One of our Best of St. Petersburg, Tallinn & Helsinki tours was in town, so we decided to join them for the day. With a wonderful local guide, we rode the bus 15 miles to the town of Pushkin and a cluster of over-the-top-opulent Romanov palaces called the Czar’s Village (Tsarskoye Selo). This gorgeous ensemble of residences, pavilions, and gardens was born shortly after St. Petersburg, when Peter the Great’s wife Catherine founded a church and began erecting palaces here. Photos by Trish Feaster, The Travelphile.com.
During the second half of the 18th century, Peter’s heirs built the most impressive building at Czar’s Village: the grand Catherine Palace. Recently restored, like so much of St. Petersburg, it absolutely sparkles. Unfortunately, this is one palace that seems efficient and workable only for groups or individuals with a local guide. They give the lowest ticket priority and the last entry times to individual tourists.
I love to pop in on Rick Steves tour groups as I travel. I’ve probably crossed paths with a dozen in the last two months. I got to be an honorary member for a group shot on the grounds of Czarina Catherine’s palace. The group saved their best faces for my shot.
At Europe Through the Back Door, we produce souvenir patches that many of our tour members enjoy collecting. With this particular tour group, the average number of Rick Steves tours people had taken was five to six. This woman, with “only” three of our patches, was a relative newbie. We’re so thankful for the passionate following we have among our tour members. And when I meet these loyal travelers, I’m reminded that they have high expectations for our tours. And I have high expectations for my staff to consistently exceed those high expectations…and they do.
These days, when you tour a big, crowded palace or museum with a commotion of tour groups and guides all coming together, the “whisper system” is a very good investment. A guide can talk softly into the microphone and the entire group (including me on this day) can wander through the crowded halls, immersed in all the glittering art, and hear everything — without having to scramble to get close enough to the guide to catch what she’s saying. With my guidebook, camera, and “whisper system” earpiece, I am one well-equipped tourist.
Just like everyone mobs the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, people come to the Catherine Palace mostly to see the Amber Room. In a sumptuous and sprawling palace, this room stands out as a riot of gilded panels, embedded with amber and slathered with mirrors. Like the rest of the palace, the Amber Room had to be restored after World War II. The restoration was made possible, in part, by funds donated by German taxpayers — whose grandfathers caused the damage.
It was a hot, hot day, and on the way home from the Catherine Palace, our bus driver stopped at a big Soviet-era square where hundreds of kids were enjoying buckets of fun with the fountains.
Watching the fun on this square, and dodging lots of water (as tourists were fair game for these rollicking kids), I was struck by how, throughout the world, the laughter of happy children sounds exactly the same.
Back at our tour group’s hotel, I enjoyed shooting a group selfie. After spending a day with our tour, I was impressed by how well-organized it was, the quality of our local guide, and how much fun the tour members were having. St. Petersburg is a new destination for ETBD, and I’m proud that our tour program includes it.