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We had a long day planned for our first day in Russia and I have to say I did have some apprehensions that morning that turned out to be of no real concern.
Before our trip, friends had expressed safety concerns to us about Putin’s anti-gay legislation, that also applied to travelers. That didn’t concern me nearly as much as my nervousness going through passport control. They talked a lot about it on the ship. And, as it turned out, it was no big deal.
The first time you enter Russia through passport control, you give them a signed form (that had been filled out for us), your passport and show them your tour ticket.If everything is in order, they stamp your passport. When you leave, you give them your passport and another form and they stamp your passport again. After that, each time you come and go, you show them the stamps, they look at your picture and you go right through. No problem.
We were told to be calm and patient and not to worry if we were scowled at… that’s how they are trained. I think we passed through (coming and going) about ten times in three days. I usually got smiles from the agents and found them less ‘scary’ than the NSA agents at American airports. One agent even told me I was skinny– looking at my old, unflattering passport photo.
So our first day in Russia, we’d scheduled an eight-hour tour called “Classical Saint Petersburg“, as our introduction to the city.
Our first major stop was actually outside of Saint Petersburg, at Catherine Palace in Pushkin.
One of the nice things about all the tours was that we got in to the busier attractions an hour or so before they officially opened to the public. Most of our groups had around 20 to 30 people in them and we had listening devices so the guide could communicate with us without disturbing other visitors.
Catherine Palace, known as the summer palace, is simply massive. It was built in the early 1700’s and modified many times over the different reigns.
As the Germans approached during World War II, many of the interior dressings, furniture and silk wall coverings were moved in to hiding, mostly in Siberia. The palace sustained substantial damage from the war and work continues, as funding is available, to return it to its former glory.
Gold leaf adorns the walls in nearly every room, either as an accent or main design element. The amount of gold used is overwhelming.
After the interior tour, we had some time to wander through the beautifully manicured gardens surrounding the palace.
We stopped for lunch at a beautiful restaurant, before continuing our tour. The meal was accompanied, traditionally, by champagne and a shot of vodka. I loved that the main dining room was surrounded by private dining booths that reminded me of the booths in the musical, Hello Dolly– which has nothing to do with Russia– but it’s something I’ve never seen in the United States. The meal was included with the tour and was a pleasant surprise.
I couldn’t possibly share all the sites we saw throughout the rest of the day, so I’m trying to at least share the highlights. Saint Petersburg is such a beautiful city, it was obvious why we were spending three days there.
We saw many historic buildings, statues and walked along the waterfront. We also had a chance to view the exteriors of many of the cathedrals we’d visit on a subsequent tour.
The Peter and Paul Fortress was our last major stop on the tour that day. It is considered one of the most important sites historically and structurally to the hub of the city of Saint Petersburg.
The cathedral there gave us just a taste of what was in store for us the following day when we visited the great cathedrals of the city. The beauty of the stunning interior can’t fully be captured in photographs.
After the tour, we had enough time to go back through passport control, board the ship, change clothes, disembark and re-enter Russia to attend a performance of the ballet, Swan Lake.
It had already been a long day but since it was offered, how could we not attend an authentic Russian ballet performance? Well, the good things I can say are: I’ve seen a Russian ballet in Russia, the theater was beautiful and the orchestra was wonderful.