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Published: July 29th 2019
Day 1 - 3 from 80
Good morning / afternoon /evening everyone, depending on what time it is there when you open this.
Yes, we are on our travels again, so this is a sunny welcome and "Privyet!" from St Petersburg .... the Russian branch not Floridian.
3 months this time. St P, Moscow, Trans-Mongolian Express, Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing for a week, 3 weeks group tour of China, 3 weeks across S China and out via stays in Macau and Hong Kong. Phew...
Started as usual by dropping off the car and the cat in Manchester to be baby sat by Simon. Flight to St P was with KLM via a very brief transfer in Schiphol, Amsterdam. 2 concerns about that as we set off. 1 - we had less than an hour for transfer, so we were a bit twitchy when the Manchester flight departed 30 minutes late. And 2 - on the Wednesday before our very early Saturday flight, Schiphol was basically non-operational as the airport's fuel system had shut down, with 10,000s of passengers stuck at the airport.
In the end, all was well. Schiphol was no busier than any other international airport,
the first flight made up some time, and our inbound arrival gate was just around from our onward departure gate. St P, therefore, was reached on time.
St P was founded by Tsar Peter I on the 16 th (27 th - calendar change) of May, 1703 as a coastal outpost on the banks of the River Neva. It remained as capital of the Russian Empire until 1918. Whilst no longer the capital of Russia it is somewhat regarded as the cultural capital of the country. It was built on swamp land, requiring considerable drainage works. As a result there are over 90 canals criss-crossing the city, and .... surprise, surprise ... it is known as 'the Venice of the North', though we thought that was Birmingham 😊
Not much on Saturday. After some relax and recuperation time we headed towards the grand city centre, using the impressive metro system. St P metro is one of the deepest in the world, and, along with Moscow, is renowned for the impressive decorative nature of some of its stations. We shall be seeking some of these out during our week here.
First stop, though, was the statue of Peter
The Great, The Bronze Horseman, founder of the city. The statue, particularly with its rough hewn granite base, looks somewhat contemporary, but actually dates from 1782, and was erected on the centenary of Peter's coronation. One guide we read said that the base stone is the largest stone ever moved purely by human effort, without the help of animals or vehicles. It is a stonking lump of stone, but larger than the biggest columns at Stonehenge? Or the largest stone heads on Easter Island? It goes by the moniker of ' Thunder Stone ' , from a local legend that thunder split off a section of the stone. And whatever the size of the base stone, getting it into place must have been quite a feat in 1782 given that the location then was basically swamp land. The engineer in charge solved this issue by moving the stone during winter when the ground was frozen solid. Suppose it was one way for the serfs to keep warm in the middle of winter.
A short wander took us into Palace Square, location of the world-famed Hermitage Museum, a destination for later this week. But, we'll get no iconic frontage photos
on this trip as an enormous stage has been erected in front of it ready for the Navy Day concert tomorrow, Sunday.
Sunday - Navy Day across Russia, with the biggest celebrations being held in St P, and as we set off on Sunday morning it appears that half the city is intent on lining the river. And with good reason. We were expecting 40+ ships of the Russian Fleet, to process past us on the river, plus a flypast of military aircraft.
We got some of that. But not as much as we hoped for. The river banks, particularly where we were, were rammed. And the ships which processed past us were not the biggest. We were expecting, from what we had been able to find from limited on-line information, some of Russia's largest warships, and the world's largest submarine. However, the ships which went past were quite modest. Back in our room that evening we watched some extensive coverage of the events on a Russian news channel from which we established that the other half, the larger half of the assembled flotilla, were actually moored up off a naval base island around 30 kms out towards
the Gulf of Finland. There they held mock battles complete with missile firings, warplanes dropping distraction flares, amphibious vehicles, blank rifle firing etc. Back in the real world we saw none of that.
After the airforce fly past, as the crowds were dispersing, we became aware of movement behind us towards the road down which earlier had matched a troop of seamen. Thinking it was them returning to barracks we wandered that way to find. ... Vladimir Putin on walkabout. We knew he was here. We had recognised his name and voice over the pa system during the event, but here he was 'casually' strolling back to wherever. But with a goodly phalanx of heavies scanning the crowds as he walked past. Lots of cheering. He is a local, St P, boy.
Talking of the speeches over the pa there were lots of repetition of the word 'floaters', but we expect that it doesn't have the same meaning as back home 😊 .
Having worked our way, slowly, through the crowds away from the bank of the Neva River, we ambled down to the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, another
of St P's iconic sights with its multicoloured onion domes.
Erected on the site where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded by a bomb in 1881 we hadn't realised that that location description was quite so literal. Alex II was killed canal side, and so in order to incorporate the very actual murder site within the commemorative church they narrowed the canal by several metres so that the cobbled pavement, where he lost his legs and lower part of his torso, could be covered within the church. Inside the church there is then an elaborate canopy covering the actual spot, including the real road cobbles.
The inside of the church is, from about 4 feet above floor level, TOTALLY covered in mosaics - over 7500 sq metres, more than any other church in the world.
Following the 1917 Russian Revolution the church was looted and ransacked. It was closed in the 1930s. During WWII it was used as a morgue, and afterward for theatre scenery storage, and also vegetable storage leading to it being ironically named Saviour on Potatoes!
Eventually, restoration started in 1970 and it reopened in 1997, as a 'museum' rather than a working
church. 24 years to build .... 27 years to restore. And the modern day craftspeople have done a wonderful job. It fair glows inside.
More bling after that as we went to the Faberge Museum, holder of the 2nd largest collection of Faberge Easter Eggs, including 9 of the magnificent Imperial Eggs made specifically for Alexander III and Nicholas II. Located in suitable glamorous surroundings of the Shuvalov Palace, an 18th C beauty, fully restored and opened in 2013.
The eggs on display were bought by Viktor Vekselberg in 2004 from the family of American newspaper magnate Malcolm Forbes, privately, before auction, for an estimated $100m.
There are 15 eggs in total, each as time progresses, seeming more elaborate than the previous.
The first Imperial egg at first sight looks quite plain, being just that ... a hen's egg sized/shaped plain white enamel egg. But with a gold sphere egg yolk inside that. Within which sits a finely crafted sitting hen, in delicate multicoloured gold feathers. Inside that was a miniature, gold and diamond replica of the Imperial Crown. AND, finally, inside that was a ruby pendant on a fine gold chain. Regrettably the crown and
its pendant/chain are now missing.
Over time, Faberge's annual Imperial eggs became more and more elaborate, incorporating hidden mechanisms, pop up features, clockwork. .. The quality of Faberge's work is exquisite. And this is then emphasised by the dozen or so rooms filled with other works in gold, silver, precious stones that bulk out the museum.
Pip's favourite, of course, was the Lily-of-the-Valley egg.
That was a pretty full Sunday. Early start on Monday to get ourselves, by public transport - metro and local minibus - to the Catherine Palace at Pushkin, around 30 kms south of St P. And to get there ahead of its notorious multi-hour long tourist queues. They sell a limited number of tickets - 100 only! - for each day on line exactly at midnight 14 days beforehand, that sell out in seconds. The only way in, if you fail that way, is either to invest in a way overpriced bussed-in from St P guided tour, or to queue. So we chose the latter, joining the q just after 9am for doors open at 12 noon.
We won't rant about the total ineptitude of the queuing, ticketing, audio-guiding etc NON-arrangements that
featured through our entry to the Palace. We'll save that for a TripAdvisor review. However, after the time it took us to sort things out after entry, this worked to our advantage as they let visitors in in sets of 25 at 15 minutes intervals. So we were behind our 'group' but ahead of the next by some way. We had the first dozen or so rooms almost to ourselves. Bliss ... especially as at the Palace it felt like all of Beijing was visiting at once!
The Palace was built in 1717 as the summer residence of Empress Catherine I. Extended in 1743 to the style and appearance of today, more than 100kg of gold was used to gild the stucco facade.
An aside - Catherine the Great, who entered the Romanovs through marriage - not a descendant of Catherine I - thought the palace too elaborate and moved the family to the more 'moderate' Alexander Palace next door (currently closed for renovation ) as home - which was subsequently used as 'home' until 1917 . The Alexander Palace's final, formal occupation by Tsar Nicholas II was him and his family under Revolutionary house arrest, before their
subsequent transportation east towards their assassination.
Anyway, back to Catherine Palace - much was destroyed in WWII, but due to extensive archive documents much, but not all, had been restored. So much opulence, gilding, large windows, magnificent paintings on walls and ceilings, parquet flooring - we had to wear cloth overshoes.
The famed Amber Room had to be recreated as, notoriously, the Amber was shipped out by the Nazis during the war. Tales and fables galore abound as to whether the 'Amber Room' still exists somewhere. In caves in the Alps. ... in a train in a buried secret tunnel..... who knows? This too had been recreated, opened about 15 years ago. Our picture is a bit rough as no photos allowed in there.
A gentle walk around the two parks - Catherine Palace and Alexander Palace, before we chanced upon the quaintest little Orthodox Church which wouldn't have looked out of place in the snow in New England, USA. We entered to find more gilding, icons galore and haunting plainsong chanting coming, live, from the priests beyond the magnificent altar screen. A calming period before reversing our journey back into St P.
Tomorrow - Hermitage
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