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Whilst we chose to do our own thing in most of the ports of call on our cruise, we felt it wisest to stick to organised excursions whilst in St Petersburg. I'm sure that this great Russian city isn't really as dangerous as impressions have given but there was no point in taking unnecessary chances. We selected four excursions in the two days we were there. None included The Hermitage, you may find surprising.
One of our tours was out to "Pushkin Town", named after the famous Russian poet, around 15 miles south of the centre of St Petersburg. We travelled by coach from our ship in the harbour, a journey taking around half an hour. We travelled some of St Petersburg's widest boulevards on the way and finally ventured out into countryside before reaching our destination.
Pushkin is the location where is found two of the region's most celebrated palaces, Alexander and Catherine, across the road from each other. Alexander Palace was, at the time of our visit, undergoing significant restoration work and so, other than a visit to the Royal Carriage Collection, not included in our visit.
Briefly, as I cannot with authority write about the palace itself, the carriage collection is impressive although most are seen in a somewhat unkempt state. It would seem that little money has been spent on renovating most to the state in which they would originally have appeared so you have to use your imagination. There are dozens of carriages of all types, occupying either side of a central curving walkway. The guide gave a limited commentary on those that were on display so we didn't get a lot of feedback as to what all these were used for.
Then we crossed the road to the Catherine Palace and were greeted by a small marching band playing "popular classics"! They seemed distinctly odd: they would have looked like toy soldiers had they not all been of somewhat advancing years! Still, it made a very nice welcome and we followed them from their podium by the entrance into the gardens that stretch away from the South frontage of this impressive palace to the Hermitage Pavilion in the distance, not "The Hermitage" though. Sadly, time was not made available to explore the gardens.
The front stretches away from you for a substantial distance; at approaching three-quarters of a kilometre in length, it is over six times as long as Buckingham Palace. Painted mostly light blue and white, it is the baroque design that impresses most rather than the colour scheme, which is as it should be.
We walked half its length, to the entrance, and then began our tour of the palace. Nothing quite prepares you for the size of the place; yes, you should guess from what you've seen outside but even so... One revelation did put the whole place into perspective though and that was a line of sight down through the innumerable doorways of room after room, each ornate door frame framing the next, and the next, and the next...
The various rooms are mostly laid out sparsely so that it is the décor that mostly attracts your attention. Some have dining tables laid with place settings as it would probably have looked when this was a working palace. In another an artist was playing what I believe was a spinet, and very expertly. I could have stood and listened to him for some time, but we had to move on.
Eventually we reached one of the main highlights of the visit - The Amber Room. The Amber Room is not the original: the original wall-panels were stolen during WWII by the Nazis, when they invaded Russia and captured St Petersburg. Those panels have never been found. What is in show here is a complete restoration as the rooms originally appeared, all paid for as a gesture of reconciliation and good will by the German government.
Nothing really can describe this spectacle: you have to see it for yourself. I've have posted some pictures on Facebook, as I have from all of our ports of call. These give just a taste of the grandeur of the work that has been carried out in order to enable us to enjoy the magic of the effect.
From here we continued on to the gigantic ballroom, to be entertained by a string quartet. Seats were set out on front and as we took our places, performers in period costume entered the room to welcome us. This was followed by two dancers, also in costume, who danced for us to the music that would undoubtedly have been performed in this very room, some 250 or so years ago. They were extremely good and got a well-deserved round of applause.
All too soon our visit was over and we returned outside to once again be entertained by our marching band. The trip back to our coaches was followed by a very short journey round to a small pavilion on the north side of the palace, where we were to be wined, dined and entertained some more.
Our meal consisted of typical Russian delicacies, washed down with Russian "champagne", which actually wasn't bad. Throughout we were entertained by musicians and a couple of opera singers, male and female, I assume moonlighting for extra money. They sang various Russian songs, including some of those we know well in the West, as well as other opera classics. We were encouraged to join in with various rattles and other musical toys.
The whole meal passed very enjoyably. At the end the entertainers directed our attention to their CDs of music, which did in fact gain a number of purchases from the audience, for which I am sure they were grateful. They were selling the musical toys as well, so clearly no opportunity was to be missed!
Finally we returned to our ship, having all agreed that the excursion had been highly enjoyable and one we were all glad we hadn't missed.