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Palaces, Picassos and Pickpockets — St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

Palaces, Picassos and Pickpockets – St. Petersburg, Russian Federation
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

Where I stayed
An apartment of Nevski Boulevard What I did
The fantastic Palaces of the Tsar’s

Saint Petersburg

Today we traveled by Sapsan train to Saint Petersburg, one of those fast trains with the recognisable long, tapering noses. Our carriage was number 10 and we had a premier class seat for the 4 hour trip. In our group of four we were joined by two guys from Azerbaijan, Nadir and Anar. Both work for the State Customs Committee and Anar is the First Duty Chief, a Customs Modernization Advisor. Great conversation as they are both travelers. These trains get up to 300 km so the trip was over in no time.
We took a taxi ride to our digs on Malaya Morskaya. Stopping at the kerb, the driver got out, looked around and I thought to myself ‘here we go again’. Memories of our cold introduction to Ekaterinburg came flooding back. A quick phone call in Russian though, and all was good. The entrance to our complex was through a large iron grated gate that lead off the street, through a tunnel, into an open courtyard. Windows of apartments faced the dirty, dismal courtyard as did the solid metal doors that allow access to groups of apartments. The courtyard however was full of Mercedes, Audi and Range-rovers. A woman met us and showed us our door. The stairs to level two were broken concrete and unsurfaced, the hand rails were shaky and also broken. Are you getting the picture? We sure were. What had we got ourselves into this time.
Pam and I struggled up the stairs with our heavy bags but once inside we were again relieved and surprised. We had a lovely apartment, the only problem being a communal kitchen. Everything else was fine – heated floors and good beds.
The position of this place is super, just off Nevsky Prospect which is the main Avenue of Saint Petersburg. It is all of a five minute walk to the Winter Palace which houses the famous Hermitage art gallery and museum. We could not want for a better location. We were surrounded by the five star hotels: Four Seasons, Radisson, Hyatt, but had our own little niche with a lot more privacy.
It was late, so we walked around the area and found a bar to have something to eat and drink. With four days of walking ahead of us and a dicky knee, there is no need to rush.
Day 1.
Looking up as we headed off for the day’s excursion, we were blessed with a blue, cloudless sky. We headed straight to the Palace Square and the tourist information centre where we got plenty of helpful info.
The centre was right beside the Hermitage but as the day was so good we decided to walk across Dvortsovy Most (bridge) to the Fortress of Peter and Paul. The Neva River was frozen over, well almost as there was a boat channel carved in the ice. We passed the impressive Old Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange building which was designed in 1805 by a frenchman and inspired by an ancient greek temple – not a bad blending of cultures.
The views from the bridge were stunning. There was not a high-rise building to be seen, just four to five stories maximum of European 19th century buildings. The building facades met the footpath along every street. The only structures that could be seen above the buildings’ roofs were church spires – beautiful.
As we crossed onto the Split of Vasilyevsky Island, the two Rostral Columns stood guard in front of the Stock Exchange. I was accosted by gypsies last time I was here, but no problems this time I hope. We continued over Birzhevoy Most before heading along the sandy foreshore walls of the fortress. Now I know that I said it was a blue, cloudless sky type of day but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t cold – still in the minuses. We stopped at an area along the river’s edge where there was a swimming pool cut out of the ice. I spotted a fellow wearing only underwear, sunning himself against the wall and it reminded me of the last time I was here and saw a similar thing. That was in November and I saw a guy come out of the river. No ice then but still it was very cold and coming into winter. By the river entrance to the fortress we saw another bunch of sunlovers. Hey, if they wanted to get a tan what’s the problem?
Walking through the portico we entered a large, open gardened space.

A wee history of the Fortress:
The Great Northern War (1700-1721) expanded Russia’s territories in the north east of Europe and also established the Russian Empire as the greatest power in Eastern Europe. Moving from Moscow, Peter the Great founded his new capital at the mouth of the Neva River on Zayachy (Hare) Island. Here he built the Fortress of Peter and Paul.
Inside the Fortress walls is the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The oldest church in St. Petersburg, it is also the second-tallest building in the city (after the television tower). It is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty, as it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great.
In 1712 the Peter and Paul Cathedral construction began. Designed by the Italian architect Domenico Trezzini, as I think half this city was, it took 20 years to build.
Inside the cathedral holds fantastic iconostasis – hand painted screens that separate the sanctuary from the nave. The walls of the cathedral are also embellished with paintings of various biblical themes. The bell tower at noon plays the national anthem, “God Save the Tsar”, to the accompaniment of a canon shot – a tradition which continues today. We can attest to this tradition as we jumped when the cannon was fired unexpectedly.
One of the major attractions is the chapel containing the graves of most of the Romanov rulers from Peter the Great onward. Peter’s grave is at the front right and people still leave fresh flowers on it. Here also are the graves of both Catherines, Elizabeth, all three Alexanders, Paul, Peter III, Anne and both Nicholas’s as well. The remains of Nicholas II (the last tsar) and his family were re-interred in the small Chapel of St. Catherine in 1998, after having been brought from Ekaterinburg by Boris Yeltsin. Nicholas 11 and his family are revered by people right across Russia, with many kissing their photos and praying to them.
Other surviving structures from the 18th century are: the Commandant’s House, the Engineering House which housed the arsenal as well as the workshops and living quarters of the military engineers, the Main Guardhouse and the Boathouse. This small pavilion was built in the mid 1760s to house the sailing dinghy that Peter the Great used in his youth. This is considered to be the birth of the Russian fleet.
The fortress gained a reputation as one of the most feared prisons in the Russian Empire. It was also the headquarters of the Secret Chancelleries, the ruthless secret police of the Tsarists era. Trubetskoy Bastion, one of the six fortress bastions, was the prison. The first prisoner to be held in the fortress was purportedly Peter’s son, Tsarevich Alexei, who was accused of leading a reactionary conspiracy against his father. He died in the fortress while awaiting execution in June 1718.
From the 1720s onwards, the fortress was used to incarcerate political prisoners. Amongst the most famous inmates were more than 200 of the conspirators involved in the Decembrist Uprising of 1825. These included Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lenin’s elder brother, and Josip Broz Tito, who went on to become the Communist leader of Yugoslavia.
Seized by the Bolsheviks at the start of the October Revolution, the fortress was used to bombard the Winter Palace on the night of October 25, 1917.
The 1930s saw the addition of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, which became the site of some of the most important experiments into rocket technology in the Soviet Union.
At the end of our visit to the Cathedral we were approached by a young priest who asked where we were from. Upon hearing that we were from Australia, he asked if we would like to come with him to a small chapel where we were privalged to hear the four resident priests sing their prayer for the day – we were the only ones there to listen to this enchanting music….how blessed were we.
Leaving the fortress we crossed the Troitsky Most then walked beside the Neva River along Dvortsovaya Nab. I was looking for a coffee shop where I had a coffee last time I was here. It was so atmospheric, I was sure that the revolution was hatched there. No luck – mind you it was over 20 years ago – so we settled for a more modern place instead.

The evening was cold, dark and it was snowing lightly but we brave souls ventured out to see the city lit up at night. At the end of our street was the Admiralty complex. It must look fabulous when all the trees in the park in front are in full bloom. The lit buildings across the river glimmered in the icey river surface. It was well worth suffering the evening chill.

Day 2
Hermitage – derives its name from the French word meaning the ‘abode of a hermit’.
This place is anything but an abode of a hermit and could be a blog on its own, so I will try to keep it short.
What exactly is “The Hermitage”? This vast Winter Palace is an imposing symbol of imperial might, power and prestige and was the official residence of the Romanov Tsar’s from 1762 until the revolution in 1917.
The State Hermitage Museum complex is, in fact, five interconnected buildings with over 1000 rooms and nearly 2000 windows and doors. There are even 100 staircases. One estimate has it that you would need eleven years to view each exhibit on display for just one minute. Get the picture?
The Hermitage art collection began in 1764 when Catherine the Great made a bulk purchase of 225 paintings, including 11 Rubens and 13 Rembrandts. It was a collection intended for Fredrick the Great of Prussia, but his warring against Russia depleted his funds, – a touch ironic, me thinks. Catherine continued to purchase massive amounts of artwork and by the time of her death had amassed thousands of items. So many in fact that she had to expand the complex. Nicholas 1 continued collecting, causing the need for another building. After the revolution in 1917, confiscated art from private collections increased the inventory threefold. This brought in the Matisse’s, Picasso’s and Gaugin’s.

We started our tour in the magnificent Palace Square. Behind us was the imposing General Staff Building.
The Winter Palace was originally painted a pale yellow with white and gilded ornamentation. Nicholas I had the building redone in a dull red in 1837, but it was after World War II that it attained its now iconic green color with white and ocher embellishments.
We entered through one of several arches adjoining the regal Main Gate. With its elaborate black metalwork, decorated with the gilded monogram of Alexander III and his wife Maria Feodorovna and topped off by a double-headed eagle, it could only give a glimpse of life in a past era. The Great Courtyard quadrangle opened up before us and was deceiptively larger that expected. The black leafless trees of the garden looked stark against the green, white and gold trimmed building’s facia. The seasons were changing and the gardeners were preparing the area. The grey, mossy grass was trimmed, the flower beds were being turned and the fountain covers were ready for removal. Having bought our tickets, there were choices to be made. We had decided to start with a general entry ticket. Cloakroom first, no jackets allowed but cameras were ok – good.
Our visit began as we climbed up the magnificent Jordan Stairs to the second level. The museum map showed sections in colour code: Green for British, Pink for Far East Asia, Red for Italian and so on. We started with the Russian Palace interior.
This could easily be a day visit by itself. The building interiors and furnishings were stunning. Wood inlayed floors of many geometric designs, soaring domed ceilings, gold trimmed walls, long colonnaded halls. The Peacock Clock, commissioned for Catherine by one of her favourites, Gregory Potemkin, took centre stage in one of the rooms. This gilded extravaganza, designed in the mid-eighteenth century by the English master James Cox, features a plethora of moving wildlife including a dragonfly, owl, squirrel, and most impressively a peacock perched in an oak tree. It still runs like … well … like clockwork. At first I wondered where the actual clock was? Upon looking closely, I saw a dial with roman numerals incorporated into the head of a mushroom, to the right of the squirrel.
Has to be seen to be appreciated – magnificent.
Wouldn’t we have liked to just sit and relax with a cup of tea, with a princess or two, at one of those beautiful mosaic embellished tables. Ah! But no, there is no time for rest. We must push on.
Pam and I stared at the exquisite writing tables and chairs – there are many. There were sitting rooms and bedrooms, libraries and staterooms. These are places of Emperors and Empresses.
Next we began looking at the art of different countries: Japanese, Indian and many more – wonderful. We entered the Flemish Artwork rooms and Pam gasped. She saw a Rubins that, as a child, she used to enjoy looking at in a book given to her by her mother. We continued to stare in amazement at the art works of the period.
I will let photos of the art complete this tale.

We had walked for many kilometres and climbed so many stairs. Pam’s feet were hurting and my knees were screaming, but we had viewed so few of the collection’s three million pieces. What was there to do but drown our sorrows in a coffee at the internet cafe. What would Catherine think of that?
We followed the signs to the exit that lead us around the corner, down a functional staircase to the second floor and then through a hall hung with immense French and Flemish tapestries. We paused halfway through this hall before the painting of Catherine the Great. She stood proud and assured in her regal glory. We nodded a note of thanks to this energetic, enlightened Empress to whom we owe the magnificent Hermitage.

Day 3

Today we were to go to the suburbs to visit Catherine’s Palace where Pam wanted to see the Amber Room. As the day was grey and Russia was coming out of Winter – Spring yet to begin it’s magic – we decided to have another crack at the Hermitage. The Church of the Spilled Blood was closed yesterday as well, so that put something else on our list
Joining the locals along Nevski Ave was fun – a busy city. We realised that we were still to see the Kazan Cathedral, so that became our first stop. Built by Andrey Voronikhin to be a copy of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was completed in 1811. From Nevski Ave it looked like a palace rather than a Cathedral and was seen as a memorial to the Russian victory over Napolean.
Another of these large domed churches, the interiors are nearly always brown in colour with gold and priceless biblical art everywhere. Christ, the Madonna and Child in many poses and numerous saints were all around us. The altar was ornate with people lining up to kiss an icon of the Virgin. An acolyte cleaned the picture every now and then. For a non believer like me it is still beautiful. I envy people their dedication.
Outside we crossed Nevski Ave to the Dom Knigi, the largest book store in the city situated in the historic Singer Building, a very impressive building with a steel dome of the world on top. Pam needed something so we went inside. This store invites you to stay longer and we did.
Walking along the edge of Griboedova Canal there were buskers and living statues the same as you would find in every major city. The difference here was that it was only 2 degrees and the wind factor must have reduced that to a minus figure. Maybe that’s why the living statues don’t move… they are, like us, frozen.
At the intersection of the Griboedova and Mokya Canals is the Resurrection Cathedral, known as the Savior on the Spilled Blood Cathedral, or simply the Spilled Blood Cathedral.
As we walked around to the entrance of the Church, there were plaques on the wall dedicated to many different events. I had to laugh at one that commemorated ‘The regulation on the daily life of the peasants of the Kingdom of Poland, 1864.’
The inside of the Cathedral was, once again, stunning. Hand painted pictures adorned the walls, the ceilings, arches… everywhere. The altar was ornately carved – beautiful. This is now a museum and, along with the multitudes, we took many pictures trying to capture the beauty of the place.

Outside again the wind was still blowing but it didn’t matter as we were only a few hundred metres from the Hermitage. We knew the routine this time, so we got our tickets from a machine in the courtyard. No queuing up for us. Finished with the formalities we proceeded straight to the British section with only a wee stop at the Peacock Clock again. I can’t get enough of this masterpiece.
The British section was small but still impressive. Next, the French then a bit of Russian Culture followed by Western European Medieval Art and Eurasian Antiquities. Finally, some more of the Italians. Who can get sick of viewing Leonardo Di Vinci’s and Titian’s works.
I have always thought that classical art needed to be a true representation of the subject. There were no cameras at the time, so a lot of these paintings are of royalty and dignitaries, country scenes, stately homes or scenes depicting events from the bible. Now we had seen so many of these magnificent paintings from all of the old masters it was time for the next generation – the modernists or impressionists. These are exhibited in the Grand General Staff Building across Palace Square.
As we crossed the Square, past Alexander Column, to the entrance of the building what a surprise we got. The exterior of the building was architectually from the early 19th Century but the interior was ultra modern. It was as though they had to make a statement with the building that was displaying the art of the modernist.
The stairs leading to the gallery entrance had a glass section in the centre. Interesting watching people walking on glass, they change their step and tread more cautiously.
This building houses everything from Art Nouveau to the items by Carl Faberge, and the Segey Shchukin and Morozov Brothers Memorial Gallery where the works of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists are displayed.
There were rooms dedicated to just one artist: Picasso, Gaugin, Degas, Van Gough to name but a few. There were a couple of Jackson Pollacks as well.
The work of Carl Faberge left us speechless and for those who know me, that is really something.
One could stay here forever but we were leaving for Murmansk the next day and needed to get ready. Reluctantly we left the Hermitage to a good sign – the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. We were blessed with beautiful weather once again – who said that those cairns I am constantly building are a waste of time. As we left we recalled what I think was a Vincent van Gogh quote: “the sadness will last forever”, and sad we are at not having more time.

As we strolled happily back to our apartment along Mokya Canal we passed the Church of Spilt Blood and, as the sun was shining, it meant more photos. Strolled down Nevski Ave with the afternoon crowd looking for a restaurant for our last evening in this super city. A wee visit to the Military Supplies store where I picked out a cap that I thought would look great in Australia – only to be told I needed approval to buy one. From whom I’m not sure, but it must have been an elite unit’s cap. I can pick em, eh!
Woops, we had forgotten another church. I needed to see Saint Isaacs. The climb to the colonnade has over 300 steps. Pam had had enough by this time, in fact I had as well but I may never come here again so I had to go on. Pam, sensibly, left and returned to our digs while I climbed the cold steps to the top. Yes, the views were worth it. The stairs up were via a circular stair structure with tight and narrow steps. A bride and groom were having their photos taken at the top. It was freezing with the cold wind ripping straight through us. She had on a typical white wedding gown, but was wearing a puffy jacket with a fur hood which was removed for the photo then quickly put back on as they moved to the next spot. The groom was a bit tougher in just a suit. Unfortunately I could not go inside as it was too late. I saw through the glass of the dome that the art and furnishings were superb – too bad.

Our last night in Saint Petersburg, we decided on a Thai infusion place called “King Pong.” The food and service were good and it was time to leave. I paid and we headed for the door. As I passed through, two large guys started pushing me from each side. Strange, I thought, as I looked at the guy on my right. He had a dark, emotionless look on his face. I started to tell him to let me through when I felt movement around my pants pocket. Pick pocket screamed into my brain. Twisting to my right I grabbed at his arm. At this point they must have realised that they were not going to score, and I was going to ground. By the time I was back on my feet they were merging with the evening. A third guy was staring at me so I started towards him, showing him that I knew what was going on. He just looked at me and may have said something along the lines of “Not me”. It was only the common sense of Pam that stopped me, for now I am an angry old man. The emphasis on old, meaning I should have known better. A few around were starting to be concerned. Our waitress came out asking if they stole anything but no, they got nothing this time. History repeats itself – I told about my last encounter with thieves here.

What a way to spoil a wonderful visit to Saint Petersburg and a city full of wonder. We had a cup of coffee and cake before heading back to our apartment, trying to put the episode behind us.

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