Where was I?
Oh yeah. Last summer, my partner and I, plus another couple who are friends of ours, went on a cruise vacation in the Baltic region. After the trip, I began a photo diary series, as Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I had intended to finish up with a diary on the St. Petersburg, Russia portion of the trip. But other things got in the way of actually writing that diary, and as it happens, I just never got around to it for a long while.
As Russia is in the news these days, I figured it is time to dust off the photo album, get my ass in gear, and finish this travelogue series.
The photos in this diary are hosted on flickr. You can click on any of the images to view a higher resolution version directly from flickr.
Please join me below the orange kroissant for more.
We plan our vacations way ahead. This cruise trip had been in the works for nearly a year before the departure date. St. Petersburg is one of those places that, according to people who have been there, is a "must see". Now, Russia has never been particularly gay-friendly place. As some of you reading this already know, my partner and I are a long-term gay couple. The friends we travelled with on this cruise are a straight married couple, not that it matters.
Between the time we made the booking, and the actual trip, things in Russia changed for the worse, for gay people. When I originally conceived this diary series, I had planned to discuss the political situation in more detail than you will find here. As of now, I'm just going to focus on our visit primarily as a sight-seeing tourist. Suffice to say, I wouldn't book a trip to Russia now. But, we had booked and pre-paid for the entire cruise before the current anti-gay situation arose, so we went ahead as scheduled. If you want to read about what's going on over there right now, there are many diary choices, such as this one by Dave in Northridge a couple of days ago.
The St. Petersburg stop was the longest of any on this cruise. We were docked there overnight, and so had essentially two days to do the tourist thing. Well in advance, I had learned that we did not need to apply for a Russian visa if, and only if, we stuck to the approved tours (such as those offered by the cruise line). We would be accompanied at all times by an approved Russian tour guide. At the end of day 1, we had to return to the ship, and stay there overnight before venturing out once again on day 2. It is technically possible to apply in advance for a visa in order to go out on your own without an official guide. But that is expensive, and potentially you can run into some hurdles. We avoided that process. We booked a two-day tour package, which included a number of the major sights, accompanied by the same tour guide on both days.
In the days leading up to the St. Petersburg stop, our Cruise Director and his staff made it clear that everyone should be on best behavior to avoid trouble. As we went through the boarding line at the end of the first day ashore, I overheard the Cruise Director having a light moment with some other passengers: "I told you, they're not a friendly people".
And that is the first impression you get, getting off the ship, and going through the Russian Customs queues adjacent to the dock. Our friends were in one line, inching ahead, when the agent servicing that line abruptly shut the window, leaving people standing there, to find their way to another line.
Let's begin with a splash of color. Despite the seeming greyness of the Russian people, there is much beauty in and around St. Petersburg.
One of the first sights we saw is the Aurora, an early 1900's battle cruiser. It is now serving as a museum, though going aboard was not on our itinerary.
The Hermitage Museum
The State Hermitage was our major stop on day 1. Open to the public since 1852, it is one of the world's oldest, and largest, museums. Only a fraction of the three million items in the collection is on permanent display. And that includes the world's largest collection of paintings.
Many tour groups, from all over, visit the Hermitage. Here is our guide (she was with us for both days) gathering us around. She wears a headset and transmitter; each of us has our own receiver unit, so we can listen to her commentary and instructions as we go through the building. I don't recall seeing her smile. Ever.
The museum hosts many many sculptures.
Here is a very grand staircase, where you first get a sense of the opulence to be seen ahead.
Everywhere you look, below, sideways, and above, there is intricate detail. The way this photo turned out reminds me of the kind of matte painting they used to use in movie making, before the digital era, compositing one scene into another.
A throne fit for an Emperor or Empress.
You look at this table top, and marvel at the intricate painting under the glass. Then they explain to you that this is not a painting, but mosaic tiles. You bend over and see the fine detail. Teeny, tiny, tiles. Holy crap.
Here and there, you might see students, artists, student artists, making their own copies of some of the artworks. You have to presume they have obtained official permission to do this.
This museum has more chandeliers than you can probably count.
Stunningly beautiful hallways and arches.
Beyond the Hermitage
Inside St. Isaac's Cathedral.
A pair in period costumes, for the tourists.
Just a street scene.
Catherine the Great
Day 2 began with a visit to the summer palace of Catherine the Great (Catherine II). Her long reign (beginning after the coup against her husband, Emperor Peter III), is known as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire. She was a great friend to the wealthy and powerful elite.
This summer palace is often associated with Catherine II, though it was originally built by Catherine I, then demolished and replaced by this more grand structure by Empress Elizabeth. Regardless, the opulence, and the amount of gold outside and in, is stunning. This is what happens when extreme wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few rich and powerful individuals or families.
As we begin, it is still fairly early in the morning on what would turn out to be a sunny and warm day.
Still in the morning shade, the front side of the palace begins to show off the opulence and attention to detail.
A little musical performance for the tourists about to enter.
The line forms early. This is a popular attraction.
The photo doesn't do justice to these splashes of color in contrast to the walls and ceiling.
So much gold, so much ornateness.
This room is unbelievably grand.
Gold, gold, and more gold.
Looking out the window to the courtyard beyond.
Upon entry to the building, we are all required to put on these booties over our shoes, to protect the floors. And beautiful floors they are.
If I have to sum up the Russian people in one photograph, this is it. This is the face of Russia, at least as I saw it during this brief visit. Most of the rooms open to the tour have an attendant such as this one; her function is to sternly watch over the tourists, and scold anyone who crosses any boundaries. Don't walk there, don't touch that, just ... don't. I had to be quick and discreet to capture this image, to avoid a scolding for that. At least they each get a chair to sit in, periodically.
One of several dining rooms.
A closer view.
No floor, no wall, no corner, no ceiling is left unadorned by intricate detail.
If I recall the narration, the central object here is a china cabinet. There are variations of this in several rooms.
A close-up view of this chair shows that it has been well used.
Back outside, on the opposite side of the building from where we entered. It was a beautiful day.
There are several water features on the grounds.
Another stunning view.
Numerous statues are on display, inside and out.
Very well-kept gardens.
Just a look back through the trees.
One more exterior of the palace before we go.
The last major stop in St. Petersburg was at the Peterhof Fountains and Gardens. The palace itself was modelled by Peter the Great after the French Versailles, in the early 1700's.
The main attraction here is not the residence itself, but the grounds and the many fountains. The remarkable thing about these fountains is that they are entirely fed by gravity. There are no pumps or other mechanicals driving the water. From a water source twenty-two kilometres long, each fountain is finely tuned for just the right water pressure, by the plumbing itself. Quite an accomplishment for the era in which the complex was designed.
We begin with a grand view of the palace and a portion of the grounds.
From a slightly different angle.
Standing on a walkway over this canal, looking back at the palace.
Another of many fountains around the grounds.
This one is popular with the kids. It alternates between nothing ...
... and a cool shower on a hot day.
Plenty of tourists.
This particular tree is artificial. The story goes that guests, dressed in their finest, would be encouraged to go in for a look at the tree, whereupon a signal would be given to the grounds staff to open the sprinklers. Hilarity, one supposes, ensued.
This looks like an innocent enough place to stroll ...
... until the "on" cycle kicks in.
I paused under a shady tree to look back at this fountain.
As we are about to leave, one last look down at the grounds from the terrace of the palace.