• Abigail Woodruff

St. Petersburg, Russia

This city is probably the main reason that we chose the cruise that we did. Russia is such a unique country with a rich history and a cruise is one of the best ways to visit it if you do not want to go through the laborious visa process. If you decide to go on a shore excursion with your cruise line, you do not need a visa. Instead you get a stamp in your passport for a short amount of time and are pretty much escorted throughout the county. If you really want to wander around on your own, this might not be the best option, but if you are mostly interested in some of the touristy places anyway, this is an amazing way to save time and money- and trust me, I know how much waiting on a visa can suck.

Our cruise ship was in St. Petersburg for two whole days, and there were tour packages that you could buy which would keep you entertained for the whole of those two days. Keep in mind, this package was also $500 a person, but if St. Petersburg is your absolute dream destination, it might be worth it for you! Being there overnight also provided the opportunity for people to go into St. Petersburg at night and see the night life or experience a Russian ballet. Due to monetary restrictions, Jonathan and I had to look very carefully at what excursion would be best for us, and we decided on a walking tour to the Church on Spilled Blood. I had also looked very closely at the Hermitage and the Peterhof Gardens, but ultimately decided that the mosaic inside of the Spilled Blood Church was what I was most interested in seeing.

The immigration process was very interesting. It is not at all like US, UK, or Belgian borders (that is all that I have experience with!). There was a large amount of border control officers in enclosed booths, but even so, the line moved incredibly slow. I had a large handful of paperwork with me because of the situation that I am in regards to my citizenship etc. However, I started to get a little bit anxious because I did not know how to communicate my situation to them if it came to it because I doubted that they were very fluent in English. I also would not have Jonathan with me since they only check passports one-at-a-time and not in groups. When I FINALLY got to the front of the line, I had to open a little gate and close it behind me so I was surrounded on 2 sides by gates, a mirror behind me so the officer could see my entire body, and finally the officer behind a thick looking plexi-glass. I had to slide my passport and excursion ticket through a small crack and then just looked at them with a straight face as they flipped through all of my documentation and looked at information regarding me online. Finally, she gave everything back and the gate opened up so I could leave. Jonathan went through after me and then we went to find our bus.

Our tour guide was a lot younger this time than our favourite tour guide in Tallinn, but she was still very smart and told us a lot of information regarding the buildings that we passed (including the new stadium for the World Cup that would be starting on our last day on the cruise) and the history of the city itself. It is a relatively new city comparatively to others throughout Europe, being a similar age to America. Peter the Great founded it as a new place for trade among nearby countries and brought in architects from all over Europe. Sometimes when you are walking through St. Petersburg, the architecture feels distinctly Parisian or Dutch, and it most likely is! The buildings are all very colourful, though, and that is because Peter the Great thought that since Russian weather is rubbish 90% of the time, the people that lived there deserved bright buildings at least. Luckily for us, the weather was impeccable during our two day stay.

Our bus brought us to the Field of Mars where we had to get off because the church was all blocked off for the World Cup preparation. We walked through the field and came to the eternal flame which is a commemoration for those lost during wars that Russia was involved in. It is always burning, which seems like it would be a lot of work to make sure that it never went out, especially since it is lit as a sign of respect. We then had to cross the street (which took ages because we were a decent sized group) to go to the Mikhailovsky, or St. Michael's Castle. It is a beautiful salmon colour and has a lot of history about all of the people that lived there. In front of the castle is a statue of Peter the Great. There were roses all over it because we just happened to be in St. Petersburg on the day that the people celebrate his birthday. How cool is that?!

Next was souvenir shopping. We knew that we wanted to get wooden dolls for people and something World Cup for a few family members, so we grabbed a basket and started to throw stuff in. When we went to the counter and they told us the price, we almost balked! There are a lot of Russian Rubles to a British Pound or Euro, so the total was in the thousands and we freaked out until we realised that it was only around 40 euros. Luckily, we were able to drop our stuff off in the bus which was now parked in Artist's Square as we headed into the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (it has a lot of name if you can't tell...).

The outside of the church was everything that I could have wanted and more. It was colourful, the carvings were intricate, and the cupulas (onion-shaped domes) made me feel like I was actually walking around Russia. When you are cruising, sometimes it doesn't really feel like you are in a different country, but this church shook me back into reality. I WAS IN FREAKING RUSSIA. This was definitely the most touristy place that I went on all of the travels, though. There were people everywhere trying to get pictures, and I almost lost a ligament to swinging selfie stick. It is frustrating because it seems impossible to get a good photo without a massive mob in the background. We were reminded in our earpieces to keep our bags close to us because it was a massive pick-pocketing area and we went around to the entrance. Our tour guide ran off to get our tickets, and as we were waiting, we could see the World Cup fan zone through the fences. How amazing it would have been to a World Cup game, but it was just neat to see all of the decorations and preparations behind it. I may or may not be a little salty that the London Olympics took place when I was in America and I will probably never have the chance to go to something like that- I bet the atmosphere is unbeatable.

We finally were let inside and it was jam-packed with tourists. Something that is not my cup of tea. I tried to keep my hand on my bag, but I wanted to take pictures of the entrance! However, we then turned a corner, and my jaw dropped. The crowds were WORTH IT. Trust me. This is a place that you need to put on your bucket list. The entire inside of the church is mosaics. There are vibrant colours and beautiful pictures everywhere- it looks like it was delicately painted, and then you realise that it is actually all mosaic. Every picture is made out of stone! it will give you goosebumps. Our tour guide was giving us information about certain pieces inside, including the fact that you can stand in the exact place where Alexander ll was mortally wounded, but for the most part, my mouth just hung open while I took a hundred pictures of the inside- hoping one would at least turn out if not give justice to the whole experience.

It was then back to the bus where we drove past the Hermitage/Winter Palace, more World Cup decorations, drove down the infamous Nevsky Prospekt, and even saw a sphinx that had been shipped over from Ancient Egypt along the river. I tried to get pictures of everything, but there is only so much you can do out of a bus window. We got off the bus, went through security, got back on board, and just like that, we were out of Russia. The whole thing was an absolute whirlwind. We were only there for a couple of hours, so we did not get to experience everything that we really wanted to, however we did get an exceptional peek at was a diverse and interesting city St. Petersburg is. I really would love to go back and see the famous Peterhof Gardens and walk through the palaces that Russia is so known for someday, but for now, I am blessed to have had the experience that I did. Definitely a place I would recommend to others!

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