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St Petersburg Sights & Sounds 

Good morning everyone. I hope that, wherever you’re reading this, the weather has been kind to you. I have been listening to the radio whilst on my deliveries and hearing stories of flooding, thunderstorms and such things. Strangely, there has been almost nothing of meteorological note down here in south-east Kent. I had been hoping to enjoy Test Match Special over the last five days, and whilst driving around in sunshine, a mere 110 miles away in Southampton, the Radio 4 Long Wave team were telling me of downpours and sodden outfields. I even had to resort to watering the garden. I have no doubt that our time will come!

 

A couple of news items caught my attention. I would guess that whatever age you are, you can remember the feeling of A-Level results day. It was my first summer as resident seasonal staff on the railway, living in a converted garden shed at the back of New Romney station car park, when I was granted two days off so that I could go home and collect my results. It was the heady days of the summer of 1996. You could sense that a change of mood was in the air… England had played well at ‘Euro 96’; the political landscape was altering; ‘Oasis’ received three million ticket applications for two concerts at Knebworth; the ‘Spice Girls’ were unleashed with their debut hit “Wannabe”; and I didn’t know anyone who had a mobile phone. Whilst many people have told me about the summer on 1967 being a seminal moment, the summer of 1996 was my version. I’d also worked extremely hard, academically, over the previous two years on my A-Levels. I had arrived at Worthing Sixth Form College knowing that I had been top of my year in maths at my secondary school. I didn’t know anyone at the college, as it was not the regular path to take from my school. Understandably, the college brought together all the bright students from the numerous secondary schools in and around Worthing. On arrival, I found myself at the bottom of the class. My fellow pupils had all been at schools that offered preparation classes for studying A-Level. They already knew about integration and differentiation, whilst I was clueless. As with any situation, it was a case of sink or swim, and I did all I possibly could. I remember at the time, and to this day, people saying how exams are not as difficult as they were. Having seen examples of O-Level maths papers, they are correct that GCSE maths is easier than O-Level. However, having also seen previous examples of A-Level papers, I could not see any difference. The main problem therefore, is that the jump from GCSE to A-Level is much wider than that from O-Level to A-Level, but you still only have five terms in which to complete it. When you then start from a position that is some distance behind your peers, you have no option but to work flat-out to garner the required knowledge in good time. So it was that, with some trepidation, I opened that envelope in the foyer of the college. My abiding memory was one of relief rather than joy. As always, I had been fearful of letting others down, rather than myself. I had received offers of a place at Durham, Manchester, York, Hull and Exeter. I secured the grades for all of them, but had selected Manchester as my first choice. Safe in the knowledge that I had secured my place, I headed back to Kent and continued the summer season on the railway. One thing I might cheekily add… the grades I received were exactly the same as my teachers had predicted for me. My teacher in Pure Mathematics was quite a character. Some readers of this blog may remember him. His name was Roger Quittenton, but we all knew him as ‘Q’ and he was one of the world’s best rugby union referees. We would see him on the television at Murrayfield or Cardiff Arms Park on the Saturday, and then back teaching us on the Monday morning. A brilliant communicator, superb teacher, and wonderfully respected by all of us.

 

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 ‘Q’ in the thick of things at Murrayfield


The other news item that has caught my attention is that of the situation in Belarus. Not too surprisingly, this is a country that I have not visited. A lack of coastline is the main stumbling block. However, for six years I worked on a ship called ‘Spirit of Adventure’ and we had a team of seven Belarussian musicians on board. Four in the band, and three in a classical trio. They were superb musicians, and forever inviting me to visit Minsk. Every time we arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, the musicians would change over and they would embark on the 22 hour train journey back to Minsk. I can remember some legendary jazz nights in the bar where they would freestyle until the early hours. I really hope that the situation in their homeland improves and that they are all doing well.

 

In last week’s blog, we had just arrived in St Petersburg, berthed in the heart of the city on our trip around the Baltic. Those of you who have been to Russia on a ship before will remember the immigration protocol. There is nowhere else in the world that has such rules, but they work for the Russian authorities. For those who aren’t aware: passengers are only allowed ashore under two conditions. Either they have obtained their own personal visa, or, they are joining an official shore excursion. It is quite rare that we have any passengers who have their own personal visa, and they tend to take much longer to be processed through the immigration queue. It is almost as though they attract suspicion as the authorities wonder why they would want their own visa! Conversely, the ship’s crew have no restrictions at all and can come and go as they please. As long as we carry our passport and Seaman’s Discharge Book, then the immigration desk is manned 24 hours and we can freely go back and forth. It is as though the authorities are concerned that the passengers might “jump ship” and illegally settle in Russia, but not the crew.

   

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 Early morning in St Petersburg as the sun rises through the raised spans of the Annunciation Bridge, with Hebridean Sky in the foreground

 

There is always an element of pot-luck as to how many immigration counters will be open. I go to great lengths to explain to the passengers that we have no control over how long it will take to file everyone through immigration. The first time we go ashore takes the longest, as all passports are thoroughly checked and stamped, but for subsequent trips ashore it is a swifter operation. Just make sure you don’t smile! We do our best to manage the queues and, as soon as the first coach is ready, I aim to send it away. One of my biggest gripes as a Cruise Director is when you have a local tour operator who decides that they will wait until every coach is ready to depart and then have them leave together. Sometimes, for security concerns, it is necessary to do that. Other times, it is the local operator not thinking ahead. In St Petersburg, our local agent is excellent, and knows the importance of reaching the venues as soon as possible. And we’re off…

 

Our stays in St Petersburg vary between two and three days. Incredibly, there are some cruise lines that only visit for the one day. I think I have been to St Petersburg every year since 2001, and each time there is something different to see and be inspired by. As we sail through the Baltic, the emphasis is very much on the Hanseatic League. I had never heard of the Hanseatic League until I started cruising. If someone had asked me about it previously, I would have presumed it was part of the non-league football pyramid. Hansa territories stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages. From 1450 the League’s power began to diminish, and the last Hanseatic meeting took place in Lübeck in 1669 to confirm the League’s demise. Why do I mention this? It is because when you travel around the Baltic you are exposed to a great deal of fabulous Hanseatic architecture, but of course there is none in St Petersburg. The Hanseatic port for Russia was Novgorod. Hanseatic League ships would sail past a captured Swedish fortress in a shallow area of the sea. Little would they have known that, on 27th May 1703, Peter the Great would found one of the world’s greatest cities on that very spot.

 

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The Hanseatic City of Novgorod   

 

The main sights that we tend to include in our visits to St Petersburg are the Catherine Palace, the Peterhof Palace, the Fabergé Museum, the Yusupov Palace, the Hermitage Museum, the General Staff Building (housing more art belonging to the Hermitage Museum), the Peter and Paul Fortress, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman, Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and a canal cruise of the city. The cruise points out such landmarks as the Russian Cruiser ‘Aurora’, the rostral columns, and much more. Each visit varies, with a different selection of sights on each occasion. I always try and advise the passengers to pace themselves. Naturally, there is an eagerness to see everything, but that can lead to participating in eight tours in three days. There is only so much that the brain can absorb! I recommend that the passengers circle the tours that they are most keen to do, and then if they feel like they want to join the others then they can see how they feel on the day. Also missing from the list are the evening activities. These can range from a trip to the ballet, to enjoying a Russian folk show complete with Cossack Dancing, or even the greatest shore excursion that I have ever been on – a private evening tour of the Hermitage Museum, including a concert by the resident orchestra.

 

If I had to pick favourite excursions then I would say the canal cruise, the Peterhof, Yusupov Palace, the General Staff Building and the private visit to the Hermitage. To offer my reasoning… the canal cruise is a wonderful introduction to the city. With a good skipper and our always excellent guide, you can obtain a true feeling of the atmosphere of this vibrant metropolis, with a complete panoramic view. I guess it would be similar to driving around in a convertible car with the roof down. On our last visit, I asked our skipper to take us close to the cruiser ‘Aurora’, famous for firing the opening shot that signalled the beginning of the attack on the Winter Palace in the October Revolution (albeit on 7th November using the Gregorian calendar). The ship has been beautifully preserved and sits, pride of place, on the Neva river in the heart of the city. The canal cruise usually begins or ends or both at the Peter & Paul Fortress, which contains the oldest landmark in the city, the Peter & Paul Cathedral, which was built between 1712 and 1733 and houses the Imperial Tombs.

 

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The Cruiser ‘Aurora’  

 

The Peterhof is a decent drive away from the city and that, in itself, is an interesting trip. The 2018 Football World Cup led to some major road improvements, and these include high bridges from which you can glean an excellent overview of the city and the busy shipyards as you head to and from Peterhof. We always aim to reach the palace as soon as possible, as queues of tourists form very early, with many aiming to take position in order to see the fountains being turned on. I never quite understand this rush. Once the fountains are turned on, they stay on all day, and it is much better to let the rush subside (which it does within five minutes of the fountains starting) and then you have the opportunity for a much clearer photograph. As well as the beauty of the palace, the gardens are very relaxing to stroll around afterwards.

 

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Peterhof and fountains

 

My inclusion of the Yusupov (or Moika) Palace might surprise some. It is not so much about the Palace itself, but what happened there. The grandeur of the likes of Peterhof and Catherine Palace are beyond doubt, but Yusupov is on a more intimate scale, and houses a fascinating tale. You could be forgiven for not realising the palace is there, as it blends in with other façades in St Petersburg. However, once inside you know you are somewhere significant. The palace was built in 1776, but gained its current internal appearance when the Yusupov family purchased the building in the 1830s. The small theatre is palatial, a true work of art in itself. As well as being a stunning family residence, the other tale that is to be told is that, in the early hours of the morning of 17th December 1916 (Julian calendar), Grigori Rasputin was assassinated here. He had to be shot three times before he finally died. Waxwork figures re-enact the night in question and the guides explain Rasputin’s role in Russian society at the time. Whilst it may sound rather morbid, there is no doubt that Rasputin is one Russian that everyone has heard of, even if they’re not sure why.

  

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Yusupov Palace Theatre

 

I’ve never been particularly into Fine Art. I’m someone who feels that “good art” is whatever art you enjoy looking at. I remember offering to cover for a colleague as tour escort for the afternoon trip to the General Staff Building of the Hermitage, and being so glad that I did as it gave me a whole new appreciation for art. Whilst the crowds descend on the Hermitage itself, these galleries, housed in an adjacent building, are tranquil and allow you to be up close and personal with a stunning collection of works.

 

One of my favourite pieces is an oil on canvas called ‘In London’ and was painted by Charles Hoffbauer (1875-1957) in 1907. From afar, the lady’s dress appears to be shining. I had no idea how the painter had achieved this, but the beauty of the museum is that you can step right up to the canvas and try to see how the effect was created. In this instance, carefully placed dashes of brilliant white paint had been the answer. Another artist whose works caught my eye was American Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), partly because I had never seen works like his before. Two of his paintings from North Greenland in the 1930s were particularly striking.

 

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'In London' by Charles Hoffbauer 

  

The private evening tour of the Hermitage is, sincerely, the stuff of dreams. We are docked half a mile from the famous museum, so there is time for a buffet dinner before making the brief coach transfer. To be there when no-one else is, to walk into empty rooms full of treasures, to have the security close the doors behind us, you feel like Royalty. The visit is never rushed and all the major exhibits are explained to us. I have too many favourite pieces to list, but two that I always take time to appreciate are the incredibly intricate British-built Peacock Clock, created in the second half of the 18th century, and Rembrandt’s 1654 painting, “Portrait of an Old Jew”. I have never seen the clock in motion, but thanks to the internet there is much footage of it in action. The Rembrandt painting hangs in the Rembrandt room. I don’t know why but I find the painting to be fascinating. New details emerge every time I look at it. I think my love of Ron Moody’s screen portrayal of ‘Fagin’ might have an influence. The painting makes me think of an ageing Fagin, looking back on his life and wondering if anyone would listen to or believe the tales he has to tell. To end our private visit to the Hermitage, we congregate in the beautiful Italian Skylight Room and are treated to a performance by the Hermitage State Orchestra. Famous Russian composers come to the fore, and the acoustics are magnificent. An encore of Johann Strauss’s “Radetzky March” never fails to have everyone smiling and, at the invitation of the conductor, clapping along.

 

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‘The Old Jew’ by Rembrandt

 

An alternative evening excursion is often a trip to the ballet. Not surprisingly, with many cruise ships staying overnight, one of the major theatres is always keen to accommodate. About 12 years ago I was in St Petersburg on a ship and I had to look after a group of travel journalists. They were not particularly interested in the ballet, but they wanted to go ashore. Knowing they could only go ashore as part of the shore excursion, they hatched a plan. They came with us to the theatre, but just before curtain-up they left and spent the evening in a nearby vodka bar. They returned as the theatre emptied and came back with us on the coaches to the ship. Their plan almost worked, until one of the journalists wrote with great gusto about how much they had enjoyed the performance of “Swan Lake”, and then one of our passengers replied to said newspaper saying how much they had enjoyed being on the same cruise as the journalist, but that the ballet they had attended was “La Bohème”!

 

After the evening tour, when we are staying overnight in port, I always try and venture ashore myself. The city feels surprisingly safe, and with so many visits over the years I have made friends with some of our agents, guides and the locals. In recent years, I have had great fun exploring the city with my dear friend Svetlonka. From singing in Russian karaoke bars (to the bemusement of the locals), to riding the remarkably clean, ornate and very deep Metro system, to strolling around New Holland Island, there is much to offer. Many years ago, when I worked on ships with a larger number of crew, there was much fun and games to be had ashore. Local entrepreneurs would set-up makeshift bars near the gangway and we would all stay up to watch the sunrise between the raised bridges. Those days have now passed, but I’m grateful to Svetlonka, who is somehow fluent in Russian, English, German, French and Greek, for always finding new places for us to explore.

 

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An ornate mosaic on the St Petersburg Metro Mosaic

 

With that, I’ll conclude my thoughts on St Petersburg. However, I could write many more blogs about the sights and sounds of this wondrous place. Even just sitting on deck during the warm nights and watching the ships heading back and forth once the bridges are opened is a fascinating spectacle. The city has only been existence for a little over 300 years, and yet has been St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and now St Petersburg again. I can’t wait to be back again next year! One thing I would never do though, is buy one of those Russian or Matryoshka Dolls. I think they’re so full of themselves. To apologise for that awful joke, here is a video clip of the finale of the private concert in the Hermitage.

 

Private concert in the Hermitage

 

I started off this blog by mentioning that the weather was still glorious here in Hythe. As I write this it is approaching midnight on Wednesday 19th August. I’ve been out on a nine-hour delivery run, and it has been raining the whole time. Perhaps I spoke too soon! Goodbye for now, and I leave you with a photo of me in paradise in St Petersburg…

 

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My happy place in St Petersburg 

 

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