Visiting five European capitals, including the opulent St Petersburg, Jan Shure discovers why a cruise is the best way to get to the heart of the city
Gold leaf was everywhere, adorning St Petersburg’s pastelwashed Baroque architecture — quite a view to greet us from the veranda of our cruise ship suite. For regular cruisers, including myself, the facilities on board can mean that choosing the itinerary is sometimes secondary to the line and dates. But not this time. Having sailed the Med, the Caribbean and South America, my heart was set on the Baltic.
And with Seabourn’s luxurious smaller ships, you can often sail right into the centre of the spectacular cities rather than docking at the larger terminals on the fringes. On board the 650-foot Quest, that meant the jewel of Peter the Great’s empire was waiting to be explored as soon as we disembarked to St Petersburg’s English Embankment: with a pair of sturdy walking shoes, you could even visit many of the sights on foot if you wanted.
And what sights; the palaces and
A seven-night Baltic cruise costs from £4,500 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation, gratuities and all meals and drinks (except premium wines and spirits) from June 2330, 2018. Seabourn’s newest ship Ovation will be sailing the route in 2018. seabourn.com thoroughfares mark it out as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Intended to rival Paris or London when the Tsar ordered its construction in the early 18th century, these days it’s a lively modern city as well as a treasure trove of historic buildings, its pavements thronged with well-dressed locals and its roads jammed with gleaming cars.
Our three full days gave us enough time to experience its highlights too. Starting at St Nicholas Cathedral with its exterior of powder-blue and gold leaf, we waited for the Grand Choral Synagogue nearby to open its doors, welcoming visitors after morning service. One of the largest synagogues in Europe, it was consecrated in 1893 to serve the growing Jewish community.
Restored and reopened in 2003 it is now an official city monument as well as holding daily services and serving as a hub for communal activities.
The beauty of its exquisite interior lies in its symmetry, its elegant simplicity, its intricate chandeliers and in the play of light. The view through side windows should be of a blank wall but, instead, is a witty mural depicting the Western Wall.
You can even buy Russian dolls in the form of plump rabbis at the gift shop, along with the usual Judaica, plus there’s a kosher restaurant in the synagogue precincts.
Claiming the title of “Venice of the North”, St Petersburg is built on rivers and canals criss-crossed by more than 300 bridges, some of which rival those of Paris for elegance.
The gilt trip continues at the Peter and Paul Fortress, with its Russian Orthodox cathedral. The burial place of Tsars, its interior is so heavily embellished with gold leaf you almost need sunglasses to avoid the dazzle. The new Fabergé Museum housed in the Shuvalov Palace, is another treat. As well as being filled with exquisite artefacts, including nine of the famous eggs, every room in this dazzling former palace has been restored. But the jewel in St Petersburg’s rich crown is the magnificent Hermitage Museum; actually five museums within the former Winter Palace. Behind its Baroque exterior, the opulent salons contain so many Old Masters that the Rembrandts and Da Vincis outshine even the gilding.
The city’s centre is only the start of the splendour, with yet more palaces to explore on the outskirts, includ-
Sail up close to the historic skyline of St Petersburg along with its 19th century synagogue (right)