Russia. Russia. Russia!!
First, I brought home a little souvenir to share. A Russian Matryoshka, or a Russian nesting doll. If you want to join the contest to win it, click HERE to enter.
So! We have been to Russia! In our quest to see all the countries of Europe, I was worried about how this one would happen. First, Russia is NOT part of the Schengen Agreement. What's the Schengen Agreement? It's the deal that certain European countries have made to relax their borders. You have to show your passport to get into Europe, but once you are here, you can drive and basically border jump all you want without ever showing your passport. That does NOT mean you don't have to have your passport with you. There can be random border checks so make sure you have it on your person. The Schengen Agreement is why with all the traveling we've done we only have one stamp in our passports. It's the stamp for Russia so it's still one pretty cool stamp. Do you have questions on traveling within the Schengen Area? Click here for more information.
When we booked our cruise it was less than two weeks out. Yeah, that's how we do things around here. By the seat of our pants. My good friend and traveling partner, Mrs. Point, started looking up the rules for applying for a visa to go to Russia. We read that the only way they will let you off of the boat was to either A- have the real Russian visa which can take weeks to get. Or B- have booked a tour with either the boat or a reputable tour company in St. Petersburg that would issue you a visa. We really didn't want to book a tour because they are expensive and we feel we can see and experience a place better on our own than with a tour guide. But then we looked up the steps to actually get a Russian visa. It goes something like this.
1- Decide you want to go to Russia.
2- Book a hotel or a tour group in Russia.
3- Wait for that hotel or tour group to send you an invitation to visit Russia. That's right my friends. Russia is a party that is by invitation only. There ain't no crashing that.
4- Once you have your invitation you can now apply for a visa at one of the many Russian embassys* through out the world.
*WARNING - We found out that the fees that go along with applying for a visa can vary widely from embassy to embassy. Read - whatever the official feels like charging you that day. And beware, Americans are known to have to pay more.
5- Fill out mounds of paperwork.
And the steps go on and on and on. There are like 16 steps. Some people will have to get insurance (separate from the insurance you already have). Some people will have to show bank statements (to show that you have the money to go home, they don't want you to stay there).
After reading the rules and seeing how long it was going to take to secure a Russian visa, we decided to book a tour just for our two families for the low, low price of around 800 American dollars (that's not a typo).
The company that we booked our tour with emailed us our visas to get off the boat and through Russian immigration. We sailed through (except for Matt, he got a couple of double takes with all the stamps and visas in his passport from extensive traveling in the Middle East) and met our tour guide right inside the cruise terminal.
Guess what our tour guide's name was? Really, I want you to guess.
Natasha! And the driver's name was Sasha! You don't get more Russian than that.
(Do you remember when I wanted to be a Russian Spy? Read about that here.) They had a large passenger van with air conditioning (thank heavens) and bottled water for us.
And we were off. Our first stop was the Peterhof Palace and gardens.
On our drive from the port to the palace we were glued to our windows. Natasha was giving us commentary over a loud speaker about the history of St. Petersburg and some of the things we were seeing. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great. Peter the Great ruled Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725. He instituted sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing Russia. He saw that for Russia to continue to grow, they would need a better port. He seized the land that surrounds present day St. Petersburg from Sweden and set out to build a great new capital for his growing kingdom, Russia.
The Peterhof Palace was built to be Peter's summer palace and a place for him to stay during his comings and goings to Western Europe.
The palace grounds and adjacent gardens were amazing! The palace is a buttercup yellow trimmed with white and topped with gold spires.
All around the palace are these intricate gardens and fountains with statues.
We were in line with a group of Asian tourists and while we took pictures of the palace, they took pictures of our fair and blonde children. I had heard about this, but this was new experience for my family. Alexander, my oldest and blondest, got tired of this and started holding his hand in front of his face saying "No pictures." We seriously felt like celebrities being hounded by the paparazzi. Our kids tried to capitalize on this picture taking and every time an Asian tourist snapped their picture, they would point to their hand and say "Give me money." (Much to my embarrassment.) The Asians, of course, had no idea what they were doing but they thought it was hysterical so they started holding their hands out and pointing to their palms. Needless to say, no money was exchanged for the photo taking. But somewhere, maybe in Japan, a tourist is showing a bunch of his friends pictures of my fair, white children and saying "Look what we saw in Russia!" Probably in Japanese, though.
We meandered down through the lower gardens and out towards where the palace grounds meet the Baltic Sea.
We were bit by a couple of Russian mosquitoes.
We were warned repeatedly by our tour guide, Natasha, and signs around about pickpocketing.
Does it strike anyone else as peculiar, or sad, that the bill the thief is taking is marked with the sign of the American dollar? Does this mean thieves only want American currency? (I don't know why, the Euro is worth more.) Does this mean that Americans are the only ones dumb enough to be victims of pickpocketing? Does this mean that Russians view us as hapless but happy (the guy is smiling) tourists that are too busy taking pictures to realize a guy in mask is standing behind us? Things to think about, my friends. Things to think about.
After exploring the grounds, it was time for the main attraction to start.
The cascading fountains. The anthem for St. Petersburg fired up on loud speakers.
And the fountains started up, filling the pools, sending streams of water to the next lower pool which would eventually flow in a canal out to the Baltic Sea.
Here is Matt, posing with a statue of Poseidon. I would have liked to see Matt pose in a loin cloth with a trident too, but he wasn't up for it.
Different sections of the garden had different themes. Up where the fountains were the gardens were designed in the French style.
These gardens down by the coast had a much more tropical feel to them.
After touring the gardens thoroughly (we kept all our American currency in our pockets thank you very much) it was time to head off to the next attraction.
Stay tuned to hear about our visit to the St. Petersburg metro and Soviet area metro stations, and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. And you definitely don't want to miss when I write about our tour guides strange view of Russian and world history (Stalin was great, Putin is great, and Russia has done no wrong and is the victim every time.)
PS Would you like to go to Russia? Would you be comfortable and safe traveling on your own or would you like a tour guide? Let me know!