Considering the current news and politics, Russia requires no introduction. From its tumultuous history with the U.S. to its years of Soviet rule over much of Eastern Europe and central Asia, this massive country has continued to show its power through much of its foreign affairs, time and time again. Love it or hate it, Russia has no doubt made a name for itself in the past up to today.
As an American, I grew up learning about Russia in two contexts: 1) the Romanov family and its tsars, and 2) the Cold War/space race against the United States. Looking back on it, much of what I was taught in school was grossly-biased, particularly with the Cold War. It’s incredible that we’ve villainized the country, that anything related to communism is bad. While I’m not saying that it is better or worse than capitalism, it goes to show that every country has its biases towards or against others, which affects how its citizens view others in the world.
My knowledge of Russia had essentially been limited to what I had learned in history class, and perhaps some first-hand accounts from those I knew who grew up during the Cold War. As a result, I admit that much of the negative views of the country had made me skeptical (even nervous) about visiting it in the first place. Along with the fact that Russians don’t necessarily like Americans, either…
All the same, I had the chance to dip my toes during our family trip while cruising the Baltic Sea. We spent two full days in Saint Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia (after Moscow, the capital). Normally as Americans, we would need tourist visas to enter the country, and it is said the process can be a pain– however, Saint Petersburg makes a particular exception, allowing visitors on guided cruise tours up to 72 hours visa-free. It was a fantastic opportunity that we took advantage of, to get a glimpse of what Russia was all about.
Our guide during our two days in town was an elderly Russian woman (“Margarita”) who had a thick accent and a no-nonsense attitude when it came to taking visitors around Saint Petersburg. There was no time to wander on our own at the various sites we visited, and admittedly, a few passengers got scolded whenever they turned up late. Although it wasn’t the typical leisure, at-your-own-pace kind of tour, her efficiency definitely allowed us to see many of the highlights in a timely manner.
We began our first full day by driving about one hour to the Summer Palace, aka Peterhof Palace. Instead of a single building, this particular palace is instead a cluster of several buildings and gardens built over a sprawling 3900 hectares of land. Referred to as the “Russian Versailles,” this palace, in fact, was inspired by the actual Versailles in France; its architect, Jean-Baptiste le Blond, was even French himself. It was built in the early 18th century and intended for Peter the Great, the then-ruling tsar, but only ever-occupied by his successor, Catherine the Great, who was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia.
Today, the Peterhof Palace is one of the most-popular tourist attractions for the city, drawing in about 5.3 million people per year. It’s a museum dedicated to the royal Russian families, with numerous rooms all elegant in design like those of French châteaux. We spent the morning visiting the interior, with its lavish gilded walls that had been restored in the early 2000’s. The Palace Gardens followed, with its intricately-trimmed hedges and countless fountains– we took a moment to watch one of the fountain’s water shows before we headed out. Despite our two-hour visit, we barely scratched the surface of the palace– however, I could tell that its opulence rivaled that of France’s Versailles, which is saying a lot for the original!
It was another one-hour drive back to the city center. Saint Petersburg is by no means small with over 5 million inhabitants and 600 square kilometers– that said, we encountered traffic on our way in, especially to the touristy parts of town. I also noticed a considerable amount of pollution in the center, which made the city look rather drab. Goes to show that even with the architectural masterpieces on every block, a big city still has a gritty, pollution problem to solve!
We soon arrived in the city center, and we made a stop at the Yusupov Palace (aka “Moika Palace”). It’s named after Felix Yusupov, the general who killed the infamous Rasputin in the early 20th century. Long story short, Yusupov befriended the influential mystic to gather information and plan his assassination– considering that Rasputin’s influence over the last tsar of Russia eventually lead to the empire’s downfall, the assassination in 1916 was a tad too late to save the monarchy. The palace itself isn’t as extravagant as Peterhof, but it still boasted a lovely ballroom and music room where we listened to a five-men choir performance.
Russia is known for several notable souvenirs, one of them including its painted Easter eggs. Granted, such items are common throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but all the same, these eggs are beautifully-crafted from stone material (e.g. porcelain, jade, even gold) and often painted with religious imagery. We bought a few of them before heading off.
It was almost 14:00 when we stopped for lunch. We had a four-course meal, which consisted of thinly-sliced pork, a “seven-vegetable” soup, chicken, and a sour-berry tart. The meal came with a glass of champagne, which tasted awful. Vodka was also served, but I decided to pass on it– I was of drinking age in Europe back then, but not so in the U.S. And even if I was in Russia, I wasn’t used to hard liquor, so I end up offering my shot to someone else. All the same, I appreciated the generous, complementary food and drink that the tour offered us that day, which gave us the energy to continue sight-seeing later that afternoon.
Stay tuned for the second part of my time in Saint Petersburg!