One of the reasons we picked the cruise line we did was because we got to spend two full days in St. Petersburg. We checked out the cruise line's shore excursions and realized for almost the same amount of money we could hire our own excursion company and go at our own pace with our own car and just our own family and guide (and driver). Wahoo! So we hired http://dancing-bear-tours.com/ and they were phenemonal. Seriously, wonderful. Our guide, Linda, was (frankly) more than we could have asked for as she majored in art history and just loves St. Petersburg. I felt a little bad as we couldn't absorb a lot of the incredible art and history we were experiencing (mostly because of our two little ones and their needs) but she was amazingly patient and knowledgeable. I have tried to limit the picture of this beautiful and historic city, but it's very hard--you'll just have to go experience it for yourselves. (Hire Linda--she'll give you a great tour!)
By far the most amazing site was the Church on the Spilled Blood. It's called this because Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded by a terrorist bomb (or bomb-buh as Linda would say) in 1881. It was used as vegetable and fruit storage site during the communist era but after 25 years of painstaking restoration, it's open again to the public and fully restored to its original grandeur. Grand doesn't do it justice!
There are over 7,000 meters of mosaics inside. ALL the art you see is constructed out of mosaics. This is one of Kate's favorite shots:
The entire church (which is no longer a functioning church) is covered in mosaic storys from the Bible.
Here is the site where the bomb-buh went off and the emperor was wounded. The original street cobbles are behind the pink marble.
We also visited Peterhof, one of Peter the Great's palaces in St. Petersburg. You can just see the yellow outside of the building in the background. These fountains are famous for rivaling Versailles--in fact, when Peter visited Versailles, he wanted HIS fountains to look like the French's--so he had the same architect come and build his fountains. They still use the original plumbing he had installed in the 17th century to run the fountains.
This is another aspect of the "Grand Cascade" fountains. What I found fascinating was when the Germans broke through the Russian lines in WW II and were coming to occupy Peterhof, the Russians buried these marble statues on the grounds...right under their plinths. The Germans never even knew they were there, and after the war, the Russians dug them back up and put them back just as they were.
Peter's modest "cottage" that he called "Mon Plaisir" where he could escape from the city. (We took a hydrofoil to get here.) This was also a favorite spot of Peter's granddaughter, Catherine the Great.
During our canal tour of the city, we viewed the Peter and Paul Fortress, which sits in the middle of the Nevsky, the large river running through Petersburg. We went inside on our second day and it's here that all the tsars are buried--from Peter the Great all the way up to Tsar Nicholas and his family, who were killed just after the Communist Revolution in the early 20th century. (This includes Anastasia and her brothers and sisters.)
St. Isaacs is the largest cathedral in the city. It can seat 10,000 people! It has the largest dome in Europe and is covered in gold. Needless to say, one can see this amazing church from almost anywhere in the city. We didn't get to go inside, but the grandeur is still as impressive. This dome actually influenced the design of the capitol dome in Washington, DC.
We also spent a bit of time in the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world. It's something like 34 acres of buildings with over 3 million pieces of art. It is housed in the Winter Palace (right in St. Petersburg) but has since spilled out on to several other buildings. Here is one view of the outside:
And a few shots from the inside. This room was jam-packed as it houses two of Michaeangelo's works. (in the wooden frames) Unfortunately, our 3 and 4 year olds weren't too impressed with such grandeur, so we only spent an hour and a half here (Linda was SUCH a good sport despite how quickly we had to go through!) it was almost a crime to "run" through the parts we did, but we certainly saw enough to get a feel for the amazing splendor of the place.
This is the symbol for Catherine the Great. We visited her palace at Pushkin (see the family pic above) which is built exactly like Peterhof (only painted blue). Catherine the Great is a favorite with our family because of her great name. :) Of course, in Russian, her name is Ekaterina, thus the E instead of a C. She was Catherine II, after her grandmother, the wife of Peter the Great, Catherine I. (Who, interestingly enough, started off her "career" in Russia as booty taken when Russia conquered Lithuania. She eventually became the king's mistress and then later, his second wife.)
We had an incredible lunch at a local place (that I could NOT pronounce) and it was almost divine. It was basically a much-improved calzone with either savory or sweet fillings. I think we ordered three and there wasn't a crumb to spare.
Almost every building on the Nevsky (the river we toured) has a history attached to it, and our guide knew it all! We got to attend a traditional Russian orthodox service in St. Nicholas cathedral, braved the Nevsky Prospect (the "main" street running through the city, like Broadway in NY) jumped in and out of our car to take pictures and see wonderful sculptures, visited an indoor market, rode on the subway, and felt like we only touched the surface of the beautiful city that is St. Petersburg.