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Dave and Ruth Wood aboard a Russian cruiser, "The Aurora." Submitted photo

Wood Working: St. Petersburg: The good, the bad, and the costly

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

At last we reach St. Petersburg, the fabled Venice of the North, which Peter the Great built on a vast swamp, so that landlocked Russia might have a gateway to the Baltic.

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What a beautiful city! No skyscrapers and beautifully planned as any city in Europe.

It's made up of 1,101 islands and hundreds of bridges studded with a harmonious blend of western European and Russian architecture.

Our first bus tour takes us to the Nevsky Prospekt home of beautiful onion domed churches, including St. Isaac's Cathedral whose dome is gilded with 200 pounds of gold and can house 13,000 worshipers.

Then it was on to the Hermitage, where the art collection of 3,000,000 exhibits in 1,000 rooms, was begun by Catherine the Great, who apparently loved art as much as she did her lovers.

After an exhausting day, we returned to the ship, ate dinner and rushed off to the ballet, a performance of "Swan Lake" at The Palace Theatre built in 1801.

The performance was spotty and the usher made an ass of herself by applauding and stomping her feet when the audience wasn't responding to her liking. But the music was grand, and the fellow who danced the Jester role was spot on.

On the following day we took the bus to Pushkin, a village named after its famous author.

Inside Pushkin is Catherine's Palace, a huge complex where Nicholas II spent most of his time hiding from an increasingly hostile citizenry before being ignominiously sent to that basement in Ekaterinburg.

Once you see it, you begin to realize why the peasants revolted. The facade is two football fields long, powder blue punctuated by white columns and pilasters.

But that's not the half of it. There's a huge English garden, a French garden, an artificial lake and a huge neoclassical building that served as Peter the Great's sauna.

What is especially exciting about Catherine's palace is that it was burned to the ground by German air raids during World War II. To the communists' credit, no expense was spared to rebuild it exactly as it was before the war.

Today it's said to be the finest replica in the world. In high season 15,000 visitors come to wander through every day. The communists did the same thing in Warsaw, rebuilding it as it was before the Nazis ravished it.

Last stop of the day was the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the first buildings in St. Petersburg. Peter the Great lies buried here as well as the last ruling members of the Romanov family.

In the evening, after dinner, Viking Cruises provided one of the optional tours at extra cost, about $45, to see a folkloric show by the Russian folkloric ensemble. We passed on that.

On our last day before departure, I opted to take the Optional Canal Cruise, which was somewhat disappointing as it merely floated us by all the sites we had already seen. And then it was time for our final dinner.

In the morning we boarded buses to take us to our appointed flight times at Moscow's airport.

So it all turned out to be a good trip, filled with surprises (Moscow) and long sought after-fulfillment (St. Petersburg) and superb treatment (the food).

No tour, of course, is perfect. Here are a few caveats about the one we just took:

The trip over isn't exactly a picnic. To get the $850 we had to make two stops, Chicago and Stockholm, so we whiled away 27 hours between Minneapolis and our destination.

Once you sign up, Viking Cruises will attempt to sell you a drink package, which entitled you to two daily cocktails, unlimited wine, beer and mineral water for only $395 per person!

Everyone we talked to complained about such tactics. So we were glad we passed. We drank two cocktails a day, ordered wine with our meals and the total bill for both of us was about $200.

The long riverboat ride proved somewhat tedious and some of the stops we made, as in "Wisconsin Dells on the Volga," were needless. Most agreed a few more days in Moscow and St. Petersburg would have been preferable.

One item we needn't have worried about was our cabin. Our cabins were tiny but marvels of engineering featuring showers that worked, were cleaned every day, not to mention that two newspapers slipped under our door every morning, one international and one published right on our ship, the Peterhof.

Traffic in both Moscow and St. Petersburg is horrendous, worse I'd say than Beijing. So be prepared for long, slow bus rides into the inner cities.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9554.

See more photos in this week's print edition of the River Falls Journal.

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