After a great breakfast at our hotel (above) we met our guide Elena, a young woman whose knowledge of St Petersburg would prove invaluable over the week ahead. Our driver’s name was Dimitriy. We rode in a minibus but there were only the four of us, plus Dimitriy and Elena, as we were on a private tour.

Our first stop was the beautiful baroque St Nicholas Cathedral. This year the cathedral celebrated its 250th anniversary. As it is a functioning church you were not allowed to take photos inside but the interiors are wonderful – there was choir singing orthodox hymns and many people, mostly older women, praying before the icons. There are now pews in an orthodox church and people remain standing.

The cathedral also has this attractive belfry.

We continued our tour driving around to various sights in the city.

On the far side of the Neva River stand a pair of ancient Egyptian sphinxes, which were purchased by Russia in 1832. They stand on a quay which is called “The Quay with Sphinxes” in front of the Russian Academy of Arts. Legend has it that if you stare into the eyes of the sphinx at midnight you will be turned into stone.

They are guarded by a pair of gryphons. Rub their heads and you will have good luck…just don’t look at the sphinx while you’re doing it.

On of the largest islands in St Petersburg is called Vasilievsky Island, which splits the river Neva in two branches. The red and green Rostral Columns were used as lighthouses to guide vessels traveling along the river. On the right of the picture is the Old St Petersburg Stock Exchange. We stopped at a souvenir shop where Michelle bought a few things. We also sampled vodka.

We then took a tour of the Peter and Paul Fortress. This fortified island was the site of the first settlement of St Petersburg in 1703. Peter the Great had originally intended the site to be a fortress against the Swedes but ultimately it became a political prison until 1917. Pictured above is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is undergoing exterior renovation.

It is magnificent inside.

The main altar is being restored so this is a photograph of the picture they display.

The church is also the burial place of the Romanov Tsars.

The marble burial stones  of the Tsars have the imperial crest of the two headed eagle on each corner.

Russia’s final Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family have a special chapel where their remains are buried. They are separated from the other Tsars because technically Nicholas had abdicated before his death. Their remains have only been laid to rest here since 1998.

In another part of the cathedral we were treated to some marvellous choral singing. The man on the right sung a G note two octaves below middle C, or something…it was very low.

There were also displays about the Russian Tsars.

The Peter and Paul Fortress complex also contains other buildings including the notorious Trubetskoy Bastion prison. Many notable people were imprisoned here including Leon Trotsky and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

To prevent inmates communicating with one another the cells were sound insulated with multiple layers of felt, wire mesh and canvas. Guards outside walked on carpet and the silence was intended to drive inmates mad.

Following this excursion we drove from the Fortress back into the city and visited the Spilt Blood Cathedral, or, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Built to serve as a memorial to Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated on this spot in 1881, the church is sometimes known as the “mosaic church” because of its 7000 square meters of mosaic work both inside and out.

This shrine marks the spot where the Tsar was murdered, which was originally part of the canal bank. The church is extended over the canal to incorporate this spot where Alexander’s blood was spilled. You can’t see it in the picture but the cobblestones of the original embankment are exposed. The shrine is decorated with topaz, lazurite and other semi-precious stones.

The mosaics are incredible.

The church was looted following the Russian revolution of 1917 and was then closed by the Soviet government in the 1930s. It suffered badly during the Second World War and the Siege of Leningrad (the name of St Petersburg at that time) when it was used as a morgue. Following the war it was used as a warehouse to store vegetables.  It took 27 years to restore the church, which was reopened in 1997.

Here is the elaborate iconostasis – the screened section you find in orthodox churches between the nave and the sanctuary.

Our sightseeing over, it was time to think about dinner. Our guide Elena recommended a restaurant called Teplo. It is located in the lower ground floor level of a building not far from our hotel. Sorry about the quality of these photos – I took them with my mobile phone.

I had the most deliciously tender veal with potatoes and mushrooms. My starter was a pear and gorgonzola salad (not pictured as I forgot to take a photo).

My dessert was a home-style layered chocolate gateau. We had a wonderful waitress called Anna who helped us with our orders and even gave us a gift at the end of the evening.

We enjoyed ourselves so much that we only had ten minutes for the fifteen minute walk to the Mariinsky Theatre to see the ballet Giselle.

We had excellent seats provided you’re not afraid of small spaces or heights, so I hit the neurotic’s jackpot.

The ballet was a little difficult to follow and we all agreed that we should have read a synopsis before we attended. The following morning I presented a summary of the plot that I found on the internet to Michelle, Neil and Nicky. My explanation at the breakfast table incorporated props such as salt and pepper shakers, and also a banana to represent the gamekeeper who loved Giselle.