This is the final post (again, a little late) on our twelve day trip to Russia and covers the final three days in St Petersburg before we returned to England yesterday (June 24). Enjoy!
On Saturday (June 21) we started our time in St Petersburg with a visit to the Hermitage. It is impossible to describe this palace/museum/art gallery with its 600 rooms, each it seems more beautiful and ornate than the last. We had visited the Hermitage on our last visit here in 2008 and so we were prepared not only for its beauty and its contents, but also its crowds. Our group of 40 people from the ship had one guide who somehow managed to herd us through several dozen rooms and describe in some detail perhaps 50 works of art.
The palace had been built by Catherine the Great and she and subsequent rulers must have spent a huge amount of time (not to mention money) filling the rooms with the works of masters from across Europe.
As with our last visit, the three hours spent in the Hermitage barely scratched the surface and was conducted at almost breakneck speed. Certainly it was by no means sufficient time to get more than just an overall impression of the grandeur of the place and a sampling of its contents and one could imagine spending days or weeks there and still missing a lot. On the other hand, for tired legs and brains that can soon get “overloaded”, this was an excellent tour. I had thought that Photography would not be allowed so have no pictures; however, all would have contained dozens of heads as well as the piece of art. I bought the book!
The bus trip to and from the palace gave us an introduction to the city and its amazing architecture which will be amplified and seen close-up during the next two days of tours. For today, however, we had a four hour break back on the ship before our evening trip to the ballet. We went to see a performance of “The Nutcracker” at the Rimsky-Korsakov Theater and it was excellent. We have no idea where the troupe fits in the hierarchy of Russian ballet companies but to us they seemed very professional and (to my eyes) flawless in their performance.
Sunday was a beautiful sunny day as we drove to the summer palace of Tsarina Elizabeth in the town of Pushkin (named after Russia’s most famous poet). The palace was designed in 1752 and named in honor of Elizabeth’s mother Catherine who originally owned the estate.
The palace is not as big (nor as crowded) as the Hermitage but it still contains numerous works of art and, especially, very ornate rooms within its beautiful walls, which have a predominantly pastel blue and white exterior.
Inside the palace our guide took us through all the rooms currently open to the public – from ballroom, to entertaining rooms, dining rooms and some much smaller containing works of art – often of the czars of the Romanov dynasty. The overwhelming sense is of gold, with virtually all of the rooms being lavishly decorated with gold leaf. Often mirrors or windows added a lot of light to these rooms so the effect was almost dazzling at times.
Delft was also quite common (the early czars loved Holland) particularly in what were enormous stoves (for heating) in corners of many rooms. Some dining tables were set out with original or copies of fine china and silverware and gave the impression that a state occasion was about to begin! The majority of the floors were parquet (we had to wear booties) and, in the enormous ballroom, perfectly matched the golden figures and shapes of the ceiling. It really is a palace of beauty and one can only imagine the enormous cost to build and decorate.
In actual fact, there are recent figures that give an idea of the value of the palace since much of it was destroyed or desecrated by Nazi forces as they retreated from St
in World War II. There were several pictures taken just after the war showing open rooms devoid of decoration, walls fallen and rubble almost everywhere. One room (the famous Amber Room, almost completely covered in all shades of amber) had its contents taken by the retreating army and have not been found to this day. However, this and many of the other rooms have been reconstructed exactly as they were when built and, hopefully, will provide a continuing statement of Russia’s monarchy as well as a tourist mecca for years to come.
The gardens of the palace estate are also quite beautiful and typical of those found in many other great European cities. Although started as a copy of Versailles it is not as ornate but, with its two lakes and beautiful “out-buildings”, provides a tranquil sanctuary now as it must have for the rulers.
Our afternoon tour was of the most famous sites in the center of St Petersburg. Once again, we find it difficult to convey the stunning architecture of every style found in this wonderful city. For those who have visited Vienna, Paris, Budapest or Rome, you have seen somewhat similar examples – but, to my mind, St Petersburg outshines them all. Perhaps the history is not as extensive and the cathedrals are unfamiliar to Western eyes but I doubt there are any cities with so many iconic buildings.
We first visited the St Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress, which as its name implies is a huge complex, the centerpiece of which is the cathedral in which all the Czars of the Romanov Dynasty are entombed.
This includes one tomb containing what they believe are the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their family who were slaughtered in the 1917-1918 Revolution which saw the beginning of the Soviet Communist rule. As with all Orthodox churches, this one is ornately decorated but it is surprisingly “Western” (Roman Catholic?) in its interior. There is no iconostasis and there are a number of pillars supporting the structure and there is even a pulpit – although our guide suggested that it had never been used as such.
The next highlight was the visit to the Church on the Spilled Blood (also known as the Resurrection of Our Savior), perhaps the most recognizable of St Petersburg buildings.
It has numerous onion domes at differing heights and which are very brightly painted, giving the whole a surreal and wonderfully ornate appearance. It was built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. We didn’t have sufficient time to go inside the church but it was sufficient to gaze at its exterior – along with many tourists and local families out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, alongside one of the many canals of the city.
The final stop (actually we had several “photo opportunity” quick stops en route) was for an hour outside the enormous Cathedral of St Isaac.
This is one of the world’s largest cathedrals, completed in 1858 after forty years of construction and decoration. In the Soviet era it was converted to a museum of Atheism and is still a museum (rather than a functioning church) today – although now containing 19th century works of art. Again we did not enter the church but it is possible to climb to its dome (much like St Paul’s in London) and walk around its exterior on two levels.
We walked past the cathedral to the massive bronze statue of Peter the Great which overlooks the river and is bounded by another beautiful park. St Petersburg is very green and its streets are generally very wide boulevards (“prospects”) and with the density of iconic structures seen at every turn, it is certainly the jewel in Russia’s crown. It had been the capital through the Romanov period and is still the cultural and financial center of the country leaving, it would appear, the politics to Moscow.
In the afternoon of our final full day in Russia (Monday) we took a one hour boat trip on the rivers and canals of central St Petersburg. The weather was not so good (drizzle and cool) but the trip gave another perspective on this magnificent city. Most of the buildings we had already seen on other excursions but naturally we got a different perspective and view from the water. In addition, passing under some of the very low bridges (reminiscent of Venice) added another level of excitement!
Thus our twelve day cruise through northern Russia and extended visits to Moscow and St Petersburg came to an end and I believe that everyone – and certainly our party of four – had enjoyed it thoroughly and had experienced another part of the world together with its peoples, its history and its culture. It was – certainly for Molly and me – an eye-opening experience and changes our image of this country forever.