with the same draft just outside the harbour. Comforting thought. Needless to say we didn’t and the old naval base, complete with modern submarine and various other lethal looking vessels, passed by our starboard side, just as the sky was indicating the end of another day.

Captain Philip Rentell

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