Final 2 days in St Pottersburgh

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August 5th 2019
Published: August 5th 2019
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Days 7 - 9/10 of 80

Hi all
It's Monday here, it's exactly 1.00 pm as we start to write this into Notepad (that's how we do this, write blog in an off-line pad and then transfer into the blog when on line) and the high speed Sapsan train in which we are sat has off set exactly on time for our 4 hours - 3 hrs 58 mins if it's exact -journey to Moscow. (It arrived 1 minute early).

It's like being on an airplane, but with more leg room, and, we expect, less turbulence. They even come through the cabin seeking your small change for charity 😊

However, unlike a plane, there is access to wifi, train/travel/theatre tickets booking, shoe cleaning machine, and something properly to see out of the windows rather than 'that's an interesting cloud formation'. Pip is hoping for a bear. There is even a doored off section at the front of our carriage for families with children, and signs to ask that you/we keep the noise to a minimum.

On the class we have opted for, Economy +, we are also getting fed. Don't know what yet but the attendant has just put a mini table cloth on our tray table in front of us. As it turned out it was a chicken filled croissant, a 'FitDISC' - a compressed disc of apple/nuts/grape/cinnamon which eats and tastes like the centre of a mince pie ... compressed! Where's the brandy butter when you need it? - water, coffee. So, no better than airline food after all.

The train is made by Siemens, not Russian, and travels at up to 250 kph, but at that it is slower than the really serious super high speed you get in Japan at 320 kph. Since entering service in December 2009 it has been Russian Railway's only profitable passenger service, with an 84.5% occupancy rate.

But, as is common with train travel rather than air, the start and end stations are both in the centre of town, and you don't have to undergo the ignominy of 'you left a tube of cream in your bag, sir, so I need to strip search you' security checks that require you to arrive 2 hours before you fly.

Back to Friday, which was another out of town excursion by metro and local marshrutka minibus, this time to the Peterhof Palace. We say Palace but in reality that's not the main reason to visit Peterhof. To paraphrase a 1970s advertising slogan for the Victoria and Albert Museum (Nice cafe with a museum attached), Peterhof would be best described as 'Fabulous gardens with Fountains, with a Palace attached'.

The Palace and gardens were established by Peter the Great in the early 1700s to rival Louis XIVs Versailles. Peter had visited there and was impressed. The Palace is situated on a stretch of relatively high land parallel to the coast. On the inland side is the 'Upper Garden', on the seaward side the 'Lower Garden' where all the interesting action is. Upper Garden is free, Lower Garden costs.

We didn't bother with the separate tour and cost of the Palace, partly because we were somewhat 'palaced' out but mostly because it is all a rebuild since WWII. The Palace was occupied by German troops in 1944. And a combination of the tardiness in removing its treasures before they arrived and also that the Germans basically blew the Palace up and burnt it to the ground meant that at the end of the war all that was left was the shell of the lower walls.

Around the Lower Garden are 'fountains' in many shapes and guises. The main cascade immediately below Palace central is a grand affair with 64 fountains, lots of gold gilded figurines and switches on to a musical fanfare at 11.00 pm each day - which is when the railings surrounding it become 5 deep with the tourists vying for the best camera position.

It turns out that all the fountains throughout the Lower Garden operate by gravity pressure alone. No pumps are used - I guess they weren't exactly available in the 1700s. The majority are powered by the pressure difference between Upper and Lower gardens, but the main Samson fountain, centerpiece of the main cascade, with a jet reaching 20 metres, is powered by a higher supply 4 km away.

Some of the fountains are grand structures, like the Lion Fountain with its marble columns, or the Chess Cascade. Others are more whimsical. The Bench Fountain has a seating bench, from which water spurts, and an area in front into which water occasionally spurts too. Kids take delight in trying to cross through here without getting wet, and they all succeed. Because sitting behind the bench is a gentleman who controls the jets by turning a walking stick shaped handle which he hides beside his left leg 😊.

Elsewhere in the garden, at a similar arrangement, the 'controller' is in a hut but he aims to swith ON the water just as people are crossing. There were some very wet people there.

A building in the grounds currently undergoing restoration is the Catherine Block, used for court dinners, balls, masquerades and receptions. It was from here on the night of June 28, 1762, that Catherine - then just a Grand Duchess and wife of Peter III - secretly left for St Petersburg, where in a coup d'etat she was proclaimed Empress Catherine II, later 'The Great '.

Bet she didn't get into St Petersburg, 40 km away, as fast as we did as we returned by high speed hydrofoil, many of which ply the route between St P and Peterhof.

Arriving back mid afternoon gave us the opportunity to visit St Issac's Cathedral, completed 1858. The opportunity here is to climb 262 steps up to the Colonnade for wonderful views across the city.

In keeping with several of the important churches in St P, and we guess elsewhere also, this is now a museum, with entry fee. Turned into a museum by the Soviets in 1931, when of course 'religion' was banned. In 2017 the Governor of St Petersburg offered to transfer the cathedral back to the Russian Orthodox Church, an offer which has not been taken up yet!

Saturday was a day for bits and pieces. Firstly, another church, Holy Izmailovsky Trinity Cathedral, with its pretty blue dome roof covered with gold stars, named after the lifeguards regiment in whose honour it was built. Russian Orthodox, at its construction in 1835 it was the largest church in the Russian Empire. The Izmailovsky Life Guards regiment was one of the elite military units, winning fame in many campaigns. It was the pride of the Russian Army and its commander was always the Emperor himself. The regiment was the first to swear an oath of loyalty to Catherine the Great thus cementing her ascent to the throne.

Dostoevsky was married here. And again, like at the Catherine Palace, the clergy were holding a service, off to one side, with beautiful plain song. They do employ clergy with good voices.

After the revolution when the Bolshevik terror was in full swing, from 1933 to 1938, the Cathedral became the main Cathedral of Leningrad. The clergy and congregation underwent terrible ordeals. The priests arrested, sent to concentration camps and executed by firing squads. The chandeliers, bells and the column 'Military Glory' melted down and other treasures confiscated, before closure in 1938.

It has now been painstakingly restored. 'Restoration skills' seems to be a good business to be in in St P. Plenty of steady work!

It houses an ancient treasure, an icon from 1356, given on the personal order of Vladimir Putin for the 300 year celebrations of the city. There is also, allegedly, a piece of the Holy Cross.

Nikolsky Sobor / St Nicholas Naval Cathedral next. Pretty from the outside, but the entrance guarded by a cleric stopping any visiting tourists from entering. Apparently several plaques inside to submarines including K-141 Kursk, sank in Barents Sea in August 2000 killing all 118 on board.

Nearby is a view point called 7 Bridges, called out by our boat guide on Thursday as the only place in town where you can see 7 Bridges at the same time.

It's wrong.... we could see 8! 9 if you included the upper level footbridge connecting old and new Marinisky Theatre.

Passing by a statue of Rimsky-Korsakov, we headed for the Yusopov Palace, built originally in 1776 and extensively remodeled on the 1830s when acquired by the wealthy Yusopov family. They were reputedly even more wealthy than the Romanov family if you can believe that, and you wonder why there was a Revolution.

Before the revolution it contained 40,000 works of art but these were all 'nationalised' and relocated to the Hermitage. As a result the Palace is now somewhat thin of original art, though there are some reproductions. The rooms are very nice though, and it had a glamorous, dinky little baroque theatre. Think 'The Good Old Days' but only holding 150 people.

The Palace is also notorious as the place of the murder of Grigory Rasputin, in December 1916, by a monarchist group including Prince Felix Yusopov. He was a difficult bugger to kill. His drink of red wine was laced with cyanide, but he continued to be lucid whilst drinking this. He was then shot, 4 times. And finally thrown into the canal, weighed down with chains. We were somewhat peeved to find, though, that there was absolutely no mention of this at all in the audio guide tour and its rooms. There was only a 2 room Rasputin Exhibition that opens to general, non-tour-party groups for 1 hour per day at 5pm, around 2 hours after we had completed our walk around!

Bobby Farell, lead singer of Boney M, who had the 'Ra Ra, Rasputin. ..' hit single - that's a 7 inch diameter, thin disc of black plastic with grooves embedded in it which, when played on a 'record player' emits music - died, in St Petersburg, on December 2010, of heart failure. ...on the 94th anniversary of Rasputin's death!!

Sunday is clearly the day to explore the St Petersburg metro stations; we came across many tour groups doing the same as us that morning.

The Red Line, the first to be opened in 1955 is particularly striking for its station designs.
Avtovo - marble and cut glass clad columns hold up the roof. And in its lower entrance hall is a domed ceiling that gives several seconds of reverberation if you clap hands in dead centre, and at its edge acts as a lens for whispered conversations across the space, like St Paul's Cathedral.

Admiralteyskaya - referred to in earlier blogs for its depth, features mosaics about the formation of the Russian Fleet under Peter the Great .

Narvskaya - fantastic sculpture relief of Lenin and rejoicing proletariat, and carvings of miners, engineers, teachers, artists and sailors.

Kirovsky Zavod - inspired by metal castings depicting various industries - mining, oil wells, electricity generation.

And several others.

We then went to the State Russian Museum, for another 4 hours, housed in yet another Palace - the Mikhailovsky Palace - built 1819 to 1825 for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, youngest son of Tsar Paul I. It holds, another, grand collection of fine art mostly by Russian artists. Over 400,000 items in this collection, the displayed items are mostly paintings dating from 12th C through to today.

A walk around the Summer Gardens and back along the embankment to the Hermitage square, and a final stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, with a meal en-route, finished our wanderings in St Petersburg.

Next is a week in Moscow.

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