Tuesday May 17 we docked at 4:00am so downtown Saint Petersburg that people walking on the sidewalk could see into our suite. We were a few minutes walk from the Hermitage Museum.

After clearing immigration (you need a visa to enter Russia, unless you have arranged private escorted tours like we had), we were met by Slava, our driver, who for the next three days would take us everywhere in a large white Mercedes Benz. Marina, an Art History professor at Saint Petersburg university, who used to work at the Hermitage, was our very knowledgeable guide.

Having our priorities straight, we went to the Hermitage Museum. With over three and a half million pieces of art in its collection, although only less than 5% are in public exhibition, it is still too much to see in a day. As a matter of fact, if you could spend 30 seconds in front of each piece, and made it your full time job, you would need over 15 years to see the full collection, or 36 weeks for the works in exhibition. What would you see? Works by Raphael, Leonardo, Michel Angelo, Rubens, El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Rembrandt… you get the point.

I had been in the Hermitage a few years before, and I do not remember almost any of the works I saw this time. It is as if it was a completely different collection.

It was very nice to not have to stand in a long line, entering through a side door with Marina, who used to work there. She led us very efficiently in a way that avoided the crowds of the otherwise packed museum. Even more of a surprise is the fact that 6 months ago they moved the Impressionist collection to another building across the Dvortzovaya square, and the only sign at the door says “General Staff Building” (because the building used to be the General Staff Quarters). The very nicely renovated building holds an incredible collection of works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Seurat, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin, Gauguin…

After the overdose (not really, never in fact) of art, Slava drove us around the city, while Marina told us little anecdotes about its many famous inhabitants, like the way Tchaikovsky’s friends used to party, or why “drinking” is symbolized by flicking your neck with the index finger.

Of course we stopped at the Church of the Spilled Blood, and she told us all about the story, construction, use and symbolism of that particular church. I still find it delightfully ironic that this church used to be the Museum of Religions and Atheism.

We went back to the ship for a quick late lunch, to shower and change for “An Intimate Evening at Catherine’s Palace”.

My wife surprised me by arranging a private evening visit to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, which is usually not accessible to the public after hours.

After an hour ride to Pushkin, we were greeted by the Royal Guards in the palace’s courtyard. A guide showed us, using a cool wireless headset to allow us complete freedom, the Romanov’s portrait collection, private chambers, and the Golden Suite, with the famous Amber Room, once considered the Eighth Wonder of the World (where normally photography is not allowed, but we were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted). In one of the rooms a flute player delighted us as we passed by. In another one, live music from a harpsichord. Anachronistic fairytale? Corny? In any case it was delightful and a real pleasure to be able to visit the Palace without masses of people surrounding you.

In the Throne Room we enjoyed a champagne reception. As the sun set, flooding the room with a warm amber light that made all the artificial light and gold plating pale in comparison, a chamber orchestra masterfully played for us pieces by Vivaldi (“Sinfonia in G Major”), Mozart (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”), Strauss (“Imperial Waltz”), Mascagni (“Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo”). To top it off, Angelina Bychkova entered the room and sang for us a couple arias by Giordano (“Caro Mio Ben”) and Verdi (“Siciliana”), and a waltz by Arditi (“Il Bacio”). What a treat!

After the musical surprise, we descended the main staircase to the park, where Imperial Guards paraded on our way out.