Our fourth stop on the big trip was yet another new experience for me but for my wife, it was a chance to return to a city she had visited 17 years before.
Way back in 1993, when the Soviet Union had collapsed and Boris Yeltsin was the embattled president of the new Russian Federation, the choir in which she sings traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra and their Russian-born conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.
I bet, however, that there have been few physical changes in that time since the first thing that struck me as our bus drove around is that there is nothing subtle about this city.
From the huge blocks of apartments around the harbor area to the imposing former palaces seemingly on every corner, it’s clear that Peter the Great right up through the Communist leaders certainly didn’t believe in building and decorating on a small scale.
A prime example was this view we had over lunch. Â While we enjoyed a very relaxing meal in a charming little cafe on the second floor of a bookstore, the large windows were filled by theÂ Kazan Cathedral across the street.
Built in the early 1800’s, it’s clear the builders were going for something resembling the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.
St. Petersburg is the only port on the cruise where we stayed overnight (a requirement of the Russians according to one of the pursers) and I found the second day even more interesting since we got a small glimpse of “average” life.
Early on that Sunday morning, we got to take a short ride on their subway system, beginning and ending in stations that make those of the Washington Metro look like wooden shacks.
I was surprised that there were so many people at that hour on a weekend (a reaction based on my western sensibilities) and our guide cautioned us about getting lost and being thrown in “KGB prison”. Â I think he was only half kidding.
That excursion was followed by a visit to what he said was a “middle class” food market, although I’m still not clear what defines that part of society in that area.
On both days we also had plenty of time to walk around parts of the city to discover things on our own, which I find the most enjoyable part of these visits.
It also added a great deal to this trip when the tour guides were willing to tell us something about the social, economic, and political life in the country.
The young man who lead us on the second day was very open about those factors. Â Among other aspects, he told us that economically things in St. Petersburg are certainly better in 2010 than a decade ago.
But, despite the fact that he and some friends are able to write a blog criticizing many government policies, those same politicians are very quick to suppress open demonstrations of dissent.
So, maybe there have been some big changes in Russia since my wife’s last visit. Â At least this time the border guards didn’t try to extort her on the way out of the country. :-)
More pictures from our two days in St. Petersburg are in this set on my Flickr pages.
Next, we were off to another part of the former Soviet Union, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia.