From St. Petersburg….With Love….Mostly.

September 6, 2008 -

John Heald

I doubt Mr. and Mrs. Coppertone are very happy today as we have gone “all Baltic” here again in the Baltic. It’s as grey – just like most of the 1960’s Soviet apartment blocks that still stand, reminding those of the way things used to be. The temperature is struggling to go past 60 degrees and, compared to yesterday weather, it’s a bit yucky. So, this is our last time here in Russia…….what do I think of the place?…..mmmmmm……well, let’s have a chat.

First of all the disappointments.

Well, I guess I was surprised at the ummmm…….and I can’t think of a better word ……….”cold” reception we received from the port and the local people. Maybe I am being a bit fussy, but in every other port, from the Danes to the brilliant Germans in Warnemunde, there was a “first call ” celebration. ………in fact, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Germans made every call a “first call.”

Now, you may be asking yourself why I didn’t say something about this to the port authorities or the local government officials. Well, that would be because a few years ago a cruise director for Holland America Line made a similar complaint.

This obviously displeased the Russians because the following morning the cruise director was found buried head-down in a pile of garbage, with just his feet sticking out. And that’s the thing about Russians. We wear a No Fear T-shirt — they wear the look in their eyes.

And that’s why I chose not to laugh at their swimming trunks when they sail onboard. However, on the blog I don’t mind telling you they were hilarious. Like Speedos but without the style, and a lot tighter.
Still, they were better dressed than their wives. Elsewhere in the world the thong bathing suit is the preserve of my mate Alan or size 0 supermodels. In Russia it is also worn by people who are eight tons or 80 years old.

Now I’m told by my mate Alan that there are some extremely beautiful Russian girls. But obviously they’re all on his computer, because the ones in St. Petersburg were the shape of one of those Russian dolls and have the same personality. Take the immigration officer I dealt with yesterday. She looked like she’d been to Chernobyl for her vacation……scary was not the word. She made no effort to smile and was as cold as a Siberian winter. The only time she communicated was when she let out a satisfying grunt as she devoured three Danish pastries all at the same time.

Obviously I am overstating this a little but the basic ingredients are exactly as I described. And this also is the case with the tour guides. They are all very pleasant, brilliantly knowledgeable and there is nobody better to show you the city. However, after one or two calls the shore excursion manager and I realized that we needed to pre-warn the guests that, unlike other guides, the Russians were not going to smile, laugh and crack the odd joke. Warning the guests ahead of time has drastically reduced the number of comments where previously guests had mentioned that compared to say the guides in Denmark or Germany; they were a little “icy.”

Now, I am not going to mention the immigration issues, this has been well documented and, even if I do say so myself, I think we have the distribution of guests on Carnival excursions and private tours down to a fine art. The waiting time in line is never more than 15 minutes for Carnival excursion guests and 20 minutes for private tours. And, as I have recapitulated many times, the rewards of this wait are just indescribable.

Basically, St. Petersburg is the best port of call, by a long way. There is no city like it and the Carnival Splendor and, next year, Carnival Liberty will be your time machine. We will take you back to the days of the tsars and tsarinas and WWII when, under its old name of Leningrad, the city was under siege for two years and over a million people died………..mostly from starvation.

Then the remnants of the days of Lenin, Stalin and the one with the funny oil patch on his head will be up close and personal as the last throws of communism will be there for all to see.

This comes as you drive through the suburbs past the old cars and faceless grey buildings where some people still have to queue for a loaf of bread. You see, in Russia, there is no middle class………’s the haves and the have nots, although there seem to be a just as many haves these days. You can see them everywhere stepping out of their big Mercedes and Hummers under the watchful eyes of ex-KGB bodyguards who have tattoos of a bloody axe on their forehead.

Russians drive with a terrifyingly self-destructive ambition. All the cars are the same color, sprayed with a cement-grey, grimy antifreeze, and road filth. It’s as if the dirt were still staunchly communist — painting Mercedes, Ladas, Skodas and Range Rovers the same militant color-of-Mother-Russia muck.

It’s almost irresistible not to go back to the Russian doll thingy when describing the people…… know…….the dolls-within-dolls, the tourist’s gift. In fact there are now only two dolls, a fat rich doll and a poor thin doll. Perhaps a third one: the rich doll’s bodyguard. The amount of cash washing round Russia is astronomical, inconceivable even. It’s divvied out among a tiny sliver of the population whose eye for the massively expensive are turning the country into Dubaiski.

The restaurants we use in St. Petersburg are actually quite funny. There are gaudier, with more camp and flash than Richard Simmons’ underpants.

The ship organized tours of seven or more hours will feature lunch in restaurants oozing with gold ornaments and massive sterling silver cutlery. You will be welcomed with a glass of vodka which you should drink in one shot…..not do so is considered rude. Then and still before any food is served you are given a glass of Russian champagne. Your guide will make a toast and again she will explain that Russian tradition states that you must drink this glass again….in one long gulp.

So you have had a shot of vodka and a huge glass of champagne all in five minutes. The reason they do this is because the food is crap………….and you will be so drunk that you won’t care that you are eating ratovan — a traditional Russian dish which as the names says…… rat……..that has been run over…… a van.

Of course, I am joking. The food is surprisingly excellent and will feature a local soup which is delicious and that’s followed by a big potato salad and either chicken or fish with lots of spice…….it’s superb and we have had nothing but excellent remarks on the tours food stops.

So, what tour should you take? What should you see?

Well, the Grand Tour is of course an option and one that 1,000 people take each and every time we come here. This is the best of everything and over the two days you will visit most of the major sites. This still allows time in the evening to take in an evening concert at Catherine Palace with dinner in Pushkin or our most popular tour ………sitting in the national theatre watching the very thin women and men with pieces of fruit shoved down the front of their tights…….or to give them their proper name……The St. Petersburg National Ballet Company perform……………Swan Lake…………it’s truly incomparable.

However you mix your tours you must see the top five which are:

All of the above is what makes St. Petersburg a must on your bucket list. It’s another country, mostly living in another time, still struggling with itself to find its true identity. St. Petersburg is a living version of a Tom Clancy novel and I absolutely love it. The city is as intense as putting Ben-Gay on your private parts and the grayness is everywhere, even the stray dogs that nibble on the left over grey food……. are grey.

The air is sulfurous, thick and metallic. It pricks the eye and sours your throat. St. Petersburg though has power. Putin was born here and, as you walk around the buildings and palaces of yesterday, you can still feel the awesome power the country still has today. St. Petersburg is magnetic, mesmerizing and is a place anyone who visits …..will never forget.

Here are some photos of the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood taken by Heidi today.

Here are some photos from Inside the Russian Museum

Rolls Royce Phantom, bit different to yesterday’s Yellow Lada

Wherever you walk though there are reminders of the “Cold War.” Men will try and sell you old Soviet clothing, coins, hats and caviar (which is actually rabbit droppings in oil) all from a time where war………….could have been just around the corner.

War is hell, of course, but think about this — jet planes were built not so you could go to Las Vegas for the weekend but because Germany needed a faster fighter.

Radar was developed not so you could land more safely at JFK but because we needed to find the submarines under the water and the planes who were about to drop the good news on good old London town. The world’s first electronic computer was built at Bletchley Park in the UK, not so some spotty youth could spend his afternoon shooting zombies, but to crack German codes
U-boat periscopes in the middle of the Atlantic. Almost everything we take for granted today came from war. And the war that gave us more than anything else was the 50-year standoff between Russia and America.

When Russia launched Sputnik 50 years ago, it was nothing more than a small radio, but the beeps it transmitted, when translated, told the listening world: “This is Russia and we’d like you all to know that our East German scientists are a hell of a lot better than America’s West German scientists.”
America said “bugger this” and set up NASA, found billions to finance it, and embarked on a program that would prove the Russians, er, right. Having been the first to orbit the world, they became the first to put a dog up there, and then a man.

The “space race” became what really ought to have been known as “the ego war.” And it was brilliant. Because, unlike in other wars, casualties were restricted to just 22 astronauts and 70 ground personnel, and the benefits to the rest of us were immense. As America’s German boffins struggled to outdo Russia’s German boffins, we got golf clubs made from metal that can remember what sort of shape it’s supposed to be.

And people with heart defects got a small vascular pump based on the fuel pumps used in the shuttle. We got the ability to track hurricanes, satellite navigation, live basketball matches played on the other side of the world, scratch-resistant lenses in our sunglasses, solar panels and flat-screen televisions. When a doctor takes your blood pressure, he uses a system devised by NASA for monitoring the heart rate of its first man in space, Alan Sheppard and the first dog in space ………German Sheppard.

And then the Russians decided to give up, so now it’s all gone wrong. NASA’s astronauts have stopped pushing the outside of the envelope and keep busy instead by getting drunk and trying to murder one another. Space is run by the infernal health-and-safety industry, which won’t let a brave young test pilot go up there if there’s even the slightest concern that he might not come back again. Space exploration is for the benefit only of shareholders, and programs are run and operated by the lowest bidders.

And I always think to myself: that’s brilliant. But where would we be if Russia and America were still at one another’s throats? Who knows, they might have come back with a cure for the common cold, a universal socket, and Eye Pod earpieces that don’t get all tangled up.

Well, as we know today’s relationship between Russia and America is similar to that of the Cold War…….lots of arguing…….lots of flag waiving and slamming of doors and, who knows, we may be heading for another chilly stand off. And while I don’t want this to happen, the one good thing would be that the space race would start again. It means we can go back to the good old days……………… It means we can go to the stars.

Maybe NASA will need more astronauts and history professors and I would like therefore to volunteer someone………..Captain Rude who is the perfect person to bugger off to explore Mars, Venus and be the first person to land on the planet named after him……………….Uranus.
пожелание доброй ночи

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Johnov and Heidiov

Hi, I’m John, and this is my blog. So please don’t mistake my opinions — or those of my dear friends, fans or commenters — for those of Carnival Cruise Line or Carnival Corporation. My apologies in advance for anything I may say that upsets you, but this disclaimer covers Carnival and puts the blame directly on me………….. bugger.