300 years | TheUnion.com

300 years

The Union StaffThe Hermitage Museum is expected to draw large crowds next spring during St. Petersburg's tricentennial celebration.
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(First of two articles)

It was a rain-free cruise of long days and short nights – all 13 of them – at the beginning of the latest German invasion of Russia.

The invader was the MS Deutschland, a 4-year-old luxury liner of German registry patterned after vessels of the Edwardian era and the Roaring ’20s, with 513 passengers and a crew of 260.

It was no accident that the ship’s manifest included a smattering of Americans. The Deutschland, flagship of Peter Deilmann Cruises, has coveted U.S. passengers for its Northern Europe runs ever since other lines, reacting to the events of 9/11, quietly deployed many of their ships to other routes.

The highlight of the first portion of the cruise was St. Petersburg, the former Russian capital. The city, beautiful but sometimes neglected, is spending a fortune to upgrade virtually every significant structure for its 300th anniversary next spring. The event will be celebrated in the weeks surrounding May 23, the city’s official birth date.

Known to its 5 million inhabitants simply as “Peter,” the city has endured three name changes. It changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd during World War I, when the Romanov dynasty was toppled. Seven years later, it became Leningrad. In 1991, the new Russian Parliament restored the original name.

As Leningrad, it suffered perhaps the most devastating 900 days in any city’s history at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. While it was badly damaged and some 1 million citizens lost their lives – mainly due to starvation – Leningrad did not fall.

The city was born in 1703, when workers laid the foundation for the Peter and Paul Fortress, Peter the Great’s main defense against enemy forces. Nine years later, St. Petersburg replaced Moscow as Russia’s capital. It was a reign that would last 206 years until 1918, when Moscow again became the capital.

Russia’s most dominant rulers, Peter (1689-1725) and Catherine II (1762-1796), led the reform movement that made St. Petersburg a world center of music, ballet and literature, but they weren’t alone. Such writers as Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, and composers Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky made lasting contributions.

As the tricentennial approaches, the city’s two most newsworthy natives are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Oxana Fedorova. Earlier this year, the 24-year-old Fedorova became the first Russian to win the Miss Universe competition. Four months later, she became the first to lose her crown. The Miss Universe organization said she was fired; she says she resigned.

As part of his plan to privatize the economy, Putin recently signed a measure allowing the sale of farmland for the first time since the czarist era. The bill prohibits foreigners from buying.

The Hermitage, completed in 1762 and winter home of the czars, is St. Petersburg’s most popular attraction. On a typical summer day, as many as 40,000 visitors view its 3 million paintings, including the 225 purchased by Catherine the Great in 1764.

Our Russian guide said that to see all the exhibits, limiting ourselves to one minute at each, we’d have to spend 17 years here.

Within a half-mile of the Hermitage are the bronze horseman statue of Peter the Great astride a rearing horse and the Admiralty, whose golden spire (painted black during World War II) hovers over Palace Square. Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Elysees, starts at the Admiralty. A mile away on this busy thoroughfare is Uprising Square. At the halfway point, you’ll pass the statue of Catherine.

Another landmark is St. Isaac’s Cathedral. On a clear day, its gold dome is visible for miles. During the gilding process, some 60 laborers died from inhaling mercury fumes.

The Metro, the world’s deepest subway system, is an inexpensive way to reach other attractions. It runs daily from 6 a.m. to midnight.

After a busy first day in St. Petersburg, most passengers returned to the ship for a drink and dinner in cafes with Teutonic names such as Berlin, Lili Marleen and Old Fritz and a show in the posh, red-velvet Emperors’ Ballroom. Others returned ashore for a tour of Jusupov Palace and a concert of melodies from famous operas.

The Deutschland cruise began and ended in Germany. To further strengthen Teutonic ties, we flew Lufthansa round trip from San Francisco. Early booking assured us adjacent window/aisle seats and saved us $638 on prevailing fares two months later. During our absence, we took advantage of the two-week care storage package introduced many years ago by the El Rancho Inn in Millbrae near San Francisco International Airport.

We made four stops before docking at St. Petersburg. The first was at Ronne, a port for Denmark’s Bornholm vacation area. Next came Gdansk, the Polish city that was occupied by Germany in 1939; then the Russian naval base at Pilau; and finally Riga, the capital of Latvia. With a population of 900,000, Riga is roughly twice the size of Gdansk. Its downtown centerpiece is the Freedom Monument known as Milda.

After two days in St. Petersburg, the Deutschland headed northwest across the Baltic toward Helsinki, the first of three Scandinavian capitals it would visit. Many of the passengers gathered on deck to gaze in awe as the red sun slowly sank into the sea. It was 11 p.m. The sun would rise again in seven hours.

For more information, call Peter Deilmann Cruises (800) 348-8287; Russian National Tourist Office (877) 221-7120; Scandinavian Tourist Boards (212) 885-9700; Lufthansa Airlines (800) 645-3880; Best Western El Rancho Inn (800) 826-5500.

Bob Richelson lives in Penn Valley.

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