The approach to St Petersburg was not so picturesque as the Scandinavian ports, and as we travelled up the Neva I wondered which St Petersburg we would find. The beautiful landscaped city built by Peter the great, which had figured in the historical novels I had read, or the grey rather dismal Soviet city we had seen in spy films.

We docked at 8am on Wednesday alongside a rather utilitarian concrete building. We had been warned that we were not allowed to take photographs of the docks, and knew that disembarkation was stricter than the other ports we visited. As we did not have individual visas, we could only go ashore as part of an organised tour, so we had arranged one tour for each day. Some of the more stalwart travellers had arranged three tours for each day, but we knew our limits 🙂

The tour we chose was to the Yusupov Palace and canal tour in the afternoon. This is the palace where Rasputin was murdered.

We had to have our passports stamped, hand in a photocopy of the details and two copies of our details. The presiding officer was exactly as we imagined, unsmiling and stern faced, so it was with an amount of trepidation we went to our coach!

The guide was completely different, a slim, attractive and charming young lady. She seemed a little diffident, but was very knowledgable about her subject.

We drove out from the docks through grey buildings and then, suddenly we were in a different world of elegant buildings, wide boulevards, canals and pastel coloured buildings with gilded roofs and pedimenta.

In the museum we were met by the kind of minder I had imagined, unsmiling, plain, bulky and officious. She inspected us and sent some of the party down to leave their bulky jackets in the cloakroom and then we waited for our turn to proceed.

Everything was opulent, from the carved ceilings to the painted walls, from the gilded furniture to the magnificent chandeliers (some containing diamonds and sapphires!)

JW  nearly created an international incident when he stepped back to photograph the waxwork image of the plotters for Rasputin’s murder, and brushed against a marble column. The alarms  went off and the minder rushed in and let loose a spate of Russian at our guide, who blushed and asked us politely to be careful not to touch anything!

It was interesting to hear the story of Rasputin from a Russian point of view. I had always thought he was a rather villainous character, but, to the guide he seems to have been a misunderstood victim of the ruling party. They certainly made sure that he died as they poisoned him, stabbed him, shot him and drowned him!

It was an outstanding dislay of opulence, but it was almost too much and I was quite glad to get into the open air and board a boat for a leisurely tour of the city from the canals.

Canal tourist boats

Canal tourist boats

We marvelled at the beautiful buildings and the amount of work that had been done to restore the city to its former glory.

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

This fortress has a rather bloody history. Hundreds of forced labourers died in its building and political prisoners were tortured here. It also has a fine cathedral which is the final resting place of the Czars (including  the last Czar,Nicholas, whose remains  were brought there in 1998)

golden roofs glinting in the sunshine

golden roofs glinting in the sunshine

We returned to the ship, our heads spinning with all the sights we had seen, trying to adjust our ideas of the dour, grey Russia of spy stories, to this new vision of a fairytale  city peopled by (mostly) elegant and beautiful folk, and then JW  inadvertently nearly caused another incident.

We had to go back through passport control, JW thought he only had to give in one of the copies of the landing card, which he did. Being a bit deaf, he did not hear the barked order for his other card and  passed through quite blithely. She leapt to her feet, yelling, “Oy!”

I was quite glad to get him safely back on board 🙂