We would have two full days in the Russian city but the freedom to go and see what we wanted was somewhat restricted. You can do that, if you really want, but to do that you’re going to need to pay for your own tourist visa. Alternatively, if you’re arriving by cruise ship – and we were – and if you arrange official tours either through the cruise ship operator – which we did – or through local groups (which are generally cheaper) then you can spend a couple of days on a tourist visa without any hassle but you’ll be limited in the number of times you can disembark and you’re restriced to going where the tour goes. Not really a problem, though, as they hit some very interesting places and for a first visit to the fascinating city it’s clearly the best way to get a feel for the place and see whether a little more freedom might be an option at a later date (although that’s only really cost-effective if you’re staying longer than a few days).
Saint Petersburg Port
First views of Saint Petersburg from our aft cabin balcony were a touch disappointing. It was dark and very overcast, threatening to rain but never really managing much more than the odd spit. The port was pretty barren and a fair distance from the city. What buildings we could see were not quite the sort of archetypal Soviet-era brutalist buildings I was looking forward to (we did eventually see some from a coach window during an evening excursion but photographs would have been pointless, sadly) and my expectations of a modern city with skyscrapers turned out to be unfounded. We would learn that there were strict restrictions on the heights of buildings in Saint Petersburg although larger constructs could be found on its outskirts.
We had two excursions booked for the first day; one taking up the full day with another incorporating a visit to the ballet. First step was to get the passport stamped!
That done we boarded our coach nice and early and headed off.
Church Of The Saviour On Spilled Blood
The first stop of the day was a photo opportunity at the Church Of The Saviour On Spilled Blood (also known by many other names), a very typically Russian Orthodox-looking place of worship (although it has not been reconsecrated following its restoration post-Russian Revolution) with the stereotypical, colourful onion domes and wonderfully ornate façade. While it was built at the end of the 19th century its style was deliberately designed to mimic that of the far older St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. The location was chosen as it was the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
The church is a museum these days and a popular attraction although there was no opportunity for us to go inside during our brief stop (I don’t actually recall it being open). We had just enough time to wander around its exterior for some photos against the grey sky but some other people on our tour headed straight for the few tourist stalls dotted around the building or took a look at the many pieces of art on display from local artists. We didn’t quite get a chance for that but I would add a tip here if you’re on a cruise and visiting Saint Petersburg and that’s to use the souvenir shop at the cruise port itself if you want to get the best prices; we found the prices at stalls two or three times what you could pay at the port shop and it had a far larger range of things to purchase too. That said, there were some unique items on some stalls so don’t ignore them (some Putin t-shirts we saw, for instance, which I really wanted but they didn’t have in my size) but for the typical Russian souvenirs such as matryoshka dolls or hats you’re better off in the port.
The area surrounding the Church Of The Saviour On Spilled Blood had some interesting designs as well and I grabbed a few photos of the tiles or decorative metalwork on the railings before we crossed over the road and hopped back onto our coach for the next stop.
It would turn out that we would get another photo stop at the church on our second day and the weather would be far nicer but we didn’t know either of those things at the time. Overall, the church made one of those very typical photos that visitors to Saint Petersburg take back from a trip to Russia and it was nice to see a church of its style while in the country. It would have been nicer to see inside but it’s always good to leave something to come back to one day.
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