I’m sure that like us, for most people being in Russia was the high point of the trip. Something I never grew up thinking I would do. This of course was tempered by arriving in an industrial port since our ship was to large to park in the river.
This was the only place where we had bought a ship excursion. I didn’t know where the ship would dock and could not find any information about riding bikes in Russia. I had also read a lot of recommendations to use a guided tour for the Hermitage museum since it is so large and it will get you in early.
The warning the tour operators gave us was to expect lines and accept them as part of the experience. Well, it was true. We waited in the auditorium for them to call our tour then followed the line out to go through customs. While waiting there was a band playing American band songs which seemed really odd to me.
The marathon was going on that day so our bus had to re-route around it. We ended up walking about a half mile to get to the Hermitage. It was busy; very busy. There were crowds everywhere and the guide wisked us from room to room. It never really hit me that I was in the Hermitage until we were allowed a short time to wander and I saw a Picasso I had studied in art history. It was very overwhelming since not only is there all the artwork but since it is in former palaces the floors, walls and ceilings are beautiful too.
From the Hermitage we walked across the square to a small cafe where lunch had been arranged. It was a traditional meal with borscht, Stroganoff, and some sort of berry tart. It was the best borscht L. and I have tasted. It had started raining during lunch so we were stuck there while they tried to maneuver the bus closer. It was frustrating to just not walk to the next place since it was so close. Finally everyone grey restless enough to put up with a little rain and walked to where the bus was.
Since we would not be going to Moscow I wanted to see the church of the spilled blood to see the traditional Russian church. It did not disappoint. The outside was full of detail and all the walls on the inside were covered with mosaics. After the tour of the church the guide set us loose on a nearby market.
The problem with being in a tour group is there is no way to escape being a tourist. One of the people in our group got pick pocketed. (L. thinks by a group of 3 guys acting like they are selling books that they were shoving into peoples faces which fits the description.) But such a large group always had to move through a gauntlet of street sellers, and the radio receivers around our necks branded us as tourists like nothing else could. Because of this L. and I decided that it was not that long of a walk (It ended up being 4 miles into town) For the bus ride home I tried to memorize each turn the bus made and took pictures of all the intersections as we headed home. We had bought a map but the ship had docked off of where the map showed. While L. knew enough Russian to read the Cyrillic alphabet all the names still sounded the same so street signs where not much help.
The next day we were able to use our visas that allowed us to come and go as we wanted. We got off to an early start so that we would not have to wait in the line with the tours to get past customs. From our ship we caught the little green bus that offered free rides to the dock workers to get them around the dock. So with a bus full of dock workers we rode to the security gate that saved us about a mile of walking. We had our visas were examined again and we finally were on our own in Russia. We had decided to walk everywhere here since I had not seen any bikes locked up anywhere and the few bike riders I saw were factory workers so I'm guessing could lock up their bikes indoors. Since we were walking into town we got strange looks from all the people headed to work. We stopped at a gas station for L. to use the "WC". While there they would not sell us water bottles but because of the language barrier we could not figure out why.
We decided to head down the main street in town, Nevsky Prospekt. Since we were able to stop in any store we liked we were able to check the tourist price vs. locals price for fur and caviar. It ends up that at the stores specializing in receiving tour busses the prices are about 40% higher (a fur coat was $3000 vs $5000) I really liked walking down Nevsky Prospekt because we saw a lot of the buildings in the pack of post cards we bought to send people.
We stopped for lunch at a local cafe and again enjoyed delicious borscht along with crepes. L. was to tired to keep walking so we bought tickets for the local double-decker tour bus. They gave you headphones and each seat had a plug, you chose the channel for the language. The funny part was that it was around 350 Roubles (~$15) for each of us. The similar tour if we had booked through the cruise ship would have been $80. We were able to see the rest of the city and a lot of the locally important places that might have been skipped otherwise. The bus let us off closer to the ship port than if we had walked but it was still three miles.
The architecture for the whole city seemed like exact copies of each other. All 19th century stone block buildings. It made it easy to get lost. However, by following the rivers we did not get lost. I like the look of soviet cars. They remind me of the VW notchback.
Once the ship left port they had brought aboard souvenirs for people to buy that did not have a chance to buy anything for the tours they had gone on. What unfolded was a crazy scene of people buying stuff on the ship. It was like a day after Thanksgiving sale and they just had to buy something, anything.