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To Russia with love

22/09/2016

Looking to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, Cath and Paul Barker were delighted to find a Baltic cruise that would take them back to the very destination where they celebrated their honeymoon 25 years earlier

Cath and Paul Barker in Russia in 1991

Cath and Paul Barker first visited Russia on their honeymoon in 1991

For Cath and Paul Barker, 20 July this year marked a significant event: their silver wedding anniversary. Having enjoyed sailing with P&O Cruises twice previously for family holidays, the couple – hailing from Nottingham – knew that a cruise would be the perfect way to celebrate their 25 years of marriage. ‘We had always promised ourselves a cruise, just the two of us, to celebrate,’ says Cath. ‘We love cruising as it gives you a taster of places you might like to visit again for longer in the future. On a P&O Cruises holiday we know we’ll get very good food, entertainment, relaxation and lots and lots of sightseeing, which is something we particularly enjoy.’

 

Little did they know that the perfect anniversary cruise was waiting for them. Browsing through the brochures, the couple were delighted to find one leaving on 19 July, the very day before their anniversary. And even better, it would be taking them back to the location of their honeymoon. ‘We were surprised and absolutely thrilled to discover a Baltic cruise on Arcadia that would take us to St Petersburg on the exact dates of our honeymoon there 25 years previously,’ says Cath. ‘We couldn’t have planned it better. We had often talked about going back there, and when we found this cruise we knew it was meant to be!’

 

A Russian honeymoon came as a surprise to Cath originally, too. ‘Paul knew I had always wanted to visit Russia so, without me knowing, he booked a trip to Leningrad and Moscow,’ says Cath. ‘We took the Trans-Siberian railway between the two cities one way, and went the other way on an Aeroflot plane, which was an experience in itself!

 

‘It wasn’t common for people to go to Russia in 1991 as it was still part of the Soviet Union, but it was a wonderful experience. The Russians we met were very friendly and helpful, although their English was limited – as was our Russian. We drank lots of Champagne that week too. It was our honeymoon, but moreover it was so cheap ¬– the equivalent of 50p a bottle!’

 

Sailing in style

For this visit to Russia, Cath and Paul decided to treat themselves and sail in style to celebrate the occasion. ‘On previous cruises we had always chosen an inside cabin, but for this special occasion we booked a balcony cabin,’ says Cath. ‘Having a balcony was a real bonus, especially when you’re coming out of Stockholm through all the islands – it’s really lovely.’

 

Cruising through the Baltic Sea allowed the couple to visit several other ports that had been on their wish-list, including Copenhagen, Helsinki and Tallinn. But it was the opportunity to go back to St Petersburg that Cath and Paul were most excited for. And cruising there certainly made it easier than when they last visited. ‘To visit Russia you need a visa, which requires a visit to the Russian Embassy ahead of your trip,’ explains Cath. ‘But going on a cruise you can explore St Petersburg on a shore excursion, which means the excursions company organise a group visa, saving you the hassle of having to give up a day to sort that out before you leave.’

View of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood from the canals in St Petersburg

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is one of St Petersburg’s most iconic sights

Same but different

With the fall of the Soviet Union, much has changed in Russia over the last 25 years – from the name of Leningrad reverting back to St Petersburg through to the famous Hermitage museum being painted a different colour. For Cath and Paul, a trip back was a walk down memory lane – with a difference. ‘The first time we went it was a lot harder to travel there. We had to travel with a state tour guide who was employed by the state tourist board and accompanied us on all our visits, train and plane journeys – quite different to visiting today! We did have some free time to wander around on our own, which is when we explored the incredible metro system, but really we only got to see what they wanted us to see,’ says Cath. ‘This time, it was nice to have a bit more freedom. Even though we were on tours there was plenty of time to go at our own pace and do our own thing.’

 

Wanting to make the most of their time and learn about what had changed, Cath and Paul decided to take the St Petersburg Explorer shore excursion alongside using one of the interactive Audiopens. On the shore excursion, guests have plenty of free time to explore and can use the interactive Audiopen like a personalised tour guide. ‘You just point it at the map where you are and it tells you a bit about what you’re looking at,’ Cath says. ‘It’s really useful, and you can skip bits or repeat things if you didn’t hear.’

 

As well as returning to St Isaac’s Cathedral and reliving the river cruise they took 25 years ago, having two days in port meant that the couple had time to explore some different sights as well, including the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. They later learned why they had not even known about the now-iconic church back in 1991. ‘The interactive guide told us that in the early 90s it was being used by the authorities as storage. It’s quite unbelievable, as it’s such a famous church now,’ says Cath. ‘They’ve cleaned up all the mosaics inside – it’s really beautiful.’

 

But perhaps the most striking change for Cath and Paul was walking down the main shopping street, Nevsky Prospekt. ‘It’s completely different,’ says Cath. ‘In 1991 there were barely any shops. Now it’s so much more commercial, and you see all the major brands and fast food restaurants just like elsewhere in the world. When we were in Moscow in 1991, the country’s first McDonald’s had only just opened and people were so excited ¬– the queues were ridiculous.’

 

Marking the date

Many people choose cruises to celebrate special dates, and there are options on board to help you mark the date in style, such as flowers, cakes and photo books. ‘On the morning of our anniversary, we treated ourselves to breakfast in bed,’ says Cath. ‘Our sons had bought us some prosecco to go with it, so that was a lovely start to the day.’ The couple were also lucky enough to be celebrating on the first full day on board – a formal black tie night – which made the day feel special.

 

St Petersburg might not seem like an obvious choice for a romantic break but, as Cath reminds us, ‘it’s often called the Venice of the North’. Much has changed over the past quarter of a century but, like its Italian cousin, the canals and grand buildings now offer plenty of opportunities to wander hand-in-hand at your own pace.


Find out more about cruises to St Petersburg >

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