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Catherines Palace photoIn 1963, the thrilling 007 film From Russia with Love debuted with much fanfare and. although the iconic Scotsman Sean Connery did not appear during a recent Russian cruise aboard the MS Leo Tolstoy which sailed from St. Petersburg to Moscow, adventurous travelers from 14 different countries shared the experience in discovering this historic region. The first morning tour began as passengers followed a knowledgeable 20 year old Russian guide and university student onto the awaiting Mercedes bus for a taste of St. Petersburg. Driving along through the city’s exceptionally beautifully downtown area, its 2003 facelift having injected it with a new life, the grand architecture of its landmark buildings restored to their original glory awed all viewers. Well tended lush parks and beds of brightly colored flowers, monuments, gilded domes and statues, a variety of architecture from the ornate pale green, gold and white baroque of the world renowned Hermitage Museum to modern western style hotels, cafes and trendy shops all contribute to the beauty of St. Petersburg. Posh Nevsky Prospect, the main boulevard, the Beverly Hills of St. Petersburg drew the city’s celebrities to take up residence. Palace Square centered by a 154 foot column commemorating Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s army remains a popular gathering place. A variety of handsome bridges span the cities canals and Neva River. A popular stop, St. Isaac’s Square, offers a fine view of the impressive St. Isaac’s cathedral which took more than 40 years to complete. Gold leaf covers one of the world’s largest domes with majestic 114 ton granite Corinthian columns gracing the entrance.

Peterhof Palace Russia River Cruise photoA one hour excursion via hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace known as the “Russian Versailles,” on the shores of the Gulf of Finland is a must see. Peterhof, the brainchild of Peter the Great, where construction begun in 1715, features astoundingly beautiful gardens, elaborate fountains and opulent palaces. Peter was always trying to keep up with the French. Although the Nazi occupation of the complex during WWII caused severe damage, Peterhof has been completely restored to its original grandeur and currently houses many of its original treasures including crystal chandeliers and paintings which were fortunately carried away for safekeeping during the war. The main palace overlooks the tumbling waters of the impressive Grand Cascade, the largest of 150 gold embellished elaborate fountains in the 2,500 acre park.

Leo Tolstoy AMA Waterways Cruise Ship photoAnother outstanding tour took Tolstoy passengers to the renowned Hermitage revealing the treasures of one of the world’s oldest, largest and most preeminent museums. Founded by Catherine the Great, the museum consists of a complex of six buildings including the former Winter Palace. The opulent rooms reflect the lifestyle of the imperial regime with gilded columns and crystal chandeliers abounding. It houses nearly three million works of art including the largest collection of paintings in the world with representative works by such renowned artists as Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, Goya, Raphael, da Vinci, Matisse and van Gogh. The Malachite Room awed visitors with two tons of the semi-precious green stone fashioned into a single sculpture. Days could easily be spent perusing the rooms of this colossal museum.

Another one of St. Petersburg’s most renowned landmarks, also designed by Peter the Great, the Peter and Paul fortress stands on the banks of the Neva River. From a distance, one can see the gold leaf spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the most dominant structure within the fortress. The opulent interior, jammed with as much gold as with visitors, is the burial site of Peter and most of his successors including the Romanovs. The fortress also housed a prison where Peter the Great’s own son Alexis spent his last days in the dungeons before being executed. Generations of political prisoners followed including Trotsky, Gorky, Dostoyevsky and Lenin’s older brother, Alexander.

Aa visit to Catherine’s Palace & Park (not Catherine the Great) began with a band performing outside the elaborate entrance gates. The Rococo style edifice and lavish interior of this royal summer residence includes, what is known in some circles as the Ninth Wonder of the World, the prized Amber Room. Although WWII bombings destroyed much of the palace and its contents they have been faithfully reconstructed from photographs. The whereabouts of what comprised the original Amber Room remain a mystery.

Time spent aboard the Tolstoy offered passengers an opportunity to share experiences and impressions of St. Petersburg. The ship’s learned guest speakers regularly imparted knowledge and insight into the history of this great city, its iconic treasures such as the Faberge eggs and Russian nest dolls and its music as the ship continued on its voyage to Moscow.
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These articles are copyrighted and may not be copied or reprinted without permission. Photos copyright Valerie Summers. Valerie is Editor of the Southern California Guide

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