Historic note: In 1991, after a city-wide referendum, the city of Leningrad returned to its original name - St. Petersburg.
The first morning we selected a half day tour of the Hermitage (also known as the Winter Palace) -- a very large and famous Art Museum. It contained 3 million exhibits and would take 11 years to see everything -- so we had an overview tour. We were lucky to be able to get in an hour early ahead of the official opening -- because there were long lines during the other parts of the day. I have never seen so many famous Masters on display before in a single museum. There were 26 Rembrandt's for example. Our guide spent time in front of Rembrandt's famous Prodigal Son -- and related the Biblical story about the Prodigal son and what Rembrandt was trying to show. I was surprised that our Guide talked about the Biblical meaning -- since she was a Russian guide raised under Communism. Our tour group was made up of many nationalities and religious beliefs.
As we approached the Hermitage we were jostled by a great many street vendors trying sell us booklets of the Hermitage, Russian hats, Military hats and pins, Russian dolls etc. They were extremely pushy and we had been warned before hand to put our wallets in someplace other than our back pocket since pick pockets were known to frequent the Hermitage and outside area.
St. Petersburg had recently been cleaned up to celebrate an anniversary -- but to me it looked pretty grim. The Buildings around the River looked clean -- but the apartments on the other streets were not kept up -- the stucco was starting to fall off, paint was peeling, windows in néed of repair. Everyone lives in an apartment and those that can afford it have a small Dacha in the country.
Our Guide explained that all Religious denominations were represented in St. Petersburg . She said that about 4% of the population attend church regularly -- 50% have their children baptized in church, 75% have their marriages in church, and 98% have their funeral in church. (She was a Professor of English at a St. Petersburg University and when she was not guiding she taught Russian at a University in Maryland. She has been going to Maryland most summers since 1991.)
She also spoke about the KGB and how fearful they were of it. She said their neighbors were likely to report them if they listened to any foreign radio stations. She said they had no one to talk to about any problems they might have with the government -- about the only people they could talk to would be their own family, "behind the kitchen door".
Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was under siege by the Nazi's for 3 years during WWII. Many thousands of people died from lack of food and the cold. She said the Hermitage was not damaged much during the War -- despite the city being in rubble.
Our guide explained that Moscow and St. Petersburg are competitive cities. Moscow is the Capital of the Government and St. Petersburg is the Capital of Culture.
Another surprise for me was that there were 500 bridges in the city crossing over the many rivers that flowed through the city.
Weddings in St. Petersburg must be performed by the civil government before they can be performed in the Church. The Wedding pictures are taken the day of the Civil service -- often in a park during the nice weather. The local legend has it that the Bride and Groom must kiss everytime they cross over a bridge -- and with 500 that is quite often.
Another surprise for me was that the buildings were reconstructed after the War to look as much as the original's. Despite most of the buildings having damage -- new architecture was not used. The city still looks like an old European city.
We went into Russia from the ship on three occasions. Each time we had to go through a Passport check by the Russian's and had to carry our Passports with us. We did not néed Visa's if we stayed in a group -- but if we wanted to go off on your own - a Visa was required. Don't think we met anyone that traveled alone in Russia.
That evening we visited the Ballet Folklorica -- which was very well done. It was Russian Folk dancing and singing (in Russian). It had some of the best male dancing I have seen. It was very professional. During intermission you could buy more souvenirs or vodka if you so desired.
Our bus drivers were named Boris, Yuri, and Vladimir for the three trips we had in Russia . I thought these names were very appropriate for being in Russia.
We did not see any Expressways in St. Petersburg -- all driving was done through the side streets - with these huge tour buses.
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