Friday, August 20, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Emerald City

It happens on every cruise: We find one city which becomes The Emerald City. This year it has to be St. Petersburg, Russia. This is not to say that it is completely wonderful. There are blocks of Soviet-era apartment blocks which look depressing. Traffic is horrid. And there are way too many tourists! We were one of seven cruise ships in port today including two Costa ships [the Macaroni and the Manicotti] and a Royal Caribbean monstrosity. Each of these ships holds over 3000 passengers and they were all on tour buses today trying to see the same things we were.

We started with a new version of the Passport Dance. We had to go through Passport Control at the passenger terminal before being admitted to the country. Since we were not on a ship’s tour, we had to present proof that we were being met by a licensed tour agency as well as our passports and an entry ticket. The entry tickets had been distributed by HAL yesterday evening with almost all of the required information filled in. We simply had to underline the word “tourist,” check off our gender and sign both parts of the form. Once we were in the line, though, things slowed down. The process was slow and we were mixed in with a tour group of ten thousand. As a result, we were late meeting our guide Julia. Our introduction to the tour was hampered when the driver drove to the wrong ship when Julia called on her mobile. It was a comical start to the day.

Julia was wonderful. Her command of English was good and she was able to understand some of our jokes, a difficult proposition in a foreign language. She speaks French as well as English and Russian and is picking up other languages through her customers.

Once we were settled in the Mercedes mini-van, we had a tour of St. Petersburg, hereafter called SPB. During this tour we stayed in the car except when there were photo opportunities. Detailed visits came later. We spent some time at St. Isaac’s Square, a large square surrounded by three-story buildings which looked like they had been imported from Paris. This was not accidental and will be explained shortly. The center of the square held a monument to Czar Nicholas I. It was one of only a few monuments honoring the Czarist regimes not to be destroyed when the Bolsheviks took over the government in 1917. For the most part, the new government spared only monuments honoring Peter the Great and Katherine the Great. The statue of Nicholas was spared because he is shown riding a horse which has both of its front hooves in the air. The sheer size and balance of the work were enough to leave it in the square.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral is on one side of the square. It is an imposing edifice, it is one of the world’s largest domed structures and, although we did not go inside, we know that tourists may climb to the top. We could see a ramp enclosed by caging running outside a lower level to the dome itself. Neither Ed nor D was tempted to climb another tower for a long time.

When Peter took control of the city which now bears his name, he wanted to transform it into the Paris of the East. To this end, he created wide streets and lots of green space. The architecture mimicked that of Paris, but the dominant colors were pale yellow with white trim; Paris’s buildings are mostly white on white. Other colors sneaked in later, but the quintessential SPB building from the early days is yellow. SPB is also known as the Venice of the North. It is really a collection of islands at the mouth of the Neva River which runs right through it. There are 67 river segments and canals which separate the islands. There are far fewer bridges. Peter did not like bridges and only allowed pontoon bridges which had to be replaced each year.

The city is still filled with parks and statues. At one point, the Communist government started to tear down all of the historical monuments but reason prevailed when they realized that they could not erase or ignore the country’s history. With the fall of Communism, the statues erected to Communist leaders have not been removed. There is still a statue of Lenin in one of the city’s best-known parks; he looks like he is trying to flag down a taxi.

We drove past the Admiralty buildings. Because SPB is a deep-water port, it has been important in the Russian and Soviet military. The navy is headquartered here and there are training facilities across the city. We saw the Peter and Paul Fortress from across the river but did not get to visit. It has its own walled compound and ramparts as well as a cathedral and a public beach which was empty of sun bathers today. We drove to the point where the river splits and saw twin lighthouses [really towers] which warned sailors of the split in the river as they approached; today they are called the Rostral Columns and serve as a memorial to sailors. There was also a 1909 warship, the Aurora farther down the Neva; it was iron-clad, looked like it was made of cement yet still had two masts. Ed the sailor could not believe that anyone would try to sail this ship. Naturally, we lots of pictures at all of these places. Nearby was peter the Great’s ‘cabin which was directly opposite a high-class souvenir store where we didn’t buy anything. We did avail ourselves of the washrooms and free cookies, so the stop was not a total loss.

During the drive, we also drove past the collection of buildings and former palaces which now constitute The Hermitage, perhaps the world’s largest art museum. Although one could take weeks wandering through it, we will have only two or three hours tomorrow.

Finally, we pulled up outside The Hermitage and boarded a hydrofoil, a speed boat which rises onto fins to travel fast and far. The boat was fairly full with maybe 60 passengers for the ride from SPB to Peterhof, the site of Peter’s summer palace. The palace complex looked to be quite intricate, but we stayed outside in the gardens. Here we saw a series of pathways and fountains which reminded us for all the world of the grounds at Versailles. There were fountains everywhere – Julia said that there are 180 altogether. Some were simple, others ornate, and all of them worked on a gravity-feed system. Water from springs 22 km away is collected and stored overnight, then released through a series of pipes. The height of the fountain is determined by the difference between the height of the source and the height of the fountain. Or something like that.

Some of the fountains were quite unique. There were several “cascades” which were more like waterfalls than fountains, and there some which exhibited a bit of whimsy. In several locations, the fountains were triggered by innocent passersby stepping on hidden triggers so that they soaked themselves. We tried to beat the system with mixed results. Julia had no trouble crossing one [think of walking barefoot on hot coals] and dared us to try it, too. Ed was first and he got soaked, but he claims some child tripped the fountain. Roxanne, MA and D had no trouble crossing. We theorized that the trigger was close to a park bench so that people wanting to sit down would get wet. At another location, Peter had workers create a 20 meter fountain that covered a path from both sides. He would sit near it and wait for some unsuspecting person to walk down the path. When the victim reached the middle, he would trigger the water knowing that there was nowhere for the victim to go – there was a 10 meter fountain in each direction.

Julia gave us the choice of eating when we finished with Peterhof or waiting another 90 minutes. Of course, we chose to eat. She called ahead to a local restaurant and reserved a table for us. Lunch was to be a fixed menu and we all chose the traditional SPB meal.

We started with a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and [maybe] julienned cabbage along with warm rolls. This was followed by the local version of borscht, a beet and cabbage soup served with a dollop of sour cream and accompanied by warm garlic rolls. Next we had the most marvelous dumplings. There must have been 10 on each plate! We have eaten dumplings in China and Indonesia, but these were the best we have ever had. To finish off the meal, we were served pancakes [crepes, really] with cranberry sauce and tea or espresso.

We had invited Julia to eat with us. Lunch cost us a total of 2000 rubles for five. That equates to about $60 for more food than we should have eaten and we would do it again. When we went to pay, the real fun began. D’s Capital One World Mastercard was rejected by the computer gods; Ed’s Citibank Mastercard met a similar fate as did D’s AARP Visa. Finally, D’s Bank of America Visa/debit card hit the jackpot and lunch was paid for. We left a cash tip in USD for the waitress. It will be exciting to find out how much lunch really cost.

We drove from Peterhof, the name of the town housing the summer palace, to the village of Pushkin. This village is named for the famous Russian poet and is home to Catherine’s Palace. We followed Julia through the palace where she explained the significance of each room as progressed in a straight line from start to finish. There were thousands of people in the palace or waiting in line to gain entry. The resourceful Julia got us to the head of the line and then insinuated us into another group long enough to get through the turnstile. After that, it was just our group of four against all of those boat people.

Once again, we were reminded of Versailles as we entered the Grand Ballroom. There were mirrors and candelabra on all of the walls, but the main attraction was the gilt decorations. According to Julia, artisans used 22 pounds of gold to gild all of the decorations. Many of the other rooms contained gilt décor as well. It was overwhelming. Each room had its own theme. One was covered in paintings, not in frames but glued cheek-by-jowl to each other on all of the walls. Another featured portraits of Catherine I and her descendents. Generally, they were not a pleasant-looking group. Each room had a parquet floor but no two had the same pattern; the oldest dates from the late 18th Century. The most famous room is the Amber Room whose walls are covered with pieces of amber. It has been reconstructed to approximate its appearance prior to the War.

During WWII, German forces took over the complex and tried to destroy it when they retreated from SPB. Most of Catherine’s palace was destroyed including the roof over the Grand Ballroom. Luckily, much of the gilt work survived as did that oldest parquet floor. Most of the rooms and the exterior were damaged extensively. Much of the art work was saved because it had been removed and stored in Siberia until hostilities ended. Restoration efforts began in 1944 and did not end for about twenty years.

Our itinerary called for us to be done at Pushkin at 4:30, but a good lunch, traffic, accidents and construction caused us to get there late, so we didn’t finish our tour until 5:00. We decided to skip a ride on the SPB Metro despite Julia’s telling us how beautiful it is. The tour of a local farmer’s market was scrapped, too, in the interest of our survival. We were exhausted after losing an hour’s sleep to a time change and touring all day. We went straight to the ship, a drive of about an hour, and arrived just past 6:00. We spent another fifteen minutes getting through Passport Control [again!] and got to our cabins a bit before 6:30. Dinner, journal and bed rounded out the day.

Tomorrow – more of SPB

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blueberries and Babushkas

This morning was not quite as bad as yesterday. We were up early again, but at least we did not lose another hour’s sleep. We skipped breakfast and met Julia at 8:30.

Our plan was to have breakfast at the Stolle pie shop, but it had not opened yet when we arrived at 8:50, so Julia and Vladimir changed the itinerary around and we visited a working Russian Orthodox church. The sanctuary was filled with icons, most many years old. At one point, religious icons were the only art allowed in Russia. Ed and D went inside while Roxanne and MA stayed in the van. They took pictures outside and had to practically fight their way inside with Julia. There was a steady stream of worshippers leaving and they all stopped outside the door to cross themselves one last time.

We noticed that most of the parishioners were elderly women. Perhaps they have help to the old ways more than anyone else, but there were few young people in evidence. Julia says that services may last two to three hours and that people come and go as they need to. There are no seats in the Orthodox churches and that may add to the turnover; it would be difficult for many of the elderly to stand for so long. We were not allowed to take photos inside this church.

We left the church and returned to Stolle which was open for business. We heard about the pie shop from Marvin and Barbara who toured SPB two years ago. In fact, the guide they used then is now the owner of the tour company we used. When D e-mailed about tours, he specified the same itinerary that they had. He would not have known about the synagogue or the pie shop otherwise.

The pies in this shop are not traditional round fruit pies. Granted, some are round, but most are really strips resembling strudel and filled with all kinds of things. They are sold as large or small pieces and are sliced so that a piece resembles an oval with filling. Roxanne said that the crust was made from a yeast dough with little shortening or butter, so it was light but not greasy.
Roxanne and Ed had four slices allegedly to share, but there was little sharing going on. Roxanne got two savory pies – cabbage and mushroom; Ed got blueberry and cheese. MA ordered apple and D, like Ed, had the blueberry. All of the fillings were made from local produce and the pies came to the table hot. We could see the morning’s supply lying on the cutting-board counter when we entered and the aroma was heavenly. When we finished, we discovered that the shop was a cash only, rubles only establishment, so Julia had to rescue us. She paid in rubles and we repaid her in US currency.

We drove to the Great Choral Synagogue. We have already seen the synagogues in Shanghai and Florence as well as the Jewish Community Center in Sevastopol, Ukraine, so this seemed to complement the earlier those visits. We were not disappointed.

The Great Synagogue has been totally restored and is magnificent but not overstated. There is lots of wood evident, especially in the pews, but there is also a hint Moorish décor throughout. The area surrounding the Ark is in blue and white mosaic tile with key-hole architecture mimicking Moorish designs. The bima, or altar, is in the center of the sanctuary rather than at one end and the balcony was designed for women to use during services in keeping with the separation of the sexes. This is a working synagogue, not a museum.

We were also able to see the “bride’s room,” a large room containing a chair under an awning where a bride awaits the marriage ceremony and the appearance of her husband-to-be before the ceremony. This room also had display cases with photographs, documents, books and other things and reminded us of the displays in the old synagogue-turned-museum we saw in Shanghai in 2008. We don’t know if all of the guides know to ask about this room, but Julia told us that her mother-in-law is/was Jewish so she is familiar with the Great synagogue. She told us that there are at least 100,000 Jews in SPB out of a population of 4.5 million, a surprisingly high number we thought. She was only aware of one other synagogue, though, and said it was a very small one which non-Jews [like her] were not allowed to enter.

Yesterday, we saw parks and palaces which were some distance from SPB proper. Today we spent all day downtown. From Stolle, we drove to the Yusupov Palace. The term “palace” is used loosely here to indicate a really large home. The Yusupov’s were not royalty but they were so rich that they may have had more cash and property than the Romanov czars. The Yusupov Palace is important for two reasons: it was a magnificent collection of rooms and it was the site where the Mad Monk, Rasputin, was murdered.

We began with the story of Rasputin and Julia told it like an actress. Although uneducated, Rasputin claimed to have mystical powers although they may have been simply the powers of persuasion. He claimed to have “cured” a friend of Alexandra, wife of Czar Nicholas II. He became a trusted family advisor because the Romanov’s hoped he would be able to cure their son of his hemophilia. It was not to be. Others close to the Romanov’s were jealous of Rasputin’s influence on the czar and plotted to murder him. Legend has it that they gave him massive doses of cyanide masked in food and drink to hide the almond aroma. An ordinary man would have died very quickly but the massive, 6 foot 6 inch Rasputin should no ill effects, so Yusupov finally shot him.

Even then, he did not die and dragged himself from the basement where he was shot up a flight of steps. He really scared the plotters, so they also shot Rasputin and then rolled him in draperies and carried him to a boat. His body was dumped far from the Yusupov home. Because they did not weigh him down, his body floated to the surface the next day and the entire plot came undone.

We went upstairs after hearing about Rasputin and walked through the public rooms of the Yusupov Palace. Julia explained the artwork, furniture and color schemes but it was so involved that the details have become hazy. We did see one room that was designated as a women’s bedroom. Originally, it was unused and served as an example of sleeping quar5ters available for female guests staying overnight. Later is was actually used and a doorway was cut into the wall [but wallpapered to match the room so it was not noticeable]; the doorway led to a set of stairs which connected to the private quarters of the Yusupov’s. Draw any conclusions you wish.

We were also treated to an a cappella mini-concert while we were there. In one of the ballrooms, a quartet sang old Russian folk songs and then tried to peddle their CDs to the tourists who heard them. They were quite good and sounded like Il Divo. The acoustics in the room were excellent and enhanced the sound and the experience.

The Yusupov Palace also contained its own theater with seating for about 150 people. It was the 18th and 19th Century version of the home theater. There was also a study which looked more like a library because of the walls filled with bookcases. Another feature of the study was the hidden passage built into a corner bookcase, one of five hidden exits in the Palace; we saw another under the pool table.

When we finally left the Yusupov Palace, we went to the Church of the Spilt Blood. It is officially the Church of the Resurrection but it has been called this ever since Czar Alexander was murdered in it. He was the victim of an assassin’s bomb and the cobblestone area where this happened is still preserved albeit cordoned off so tourists can’t really see it clearly.

Both the exterior and interior of the Church of the Spilt Blood are covered in mosaics. In fact, the entire interior is done in mosaic tile. There is not a square inch which is not; the exterior has some mosaic panels and onion-dome spires reminiscent of St. Basil’s in Moscow. It is the interior which one remembers most despite the almost Disney-like appearance of the outside. There are religious scenes from both the Old and New Testaments done in mosaic; there are pseudo-icons with halos over saints’ heads done in mosaic; there are panels large and small. The most amazing thing, though, is that it all looks brand new even though it is not. A massive restoration project, which took twenty years or more, had art students [primarily] cleaning and restoring each tile by hand. Some of the damage may have been as a result of the War, but much was also caused simply by age, dirt, and soot from candle smoke. The restoration work is chronicled in display panels and show before and after pictures. The results were truly amazing.

This might be a good time to talk about tourists, especially those on shore excursions from cruise ships. We saw none of these people at the Orthodox church, the pie shop or the Great Synagogue, but they became noticeable and obnoxious when we got back on the beaten track at the Yusupov Palace, Church of the Spilt Blood and, finally, the Hermitage. They were loud, rude and pushy. Despite signs in the Hermitage that said flash photography was forbidden, they kept flashing away. Worse, though, was the sheer number of them, each group following a guide holding up a sign with their group number so they would not get separated.

We were overrun by groups from Costa and MSC today. To get an idea of how big these ships are – and how many tourists they spewed forth this morning – we saw group numbers as high as 78 from one cruise line. Think of how many people that represents if each of the 78 tours has 35 people. MSC had so many people that could fill buses by the language used on the tour. We decided that the Costa passengers were even ruder and more physical than the Japanese have been. HAL did not come put innocent, either. MA heard a guide with a Holland group say that if any of them were pushed, they should push right back. That’s real class.

The largest number of groups was at the Hermitage, our last stop for SPB. While it is purportedly the largest museum in the world, it was hot and crowded. Tour leaders thought nothing of walking in front of other people and dragging their groups so that no one could take unobstructed pictures or see anything. The jockeying for position was ridiculous.

Anyway, we toured the second floor of the Hermitage but not before we grabbed a quick lunch in the museum café. Julia sort of made her own line and we ordered one stromboli and one Coke per couple and shared. Julia declined our offer to buy her lunch. The stromboli contained peppers, mushrooms, onions and maybe meat; were tasty; and hit the spot. Once again, we ran into the cash/rubles only policy and once again Julia had to come to our assistance.

We might have preferred the Impressionist paintings on the third floor, but we didn’t know about their location until too late and it would have meant another long flight of stairs. We did see some Picasso works which were part of a temporary exhibit but we were forbidden to photograph anything in a temporary exhibit. Once past those works, we began in earnest.

The hermitage contains more than three million works of art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, etc. – housed in five buildings: the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Small Hermitage and the Theater. They are all connected and face the Neva River across from the Rostral Columns and Peter and Paul Fortress. We had to remember that the Winter Palace and some of the others were constructed as residences, not museums. The rooms are so large, though, it is easy to forget.

We felt, in retrospect, that Julia was trying to show the best of Russia and, as a result, we spent so much time on older masterpieces and illustrations of Russian artistry that we missed the Impressionists. Among other things we saw a mechanical clock of gold shaped like a peacock and other animals where the time was displayed in a mushroom. There were mosaic tabletops with pieces millimeters thick and others with larger pieces. Vases and tables which appeared to be solid malachite and lapis lazuli were actually veneers. It was hard to imagine how the veneer was created and applied to large fluted urns. We could not get out of Russia without more icons and triptychs or the jewels in the museum’s crown.

Each room, or gallery, contained not only antique works of art, but also antique Russian women. These babushkas were there to protect the displays but seemed not to care. It was up to the schoolteachers and Julia to remind people not to use the flash attachments on their cameras, reminders that were not always met with humility.

There were large [and pushy] crowds in front of the two Da Vinci works on display. It was as if to say, “See, we’re a good enough museum to have two of the fourteen Da Vinci’s in existence.” These paintings were behind glass, as were most of the Hermitage’s pictures, as protection from idiots and vandals. The idiots kept shooting flash pictures [despite us and the babushkas] so the glass may have protected the priceless canvases from damage due to the bright flash of light. Vandals have damaged pictures in the Hermitage before with the most serious case involving someone who threw acid on a Rembrandt.

We progressed to Rembrandt and Reubens as well as other Old Masters and were pretty much on culture overload by 4:00. We still had a little time left in the schedule to see the impressionists, but we did not have the energy, so we went back to the ship. We were home at 4:30, a mere 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

We all managed to rest a little before dinner [galumpki/fish] and went to bed almost immediately after. If we ever return to SPB, we will have to allow a lot more time.

Tomorrow – Helsinki, Finland


  1. You didn't miss anything on the subway or the farmers market, except the bathrooms with holes in the floor!

    I don't think it was so crowded when we were there. Sounds like all the guides dp the same routes.... only thing we didn't do was the Synagogue.

    We loved SPB and I wouldn't mind going back.

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