So today is our epic adventure in Russia, as we had elected to stay an hour later than the guide had said we're could we cleared customs no problem and even got Russian stamps in the passport which pleased me very much.
Our guide Maria arrived to take us out with our private car and driver, all very hassle free. My first impression of St Petersburg was not quite what I expected, I had thought we would see signs of the soviet era as we drove into the main town but it is much more like a European city which Maria later explains Peter the Great model the city on after visiting Venice and Amsterdam.
We start the day with a two hour driving tour for photo stops visiting St Isaac's cathedral which has the 4th largest dome in the world and took 40 years to build, the Aurora, which signaled the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Peter and Paul's fortress which was the first structure of the city, Church of the spilled blood where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and more including some nice views across the Neva river.
Next stop was at the Hermitage and we started with a tour through the Winter Palace with its numerous reception halls including the Small Throne Room, the Armorial Hall, the Grand Throne Hall, and the Malachite Room.
We have heard many different versions of the statistics but it would take something like 8 years to see every article if you spent a minute looking at each one. While we were visiting they had a temporary exhibition of clothing worn by the royal family which was interesting. Then Maria took some time to show us a couple of the paintings in detail including one that had been partially destroyed some years ago when someone entered the museum and poured acid over it.
There were some very impressive rooms famous for their exquisite embellishments of crystal chandeliers, a marble colonnade, and the amazing Peacock Clock.
The peacock clock was fantastic and we heard how it took the museum years to reconstruct after it had been dismantled as it was to complicated for most to be able to put back together. In the Old Hermitage we saw some of the most famous pieces by Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael then ended the visit with a short stop in the New Hermitage, for the exhibits of 16th century Italian art including early pieces from Rembrant.
We now had around an hours drive to the town of Peterhof which is 22 miles from St Petersberg on the gulf of Finland, to view the amazing fountains and the most brilliant of all the summer residences of the Russian tsars. Conceived by Peter the Great to rival Versailles, the complex was officially opened in 1721. We didn't have time to explore the palace so we just walked around the gardens viewing the Grand Cascade which itself is a series of 64 fountains, 37 gilt statues and 3 waterfalls.
The Lower Gardens cover 300 acres and Peter himself drafted the layout of the park, including the spectacular system of fountains that cascade throughout the grounds. The elaborate system includes 4 cascades as well as 173 fountains, with the Samson Fountain considered the most impressive. The Grand Cascade is one of the most impressive fountain complexes in the world and was reopened in 1995 after five years of restoration. During our walk we also saw some pictures from when the complex was taken over by the Nazis and the destruction caused by the war.
Our next stop was Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, originally known as Tzar's Village. Renowned for its splendid fairytale interior of fine furnishings and china, it ranks as one of the masterpieces of world art. Peter the Great presented the estate to his wife Catherine in 1710; it served until the time of the last Tzar as the imperial family's summer residence.
Maria gave us the guided tour of the various lavish rooms including the Throne Room, the State Dining Room, the Reception Room, the Blue Drawing Room and the Amber room.
She told us all about how during World War II, the palace suffered significant damage requiring painstaking work to restore it to its original splendor which was all done via just a few photographs and remains of furniture and statues. The amber room in particular was amazing and at one point considered the eighth wonder of the world. This has to be by far the most luxuriously decorated palace I have ever seen.
We then got back into the car for the journey back to the main town again where we had a couple of hours free time to walk along Nevsky prospect. around our stops was to an old food store still decorated with elaborate furnishings note selling fine chocolates, wine and caviar amongst other fancy items.
Turns out there isn't that much to see around this area so we took the free time to try find a bit to eat and a drink. Whilst hunting for a bar, apparently this is not the popular area for drinking, Dad bought himself a hot dog which he had to abandon half way through as it had been served with way too much mustard and with each bite the thing seemed to explode into a complete mess. We eventually found an old bar in a cellar which had a whole variety of beers for the boys to try and I of course had to have a vodka. Being as it was my first drink of the day I wasn't much up for a neat shot so asked for a vodka and diet coke. This was clearly not the done thing and when maria translated into Russian they still didn't understand the concept of mixing vodka so I had to make two separate orders, a single shot of vodka, their smallest being equivalent to almost a double in the UK and a glass of coke.
We ordered some food and spoke to Maria some more about life in Russia then it was time for our evening boat cruise along the Neva river. It was around 9.45pm when we set off and although there was a breeze and we wrapped up in blankets it was still complete day light.
We had a nice tour along the river although we'd already seen the sites on our tour this morning it was nice to get another view of them whilst drinking our vile champagne out of plastic glasses.
The funniest part of the tour had to be a Russian couple who spent the entire trip posing for photos, the husband must have taken over 100 on his wife in various poses.
We got back to the ship around 11pm and just had time for a quick snack before going to watch a comedian. All the other shows have been great but this guy was terrible, it got so bad that by the end of the show there were probably only half the audience left, we probably only stayed out of embarrassment for the guy.
Tonight was the first England game showing at 2am on the ship so the boys grabbed an hours sleep before heading back up to watch it.