Travel: On the crest of wave in St Petersbur

The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Picture: Wesley Johnson.
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Picture: Wesley Johnson.
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St Petersburg was never designed to be visited by budget airlines, writes Wesley Johnson.

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, battling archipelagos of 30,000-plus islands, stunning sunsets and breathtaking walks around some of the most picturesque and quaint cities we’ve experienced. OK, so it’s not exactly a battle!

Instead, it’s a magnificent cruise where, 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 our goal of 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 4m waves of the North Sea, which rocked us to sleep as we left Amsterdam, we watch from our balcony as the seas became increasingly millpond-like, as we travel east, helping to create some stunning sunsets.

Sitting high above other vessels, we power along at speeds of up to 24 knots on the 91,000-ton ship, which simply blasts its horn whenever smaller pleasure craft dare to cross its path.

And it is this dominance and luxury which is the perfect introduction to the opulence of St Petersburg.

As tensions between Russia, Europe and the UK escalate, 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’, built by Italian architects and founded in 1703, was built on a swamp from scratch by Peter the Great who, to the astonishment of many, promptly declared it the capital.

It remained as capital until 1919 when, in the wake of World War One, it was rechristened Petrograd, as Petersburg simply sounded too German.

And as we’re driven from the port along the impressive River Neva, which is criss-crossed with the equally impressive bridges which make up the city, to our first stop, our guide Natalia explains how St Petersburg went on to earn its latest moniker - the city of three names.

After just five years of being Petrograd, the city’s name was changed to Leningrad, to honour the leading figure behind the 1917 Russian Revolution.

And, when asked under the more liberal Gorbachev regime in 1991, some 70% of its population backed a return to its original name, with many Russians simply referring to it as Piter.

Now the most cosmopolitan and European-feeling of Russia’s cities, St Petersburg - often known as the Venice of the North - is dominated by its network of rivers 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.

As we approach the bold green and white facade of the Winter Palace, the former official residence of the Russian Empire, it stretches some 250m along the bank at 30m high - but is just one of five buildings which make up the Hermitage.

Its 60,000m2 floor space is linked with that of 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.

And with 16 years’ experience as a tour guide, Natalia guides us through the warren of collections as if she was showing us her own home.

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. Madonna with a Flower, one of the few surviving works of a young Leonardo da Vinci, and a collection of Rembrandt’s works, which Natalia highlights as one of the best in the world, 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 outside of an organised excursion - 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.

Hundreds of others gathered with us in the queue, which stretched out across the 325m length of the white and gold palace - but as Natalia regales us with stories of how Catherine the Great, with whom the Rococo-style palace is most often associated, wasn’t such a great fan of the summer residence and halted plans to cover statues in its grounds with gold, the crowds soon ease and we’re offered a brief glimpse of life inside its ornate rooms.

After lunch nearby - served with caviar and a shot of vodka - it’s on to see the grand palaces and gardens of nearby Peterhof.

Known as the ‘Russian Versailles’, the fountains and lower gardens of this Unesco World Heritage site are a real highlight of our trip.

We wander through the network of tree-lined paths from fountain to fountain, admiring the Chess Mountain, with its colourful dragons spitting water instead of fire.

With Russia insisting that cruise ships can only dock in St Petersburg if they agree to stay for at least two days, the former capital announces itself as the focus of our trip before we’ve even set off - and it doesn’t disappoint.

And as we sail back out in 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.

It’s in this room that we’re treated to some of the finest service we’ve enjoyed, with the maitre d’ Slagjana always finding us exactly the right seat for dinner, the sommelier Nyoman coming up with perfect recommendations for our tastes, and head chef Gavin Baxter and his team giving us such delights as saffron risotto, lobster tail flambeed at the table in front of us, and marvellous chateaubriand. Perfect.

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 30,000 or so islands which line the approach to Stockholm - many of which feature just a single building which serves as someone’s holiday home - offers the perfect antidote to the dominance and supersize palaces of Russia.

Daily updates from Captain Tasos Kafetzis, master of the Celebrity Constellation (or Connie to its fans), also set the tone for the ship’s staff, as he tells the 2,000-plus passengers he’s ordered the sun especially, jokes about performing donuts to turn the ship around, and assures us he’ll be putting the “pedal to the metal” to ensure as smooth a sailing as possible.

And he even takes time out to pose for photos offering “free hugs” as we disembark.

>TRAVEL FACTS

Wesley Johnson from the Press Association was a guest of Celebrity Cruises (0845 456 0523; www.celebritycruises.co.uk) who offer 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), Tallinn (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 onboard the ship, all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Price based on May 16, 2015 departure.