Been there, seen that . . . briefly

//Been there, seen that . . . briefly

rasputin.jpgThere are three million exhibits in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and it is impossible to hope to see more than a fraction of them in any visit, let alone a two-and-a-half hour gallop through a few of the galleries.
But we achieved an impressive tally during our morning excursion from Azura, aided by a Russian guide who bore a passing resemblance to Fanny Cradock in appearance and temperament.
It was all done at break-neck speed, and after taking our fill of Titians and Tintorettos, Raphaels and Michaelangelos, it was onwards and upwards to the modern collection, where Cezanne and Gauguin rubbed shoulders with Renoir and Degas, Toulous-Lautrec and Matisse, before we finally reached a room devoted to Picasso.
Then it was back down to galleries celebrating victory over Napoleon, with dozens of portraits of generals arranged on the walls like giant postage stamps, all the time squeezing past and bumping into some of the thousands of other visitors – many hundreds of them from our own ship.
We needed an afternoon back on board to recover our strength for an evening visit to the opera. A performance of Swan Lake was presented for P&O at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. It might be Russia’s oldest music school, but inside the grand exterior, the auditorium is as plain as London’s Royal Festival Hall and nowhere near as grand as the Mariinskiy Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet, right across the road.
I have never seen a ballet before, so I have no yardstick by which to measure the standard of our performance, but it was an entertaining couple of hours of elegant pantomime, never more moving than when 18 ballerinas in white tutus were gliding and leaping around the stage in perfect unison.
On the second day in St Petersburg, while hundreds chose to tour the glittering Peterhof and Catherine Palaces outside the city, I took to the water again for a journey along the River Neva and through narrow canals to the Yusupov Palace, scene of the assassination of Rasputin in 1916.
Once again the events – in the form of waxwork dummies (above) in the actual cellar rooms where the killing was plotted – were followed at a trot, this time with a guide who could have been a young Kylie Minogue. But it was a fascinating glimpse into a pivotal moment of history and a further example of why so many cruise passengers put a visit to this city high on their “must-do” list.
There are other ways of seeing the St Petersburg sights than by coach excursions – in my case £45 for the Hermitage and £58.50 for the boat trip and Yusupov Palace.
The adventurous can organise their own visas and hire a private tour guide and driver – as I did 10 years ago by hooking up with some fellow cruisers via the Internet. Logistically, it was a huge operation then, and things haven’t improved a great deal since – although I have to say that passage through Russian immigration this time was no more hassle than entering New York or Miami.
The other possibility is to take a private tour by car organised through P&O. For £300, you get your own driver instead of having to share a coach, but only for four hours – which is nominally 15 minutes more than my trip to the Hermitage. Given that there’s a spot of shopping included on the car tour, I’m not even sure that would have guaranteed more time in the galleries.
A few hours after leaving St Petersburg’s brand new cruise terminal, Azura arrived in Helsinki. You have got to feel some sympathy for the Finnish capital, which has suffered from Russian domination throughout history.
It didn’t put its best face on for our arrival – a heavy mist hung over the port for most of the morning. And only a fraction of Azura’s passengers had booked excursions, in contrast to the 6,500 trips taken by the 3,200 guests during the previous two days
Exhausted by their exertions in St Petersburg, some just stayed on the ship; the rest of us were happy to pay the 8 euro fare for a shuttle bus into town to stroll down the elegant Esplanade and to rummage for souvenirs in the Market Place by the old harbour front.
Now there’s a chance to relax with a whole day at sea before our next port of call, Copenhagen. If I can drag myself away from the sunbeds in Azura’s Retreat, I’ll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on the ship’s restaurants.

By | 2017-06-15T16:00:27+00:00 3 June 2010|Cruise Destinations|1 Comment

About the Author:

John Honeywell is a travel writer specialising in cruise ships and cruise travel. Winner of CLIA UK's Contribution to Cruise award 2017.

One Comment

  1. TJ Travel 2 October 2010 at 6:41 pm - Reply

    Its worth noting that cruise ship passengers can get shore excursions without a visa as long as they book a tour with a registered tour agency. There is no need to organize your own visa in this situation and the tours are cheaper than those offered by the cruise ships.

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