The real reason we took the Baltic Cruise was to visit St. Petersburg, Russia -- arriving and leaving the easy way. Case had heard much about the Hermitage and wanted to see it, and since we'd never visited Russia before, we decided this was our chance.
Well, St. Petersburg has much more to offer than the Hermitage. In fact, to me (Case) visiting St Petersburg (nee Leningrad nee Petrograd nee St. Petersburg) is first and foremost an opportunity to learn a history and a culture that we tend to think we know -- but don't. As I was growing up during the "Cold War", we spoke of "the Russians" and the "Soviet Union" as though we knew all about them. But it wasn't until I got older, met a couple Russians, and read some Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky that I learned how little I knew about the Russian soul. (This is not a cliche. Soul is important to Russians. Just ask one.)
Even the list of names the city has been known by provides a history lesson. First it was "St. Petersburg" -- named after the German rather than Russian style by Tsar Peter the Great. Then, when Russian nationalism arose, it became Petrograd, after the Russian style. Under the Communists, Leningrad. And now, with the fall of Russian Communism, it has reverted to the original name.
Catherine's Palace in the Tsar's Village, Russia
Russian history doesn't begin with the Soviet Union, or even the Bolshevik Revolution. It doesn't even begin with the tsars ... but you won't get farther back than the tsars in St. Petersberg. After all, there was really nothing on this spot until Tsar Peter the Great decided he would build a grand city of European style and culture here.
You see, Peter was an expansive thinker. While a young man, he traveled all over Europe, studied and worked at several trades, and learned all he could about European art, culture, military might, and technology. He was in line to become the ruler of the largest politically united land mass in the world, and with his growing admiration of things European, he felt a need to bring his nation out of the "Dark Ages" and into the modern (18th century) era. Visionary, military expert, politician, paranoid autocrat, and tyrannical despot -- he was all of these things.
The grand ball room of Catherine's Palace
Peter the Great was determined that Russia should take its place among the military and cultural powers of Europe, and St. Petersberg was to be Russia's "window to Europe". Of course, there was the small matter of the Swedes owning all of the adjacent Baltic coastline, but that was easily resolved by picking a fight with them and taking the needed territory in the resulting war.
A Delftware stove in Catherine's Palace
(Peter had spent much time in Holland and loved their art and culture. Hence, the many Delft-blue-tiled stoves in this otherwise gold-gilded palace.)
And then Peter started building. At great cost of men and material, he created a city and, by regal decree, made it his capital (demoting Moscow in the process). For the next two hundred years, his successors called this city "home" and -- as you can see from the photos -- spared no expense to equip it with art, architecture, culture, and palaces rivaling those enjoyed by their siblings, cousins, and in-laws in the royal houses of Europe.
The Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain at the Peterhof Palace
These are only the largest of numerous fountains scattered over the grounds of this "Russian Versailles". The grounds and fountains were laid out on orders of Peter the Great himself -- which left me wondering, "Where does all that water come from?" After all, pump technology in the early 18th century was mostly powered by wind, animals, or humans. And I didn't think it was up to feeding this many fountains.
As it turns out, there are no pumps. The fountains are all supplied by aqueducts feeding water from higher elevations. The water channels down the gradient aqueducts, gushes high out of the fountains in a dazzling display, and then flows gently out into the Baltic sea.
And then there are the churches! We passed this one near the Peterhof palace and stopped for photos. To me, it seems the Russian church architects have an unequaled eye for color and design. (Read on to day #2 to see more.)