Tuesday, September 8, 2009

St Petersburg

St Petersburg: I almost hate to say it but one of the best parts of visiting St Petersburg may have been the people in our tour group. Jo and Rob were fun and cheery and it was totally Jo’s fault that I sat on that carved lion at Peterhof. (Well, maybe not totally Jo’s fault.) There were also 4 people from western NY one of whom worked at the white house for over 20 years and had some very interesting stories to tell. He couldn’t tell the best of the stories because White House staffers take vows of silence but it was still pretty interesting to talk with him.

The cruise ship’s people made us believe that it would be hard to get through immigration and that the officials would be rude but they weren’t at all. We were in line for about half an hour but it was pretty straight forward – show passport and proof of tour agency contact with immigration card and go. The cruise ship told us to have copies of our passports but we didn’t need them and they told us that we couldn’t bring food into Russia but that wasn’t true either and the food at the tourist locations was darn expensive – such as the tiny $18 sandwich – so on the second day we took food.

Our guide was the articulate and knowledgeable Sophia from J & T Travel. Russian tour agencies are allowed to bring people into Russia without visas. J&T arranged for us to go right into museums and churches instead of waiting in lines; had bottled water for us both days and gave us Russian dolls at the end. Also, we signed up for a tour with 4 people at a given price but when they expanded the group to 13 people the price went down to 2/3rds of the original price so that was a great surprise.

We started with a photo stop at a large square in the middle of town by St. Isaacs Church. It was damaged in the second war but when they rebuilt it damaged areas of the pillars were left as is. We were there early so it wasn’t open.

We went to Catherine’s Palace for our first taste of royal taste. There was a band playing and trying to sell CDs outside the palace. Inside was gold leaf everything.

One room was windows on one side and mirrors on the other 3 with 500 lights (replacing 500 candles) and all the decorations were carved wood with gold leaf. The room shimmered with glitz. The floor was marvelous and the mirrors were aching for fancy gowns instead of travel pants and T-shirts. The ceiling was painted and carved and gold leafed. Royalty really goes for bling.

In the halls were 2 Cupid statues. One Cupid sleeps – that’s the west – and in the east Cupid wakes up. The statues were to help guests know which wing of the palace they were standing in.

There were portraits of hims and hers and visitors and generals. There were some empty dresses showing the detail of clothing. Catherine (I think it was Catherine) never liked to wear the same gown twice. I think they have 14,000 of her gowns. How they made them fast enough is a mystery. It’s not like these were simple shifts or as if they had Singers to work with. When I think of the stitching on those yards of fabric it seems the seamstresses who first had machines must have thought they were sent from heaven.

There is a big deal made of the Amber Room. The walls are covered in bits of amber.

There are some lovely amber picture frames and I looked and squinted and turned this way and that but it seemed to me that there was no actual picture in the frames. I thought the amber would form an image in mosaic pieces but I don’t think so. I took a couple of photos before realizing that they aren’t allowed. There’s a long story about the room being stolen and taken by the Nazis and never recovered but then being reproduced from sketches. After such a build up about the amazing and marvelous Amber Room I was disappointed.

The palace looks great now but in the time of the soviet rule it was really allowed to run down. There was a lot of damage during the Second World War but it’s mostly tip top now though the upkeep on a palace is significant.

We went to an out of the way Russian Orthodox church. The yard was a bit of a mess with some construction going on and the gardens in disarray but the church looked like a cross between a cake decorating contest and a crazy quilt. There were colors and details everywhere. The outside was bright with tiles and domes and turrets and the inside was totally painted. A wedding had just taken place when we arrived and the bride and groom were leaving with guests so we went inside and looked – gawked more likely. My photos will go on flickr but they are only of the exterior and of the entry hall. No photos were allowed in the church itself but the exterior is more than enough to understand how fancy a building can get.

Peterhof – now that is really fancy but this fancy is about fountains and statues.
There are hundreds of fountains in the property and the water runs through all of them by force of gravity. It shoots tens of feet into the air at some fountains and cascades down others but it’s all just gravity. Sophia said that the water was regulated by having it flow through pipes of different diameters. It was hard to believe. Really hard to believe.

This is also a place where one can understand how detached from the ordinary people a member of royalty is. It’s not very different in the US where the members of congress at state and national levels learn to live a life of power and prestige.

That White House staff members told me that it was absurd that he should have the power over the president’s schedule that he did and also said that the major corporations own all the politicians and that there is no way that we’ll get health care or banking regulations. The country will slide so much further into decay and that change is not likely in my lifetime. So depressing and yet it is what I have often felt. Obama said, “Yes we can.” He never said, “Yes, we will.” I fear he just won’t.

About sitting on the lion at Peterhof. I saw someone do it and so decided to get into the act and Jo took the photo. I guess that after that the police came over and told people to stop. I wouldn’t have done it but the lion was polished smooth from people sitting on it so I thought to go with the flow.

The Metro was great. It was just a short trip but I’m so glad we did it. The Stalin-era stations are the best, Sophia said. They were elegantly dressed in tile work and gorgeous brass lighting fixtures and there were statues and mosaics and scrolls and some crazy Britt lady making faces at me on the longest escalator ever.

The metro is used by half the citizens every day and they need to go far below the surface to find the tracks. The Stalin Era stations are the most beautiful and beautiful is the right word. They are the palaces of the underground. Sophia said that the houses built in the Stalin era are also very well built and bring the best prices now.

She said that lots of stuff fell into ill repair during the Soviet era because an apartment meant for a family would have 5 or 7 families living in it with nobody being an owner so nobody took care of the places. Now people buy apartments and they keep them well-maintained.

We went into the subway and crunched into a packed car to go one stop and then walked through a station to another train where we spent 2 stops worth of time stomach-to-back with the citizens of St. Petersburg. When we got out the driver was there with the van and we went to the Kiznechny Market which is where folks can buy gorgeous (organic) fruits and vegetables. Sophia said that people are willing to pay the high prices to get less food because the flavor is so much better. The market also had caviar and meats and cheeses. It was beautiful.
The city is filled with gorgeous buildings and bridges. Sorry about overusing that word but it’s just the best fit. It was a real work out for the cameras.
On the second day we saw a puppy in red carpenter jeans and a fuzzy puppy that actually turned out to be a bear cub available for photos near a lovely bridge.

The Church of the Spilled Blood was the most amazing. It had been severely damaged during the Second World War and then was used as a potato storage house during the Soviet era. An unexploded shell landed in the main cupola but was removed. The church has been totally renovated now. The entire inside is covered in images made with tiny mosaic tiles - floors, walls, ceiling. It was the most impressive building. Czar Alexander II was murdered at the location so the church was built on the spot in his memory.

Then there was the Hermitage. Just when a person thinks that there can’t be anything more spectacular or ornate or complex, there is the Hermitage. It’s an art gallery containing the treasures of the royal family. These folk bought Rembrandts and Rodans and Cezannes when those guys were just artists down the block working for food so the walls are covered in treasures valued at about a million for every penny invested.

The Hermitage also holds a collection called the hidden treasures. These are works stolen from Jews by Nazis and now being contested in courts. There are no photos of these paintings allowed ostensibly because the ownership is disputed but I wonder if it is because with no photos fewer connections will be made. These people making the claims are also getting pretty old and dying off.

I’m sure I saw and heard and thought a hundred interesting things during the 2 days in St. Petersburg but the ideas have all been crowded out now by the visits to so many other places.

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