The next morning we slept in but luckily there was a late start so after a rushed buffet breakfast we were back in hotel reception and gathering with the group ready for the introductory guided tour of Saint-Petersburg. The coach arrived and after we had all selected our preferred seats the driver edged the bus into the long queue of late rush hour traffic. Actually, as it turned out it was always rush hour in Saint-Petersburg and despite the generously wide streets the roads were continuously congested.
Before crossing the River Neva from Vasilievsky Island the bus made its first stop at a viewing platform with panoramic views across the river towards the mint green Winter Palace and the Hermitage on one side and the canary yellow Peter and Paul Fortress on the other. We were outside a handsome building that was the Old Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange and standing beneath two terracotta Rostral Columns decorated with bronze anchors and four pairs of bronze ship prows. Grand marble figures decorated the base of each column each representing the major rivers of Russia, the Volga and Dnieper at one, the Neva and Volkhov at the other.
To be honest I didn’t find this stop especially thrilling and I was certain that there must be more fascinating things to see and I was sure that we had passed one or two on the way but then this is the problem with a coach tour because you can only go where the coach can go and if somewhere is inaccessible you are not going to see it regardless of how interesting it is. The local street vendors selling inferior souvenirs know this and there were plenty of them pestering each coach load of tourists that regularly arrived for their fifteen minute viewing slot.
Back on the coach we then encountered the next irritation about coach tours – getting organised for tours and trips. This seemed to take forever as the tour guide explained what was available and did her best to try and persuade people to part with their money. All of the trips seemed rather expensive and there was a lot of indecision so it’s a good job that I am blessed with unnatural amounts of patience because there was a lot of duplication followed by voting with hands in the air and the changing of minds and all of this was eating into the sightseeing schedule.
Finally those who were going on the trips made up their minds and the tour guide conceded that some of us were not going to join the organised trips and were probably going to arrange things for themselves. We already felt confident about using the Metro and finding our way around the city so we were firmly in the do-it-yourself group. The bus moved off and with the Russian guide, Anna, providing a running commentary we crossed the river and stopped again close to the Hermitage and the Admiralty building for a visit to the bronze statue of Peter the Great, the Russian Tsar who was responsible for founding the city of Saint-Petersburg as he set about westernising Russia and building a modern navy in the early eighteenth century.
The next stop was St Isaac’s Cathedral where the coach dropped us off under the towering statue of Tsar Nicholas I who commissioned the church to be built. The massive building took forty years to construct and is huge! By some measures (always difficult and often disputed) the third largest cathedral in the World after St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London and is capped with a dome clad in pure gold. We can consider ourselves fortunate to be able to see this fine building because in the 1930s Stalin had proposals to demolish it but he was thwarted in his plans by the prominent local Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov who pre-empted the act of vandalism by converting it into a Museum just in time. Kirov later increasingly came into opposition with Stalin over a number of issues so Josef had him assassinated!
There wasn’t time to go inside the Cathedral on this tour so we thought we might come back later but we did go inside the next church that we visited. This was St. Nicolas’ Cathedral whose golden Baroque spires rising above the trees were today gleaming in the bright sunshine. There was a lot of security outside the church with police and bodyguards in black suits whispering into headsets and the reason it turned out was that today the Church was being visited by the Primate of all Russia which unfortunately kind of restricted our access to some parts of the interior.
St. Nicholas’ Cathedral is one of a very few cathedrals in the city that was not closed in Soviet times and inside the walls were richly decorated with scenes from Russian history and gold and silver icons. We went through the heavy doors into an alternative world of black robed beardy priests, local worshippers and travelling pilgrims all lining up to kiss the lavish icons of their favourite Saints. All of this icon licking means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
After the Church and back on the coach Anna tried again to persuade the reluctant ones to join the official tours, especially the Hermitage Museum planned for the next day. She warned that for anyone thinking of doing it for themselves they was a likelihood of long slow moving queues at the entrance that the tour group would bypass and she repeated this several times to make sure she got the message across. The price of the tour was £41 and we thought that was too much even though the rest of the people on board were happily handing over fistfuls of notes in various denominations.
Another irritating thing about coach tours is that there is an inevitable visit to a tourist souvenir shop, where everything is overpriced, presumably because there is some sort of commission to be earned. This was certainly true of the Red October shop where we stopped now for a while when I for one would have preferred to have carried on sightseeing although to compensate for this there was complimentary vodka tasting which I naturally enthusiastically participated in!