Monday – Kizhi
Today was a fairly quiet day, mostly spent on the ship. We had the second part of our Russian history lecture in the morning and then a meeting about the optional excursions available in St Petersburg. After lunch our group was taken up to the Captain’s Bridge and told all about the different controls. The Captain has his own cat, who mostly sleeps, but is very cute. Its collar is a life ring and it even has its own little sailors outfit, but unfortunately it wasn’t on at the time. After that we had another Russian lesson and then a Russian tea ceremony, where we learnt all about their tea culture.
We arrived at Kizhi Island at 5pm and started our walking tour. Kizhi is an island on Lake Onega with a beautiful ensemble of wooden churches, chapels and houses. The most impressive thing about the churches (particularly the 22-domed Transfiguration Church) is that they were erected without nails or other metal ties – even the joints were made from wood. In 1951 the island became an open-air museum of old Russian wooden architecture. The photos are amazing, but just don’t do it justice.
We were all onboard by 8pm so that we could leave for Mandrogi (418 km, 1 lock). After dinner (Slavic style) we enjoyed another folklore concert, where we played more games and had more singing, dancing, laughing and screaming!
Tuesday – Mandrogi
Today was a very interesting day. We arrived at Mandrogi at about 11am and had free time to wander around until lunch at 1pm. We visited the Fairy Tale Island, watched masters make traditional Russian souvenirs and just took in the atmosphere. Lunch was a big bbq/picnic. We had shish kebabs, salads, jacket potato, bread rolls, hot drinks, cold drinks and even some lovely pastries for dessert. We all sat on big picnic tables under a huge covered area. The food was still great, but it was nice to have a more relaxed meal, rather than the usual sit down 4 courses.
At about 2.30pm we left for St Petersburg (296 km, 1 lock). In the early evening we had our last Russian language lesson, where we actually spent most of our time rehearsing for the talent show, which took place after dinner. It was supposed to be done in groups, but ended up being done in countries, so all the Aussies got up and sang Waltzing Matilda. All the Dutch did a song, the English did a song, the Americans, Belgian etc. It was a lot of fun and afterwards we were on a bit of a high so we went to one of the lounges for a drink. Robert, Richard, Lindsay and Leanne joined us and after a while Robert and Richard went to bed, which gave us the opportunity to get to know Lindsay and Leanne better. We had a very late night (well after midnight) but it was worth it.
Wednesday – St Petersburg
We arrived at St Petersburg in the morning having travelled 1973 km and passed through 17 locks. After breakfast we spent the morning on a city sightseeing tour, where we got on and off the bus for various ‘photo stops’. The main attraction was the Peter and Paul Fortress, where we had a tour. At the end of the tour (at midday) a blank shot was fired from the cannon and it was pretty impressive!
We had lunch on the ship and then went on an optional excursion to Pavlovsk, a superb palace and park, dating from the 18th to the 19th century. Pavlovsk was a summer residence of the Russian Emperor Paul I and his family. We were able to see the unique original furnishing and the restored interior decoration. Needless to say Adrian went a bit nuts taking photos.
We chose not to do any of the evening excursions, so after dinner we had a quiet drink in the lounge. Warwick joined us for a while and we had a nice chat, before heading off to bed for an early night.
Thursday – St Petersburg
After another early breakfast, we went on another optional excursion, this time to the town of Pushkin. It used to be the main out-of-town residence of the Russian Emperors and is home to Catherine’s Palace, boasting a magnificent façade and luxuriously decorated halls. We also had a brief stroll along the park embellished with fine sculptures and romantic pavilions. The gardens has its own lake (called a pond) and in one of the buildings next to the water was another concert. Unfortunately we went in at the same time as a German group so the men singing spoke to them in German. The music was stunning, but I had not idea who they were or what they had just sung.
Lunch was back on the ship, and afterwards we went to the Hermitage, which took forever to get to because of the awful traffic situation. It was once the winter palace, but now hosts a collection of more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture. Our guide was very good at avoiding crowds, so we were able to enjoy the Hermitage and take our time to look at the things she was pointing out to us. There were several places where Adrian and I were just as impressed with the ceiling as we were with the artwork in that particular room. It is a bit like the Louvre in Paris – you could spend a few hours sampling a selection of items, or you could spend years there. We were quite late getting back to the ship, again because of the traffic, so by the time we had dinner it was time to go to bed.
Friday – St Petersburg
We got a bit of a sleep-in this morning before our excursion to the Peterhof, where the attraction was the gardens more so than the palace. In fact, the whole of our time was spent in the lower garden. We arrived just before 11am, in time to see them turn on all the fountains, which was quite a sight. Adrian said that the main ‘wow factor’ of the gardens was that there are no pipes used. I quite liked all the trick fountains that Peter the Great had installed, for example there was a particular bench that when visitors tried to sit on, jets of water came up from the stones in front of it. There were several of these trick fountains around the gardens, which I found quite unusual for an Emperor of that time. But hey, each to their own, I’d just hate to have been one of his visitors. One of the highlights for me was when we walked down a little path and saw some people feeding the birds and squirrels. The only squirrels we’ve ever seen disappear as soon as you even get close, but these ones we letting us come right up to the tree. I even managed to get one to eat out of my hand – what an experience! And yes, Mum, I washed my hands straight after!
After lunch Adrian wasn’t feeling very well so I went on the optional excursion myself, which was a River and Canal cruise. We had been on the bus for well over an hour and a half, when our guide made the executive decision to get off and go the rest of the way using the metro underground. It was the best decision we’d heard all day. You could tell why they didn’t do that all the time though, coz it was quite stressful making sure we had all the group with us. We popped up a few minutes walk from the boat we were getting on, which took us for a tour around the rivers and canals for about 50 minutes. Although we had already seen many of the attractions, it was nice to see them from a different perspective. I sat with Janet and Juris and we were absolutely freezing. In the end Janet went downstairs into the covered area, but I didn’t want to miss anything, lol. I soon warmed up once we were back on the bus. Inevitably, we were late back to our ship, so after dinner we went back to our rooms to pack. We then went to Janet and Juris’ room to say goodbye to them and then it was time for bed.
Saturday – travelling home
On Saturday we had to be out of our rooms by 9am, with our suitcases outside in the hallway. Our transfer wasn’t until 1.45pm so we had to twiddle our thumbs for several hours. We chatted to a few people for a while, said goodbye to people as they were leaving, and then killed time by playing games on our phone, walking around the ship and eating lunch. We had ordered ‘lunch boxes’ for lunch and they were quite good. We had a plain bread roll and one with meat, salad and cheese on it. We also had an apple, yoghurt, muesli bar, cake, fruit poppa and bottle of water. Not bad for £7 each.
Our mini bus took us to the airport, we checked in (got exit row seats!), found somewhere with free Internet and waited for our flight to leave. Our usual taxi service picked us up from Heathrow and we were back home by about 6.30pm. We unpacked, had some toast and went to bed.