Monday May 28, 2018

HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK, ‘THE BRONZE HORSEMAN’? Well, guess what? We SAW him on Saturday, in the flesh (well, in bronze actually), up there on his rearing stallion – Tsar Peter the Great, without whom there would be no ST PETERSBURG.

This grand city was built by the Tsar in 1703 as Russia’s ‘Window to the West’ … designated that country’s new capital in 1712 … then had its name changed to Petrograd, and later Leningrad, following the 1917 communist revolution … and finally, in 1991, when the Soviet Union upended, returned to its original name: St Petersburg.

Confused? Well, imagine how the St Petersburglars (or whatever they’re called) must feel!

These days Russia’s largest port is a mix of magnificent extremes: grey, drab and boring in places (thanks to the Soviet era), yet breathtakingly gorgeous in others. And in this latter category are the grand leftovers from the tsarist era: fabulous monuments, museums, domed cathedrals and gilt palaces that are still either pretty much intact or brilliantly restored.

Our first taste of Russia was the unfriendly, unsmiling bureaucracy we encountered as we filed through Custom’s Clearance. But that impression was quickly changed by our tour guide, who soon introduced us to St Petersburg’s historical and architectural landmarks – including Vasilievsky Island, the Neva River, the Rostral Columns, the Peter & Paul Fortress, and the Hermitage (including the Tsar’s 1000-room Winter Palace) where several million priceless works of art are displayed.

If you spent just one minute on each item in this monster-museum, they reckon it would still take you 11 years to get around – but we managed to cram the best-of-the-best into a busy hour and a half!

Next, we drove through the countryside to Peterhof – a stunning estate crammed with posh palaces, vast gardens, gushing golden fountains and glittering statues, built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles.

Finally, we returned by hydrofoil to the city-centre where an evening extravaganza of Russian folklore, music and incredibly athletic Cossack dancing awaited us.

Our long day was made even longer by a slow, traffic-jammed drive along Nevsky Prospekt (the city’s main street) – which, at midnight, was still crammed wall-to-wall with happy crowds celebrating the start of summer. Eventually, heads spinning and feet aching, we collapsed into our big turned-down Koningsdam beds for some welcome shut-eye. Zzzzzz …

ST PETERSBURG, PRIDE OF THE ROMANOVS, managed somehow to escape the architectural vandalism that occurred during Stalin’s era, plus total destruction during WW2. And Sunday gave us another chance to explore. We started at St Isaac’s Cathedral with its great gold dome … then moved on to my personal favourite: the colourful fantasy-cathedral of Our-Saviour-on-the-Spilt-Blood (built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated, and decorated floor-to-ceiling with the most amazing mosaics).

Lastly, a 45-minute drive took us from the port to Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar’s Village). Peter the Great had this estate and its masterpiece-palace built for his wife Catherine in 1710. It was ransacked and burnt by the Nazis during their awful 900-day siege (and lots of its treasures were stolen), but it has since been gloriously restored.

And, I’ve gotta tell you: ‘gloriously’ is no exaggeration! The blue-white-gold exterior of Catherine’s Palace is glorious. And the gold-embossed interior, with its Great Hall and its world-famous Amber Room, is even glorious-er!

Oh boy! As you can probably tell, St Petersburg got under our skin and exceeded our expectations … and it’s safe to say that we Mad Midlifers will never feel the same about this Baltic corner of Russia!

COMING UP: Another day, another adventure, another European capital – this time Helsinki, in Finland! So don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: We’ve been far too busy to dish out more Oinky Pink Pig awards … except one, which the group decided was earned by the Tour Leader …

  • YOURS TRULY received the ‘Salt Mines Award for Civil Disobedience’ – after getting told off twice by grumpy coach-drivers, plus reprimanded by a security guard for daring to walk on the grass in the gardens of Catherine’s Palace. When the guy first blew his whistle, I thought I’d heard a bird, and stood there, camera-ready, looking up into the trees. His second whistle-blast convinced me this was a rare bird I’d never heard before, and I continued to ignore him. So he rushed at me, making an X with his forearms and pointing at the grass. By which stage (duh!) I got the message and retreated back onto the footpath. Ahh, what fun!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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