St Petersburg was never designed to be visited by budget airlines. It’s not a city you can stroll through in a few hours, and it was never knowingly understated. A city laden with this much history, culture and extravagantly dominant architecture deserves much more.
And for my partner Carla and me, more comes in the form of a luxurious 12-night cruise some 3,000 nautical miles (around 3,400 miles) through the Baltics and northern Europe, archipelagos of more than 30,000 islands, stunning sunsets and, on dry land, breathtaking walks around some of the most picturesque towns you will see anywhere.
From the moment we board in Amsterdam, we step into another world, as we enter the Celebrity Constellation’s grand foyer with its marble staircase. We’re welcomed to our stateroom on the 12th deck by attendant Emanuel, who ensures we’re never left wanting as we sail from the Netherlands to Germany and on to Estonia, before reaching Russia.
On board, the traditional formal nights demanding black ties and cocktail dresses mix easily with the modern white decor of the Martini Bar, with its extravagant bartenders playing to the crowd each night, as we listen to the sounds of DJ Denkoff and the remarkable Lady Sax at the end of each day.
Leaving behind the 4metre waves of the North Sea which rocked us to sleep as we left Amsterdam, we watch from our balcony as the seas become increasingly calm, helping to create some stunning sunsets.
We power along at speeds of up to 24 knots on the 91,000-ton ship, whose horn blasts whenever smaller pleasure craft dare to cross her path.
And it is this dominance and luxury which is the perfect introduction to the opulence of St Petersburg.
Few cities have seen more war and revolution than St Petersburg, and if there’s any city which shows Russia’s complicated relationship with Europe then it is here.
Russia’s “window to the west”, designed by Italian architects and founded in 1703, was built on a swamp from scratch by Peter the Great, who promptly declared it the capital.
It remained as capital until 1919 when, in the wake of World War I, it was rechristened Petrograd. Petersburg simply sounded too German.
And as we’re driven to from the port along the impressive River Neva to our first stop, our guide Natalia explains how St Petersburg earned its latest moniker – the city of three names.
After just five years of being Petrograd, the name was changed to Leningrad, to honour the leading figure behind the 1917 Russian Revolution. Under the more liberal Gorbachev regime in 1991, some 70% of its residents backed a return to the original name, with many Russians simply referring to it as Piter.
Now the most cosmopolitan and European of Russia’s cities, St Petersburg – often known as the Venice of the North – is dominated by its network of rivers, bridges and canals.
And the bank of the River Neva, which runs through the heart of the city, is dominated by the Hermitage Museum in much the same way as the Louvre looms over the Seine in Paris.
We approach the bold green and white facade of the Winter Palace, the former official residence of the Russian Empire. It stretches some 250metres along the bank, but is just one of five buildings which make up the Hermitage.
It is linked with four other buildings – the original Little Hermitage, the Old and New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre – to form one of the largest art museums in the world.
Three hours fly by as we take in a wide array of exhibits – from the huge Kolyvan vase, which was put in place before the museum’s walls were erected around it, to the ancient Italian art in the Hall of Twenty Columns.
LEONARDO DA VINCI
Madonna with a Flower, one of the few surviving works of a young Leonardo da Vinci, and a collection of Rembrandt’s works, round off our first day in Russia.
After a night’s rest on the ship (British visitors need a visa to explore the city on their own) we rejoin Natalia as she takes us further out of the city to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, the former summer residence of the tsars.
Catherine the Great, with whom the Rococo-style palace is most often associated, wasn’t such a great fan of the place and halted plans to cover statues in its grounds with gold.
After lunch nearby – served with caviar and a shot of vodka – it’s on to see the grand palaces and gardens of nearby Peterhof.
The fountains and lower gardens of this Unesco World Heritage site, known as the Russian Versailles, are a real highlight of our trip.
Russia insists that cruise ships can dock in St Petersburg only if they stay for at least 48 hours, and as we sail back out to the Gulf of Finland at the end of our second day in Russia, we catch the tail end of the country’s White Nights, when the sun barely dips below the horizon, from the magnificent floor-to-ceiling window of the Constellation’s majestic dining room.
With the grand opulence of Russia behind us, we set sail for home, visiting the beautiful cities of Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen en route.
And slaloming through the islands which line the approach to Stockholm – many with just a holiday home on them – offers the perfect antidote to the dominance and supersize palaces of Russia.
Wesley Johnson was a guest of Celebrity Cruises, which offers a 12-night Scandinavia and Russia cruise from £1,549pp (based on two people sharing an interior stateroom). Price includes flights from London Heathrow, transfers and a 12-night cruise departing from Amsterdam (Holland) and calling at Copenhagen (Denmark) for an overnight stay, Fredericia (Denmark), Berlin (Warnemunde, Germany), Tallin (Muuga, Estonia), St Petersburg (Russia) for an overnight stay and Helsinki (Finland) before arriving into Stockholm (Sweden) for an overnight stay before the flight home; meals and entertainment on board the ship, all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Price based on May 16, 2015 departure.