When we were planning our Baltic cruise, we all agreed one country absolutely had to be on our itinerary…Russia. It's not a place any of us could really visit unless it was part of a guided tour (for job reasons, as you can imagine), so knowing our sailing included an overnight in St. Petersburg made this cruise all the more exciting for our entire group. When the day came for all of us to hop off the ship into a country none of us had ever visited before, we had stars bursting from our eyes! What good fortune to be able to visit such a fascinating, seemingly untouchable country! I had high hopes for St. Petersburg.
Truth be told, it turned out to be one of my least favorite stops on our Baltic vacation. Total bummer. I'm far from ashamed to say it didn't meet any of my expectations…in fact, it left me scratching my head a bit. Why, you ask? Well, a few things. First, it just didn't scream RUSSIA to me. I know, what the heck does that even mean? I'm not even really sure I can articulate that to you. I guess I thought I'd be submerged into a world that looked and felt uniquely "Russian"--the touristy Russia I must have painted in my head thanks to TV, movies, and the news (kitschy nesting dolls, a plethora of colorful helmeted cupolas, yadda yadda). I wholeheartedly expected to have that "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" kind of moment. Instead, I was surprised to see so much European influence ingrained throughout the city. It was like I hadn't left the continent of Europe at all. Had I done my research beforehand, I'm sure I wouldn't have been so confused by St. Pete's architecture (it is called the "Venice of the North", after all). I think I was expecting to be met with more medieval architectural features, but the city was far ahead of my stunted dreams with Baroque and Neoclassical buildings littered around every turn. The only piece of the city that held to my medieval yearnings was the beautiful Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Romantic, commanding, a nod to nationalism--absolutely stunning! I could have stood there and marveled at its richly decorated facade for hours and hours. If it wasn't for all the cars and foot traffic huddling around the church, our brief 15 minute stop there would have been the highlight of my trip. Leave it to modern conveniences to make iconic areas less appealing.
Secondly, having to explore the city within a tour group was the total pits. Because Americans must have a visa to visit Russia (and because cruising provides you a sort of automatic temporary visa for the days you're visiting), you must be a part of a guided tour to enter the city and sight-see. We got to experience Russian immigration and were rewarded with that coveted passport stamp (very cool and only slightly unnerving--no smiles to be found in that place!), but having to spend the rest of the day attached to a group of whiny elderly tourists made the experience less than enjoyable for me. We've taken tours in the past and they'd all been pretty wonderful, but this one, SHOOT ME. Par for the course for that cruise, I suppose. Everything felt rushed and we hardly had time to snap photos or read signage before moving on to the next attraction. They tried to stuff way too many things into 12 hours that day. Not to mention…12 HOURS. Longest vacation day ever. Even though we saw a lot, I still felt like I saw nothing.
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Now that's how you name a church!
The canals were a pleasant surprise. Larger and more industrial than those of Venice and Amsterdam, but it's always nice to have water run through a city. Adds a little charm.
Because of all my preconceived notions about what Russia would look and feel like, I think I robbed myself of having an awe-stricken experience with St. Petersburg (well, that and the fact that tour groups sometimes suck). While there were some shiny gold star moments (the Spilled Blood church, seeing Swan Lake at the Russian ballet and an amazing midnight sunset--more on those to come!), there was still so much lacking from our short 2 days there. I wish I'd done more research beforehand to give myself more of an open mind, or at least a less surprised one. Take that as a lesson, fellow travelers! Check your expectations at the border! If given the chance to visit again, I actually think I would...but only if I'm able to plan the itinerary myself and have time to enjoy it all without being herded like cattle from one attraction to another. That might never happen, but one can dream! This just goes to show, not every place you visit will be one you hold dear. We all have our failed travel destinations...this was just one of mine.