The cruise itinerary saved the largest and most intense port of call for last: St Petersberg, on the extreme eastern shore of the Baltic.
Russia is the only country visited by the liner that requires visas, and so the only way that the lazy, cheap and/or disorganised passenger could go ashore was as part of a formal excursion group. I chose the longest and most expensive option, which visited a couple of churches, a battleship, a market and, as the highlight, the Hermitage Museum.
The first church was the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the resting place for the mortal remains of almost all of the tsars and tsarinas of Russian history. It’s not exactly a sombre or subtle interior, but then I guess that sums up the Russian royal family.
The second church was the Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the site of the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Again, about as solemn and understated as an episode of 'Jackass'.
Then there was the battleship Aurora, which fired the blank shell that signalled the revolutionaries to commence the assault on the Winter Palace that began the October Revolution in 1917. And look how well all that turned out. Now, according to our tour guide, it’s more notable for being infested with pickpockets, and she refused to let us anywhere near it. I had to keep a close eye on Admiral Ackbar, but you can’t keep a naval man away from maritime history.
Lastly we had the Hermitage. It’s easy to explain the Hermitage - it's simply one of the largest and most impressive art museums in the world - but it's impossible to describe it. It's spectacular on spectacular for hours on end, until the superlatives cease to mean anything. Imagine the fanciest, most lavish interior you can concoct, then build something even fancier and more lavish. Then do the same thing again with different materials. Then again. And again. Hundreds and hundreds of times.
Each of the hundreds of rooms is filled with amazing things. Any single item in any room is a treasure so wonderful and beautiful that it would be the greatest thing one could ever own. And yet it's just one of literally millions of other treasures, anonymous in the maze of rooms instead of getting the dazzling spotlight it deserves.
For example, here's one of Catherine the Great's coffee tables:
It's painted with romantic scenes of Italy. Only it isn't painted.
It's made of up of thousands of gnat-sized glass mosaic tiles, so tiny and perfectly laid that their colours blend imperceptibly. And it's just one of maybe a dozen similar tables scattered through a couple of back rooms.
It's far, far too much to take in. One needs a lot more time. But, as the tour guide said, if one spent a minute looking at each item in the Hermitage, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would take more than five years to see everything... by which time you'd be long dead from sleep deprivation.
With the extraordinary glory of the Hermitage, it's a shame that the rest of St Petersberg is such a dump. Dilapidated and dusty buildings, traffic that verges on the Third World, and the Mercedes and BMWs of local gangsters parked wherever the hell they like, whether it be across a crosswalk or nose-first into the footpath on a street corner. In the centre of the city I saw a trio of very young, very beautiful doxies park their boyfriend's glossy Toyota Landcruiser at a 45 degree angle in a parallel parking space, half on the street and half on the pavement, then go teetering away on their skyscraper heels, giggling and adjusting their flimsy minidresses.
Everything in St Petersberg seems to be over the top, from the shennanigans of the royal family to the apartment buildings with gun placements decorating their forecourts.
It's aggressive, decadent and unrestrained. Mind you, I just typed that while looking out over the city from Deck 13 of my luxury cruise liner, in a big wicker armchair next to one of the swimming pools, while sipping a Mai-Tai, so who am I to judge?