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Contiki Russia Plus: Days 5, 6 & 7 – St. Petersburg, Russia

The past three days in St. Petersburg were amazing, but getting into Russia was an experience in and of itself!  We left our hotel in Helsinki around 8:00 AM and arrived at the Finnish/Russian border around 10:30 AM. We exited our bus at the Finnish border to go through customs which was a painless process. We then boarded our bus to go through “No Man’s Land” to the Russian border where we got back off the bus to go through Russian customs which was the most interesting border experience of my life. There was only one border agent to process our 43 passports, so we all entered the building and lined up in a single file line. The Americans, British & other non-Australians went first because the Russian border normally takes more time analyzing non-Australian passports. I was first, so I handed the border agent my passport & waited for 10 minutes while she made three phone calls and scanned every single page of my passport. After 10 minutes, she motioned for me to move over, but wait while she processed a passport for the person behind me. After another 10 minutes, someone came out and asked me a few additional questions like where I was going, why I was going to Russia, where I was born, where I live now & where I work. After answering the questions, I finally was given my stamped passport and allowed to proceed. I got off easy, though, because the other American on the tour was escorted by three men into an interrogation room and asked 20 various questions focusing on if he was in the military. They also privately interrogated the British people, including our tour guide, and asked them about the Euro Cup and their thoughts on Brexit. After about two hours, we finally were all through the border and allowed to board our bus. We then proceeded towards Saint Petersburg.

After another few hours, we arrived at our hotel, checked in and had a buffet dinner that was included in the cost of our tour. We had beef stroganoff, a few kinds of salads & an apple bread.  After dinner, we walked around the corner of our hotel to grab drinks at a pub. Around 11:00 PM, a few of us left to go play Cards Against Humanity in someone’s hotel room, but we headed back to the bar around midnight. About half of the group was still there & we met a few Russians that bought everyone a shot of vodka and enjoyed practicing their English with us.

The following morning, we left our hotel at 8:15 AM for a whirlwind bus tour of Saint Petersburg.  We passed by numerous sites including the Church of Spilled Blood, the Hermitage and the old stock exchange for St. Petersburg while we learned the history of the beautiful city.

Old Stock Exchange

When Peter the Great assumed power around 1700, he relocated the capital of Prussia from Moscow to St. Petersburg. He spent years traveling around Europe and was inspired by the architecture and culture of the various cities, so he wanted St. Petersburg to become a European style city. He commissioned many buildings and palaces be constructed in European styles and gave the city a true Western vibe.

After our extensive bus tour, we had the opportunity to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first building commissioned by Peter the Great. Our guide, Anna, took us inside the Cathedral and showed us the final resting places for many members of the various Royal Families. We also received a very brief history of Imperial Russia from Peter the Great to the Boshlevic Revolution, it was very confusing!

The Cathedral

After the Peter and Paul Fortress, we got back on the bus and headed to the Hermitage, the main art museum in Saint Petersburg which used to be the palace for the Royal Family. Our guide showed us the various rooms of the old palace which was very extensive!

Impressive ceiling in The Hermitage

After the Hermitage, the group had a free afternoon, so a few of us braved the pouring rain and went to a pie shop, Stolle. They had various meat pies for lunch including beef, pork, rabbit & chicken. I really wanted the chicken meat pie, but they ran out so I decided just to have a berry pie because it looked amazing. It did not disappoint!

Berry Pie

Various Types of Pie

We then walked to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and climbed up all 264 steps to the dome and were treated to a beautiful view of Saint Petersburg.

After climbing back down, we went in the cathedral and were impressed by its beauty. It reminded me a bit of Saint Peters Basilica in Rome in that it was large and grandiose, but I still think the artwork in Saint Peters is the gold standard for churches around the world.

We then walked to grab a quick snack at a restaurant next to the designated meeting point for the group. I had a pancake which was similar to a crepe with sour cream. It was delicious!

After our snack, we met up with the rest of our group for an hour and a half at a Faberge shop which had everything from the famous Russian Nesting Dolls, also known as Matryoshka dolls, to faberge eggs (the decorated egg shaped jewel eggs) to fur hats and coats. Throughout the evening, the staff walked around with food and drinks for us to enjoy as we shop. I bought a few souvenirs, but my favorite one was a Penn State Matryoshka doll. I could not believe they had one, but it is definitely one of the best souvenir purchases I’ve made in my life!  After completing my purchase, I decided just to ship everything back to America to ensure I had enough room in my bag for other souvenirs I buy along the way.

After the evening of shopping, we headed straight to a Russian Folklore show. It was an evening of performances by Russian singers and dancers. We were treated to various acts including the famous Cossack dance!

The following morning, we headed to Peterhof to visit the famous gardens at the summer palace commissioned by Peter the Great.  He brought in experts from France to design his summer palace as well as the gardens, so it reminded me a lot of the Palace of Versailles in Paris. It was raining pretty hard, but that did not detract from the beauty!  We arrived early, so the place was not overrun with tourists. The gardens bordered the Baltic Sea, so we strolled through the gardens to see the Baltic before grabbing a quick snack. I had a Belgian waffle with Nutella (waffles were a very popular snack in St. Petersburg) and a freshly squeezed orange juice – both of which hit the spot.

After our snack, we headed back to the palace so we could see the fountains start running at 11:00 AM. It wasn’t quite the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but the idea of over 100 fountains starting at the same time is still pretty impressive!

We then boarded our bus and headed back to our hotel to dry off and relax. We grabbed lunch in our hotel restaurant – I ordered a hamburger, but I don’t think the meat was beef. It was a bit off color & tasted a bit foul, so I decided just to eat the french fries to be on the safe side!

At 4:30 PM, we departed for an optional dinner that Contiki arranged – beef stroganoff. Beef stroganoff was originally invented in Saint Petersburg for the Stroganoff family & our meal followed the original recipe for the Russian delicacy. It was phenomenal!

When we were all full, our bus drove us to the Michalowski Theater for an optional evening at the ballet. It was the closing night for Sleeping Beauty & the Armenian Prime Minister was in attendance, so it was perfect for my first ballet!  The story was a bit different than the Disney version, but we bought a program which explained what was happening and I sat next to my friend, Jess, who pointed out a few things I would have completely missed!  While I still didn’t fully understand the ballet, it was still a very impressive show!  I have a new appreciation for those that dedicate their lives to this beautiful art form!

After the ballet, we headed to a bar where they celebrate New Years every day at midnight. It was one of the more unique bars I’ve been to. We walked into the bar and were greeted by a female pirate and a man dressed as a bunny. The bar staff proceeded to put rabbit ears made out of paper on each of our heads before emceeing a striptease contest. Right before midnight, a Russian Santa Claus came out and had the group get into a conga line. Then, the staff handed out sparklers and turned a TV on where a poorly animated cartoon of Putin wished everyone a happy New Year. Then, they lit our sparklers while we celebrated the New Year!

We left the bar shortly after midnight because all the bridges in Saint Petersburg go up at 12:30 AM to allow cargo ships to deliver materials to the city, so we had to get back to our hotel or we would have had to stay out until they go down at 5:00 AM!

We were able to sleep in a bit the following morning and departed our hotel at 9:00 AM to visit the Church of Spilled Blood. It is less famous than Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, but looks very similar. It was beautiful from the outside and we were able to take some pictures before it opened at 10:30 AM. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat at a Subway before the church opened to the public. The inside of the church was stunning – the walls were made of millions of small mosaic tiles and the detail was intricate!

We then boarded a boat for an hour and a half tour around the canals of Saint Petersburg. It was great to be able to see the buildings of the city from a different perspective!

After our boat cruise, we headed to the Siege of Leningrad Memorial which was a moving museum dedicated to a three year siege on St. Petersburg by Hitler’s troops during World War II. Over 27 million people died of starvation, but the Soviets were somehow able to keep the enemy at bay and break the siege. The museum was very moving and informative in that it provided insight into what it was like to live through the siege – people had to survive on just 125 grams of bread a day. This led to cannibalism & one girl was even fed her own brother by her mother. It was truly an impactful memorial.

After the memorial, we boarded our bus and headed to our next stop, Novgorod.

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