Day 1 in St. Petersburg with a night trip

Wednesday, May 01, 2019
Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
---[Flat Stanley Reports] ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Hi Girls and Boys!   Flat Stanley here in Russia.  We are docked at St. Petersburg which is the second-largest city in Russia.  Do you know what the largest city in Russia is?   St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by George the Great.  Just kidding!  It was PETER the Great also known as Peter the First.  Peter did many things for which the people here are proud.  One of the places we visited was the Peterhof Palace where Peter built many buildings, gardens, and big fountains.  What you see a lot of is gold.  Statues are covered with gold.  Spires, which are points on a roof, are covered in gold.  You will find gold on the chairs, gold on the walls, gold everywhere.   Most of this gold is "gilded" which means it was "painted" on in a very-thin layer.
One item that was not gold was a little box we saw with holes in it.  The people a long time ago put honey in this box and put it under their clothes.  Do you know why?  People back then did not always have a chance to take a bath or shower.  Sometimes, they got fleas like a dog.   So the honey in the box attracted the fleas which had to crawl through the small holes to get to the honey.   Then the fleas could not get out easily.  How would you like to do that before you came to school?
After visiting Peterhof our guide whose name is Masha took us for a ride on the St. Petersburg subway.  That was fun.  The subway stations are very pretty and the stations were people get on and off almost look like a church.  We then visited a fortress called Peter and Paul Fortress.  Peter the Great built this fortress on an island to protect the city from invaders.  It must have worked because no country tried to invade St. Petersburg all those years ago. 
It was a long day and we have more things to see in St. Petersburg.   See you later! ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
We started the first of three really-busy days, and nights, in St. Petersburg, Russia by meeting our guide, Masha, and driver, Valeriy, who will be with us for the next 3 days.  Masha, a common variant of the more-formal name Maria, immediately impressed us with her very-good English skills and almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the area.   We were following the predetermined schedule that called for a trip to Peterhof which was about a 75-minute ride from the cruise terminal across the harbor to the south.  We had a first-hand exposure to St. Petersburg traffic which seemed heavy, but today is a special day.  May 1 is Russia’s “Labor Day”.  The holiday period runs from May 1st to the 3rd.  Many people were off work so while the vehicle traffic might not have been typical for a weekday, people were walking everywhere.   We couldn’t imagine how many people we would encounter until we arrived at Peterhof.
For a quick background, the Peterhof Palace is a huge area (256 acres if our guide was correct) consisting of a main palace building, many additional buildings, elaborate fountains, extensive gardens, and some lakes and canals.  It’s construction was commissioned by Peter the Great as a direct response to the Palace of Versailles by Louis XIV of France after Peter, also known as Peter the First, visited France in 1717.  Tourists call Peterhof “The Russian Versailles”.     The “front” is now the land-facing side of the main palace and you enter, which we did, off the street through the Upper Garden.   This garden is just starting to bloom at this time of the year so it’s overall splendor has yet to be reached.  As huge as this garden is, the crowds entering the palace grounds could disperse so we didn’t think we would be in a big crowd.  We were wrong.
Because of the size of the grounds, Masha had arranged (on our request) a ride on an “electric car”, that is, a golf cart.  So a driver to us to multiple elaborate fountains on the property.  We ended the ride at a building called the Hermitage Pavilion.  This building was envisioned by Peter as an informal dining room for his closest associates, with a system of pulleys used to serve food and ensure the privacy of the diners.  The building wasn’t completed until after Peter’s death.   A two-seat chairlift hoisted guests to the upstairs dining area as no staircase originally connected the two floors.   The entire dining table could be raised and lowered to allow food to be served and insure privacy for the diners.   The system was used until a cable snapped in 1797 and stranded a nobleman in the chairlift after which a staircase was installed.
As we made our way toward the main palace, the crowd became far-more intensive.  The magnificent Samson fountain, with a central water jet shooting over 60 feet into the air on a gravity-fed water system, was surrounded by gold-plated (or gilded) figurines.  Trying to get up the stairs to the entrance to the palace was a challenge as was getting into the palace building.  We had to put on paper booties on our shoes to protect the floors.  Masha took us on a room-by-room tour explaining many of the significant items in each room we visited.  The opulence and grandeur were unmistakable.  So were the crowds.  
Trying to describe everything we saw in the Peterhof Palace would turn this blog entry into a Wikipedia article.  We’ll simply say that Petehof was expansive and impressive.  We left Peterhof in the early afternoon and traveled back into St. Petersburg.  Masha took us on a short diversion to ride their subway for a couple of “stops”.  We’ve used the subways in Washington D.C. and Barcelona, Spain (and Rox has been on the New York City subway), and the St. Petersburg subway seemed, in our brief experience with it, as clean, fast, and efficient as any others we’ve ridden.  Where St. Petersburg stands out is in the grandeur of the stations through which we traveled.    The stations looked like they were part of a church or a grand house.  We emerged from underground near the Narva Gate also known as the Narva Triumphal Arch.  This arch was erected as a memorial to the war of 1812 to greet soldiers after their win over Napoleon. 
Masha took us to a restaurant for lunch where we could sample some Russian “pies”.   Apparently a common staple for lunch, the pies are a dough (more like a croissant roll in texture) filed with different meats, vegetables, or fruits.  We shared a ham-and-cheese pie, a cut-up chicken pie, and a cherry pie (and a couple of Coke Zero’s; can’t seem to get away from Coke.)  We liked what we ate, and it was adequate for lunch.
Our final stop for the day trip was the Peter and Paul Fortress along the Neva River.  Commissioned by Peter the Great, construction occurred from 1706 to 1740 on a small island known as “Hare’s Island”.  A good view of the Hermitage Museum and other west-bank buildings along the Neva River can be seen from here.  The tallest structure is the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the walls of the fortress.  The bell tower of the cathedral is said to be the world’s largest Orthodox bell tower.    The cathedral houses the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and his family, who were finally laid to rest in July 1998.  Among the emperors and empresses buried here was Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia for 34 years.   While the real tombs are below the floor, above-ground marble tombs mark the graves of the noble people buried there.
Incidentally, one surprise we observed outside the fortress grounds while walking along the roof-type observation deck were local people sunning themselves on the concrete outside the fortress walls along the river.  The weather was sunny with an air temperature in the low 60’s (degF) but we would not call this “beach weather”.   Maybe when you endured a cold St. Petersburg winter, you’ll “push” a little for summer to get here.
Masha and Valeriy took us back to the ship around 5pm which gave us a little over two hours to eat and prepare to Valeriy and another guide to pick us up again a bit after 7pm for an evening “photo” tour.
We met again with Valeriy in the comfortable black Mercedes van he was driving along with a new guide whose name was Natalia for the evening photo tour.  Natalia said she was a watercolor painter but admitted to not being much of a photographer.   She took us back to the Holy Trinity Bridge, near the Peter and Paul Fortress, for some more waterfront photos.  Unfortunately, as we asked her where she had been for the best evening light photos, she didn’t really seem to know where to go.  So, we played around near the waterfront for awhile and tried to get a silhouette of the sun setting behind the main tower of the St. Peter and Paul cathedral over the Holy Trinity Bridge, but it wasn’t really a great place for such pictures.   We did not really find any other great places in the waning evening light for photos.  Natalia said the tour was to end just about the time the city lights around the canals and streets were coming on.  We felt this part of the trip was not going to be especially productive and concurred with ending the session as she wanted.
After we returned to the ship, Larry when up to the Sun Deck to shoot some pictures of the Lahkta Center tower across the harbor.  This structure is listed as the tallest skyscraper in Russia (at 87 or 89 stories, or about 1516 ft.)  With the weather cooperating, we might have taken the best night pictures for today.  We start again at 9am so it’s time to try to get a little sleep.
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