Thursday, March 16, 2017 - Catherine Palace, Gulf of Finland, Exploring Gostinyy DvorWhen Craig woke up this morning, his facial swelling had improved. Though he could still feel a tightness in his skin, it was not visible to the eye. He continued taking antihinstamene to keep it at bay. We ate a very nice breakfast at the hotel. This time, we augmented our favorite buffet dishes with made-to-order crepes with salmon caviar.
Tamara and Andrey picked us up and we drove an hour out of town to Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoye Selo, village of the Tsars) to see the Catherine Palace, the summer residence of the Tsars. This is a quiet, residential area with nice parks. Once again, we had sunshine and blue skies.
Peter the Great's wife Catherine I commissioned a stone palace here. Then in 1752, her daughter Elizabeth I oversaw a great expansion and renovation of the palace, using the same architect who had designed the Winter Palace and Smolnyy Cathedral. It was the longest palace in the world, at over 300 meters. It became the summer residence of the Tsars, and a manmade lake was constructed on the property. Catherine the Great made significant additions to the palace as well.
We climbed the marble main staircase, with its white Rococo-inspired walls and ceiling. On the eastern landing, a marble statue, "Cupid Awakening" by Victor Brodzsky, stretches to greet the new day. On the western landing, is its companion piece, "Cupid Sleeping." Another stunning example of Brondzsky's work is "Woman under a Veil," a marble bust in which the veil over the woman's face looks more like sheer fabric than marble. The veil drapes so convincingly, and you can see the woman's facial features beneath it. It was amazing!
We entered the enormous Great Hall, which encompasses 800 square meters. It runs the entire width of the palace so it has walls of windows on both sides. Sunlight was flooding in through the windows and shining off of the gilding. Every inch of the ceiling was covered in beautiful paintings. A group of young schoolchildren were being escorted by a woman in an imperial ballgown. It was quite surreal. It really brought to mind the ballroom in the animated movie "Anastasia."
An unexpected bonus was the fact that there is a temporary exhibit of costumes from the upcoming film "Matilda" on display at Catherine Palace The film is a period drama about the love affair between Nicholas II and ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinska. The exquisite costumes were displayed in the First Anteroom, a smaller version of the great hall, containing blue tiled fireplaces. We had seen the Tsar's actual ermine robe at the Armoury Museum in the Kremlin, and here we saw a replica of unbelievable quality. Unlike ballet costumes meant to be seen at a distance, these costumes were optimized for high definition close-ups. Seeing how much care had been put into the costumes, we could tell that this is a high-quality production which we will want to see. There were also life-sized replicas of the crown jewels which were used in the movie. Everything looked so authentic that it really added to the ambiance of the palace.
Other anterooms contained lavish dining tables with porcelain tableware and topiary centerpieces. Servers' and butlers' costumes from the "Matilda" film were displayed next to the tables.
The highlight of the palace is the famous amber room. Ornate amber wall panels were a gift from Prussia (Germany) to Peter the Great in 1709, in exchange for 55 elite Russian soldiers. Elizabeth I had the amber panels installed in the Winter Palace, and then Catherine the Great had them moved and installed in Catherine Palace in 1755.
Perhaps the fact that they were German-made encouraged the Nazis to steal them when they took over Catherine Palace during WW II. (The German army took up command in the Catherine Palace in September of 1941.) The panels were removed from the country, and were believed to have been seen in Konigsberg Castle. Despite much investigation, they have never been found and are often presumed destroyed.
In 1979, the Soviet government embarked on a project to rebuild the room. Germany contributed reparations money to help with the effort. Craftsmen worked from photographs of the original room. The restoration was complete and the replica room opened to the public in 2003 for the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
Amber is fossilized sap from the Baltic regions. It ranges in color from very deep red (at the earth's surface) to an opaque yellow, (at the deepest depths), and many shades in between. The panels were made of many pieces of amber arranged in mosaics. There are also several frames made out of three dimensional carved amber. Some of the transparent pieces have reverse painting on the back which shows through. The room is absolutely gorgeous! The amber room contains over a ton of 40-million-year-old amber! It is like standing inside a gemstone or a kaleidoscope.
No photos were allowed inside of this room, but it was gorgeous. I found the following on Wikimedia Commons:
And the Catherine Palace web site has a wonderful Virtual tour of the amber room!
We continued our tour of the palace. The green dining room has pale green walls decorated with white bas-relief classical figures. This room was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her son Paul I. We couldn't help but be reminded of Catherine the Great's love of cameos when admiring the decor of this room.
Since this is the off-season and there weren't too many tourists, we were allowed to make a circle through the palace. This meant that we got to see all of the rooms, and even pass through some (such as the Great Hall) twice. In the height of tourist season in the summer, people can only go in one direction, so they either see one half of the building or the other, with each side getting a chance to view the amber room.
It was such a gorgeous day that we decided to explore the Catherine Gardens. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. We emerged from the palace next to a ramp by which Catherine the Great could descend from the hanging gardens on the second floor of the palace to the grounds below. There was a light coating of snow on the ground.
Tamara was worried about whether Craig would have difficulty walking on the snow, and asked if we wanted to continue, or if we wanted Andrey to pick us up now. Craig had his cane and proper footwear, so as long as we went slowly, we were fine. We certainly didn't want to squander this amazing weather.
Tamara said that there is a concert hall on a tiny island in the manmade lake. In the summer, the building was obscured by leaves, so music would seem to emanate from the lake itself. Though the grounds are obviously more vibrant and lush in the summer, there was also a beauty to them in the winter. The canals and the man-made Great Pond were frozen, and there was a light coating of snow on the ground.
We stopped to marvel at the exterior of the gorgeous baroque Grotto Pavilion on the lakeshore. Craig noticed a small bird hiding in the relief work at the top of a column, chirping away.
We crossed a small stone bridge called the Humpback Bridge over a small frozen canal. Straight walking paths radiated like spokes of a wheel in the French Garden. We approached another gorgeous baroque structure: the Hermitage Pavilion.
The Hermitage Pavilion is like a mini palace unto itself. Elizabeth I was fond of unique amusements, and this structure was designed with this in mind. She would host gatherings in the Central Hall of the upper floor. While the guests were dancing, servants were setting tables with extravagant table settings and food downstairs. An elaborate series of dumbwaiters were used so that the fully set table would rise and emerge through a hole in the floor of the Central Hall. The guests would be delighted. After they were finished eating, the table would disappear, and the dancing would continue while the servants cleaned up downstairs. Although the Hermitage Pavilion was not currently open, we could peek through the doors to see the elaborate dumbwaiter mechanisms.
We exited the gardens by the gothic Hermitage Kitchen / Red Gate, where Andrey picked us up. On the drive back to St. Petersburg, Tamara pointed out garage complexes. We had seen these from the train, but hadn't been sure what they were. They look like rows upon rows of small storage sheds or storage units. Tamara explained that there is basically no place to park in the city center. In Soviet times, if people were lucky enough to have a car, they would come to the outskirts of the city and rent a little garage within one of these garage complexes. Everyone did this, and men would often tell their wives that they were going to their garage to work on their car when actually they were just going to the garage to meet friends and drink vodka.
Craig inquired as to whether there was any chance of having a look at the Gulf of Finland on our way back to the hotel. Even though our tour was supposed to end at 1:30 today, Tamara and Andrey offered to take us. They called the office to make sure it was ok, and then spent an extra hour with us so that we could see where the Baltic Sea meets the Neva River.
Surpisingly, it wasn't all that far from the city center. We passed by active shipyards on the coast. There were literally mountains of scrap metal. It was interesting to see this industrial area, so integral to the city's past and present. The irony of passing through the working class section of town in a chauffered Mercedes with black tinted windows was not lost on us, especially when Andrey got out to ask some truck drivers how to access the Western High Speed Diameter bridge.
The bridge was quite modern looking, and the streetlamps formed a larger than life rib cage above the road. We could see the frozen water of the ports. From here, it is only a 3 hour drive to Finland. We passed the brand new Krestovsky Stadium (Zenith Arena), which looks like a huge flying saucer which just landed in the city. It is a venue for the upcoming World Cup. We hadn't realized just how close the city center is to the Baltic Sea, and it became obvious how strategic the location of the city really is.
Tamara told us about the Saint Petersburg Flood Prevention Facility Complex ("St. Petersburg Dam"), a project over 30 years in the making, which protects the city from storm surge flooding the Neva from the Baltic Sea. When it opened in 2011, it protected the city from its 309th flood, saving over a billion roubles in damages.
We really appreciated this spontaneous visit. The river and canals are such an integral part of the city, that it was nice to be able to see its ocean access first-hand. We have been highly impressed by Abercrombie & Kent on this trip. Tamara and Andrey are really dialed in to our interests and abilities. This was our last day of guided touring, and it did not disappoint!
As we drove back to the city center, we passed a submarine in the Neva River. Tamara said that this was a private museum. Tomorrow, our last day, we would be on our own. We had been keeping a list of potential things to do. This submarine suddenly catapulted to the top of the list.
We stopped back at the hotel. It was mid-afternoon and we were hungry, but we could hold off until dinner if we had something small. So we shared the pryanic gingerbread that we had bought in Sergiev Posad. It was quite fresh and tasty, and was able to tide us over until dinner. I Googled the submarine and found that it was C-189, a Whiskey class diesel electric Soviet submarine. It operates as a private museum, and apparently you can get hands-on with the equipment. Yes, please!
We then headed out on our own to explore the neighborhood on foot. Our hotel is in Arts Square of Gostinyy Dvor (Great Bazaar). We walked past the Russian Museum and down Griboedova Canal toward the Church on Spilled Blood. It looked beautiful against the bright blue sky. There were merchants' stalls set up selling various souvenirs, and we bought a few inexpensive items, such as shot glasses. The sellers were all quite friendly and didn't exert any pressure. We noticed a nesting doll of New England quarterback Tom Brady, and took a photo. A woman was feeding pigeons. and they flew right at people (including us) to get to the food.
We passed a bronze statue of a man standing casually with a book under his arm, leaning against an empty chair. I sat in the chair for a photo, and a local passerby told us in English that the man is a character called The Cheater from a Russian poem. Upon further research, I learned that the character's name is Ostap Bender, a con man in the satirical novel "The Twelve Chairs" by Ilf and Petrov. In the novel, Bender uses his street smarts to help to locate family heirloom jewelry which was hidden in dining room chairs which were seized by the Communists. The statue's nose was shiny brass, belying that many people had rubbed it for luck.
We walked back toward Arts Square and went into Arts Square Gifts. It was a wonderland of matryoshkas, Faberge-style music boxes, and amber. Craig loved the elaborate egg-shaped music boxes, especially ones featuring ballerinas. He really wanted to get one, but the music that they played just didn't fit. Old MacDonald? Really? And another variant, equally beautiful, played a patriotic American song. The music was so at odds with the beauty of the music box that we just couldn't bring ourselves to buy either one of them. However, there was a gorgeous white egg-shaped music box with a bride and groom dancing in the center which played a nice piece of classical music. We are rapidly approaching our 20th wedding anniversary in a year and a half, so it seemed quite appropriate! We purchased the music box as well as two small matryoshka wooden thimbles.
We walked back to the hotel to drop off our purchases, and then headed out for the evening. We took a right when we reached Nevsky Propsekt, a direction we had not yet explored. We stopped in to a couple of small souvenir shops, and a classical music shop which sold sheet music, CD's, and instruments. We inquired if they had anything by violin virtuoso Maxim Fedotov, whom we had seen play in Moscow. The clerk checked in back and then apologized that they didn't have anything.
Next we went into House of Books, an enormous bookstore housed within Singer House. This building was constructed as a home for the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Russia. It was meant to be a skyscraper similar to the Singer Building in New York, but local regulations prohibit buildings to be taller than the Winter Palace. So they designed a six story Art Nouveau building crowned by a glass globe sculpture.
Bookstores here are crowded and fascinating. A copy of Patti Smith's "M Train" caught my eye, with its Cyrillic lettering on the front. I held it up for a photo - Patti Smith is one of my favorite authors and performers. Next to it was a Russian copy of "Just Kids." Nearby was a rack of very random CD's, and we noticed best of's from both Rainbow and Dio among the offerings. We browsed through the toy section and left after buying a couple of postcards.
Then we looked for a place to eat. We were once again looking for a casual restaurant with good ambiance and good, affordable food. We found the perfect spot: Katyusha. It was down in the basement of a building just beyond Singer House. We entered and found ourselves in a cheerful Soviet-era florally-decorated retreat. The hostess' desk was made of stacked vintage suitcase, and there was a cherry-colored vintage girl's bicycle standing proudly in front of it. The servers were dressed in period floral dresses. There were several small dining rooms, giving the establishment the feeling of a small house or apartment.
It was comfortable and charming. The coat check tags were matryoshka-shaped. We were seated at a comfortable booth and ordered drinks. We decided that we wanted to try a higher quality vodka, so we each ordered a premium shot of Onegin vodka. Wow, that was smooth!! Craig ordered an American Illusion APA (American Pale Ale), a Russian-made beer similar to an IPA that he liked very much, and I ordered cranberry mors. We sipped our drinks and munched on a bowl of sushki, crunchy tiny bread rings that look like miniscule bagels. They are said to be a dessert food to be enjoyed with tea, but they sure were good bar snacks!
Our server, Sasha, offered us suggestions for food. We ordered appetizers: two small meat pies and an order of Siberian pelmeni meat dumplings. While we perused the menu for main courses and ate our appetizers, we had a second round of Onegin shots.
For some reason, (we don't know where we got this idea) we are having an additive number of vodka shots each night we are in St. Petersburg. When in Russia, do like the Russians do! Tonight is night #4, so we planned on doing 4 shots. Well, until Sasha told us that on Thursday nights, they have a special tasting menu that consists of 5 different hand-made flavored vodkas and accompanying mini-appetizers. Sounds good to us! We shared each of these shots, so our grand total was 4.5 per person. Each one paired deliciously with its appetizer:
As we left the restaurant, Craig playfully posed with a cut-out of a car that advertised the restaurant.
As we crossed the street, we noticed that a crowd had formed in front of the Nevsky Prospekt Metro station, and we could hear live music. We stopped to check it out and found two street performers. There was a young man playing guitar and singing, and he was accompanied by a young lady on the violin. The crowd consisted of folks of all ages, though the majority seemed to be college-aged. They all knew the material, and were singing along passionately. An elderly gentleman was dancing. The good-natured guitarist/singer encouraged one of the college-aged women to dance with this man, and she was a great sport. The crowd loved it! He was a total gentleman, kissing her hand, dipping her, etc. One middle-aged man had a sketch pad and was sketching the scene.
The setting was surreal, with the beautifully lit Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in the background. The music was quite enjoyable, and we gave the performers a tip. The crowd grew larger as they played. Then, half an hour later, the performance ended. Instantly, everyone disappeared, either continuing along Nevsky Prospekt or disappearing into the subway station. Just like that, there was no indication that anything had happened on this streetcorner, as if it had all been a dream. If I hadn't captured it on film, it may have seemed like a hallucination brought on by the vodka.
We were very grateful that we had happened upon this impromptu gathering. We love music, and the performers were quite talented. It was so nice to be able to witness the sheer joy that crowd was feeling. What an unexpected and authentic experience. This is one of the many joys of travel; you never know what you will encounter.
We continued our walk back to the hotel and got some rest. Tomorrow is the last full day of our trip, and it is a free day to fill as we please.
Gulf of Finland
First Anteroom: Costumes from the film Matilda
Victor Brodzsky: Woman under a Veil
Green Dining Room
Ramp for Catherine the Great to descend from the Hanging Garden of the palace to the grounds
Partially frozen Gulf of Finland viewed from Western High Speed Diameter bridge
Church on Spilled Blood
With Ostap Bender and one of his 12 chairs
Patti Smith's "M Train" and "Just Kids" in Russian at House of Books!
Drinks and sushki at Katyusha
Russian cuisine at Katyusha
Need a lift?
Street performers playing guitar and violin for an adoring crowd outside Nevsky Prospekt Metro