Palaces and Prisons: Day Three

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

It’s not often that I get praised for my obsession with royal history. (Most people just think it’s weird.) So I felt pretty good when our guide congratulated me on my knowledge of Russian czars. That was high praise indeed from a woman who knows every detail of every palace, bridge, monument, church and building in this city. Cool.

Today’s highlight was the Winter Palace, the St. Petersburg home of every Russian ruler from Catherine the Great in 1762 to Nicholas II in 1917. Today it’s also the main building of the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum, and while art museums are not my thing (Chris and I gave the Louvre 10 minutes), I wanted to see the state rooms and royal apartments, so off we went. It was spectacular. I don’t know how else to describe it. Awesome.

Even palace junkies need a change of pace every now and then, so it was a relief to tour the Peter and Paul Fortress this afternoon. This is where Peter the Great first established the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. It soon became a prison for politically difficult citizens, including Peter’s own son Alexei and the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the late 1800s a new prison was built within the fortress (this one would become famous for housing dissidents like Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother), which is now open to the public, so we walked through some of those cells. Scary.

The fortress also houses the Peter and Paul Cathedral, burial place of every Russian czar since Peter the Great. There’s even a special alcove dedicated to the memory of the last imperial family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. My eyes normally glaze over in cathedrals, but I love royal tombs, so this was pretty cool.

When I planned this trip I knew our days in St. Petersburg would be the most exhausting (seven hours of walking every day really starts to wear you down), but I feel like we got to experience the real Russia in a way that you don’t often get to do from a cruise ship. Having our own local driver and guide for three days allowed us to get to know them and the city far better than if we’d been herded around on a bus in a group of 30 people. What a cool experience.

And now we sail for Estonia…