Breakfast was taken moored to the banks of the Neva River (well actually to the 2 other Viking ships, one of which was tied to the dock). The centre of Russia's 300 year old city is about 40 minutes ride away (depending on traffic) and that ride took us to The Hermitage State Museum. This year The Hermitage will celebrate its 250th anniversary and if you wanted to get around each of its 3,000,000 exhibits and give them the attention they deserve, you'd still be here as it's celebrates its 500th.
In some ways it was a bit overwhelming when everywhere you looked was a masterpiece on canvas, in sculpture or some other form of art. The teeming multitudes that descend here each summer make it easy for the visit to become a bit hot and bothered but our guide skilfully navigated us through the highlights with practiced ease. The Raphael Loggias was easily my favourite. A copy of a 16th century gallery in the Vatican, its 13 identical sections are decorated to depict the time from creation to the last supper. In each arch the ceiling sports 4 paintings, each one a masterpiece in its own right, that's not to mention the artwork on the columns and the walls and that's just one corridor in the building. It's fair to say that The Hermitage did for my eyes and brain what the catering staff had been doing on the Rurik all week for my stomach, leaving me warmly satisfied but yearning for the next instalment.
A day of cultural delights was concluded in fine style by a trip to the ballet where the Conservatory Theatre was hosting a performance of Swan Lake. It was a most interesting experience for us, our first trip to the ballet. I couldn't help thinking though that the black tutu and the dad with the big black cape was a dead giveaway and if the lead man had been a bit brighter we could have enjoyed half an hour longer in bed before our early start the next day.
Sasha's plan (our guide) to get us to Tsarskoe Selo early and beat the crowds worked perfectly and we were touring around inside Catherine's Palace (aka Pushkin's or Summer Palace) before it became a zoo. The Palace has two things in common with Jurassic Park (get ready for some lateral thinking). One: The opulence on display, gold, marble and art showed that no expense had been spared by Catherine and Elizabeth (remember Dickie Attenborough said "no expense spared" a few times in the film). Two: The Amber room is an amazing reconstruction of the most unusual mosaics using 6 tons of carved amber, once touted as the eighth wonder of the world (the dinosaurs DNA was harvested from an insect preserved in Amber). Outside we enjoyed a tranquil walk around the lake, admiring the gardens, sculptures and other buildings that make up one of the must see attractions in St Petersburg.
Nestled alongside the Gulf of Finland was Peterhof Palace, another early start got us ahead of the crowds and we enjoyed a nice leisurely tour of the palace rooms. Although not quite as lavish as Catherine's Palace it was no slouch when it came to gold fittings and decoration. There was a taste of England too, with paintings in the throne room by Richard Paton, tableware from Staffordshire and a globe from London. I loved the garden with its 64 fountains and over 200 bronze statues plus, like much of Russia we had visited, some beautifully laid out flower beds. The surprise for the day was watching a playful red squirrel dancing around the gardens and amusing the tourists.
Touring the city by a combination of bus, foot and canal, you soon realise that so much of St Petersburg is decorated in some form or another, some of it (Church of our Saviour) to rival St Basil’s In Moscow.
A few words about accessibility. This was a cruise for people who are at least moderately able. Often the ship was stacked 2 or 3 deep at the pier, so you had to walk through the other ships to the dock, tours involved quite a bit of on and off the coach which involved steps, but more so Russia has so many steps, cobblestones and very few lifts.
We were very pleasantly surprised by the Russia we experienced on this tour, so very clean and proudly displaying its culture and history. The people can seem a bit dour but a few words in their language generally invoke a smile and they were always accommodating. The team on the Rurik work hard to give you an insight into this part of Russia with a variety of excursions, food tastings, menus, briefings, lectures etc. which you can indulge in as much or as little as you please. This is backed by a high standard of service, a real desire to please and they look like they're having fun doing it too. I would thoroughly recommend this trip and if you're reading this before October 2014 I'd try and get on the Rurik whilst this team are together, you'd be hard pressed to find better.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking River and Ocean Cruises
• Read Waterways of the Tsars – Chapter 1: The Ship and The Stroganoff
• Read Waterways of the Tsars – Chapter 2: Moscow and Monty Python
• Read Waterways of the Tsars – Chapter 3: Uglich and Yaroslavl
• Read Waterways of the Tsars – Chapter 4: Mother Volga and The Cool Table