A tour guide can make or break an excursion from a cruise ship. A good one leaves you fulfilled, educated and possibly exhausted at the end of the day; a bad one sends passengers rushing to the ship’s tour desk to complain.
Guides need an array of skills, from a detailed insight into their country’s history to an intimate knowledge of the nearest loos; they must be able to gauge how much information a group can absorb, and when to leave them in silence to snooze on the bus. A sense of humour is essential when dealing with a group who would be lost if they couldn’t see the guide’s umbrella held aloft, and who would faint from hunger if they went more than two hours without sustenance.
And, of course, an excellent command of English is essential.
On my first day in St Petersburg – with a coachload of 22 passengers from Balmoral taking an all-day excursion which covered the palace and fountains of Peterhof (above) in the morning, and a selection of the Hermitage’s finest masterpieces in the afternoon – we discovered a real gem in Irina.
Not only did she have all the necessary attributes in abundance, she had acted as interpreter for Maggie Thatcher on several occasions – after that, dealing with a cantankerous bunch of cruise passengers must be child’s play.
Her introduction to the city as we drove from the port and across the Neva was brisk and efficient; her marshalling of the group past the souvenir hawkers and through the turnstiles at the palace was masterful.
Half way through the tour of the house she almost lost it when she realised we were already way off schedule, and the tour groups ahead of us stood their ground and refused to let us pass.
But she gathered herself for the next onslaught, led us through fountains imperial and impish – those designed by Peter the Great to impress, and those designed to soak the unwary – and still found time to phone the lunch venue to tell them we’d be late.
Whisking us out of the restaurant and back to the coach, she prepared us for what to expect at the the world’s biggest, and possibly most diverse, collection of art, and then led the group on a route march through gallery after gallery.
It is almost impossible to absorb the magnificence of it all, being buffeted between other tour groups in dogged pursuit of masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Titian, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and dozens of others before climbing the stairs to galleries packed with works from Monet to Matisse, Pissaro to Picasso.
It was my second visit this year; I saw much the same collection as last time, and I still emerged blinking and open-mouthed and the end of the tour. And exhausted.
Irina almost managed to control the weather as efficiently as she had shepherded her passengers; we had enjoyed one of only 30 bright and sunny days which shine on St Petersburg each year until almost at the last minute, as the coach reached the port gates, a shower emerged as if to demonstrate she was not invincible.
Nevertheless, a £10 tip (because that’s all I had in my pocket) at the end of a tour which cost £96 did not seem too much.
I had another full day planned next, billed as “Palatial St Petersburg” and carrying the warning: “This tour requires a considerable amount of walking and standing and there are no lifts available at any of the sights visited . . . it is unsuitable for those passengers with limited mobility.” Not bad for £95.
Imagine my delight when, stepping bleary-eyed onto the coach before 8.00 a.m., I discovered Irina was our guide again. What were the chances?
We completed a tour of the extensive house and gardens at Catherine Palace – some of the most ornate and magnificent anywhere in the world – and a visit to just a few of the 1,800 acres of landscaped gardens at Pavlosk in the morning.
Late for lunch again, we slugged back our wine and vodka to prepare us for St Isaac’s Cathedral – largest in Russia and fourth-biggest in the world – and finally a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the white marble tombs of the Romanov tsars, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, lie in the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul.
OK, the ship’s rails were lined with impatient passengers when we arrived back an hour late, and the crew were almost pulling up the gangway step by step behind me as I climbed it, but that was thanks to St Petersburg’s rush-hour traffic, not the fact that Irina insisted on us seeing every sight on the schedule. And I thank her for that.
Just as I thank her for keeping her cool when having to answer questions such as “did Alexander II come after Alexander I?” and – after telling us on a number of occasions how Peter founded the city in 1703 – “These streets are wide, were they planned?”
So to all the qualities of a guide which I listed at the start, there’s one more requirement: the patience of a saint.
FACTS AND FIGURES: It is almost beyond belief that a passenger on a Baltic cruise would want to spend their time on board the ship while it is in St Petersburg; as pleasant a prospect as it may be having a Jacuzzi or a jigsaw all to yourself, or not having to queue for the buffet or an exercise bike, the sights of the city are some of the most memorable in the world.
A tiny number did choose not to set foot on Russian soil, but the majority went ashore.
Twenty-eight coaches ferried 935 passengers on tours on the morning of Day One; another 10 took 328 passengers out in the afternoon. In the evening, a fortunate 39 people were in a select group entertained to a recital at the Hermitage, and another 232 went to the ballet.
On Day Two, 749 passengers set out in the morning on 22 coaches, and 560 left in the afternoon on 17.
As well as a driver and a Russian guide, each tour bus carried an escort from the ship; one group found themselves in the fortunate position of having comedian Phil Lowen with them as they explored “Everyday St Petersburg”, visiting the Metro and a meat market as well as some of the Top 10 sights.
But more of Phil later, when I turn to the subject of entertainment on board.