St. Petersburg, Russia
I woke up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday!! (2 hours before my alarm – I had obviously not adjusted to the 11 hour time difference between Seattle and St. Petersburg). The sun was already up so I grabbed some clothes and headed out for a walk. The streets were deserted and the canal was silent. I stopped in at a 24 hour market (think 7-11 with a decidedly Russian theme) with the intention of grabbing a couple bottles of water. A young, good looking fellow was behind the register. This was my first foray into a country with virtually no understanding of the language (I even had some basic Chinese down before I went to China) so I was on shaky ground here. I spoke the Russian word for water (voda) and pointed to the bottle (overseas they have sparkling and no sparkling and you have to be specific). The fellow rattled off some Russian and opened the fridge. I am certain at this point I had a look of panic and confusion. Uh oh… um “Ya nye panimayu” (I don’t understand). “Angliski” (English). The fellow rattled off some more and at this point I was really confused. I stood there fumbling for my cheat sheet (a little laminated card I made with some basic words). I looked up from my card, couldn’t find the word for “still” (I was guessing that the young guy was asking me if I wanted still or sparkling) so I stood there with my mouth open, repeating voda and pointing. The fellow started laughing… “I speak English” he told me (in a heavy Russian accent). Great! I run into the only store in St. Petersburg with a sarcastic Russian. I started laughing and asked him if he knew what a “smart ass” was. He laughed. Took my money, gave me my water and then asked me what was on the card. I handed it to him. He looked at it and laughed even harder. Great. Now I’m being humiliated. “Uh is the card OK”. “Da da. Very good. Very good.” More examination. “This .. uh card great”. He handed the card back to me still laughing. I’m so glad I could provide him some humor so early in the morning.
I headed back to the hotel and met Marina at 9 a.m. We were headed to Pushkin and Pavlovsk to see Alexander’s Palace, Catherine’s Palace and the Grand Palace – with Catherine’s Palace said to be the most visually stunning of all palaces and the latter, Catherine’s son Paul’s former residence.
The first stop at Alexander’s Palace was quick. We only spent 15 or so minutes wandering around very dilapidated grounds complete with small lake and overgrown park. The exterior and part of the Palace have been refurbished, but the work continues. The interesting part about Alexander’s Palace was that this was the home where the Romanovs (Nicholas II and his family) were seized from during the October revolution. They were moved from here to Siberia and ultimately Yekaterinburg where they were murdered.
We moved on to Catherine’s Palace, a few blocks away, and it was enormous. It was built by Peter the Great, expanded by Catherine the Great and completed by Empress Elizabeth. We entered through the grand staircase and immediately entered the Grand Ballroom. This place was enormous surrounded by gold baroque design and glass. From here we wandered from room to room to room. We reached the final room, and I was able to look back over the heads of the tourists and see where we started in the Grand Ballroom. Each room we wandered through was designed with different colors and decorations. However. The overwhelming theme was over the top. To say that this Palace is garish is an understatement. I am not a big fan of baroque style or gold leaf and this place was baroque at its best with more gaudy statutes, porcelain figurines and tapestries than I had seen since Versailles (outside Paris). Marina summed it up best. “This place is filled with a lot of useless stuff.” Uh yep.
The sad part of the Catherine Palace was that it was occupied by the Germans during WW II and it was severely damaged by the occupation and bombing (as were many of the palaces outside the Nazi seige line around St. Petersburg). The building was also substantially neglected during the communist era.
If a building wasn’t neglected by the communists, it may have been torn down. Marina mentioned that many, many historical buildings and churches were reconfigured or destroyed by the communists in an effort to wipe out the czarist history. St. Petersburg and the surrounding area were very fortunate to be the ugly step child in Moscow’s eyes so were largely ignored. As a result, buildings like Catherine’s Palace were never torn down. After perestroika, the new government apparently recognized the importance of the palaces, churches and other buildings so commenced a reconstruction program building “replacement churches”, reconstructing palaces and finding or building “replacement relics”. In order to undertake the reconstructions, the government located historical pictures of the former churches, buildings and relics and painstakingly began the process of rebuilding. The work continues today. So although Russian history remains, many “historical sites and relics” are not original.
Catherine’s Palace as well as other sites I visited are examples of the refurbishment work. The government has now restored about 20 rooms and the exterior facade of Catherine’s Palace. Based on the pictures I viewed of the original building, the Russian government has done a good job. Marina actually had the line of the day when she said (insert heavy Russian accent) …”You know, we Russians have reputation for big drinkers, which is true, but we answer with our buildings and relics.” Touche.
Walking through Catherine’s Palace, one sound was ever present. The angry hand clapping of the “Palace watchdogs”. These were angry women strategically placed throughout the Palace who immediately started clapping like you were about to die if you took a picture with a flash. Rather than risk the shame and wrath of the “clap” I just put my camera away in many of the rooms.
After viewing the interior of the Palace, we took a walk around the grounds, which were truly stunning. Man made lakes, boat houses, gardens and pathways between the trees. It was a beautiful, beautiful park. As we were leaving the grounds, Marina pointed out a smaller building that she identified as a Hermitage. Apparently this was the name given to private quarters, in this case constructed for Elizabeth, to shall I say “host” her various gentlemen friends (complete with a special elevator that hoisted food to the happy couple so they would not be disturbed). Apparently it was the custom for royalty to marry and then acquire multiple “friends with benefits”. Uh ok then….
We moved on to our final destination of the day, the Great Palace and surrounding gardens in the town of Pavlovsk, which was built by Catherine the Great for her (much despised) son Paul. Apparently etiquette of the day dictated that she provide for her son despite the frosty relationship. Now I must confess that I found this Palace for more to my liking than Catherine’s Palace. No baroque in sight. The entry was through the main staircase (as was the style for these palaces) and we took the winding entry to the middle floor, which contained the rooms that had been refurbished. We entered a circular room with a domed ceiling decorated with Italian art and stylings. We then backtracked from this room and moved on to a series of connected rooms that included Paul’s Hall of War room and his wife Maria’s Hall of Peace room. As I said, I really liked the Great Palace. The colors were much more muted in each room – soft greens, blues and pinks. Very little garish gold and much more classical art work. (I did not leave this Palace feeling like I had just visited Vegas without the slot machines – or for my S&D compatriots – the Legend.)
We wandered through the grounds after exiting the Palace and again, I found these grounds much more to my taste. The layout was divided into different types of gardens. For example there were large fields of grass surrounded by trees very similar to British parks and there were geometrical gardens very similar to what you may see in France. I thoroughly enjoyed this Palace.
As we headed back to St. Petersburg, we made a detour to the Church where the Romanovs worshiped in the weeks and months prior to their arrest and transfer to Siberia. The Theodor Church had been recently remodeled and we were fortunate to be permitted to enter while a service was commencing. Lots of incense, crossing and head bobbing along with two Russian Orthodox priests saying mass. We stayed for about 10 minutes and then quietly excited.
Once back in St. Petersburg, I visited “Stollys” for my first taste of Russian meat pie. And let me just say this right now, I had the salmon pie and … yum, yum, yum. It was a bit of a task to order it and water, but I managed and will have more of that before I leave.
So Sunday morning Valodia (I finally learned how to spell and pronounce my driver’s name) and Marina picked me up at 10 a.m. for the 45 minute drive to Petrodvorets (Peterhoff) to visit Peter the Great’s Grand Palace and the highlight… the Grand Cascade and Water Avenue with over 140 water fountains and water features (including “surprise” fountains). On the way, we passed through Strelna featuring the President’s summer residence Konstantinovsky Palace. It was surrounded by armed guards, but was clearly visible from the road as we passed by. Gorgeous.
No pictures were permitted inside the Grand Palace and you had to keep moving from room to room or risk the wrath of the angry women watchdogs (what is it with this country – is there a school for this stuff…). The Grand Palace had its own garish style and had clearly been touched by both Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. (This Palace was also occupied by the Germans so most of the Palace has been rebuilt.) There was a large ballroom (not on the scale of the ballroom at Catherine’s Palace, but similar in design), a room with numerous paintings depicting the naval victory over Turkey, a Chinese room, two huge dining rooms and on and on. The highlight, however, was Peter the Great’s study, which was the only room not touched by the Germans. It featured 14 stunning wood carved panels with everything from musical instruments and musical notes to animals and birds. It was an exquisite room.
After visiting the Palace, we moved on to the grounds and wandered around for about two hours taking in many of the amazing fountains and sculptures. The fountains ranged from the mammoth statue out front of the Palace featuring Samson spreading the jaws of a lion (symbolic of Russia’s war victory over Sweden), to smaller water features, including water spraying from turtles, frogs, flowers and sunbursts. I ended up running through two pop up fountains and got a bit wet. However, we ran into two dudes who must have been drunk on vodka because they ran onto the stones of two pop up fountains and just stood there getting soaked – it was about 12 celsius and with a VERY brisk wind off the Gulf of Finland, felt much colder. Crazy, drunk Russians.
As for how the fountains operate, Marina told me that the water only moves through the fountains once and then ends up in the canal that leads to the Gulf of Finland and the power of the water and not electricity is used to move the water through the fountains. The water apparently originates in springs adjacent to the estate and is directed through a series of tubes. The narrower the tube the higher the water shoots into the air. The original water system is in place and has been for almost 300 years old. Amazing.
We ended the day with a trip back through St. Petersburg and a quick stop at a small cabin that has been preserved inside a building. The cabin was the former residence of Peter the Great, which he used during his time at the Peter and Paul fortress, The cabin consisted of only 3 rooms. A dining area, a study, and a bedroom. Peter the Great may have has simple tastes early in his life, but he clearly grew into more opulent digs.
So my touring ended for the day, but Sunday night is…. (cue the HNIC music) – Hockey Night in Russia. I am very excited to see SKA St. Petersburg play the Soviet Wings (Moscow) and am hoping to somehow chat with the head coach of SKA, Ivan Zanetta, who I know from our days at Laurentian University. Cannot wait!