Sunday, 28 August 2011

St Petersburg Day 1

I woke up at 6.30am hearing the slow grind of the reversing engines. I looked out of my windows and there was the most wonderful vista of yellow Baroque buildings, sparkling gold church domes and spires, and the slow drift of the waterway boats on the river Neva.
Once again because we are a smaller ship we could dock right in the heart of this most heavenly city. The last time I was here was 24 years ago when it was still Leningrad, and everywhere we went a KGB ‘regulator’ was at our sides. How different it is now. There is still a small element of being herded and ‘guided’ with military precision, but, with a visa, one can now seemingly do exactly as one wants. So, through passport control by 8.45am, and on the coach to Peterhof, the Palace which is most famous for its spectacular fountains. These fountains work entirely from the level of spring water flow, no pumps, no electricity and no energy other than their own. At 11am each morning in summer, loud speakers play rousing orchestral music as they are turned on and spurt upwards of 50 feet or more.
One of the main features of all the palaces which I visited is the sad fact that they were almost all turned into primary schools or workers playgrounds during the Soviet Era, and then trashed and even bombed by the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad. After their lives as homes to the Imperial Russian families, and the Tsar until the Romanov murders in 1918, their fall in grace was rapid and could have been final except for a few dedicated and loyal curators and historians, who spent many years hiding away much of the art, statues, porcelain, amber and precious stones, quietly and discreetly in places that first the Bolsheviks, and then the Nazis would not find.
After WW2, there were some moves to restore, but little money, so the vast proportion of the amazing, and often total renovations were done between the late 1970’s and is still going on, and there is still much to do.
Enough history! The opulence, the pure gold, the Rembrandts, the Rastrelli designs are almost too much to take in. I found myself wandering (illegally you understand!) to try to find some humanity in the buildings; some sign of a home. In Peterhof, the home Peter the Great built as his Summer Palace, I found no sign of real life. That said, I adored the place! Sorry guys! I even designed in my head, the set for the next Gilbert and Sullivan show ‘Patience’. Oh how Baroque it will be, and such summer colours! We may even have to sing it all in Russian!
I did sneakily photograph one of the guards having a shifty smoke however, totally unfazed by the opulent surroundings. We had lunch in a building which would have passed for a slightly small palace belonging to the Tsarina’s music teacher possibly, which was not a great success as after salad and mushroom soup (not together) it was a nameless white fish in sauce, which I thought was very nice, and chips which were on the chilly side of tepid, and some of my fellow cruisers complained bitterly, to a largely unmoved bunch of waiters and waitresses who spoke no English at all, and smiled and said ‘Dos vadanya’, if that is how one spells it! I think it means ‘Cheers!’ After the free champagne and shots of vodka however, a convivial peace spread over the restaurant like a warm blanket. As I do not drink, I found it far trickier to ask for a second bottle of mineral water.
‘Madam not vant wodka?’ were the words. What he actually meant was ‘Madam vant vater? Is Madam raving lunatic?’
After lunch we hopped back into the coach and drove back to St Petersburg to visit the Hermitage, or the Winter Palace, which is part residence and part Art Collection without compare. There are Eagles everywhere, even in the public toilets, the amazing long, long arched corridors painted with fabulous scenes from myths and history, and stunning ballrooms. On entering all the palaces one has to put on overshoes which protect all the wooden floors. They are various degrees of horrific, but as everyone wears them there is some comfort in a common enemy! You can see the Winter Palace ones in the photograph, something to rib me about when I get home no doubt – see I’m not proud!
There is a picture of the entrance to the palace with a tree almost blocking it out, but remember we were herded and taking photographs was of secondary import to the headcount. Anyway, that is the entrance that the Bolsheviks broke through to take the Tsarina Alexandra and the five Romanov children into house arrest just after Tsar Nicholas abdicated. The children all had measles and were very ill. Much as the Tsar and his advisors made mistakes, I shuddered to think what that must have been like. They were so wealthy, and the poor were so poor, I can only imagine the feelings of the peasants at seeing how they lived, were inflamed to such hot hatred. It also brings home to me so sharply Sr Francis, and her life knowing those children, and knowing the palace. I felt she might have been there.
There was so much to see, to glory at and to admire, I almost stopped taking pictures. The final hall however had two sets of the vases in the photos. Each is around 4 feet high, two in the glistening midnight blue Lapis Lazuli, and two in the gorgeous rhododendron green of Malachite.
A totally exhausting day, and when we got back to the ship I lay on my bed and slept for 2 hours, went for some food, managed to stay awake for 20 minutes then came back to bed....zzzzzzzzz
Day 2 of St Petersburg will be next time.

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