Subject: Scandinavia and St. Petersburg - Part 1 (St. Petersburg) (long)
Hi Ziners, Just got back from 20 days' Scandinavian and St. Petersburg trip with an organized tour. We spent 4 nights at St. Petersburg as a pre-trip to Scandinavia. This part covers the St. Petersburg leg.

Tour group: The main tour consists of 38 members, 30 of them went to St. Petersburg as a pre-trip. We had a program director from Sweden who flew to Helsinki to wait for our flight from JFK and then flew to St. Petersburg with us. She stayed with us the whole 20 days. In St. Petersburg we had a local guide named Larisa, and a driver for the Mercedes bus that drove us around for the 4 days.

Lodging: Our hotel was at Pulkovskaya Hotel, a 4-star hotel catering to bus tours. The hotel is 3 miles from the airport and 7 miles from city center, so it was impossible for any of us to take a walk in city center independently. All of our meals in St. Petersburg were included. Two of the half-day tours were optional, but every one signed up anyway because it was not easy to go sight-seeing by our selves.

Money: We were advised to bring US dollars in cash for St. Petersburg. We paid optional tours in US$, and paid driver and local guide tips in US$. Each person changed about $20 worth of US cash into rouble at the hotel. The exchagne rate at the hotel was US $1 = R26.6. After check-in, the program director walked with us to a super market near the hotel to buy bottled water (for drinking and for brushing teeth). My husband and I also used the hotel's computer at the business center for internet access, the fee was 80 Rouble for every 30 minutes, not bad.

Food : Russian food was plan, even the beef Stroganoff did not look familiar. We passed Count Stroganoff's pink palace in St. Petersburg. The tour guide said Count Stroganoff had bad teeth, that's why his cook invented beef Stroganoff, so that it was easy for him to chew.

Pickpocket: There are at all tourists area, that was why our guide did not let us take a walk on Nevsky Prospekt one day after having lunch at a restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt across from the Kazan Cathedral. Several of us skipped tea/coffee and took a 5-minute walk anyway.

Sight: 1) The winter palace - an impressive sight looking at it from Vasilyevski island across the Neva river. 2) Peterhof with fountains - Peterhof is the name of the town where Petrodvoretz palace is located. It is 30 km west of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. The fountains and gardens were more beautiful than Versailles in my opinion. We did not get to see the inside of the Petrodvoretz palace, we were guided to see the interior of a smaller palace on the same gound used by Catherine the Great. The reason we did not see the Petrodvoretz palace, according to our guide, is because we were going to see Catherine Palace the next day anyway, and the interior of the Catherine Palace is more beautiful than the Petrodvoretz palace. The gold on the sculptured fountians were reguilded two years ago just before President Bush's visit. Not to be missed. 3) Catherine Palace : the palace with the most gold one has ever seen. This palace was named after Peter the Great's 2nd wife Catherine I. The town where Catherine palace is located used to be know as "Tsarskoe Selo" (The Czars Village), later it was renamed to Pushkin. Elizabeth I, Peter the Great's daughter, was responsible for the lavish interior. There is also an amber room in this palace. The palace opens at 10 am to the public, our tour operator paid extra money for our group to be admitted at 9:30 am before the crowd, but every tour operator were doing the same, so when we arrived at 9:30, there were already several buses there. Not to be missed. 4) Hermitage museum - crowded with tour groups from all over the world. Had a feeling as if I was in the Lourve. 5) Canal/Neva river cruise and Yusupov Palace - I did not care much about the palace where Rasputin was murdered, but I enjoyed the Neva river cruise. (The weather was sunny, but the temperature was in the low 50's) 6) St. Isaac's Cathedral - beautiful inside. 7)Church on Spilled Blood - we only saw it from the outside. 8)Peter & Paul Fortress - the bus dropped us at the Peter & Paul Cathedral's entrance, so we missed the sight of the spire when approaching on foot. A small cathedral crowded with tour groups.

Entertainment: On the last night before our departure, we were offered a $65 option to see "Swan Lake" at Alexandrinsky Theater. I had print out of the show schedule from St. Pertersburg's Billboard: tm with me. I wanted to go to Mariinsky Theater but it was showing a modern ballet (The Legend of Love) which I have no idea what it was about. In the end I bought my own tickets from the hotel to see Carmen opera at the Mussorgsky Theater, which turned out to be not so great since the theater is plan and the stage was not big and the chair was not comfortable. The other group memebers who went to Alexandrinsky Theater also said the theater is old and the chairs are not comfortable. Therefore, in conclusion, if you have a a chance to see a ballet or opera, choose to go to the Mariinsky Theater.

Mei-Ching (Massachusetts)