Pictured above outside Catherine Palace, St Petersburg is Solent Richard with Julia, our exceptional Alla Tours guide.
Prior to our visit to St Petersburg the name Alla Tours had come to my attention, mainly through the Q&A pages of www.cruise.co.uk . Alla Tours have a very informative and easy to navigate website www.alla-tour.com/tours
My wife and I had originally opted for a private tour with Alla though, during the course of our enquiries, we had mentioned to them that we would be perfectly happy to share with one other non-smoking couple. Some weeks prior to our departure Alla contacted us to say that one such couple wished to join us: effectively almost halving the cost.
We were visiting St Petersburg as part of a Baltic Cruise on board the P&O ship Arcadia.
On the day of arrival we were first off the ship’s centre gangway and effectively first through the Russian immigration check. Alla had advised us that we required our UK passports, a photocopy of the personal details page of the passport, and a printed copy of their tour confirmation: which acted as our Entry Visa. (more about this at the end)
Once through immigration a member of Alla Tours staff was waiting to greet us and ushered us promptly into a very luxurious Mercedes people carrier. We were on our way well before any other tour, local or ships. From our berth to the port gates was a distance of some 2 miles.
Our first stop was an impromptu visit to the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas, known locally as ‘ the Sailors’ Cathedral. With it’s golden Baroque spires, blue facade and unique bell tower, it is a remarkably beautiful Cathedral and ‘off the normal track’ of tour coaches.
We then headed for Senate Square, the location of both St Isaac’s cathedral and the monument to Peter the Great. This monument is reputed to be the first monument unveiled in Russia and is often referred to as The Bronze Horseman. In the background to the Square is St Isaac’s Cathedral, the fourth largest cupola cathedral in the world. Your guide will give you a tour of this fine architectural monument of the 19th century which is capable of accommodating around 10,000 people.
Next we moved to Vasilievsky Island and some excellent photo opportunities of the Hermitage (from across the River Neva), the former Stock Exchange (now a naval and maritime museum), and the Rostral columns. These two columns were originally intended to serve as beacons and were originally topped by a light in the form of a brazier. The braziers have now been replaced with gas lights that continue to be lit on ceremonial occasions.
The Hermitage (Winter Palace) from across the Neva
While also taking the opportunity to see the Rostal Columns, one of which is illustrated here
No visit to St Petersburg would be complete for Naval and historical buffs unless the cruiser Aurora was included. She continues to be a symbol of the communist revolution and a shot from her bows signalled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, now more popularly known as the Hermitage Museum.
and the Nakhimov Naval School, literally just across the road from the cruiser Aurora…
…which was of great interest to us as retired Naval Officers.
Next on our itinerary were visits to two of the highlights of a St Petersburg: Catherine Palace and Peterhof.
It was here that the advantage of a small group came into its own. Despite large queues of coach passengers Alla are able to gain immediate entrance to the majority of venues. The ability to do this can literally save hours of queuing.
A further advantage of using companies like Alla is that the return journey from Peterhof is made by hydrofoil: our transport having been dispatched back much earlier. We were met at the hydrofoil disembarkation pier near the Hermitage and returned to the ship just before 6.00pm.
The evening saw us taking a ship’s excursion to the ballet. This was operated by Denrus, another local tour company. The ballet was of course Swan Lake and was performed at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. It was an excellent evening and good value for money. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, the Conservatoire happily provided some live props…
Day Two of our visit
Day two was again an early start as we headed for the Peter and Paul Fortress which, amongst other places of interest, is the home of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, and the St Petersburg Mint. The Cathedral is where you will see the tombs of the Russian Emperors. Your guide will tell you the history of the Russian Imperial house of Romanov, starting from the time of Peter the Great and finishing with the sad story of the last Romanovs � Nicholas II, Alexandra and their children.
Peter and Paul Fortress is a bastion like area and, in reality, a whole day could be spent in this area, of St Petersburg, alone.
The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul
The tomb containing the remains of Tsar Nicholas II
The St. Petersburg Mint…
…and a friendly chat with Peter the Great…
One advance request I had made to Alla Tours was to programme in a lunch visit to St Petersburg’s famous Stolle Pie Shop. No visit to St Petersburg would be complete without sampling these pies.
The greater part of the afternoon was taken up with a tour of The Hermitage Museum. Again Alla Tours came up trumps with immaculate timing and again, being a small group, we had immediate entry without the necessity to queue. The Hermitage is indeed an amazing collection of art and houses the works of some of Europe’s finest artists. As the former Winter palace it was once the home of the Russian Emperors and the state rooms are something to behold.
Following our visit to the Hermitage there remained enough time for a visit to the equally as famous Church of the Spilled Blood was also programmed in…
Alla Tours returned us in sufficient time for the ships departure and as a very good gesture presented each couple with their own Alla produced DVD of the history and sites of St Petersburg.
So what are the advantages of using a company like Alla Tours? There are many but for us the most important one was being able to see a considerable amount more of St Petersburg than we could have expected by using a ship’s excursion. The main factor in achieving this was Alla’s ability to guide a small group to an instant access of the major places of interest, and, using a smaller vehicle, avoiding the traffic congestion that often blights St Petersburg.
Yes, it is probably a more expensive way of seeing the city and it’s attractions but how often does one visit St Petersburg?
And Finally, one or two tips for those interested. Anyone really interested in using Alla Tours will find on their web page a link to opening a ‘Personal Account’. This is highly recommended. It costs nothing and is a very good way of both contacting and requesting further information from the company. Certainly at the time we used Alla Tours emails were not recommended.
Alla Tours does not require any payment up front but do require payment in US Dollars. Credit cards are acceptable but there is a high charge for processing such transactions.
When one finally books with Alla Tours, through the ‘Personal Account’, an electronic confirmation invoice will be issued. This needs to be printed off because this acts as the passenger’s Entry Visa to St Petersburg. No further Visa is necessary.