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Culture news
St. Petersburg: Palaces, art and a peek into Russian life
01.18.2007 16:04

palaces Adolf Hitler never made it to lunch, but we did.

In 1942, the Fuhrer sent out invitations for a victory celebration at the Astoria, a hotel and restaurant in the besieged city of Leningrad.

Underestimating the toughness of Leningrad's resistance and the ferocity of the Russian winter, the city never fell and the celebration never took place.

But on a tour available now through Princess Cruises, international visitors dine at the Astoria. For starters there's vodka, that mainstay of Russian meals. It burns the throat, soothes ragged travel nerves and eases conversation among tourists who have a scheduled luncheon at the old hotel in St. Petersburg. The menu includes canape with red caviar, fish zakuski (salmon), beef stroganoff with potato puree, white and dark chocolate mousse, and plenty of coffee and tea.

The meal is good but nothing to write home about. It's a five-star hotel but this is, after all, a city that in general appears to be still battling a hangover from the failed Soviet economy. Still, the visit to the Astoria, located near the breathtaking St. Isaac's Cathedral, shouldn't be missed.

A two-day tour of St. Petersburg is the highlight of a Scandinavian cruise available from May through September on the Princess cruise line. The cruise, departing from Copenhagen, also stops in Stockholm; Helsinki, Finland; Oslo; Talinn, Estonia; and Gdansk, Poland.

Other cruise lines, including Norwegian, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean, offer cruises to the Baltic and Russia.

On the Star Princess, St. Petersburg is the stop after Helsinki because of its proximity on the Gulf of Finland.

There's a wide array of Princess-approved tours available in the city built out of swamp by Tsar Peter the Great. On many of them you get to see the Hermitage, which houses an art collection that some say rivals the Louvre in Paris and the Peterhof Palace, Peter's brainchild inspired by Versailles.

They are must-sees in St. Petersburg, But we found that an evening tour called Imperial Evening at the Catherine Palace topped the trip to St. Petersburg.

Despite a somewhat hokey presentation by an actress greeting us as Catherine the Great, the evening was complete with a military-style brass band, champagne reception, a baroque quartet, and dinner featuring Russian folk music. The vodka was plentiful. The Cossack dancing was wild. The musical group was first rate.

Like at most of the key historical sites, young Russians aggressively hawk postcards, photos and books on the way in and out of the palace.

You visit the stables where carriages are on display. Actors in period costumes bring out one of the carriages with a "palace dog" chasing the horses. You get a striking view of the palace grounds -- 1,400 acres in all with intricate garden designs.

Considering that the Catherine Palace was occupied by the German army during World War II, the renovated building is awesome. Much of Tsarkoye Selo, the winter palace of Catherine the Great, had been destroyed after the siege of Leningrad. It's about 15 miles east of St. Petersburg.

The trip out of St. Petersburg gives you a peek at Russian life: a major traffic jam, occasional gas stations and a mega-store that appears to be the Russian version of Walmart. You interact with Russian tour guides, drivers, servers and street hucksters.

The historical gems -- Catherine Palace, Hermitage and Peterhof Palace -- give you a glimpse of the awesome wealth and power of the tsars.

At the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, you see works by Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt and Monet. These masterpieces are in display in rooms where, incredibly, some windows are open. Stone-faced Soviet-era women stand guard over the art work, pouncing on tourists who brush up against rope dividers.

It is truly a maze going through the Hermitage. Stay close to your tour guide. The Western European art alone is located in 120 rooms in four different buildings.

At Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great, there's a questionable arrangement for using the restrooms. Upon arrival, a tour group is told that the bathrooms in the palace can't be used -- that they're broken -- and tourists will have to wait and use facilities outside the palace at the end of the tour. But when one tourist insists that it's urgent, a Russian guide arranges a trip to the restroom inside the palace and insists that no one be told. Despite what they had said, the restroom is in working order.

At the end of the tour, the group is directed to a former bomb shelter where there are restrooms available for use at a charge of 50 cents per person. Hundreds if not thousands of tourists are moving through the museum this day, making someone a bundle of money.

A coincidence or vestige of a corrupt system? It's not clear. But it's part of the flavor of being in Russia.

The 50 cent bathroom charge isn't extravagant. Russian entrepreneurs with portable toilets near the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood are knocking down $1 per person.

After haggling too long or too aggressively about the $1 charge, she won't let this tourist in at all. A tour guide has to take me to a nearby restaurant where, for $1, the facilities are available in a private deal with the restaurateur. At the time, one U.S. dollar was worth about 18 rubles.

Capitalism is alive and well.

There's no freshly spilled blood to worry about at the church of the saviour. The recently restored church is built where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Marble tombs of other tsars including Nicholas II and his family are on display, making it all a bit spooky. But as we move through the church we are told that the remains of the tsars are actually buried below -- beneath the floor.

A Russian artist moves through the crowd offering up remarkable charcoal drawings of tourists for $5. He's fast, knocking out several drawings before the tour group departs.

While Russia is the highlight of this trip, a hidden gem is Talinn in Estonia. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union, it had been part of mother Russia. To this day, some Estonians speak ill of the Russians. Estonia is our first stop after St. Petersburg.

Far enough removed from the shelling of World War II, Talinn remained in tact. The quaint city appears to still be nestled in the 12th century. We didn't have high expectations about visiting Talinn but it was like being transported to the Middle Ages.

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