Byline: JOHN HONEYWELL
GOLD is everywhere in St Petersburg. It gleams from the stately dome of St Isaac's Cathedral. It glints from the slender, soaring spire of the Peter and Paul church, last resting place of the Tsars.
And it simply drips from the over-the-top baroque and rococo ballrooms where extravagant rulers like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great once entertained visiting royalty and dignitaries from all over Europe.
The Hermitage Museum is the world's biggest treasure chest, the Kirov is the world's finest ballet company - and those sumptuous palaces are a restored reminder of the royal extravagances that led to the Russian Revolution.
But all that is gold does not glisten. There is a harsher, uncomfortable side to the former Russian capital. The roads have potholes deep and wide enough to swallow an unwary Lada, and the city's workers travel to and from their homes - mile after mile of soulless concrete blocks - in trolley buses that are filthy rustbuckets.
Even the city's police cars look like they would have trouble getting through an MoT test.
Although tourists are unlikely to get in a tangle with the infamous Russian Mafia, there's no avoiding the beggars and street urchins who swarm around the top attractions. Our photo-stop at the spectacular Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood - even more elaborately decorated than St Basil's in Moscow - was enlivened by a persistent woman with a baby in one arm and a puppy in the other. The sumptuous sights, particularly the palaces, should be on anyone's list of must-sees. Peterhof, with its awesome fountains, is Russia's answer to Versailles.
The Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, with its stunning blue exterior, has been painstakingly restored since it was ransacked by the Nazis.
And of course, the Hermitage, three linked palaces on the bank of the River Neva, which contains almost three million works of art. It would take years to see every one of them, but even on a quick tour you can see works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin, Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, and Pissarro. That's just the paintings, and there's much more in the way of sculpture, jewellery and other priceless artifacts.
But many people are put off by the strain of getting there or the privations of hotels which are indistinguishable from those apartment blocks.
Hotels where the difference between three-stars and four-stars is judged not on whether they have soft toilet paper or hard but whether they have any toilet paper at all. And, of course, you still need to take your own bath plug.
Fortunately cruising offers a safer - and dare I say it - more civilised means of travel, aboard a luxury hotel which guarantees a comfortable room, good food and attentive service.
NCL's Norwegian Dream runs 12-night itineraries cruising from Dover to the Baltic Sea throughout the summer. So there's no need to fly either. In addition to St Petersburg, you get to visit five …