Fascinated since her school days by Russian history, Vickie Maye embarks on her first-ever guided tour to discover St Petersburg.
In the middle of the night on July 17, 1918, the Romanovs —ex-tsar Nicholas II,ex-tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and their four servants, including the family doctor — were woken by their Bolshevik captors.
They were told to dress and be ready to leave the location where they were in exile. They waited in the cellar of the mansion. Chairs were brought for Alexandra, who was sick, and 13-year-old Alexei. A dozen heavily-armed men entered the room. The family was slaughtered.
It was a moment in history that captivated me, I can still see the pages from my school history book — a whole family, five young children, wiped out.
As a young teen, it marked the beginning of my fascination with Russia. Tales of Rasputin, the overhaul of the monarchy, Lenin, and the beginning of communism.
I would go on to study it in college, further fuelling my desire to see the country’s exotic cities.
Usually, I travel without any firm plan — a few must-see sites, restaurant recommendations — and then I find my way through a city. I choose public transport over bus tours, soaking up the people watching, watching real people living real lives.
But I always knew Russia would be different.
There was too much to see, too much to absorb, too much history to take in.
So for my first visit to the country, I booked with Travel Department. My first ever guided tour, it showed me a side to St Petersburg I would never have discovered alone.
Morning bus tours with our guide Alisa meant every historical detail was covered, with afternoons and evenings free to wander by the river to explore the city. Where once I thought tours were the lazy option for tourists, today I am converted.
She held our hands through this breath-taking ‘Venice of the north’, created by Peter the Great as a ‘window into Europe’. This isn’t just arun-of-the-mill city break — this is an exotic destination, with its Cyrillic script and Orthodox churches.
She brought us to the Winter Palace, lavish gold-gilded ballrooms (painted with the tails of squirrels, no less). It’s beautiful but it screams decadence, excess — and that’s before we even come close to the art.
Entire travel guides are devoted to the Hermitage; the mammoth art museum (it’s the second-largest in the world) that was the personal collection of Catherine the Great. Here Alisa shows Rembrandt (including the painting that was famously destroyed with acid from a visitor to the museum). There was da Vinci, Michael Angelo. Across the courtyard, there’s another building dedicated to the impressionists. It’s the ultimate destination for art lovers.
We wear portable earpieces to hear Alisa’snarrative. We savour the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood — whereAlexander II was murdered. The stones he collapsed on are still there, a shrine to the lost tsar. We hear how it was used to store potatoes and cabbage after the revolution, later it was a dumping ground for bodies in the Second World War. Today a major restoration has seen it return to its former glory.
We visit Peterhof, a series of palaces and gardens located outside the city, commissioned by Peter the Great. We were glad of our tour guide as she manoeuvred the long weaving queues. Here we stand in rooms where Helen Mirren filmed the recent Catherine the Great.
We see the house the empress brought her lovers, see her lavish bedroom. It’s the little details we lap up, the long combs they used to scratch the lice infestations, the little tins they would carry with honey to attract the insects nestled in their clothes. We hear how staff frantically buried riches and treasures as the Nazis invaded, the pieces discovered years later in restoration projects.
Alisa doesn’t just focus on the history though. She gives us restaurant recommendations for this contemporary city (don’t leave without tasting borsch), the city’s coolest bars (head for Rubinstein St), advice on taxis, Ubers and metros.
She takes us shopping to the Nevsky prospect. There’s an evening at the world-famous ballet, a boat trip down the river. We hear how the bridges that line the city open, each one in a row, throughout the night to allow cargo ships access.
There is truly a museum for everything from Fabergé eggs to vodka to political history. And it is the history that stays with you.
At the burial ground of Nicolas II at the St Peter and Paul Fortress, Alisa told us what became of the family that had so fascinated me as a child. The bodies exhumed and reburied decades after their murders, two of the children are still missing. It is thought they were burned, but it was taking so long, the remaining members were thrown in a mass grave.
And I was a child again at school, staring at their pictures, only this time not on a history book but at their actual burial ground.
Entire travel guides are devoted to the Hermitage; the mammoth art museum (it’s the second-largest in the world) that was the personal collection of Catherine the Great