To Russia...with love


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May 29th 2012
Published: July 17th 2012
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Sustinance at the Berlin AirportSustinance at the Berlin AirportSustinance at the Berlin Airport

La Marche has great food on the "fly"
To Russia... with love, Part I St Petersburg


May 29, 2012 Leaving Florida, we are on our way...
It was a bright and sunny 85 degree morning when Dee and Stan picked us up to take us to the Tampa airport on Tuesday, May 29. We were all prepared, well packed, with tickets in hand. We checked our bags at the airport, had lunch and proceeded to wait for our plane to Miami. We arrived in Miami at 2:55pm, exactly the time that they began boarding our Air Berlin flight to Berlin, Germany. I had been assured by American Airlines that there was enough time to make the connection but as we were dashing to make our connection they were calling our names. We barely made the flight. Our bags did not.

May 30: In Berlin, after a 9 hour flight with little sleep or food, we decided to have lunch at the Berlin Airport at La Marche (where we had enjoyed good food in London some years ago) before boarding our flight 5 hours later to St Petersburg. It was a good decision because La Marche was excellent and the lunch on the plane was pretty awful.
St Petersburg, Russia, later that day
At the end of the final three hour flight we arrived in a cloud covered, drizzly and very cold St Petersburg. We were bussed to the main terminal where we stood in a very long line for nearly an hour to pass through Russian customs. As we waited in line we walked past a glass enclosed room for smokers with a Camel cigarette advertisement proudly displayed. The enclosure was not tightly sealed however and as we stood there we were enveloped in the strong scent of second hand smoke.
After what seemed like an eternity we cleared the entry customs and were released into the baggage claim area. By this time we were the walking wounded having had little sleep. We hoped we were just in a bad dream as we looked and then desperately searched for our bags. As the travelers cleared out and our bags were still not there we realized our bags did not make the tight connection from Tampa to Miami. Meanwhile, our guide and driver Gennadiy Chentsov (www.guide-petersburg.com) had been waiting outside the secure area since 4:50pm. It was at least 6pm when I was finally filling out seven pages of Russian claim forms with little assistance and no possibility of informing or getting help from Gennadiy. After another half hour of attempting to negotiate forms and language, we finally crossed into the public area of the terminal to meet the patient but frustrated Gennadiy.
By 7pm Gennadiy was negotiating the rush hour traffic into St Petersburg. As he drove he gave us a brief history of this amazing city pointing out important landmarks along the way including the city arches, the Technical Institute on Moskovy Avenue (which leads into Moscow some 3 hours later), the museum dedicated to the history of the siege, the parks and homes of former nobility and finally, off of Sadovaya Street we turned to a small side street to the B&B Assembly http://www.vologda.ru/~nata00/ where our wonderful hostess Natalia Sorokina came down to greet us in the rain.
We were exhausted and frustrated from the long journey and luggage ordeal but Natalia made us feel like we were coming home to the shelter of our mother hen. I must point out here that I felt like Natalia and I were old friends because once I had chosen her B&B we had been emailing back and forth for weeks and even Skyping as she patiently helped me plan my week long visit to St Petersburg and beyond.
Despite the eight hour time difference and our lack of sleep we decided to go out for dinner at 8:30pm Russian time, late for Dave but hunger rules. It was raining and quite cold (roughly 45-50 degrees) and although the vegetarian restaurant Natalia recommended was not far it seemed a great distance as we stumbled, chilled, under our umbrellas trying to locate it. Once inside, "Rada and K" proved to be a warm, inviting respite for weary and hungry, albeit old, travelers. Popular with the Russian hip “20 somethings” I felt like I was stepping into a time warp and was back in the 1960s but no complaints, everyone made us feel welcome. Dave and I both ordered hot borscht, mors (a tart cranberry-like drink) and an Indian influences cabbage and fish salad. Our servers were adorable and most helpful in explaining our food choices in fairly good English.
After dinner we stumbled back to Natalia's who offered us some hot tea and cookies. We went to bed around 11pm. It was still quite bright despite the rain so I closed the curtains, put on my eye mask and tried to settle into my new time zone.

May 31, Day 1 in St Petersburg:
Breakfast was served at 8am. Natalia had prepared a generous repast of cheese and vegetable omelets, cold meats, cheeses, yogurts, breads and homemade jams. Our flat mates were two retired teachers from Tennessee and a handsome young couple from Germany. Natalia spent a good deal of time with us going over maps and itineraries providing excellent guidance and advice.
It was time to go out and explore St. Petersburg, Russia’s “Window to the West.” We had previously arranged for a private tour with Gennadiy, the man who retrieved us from the airport, a 50-something trim, well educated man recommended by Natalia. Gennadiy began our tour with the Yusupov Palace on the quiet Moika River, in the heart of St Petersburg. Yusupov Palace was owned by the House of Yusupov, one of the wealthiest and most influential noble families in 18th and 19th century Russia. This family was so wealthy that they persuaded Mdme Pompadour to part with her grand staircase. The entire staircase was purchased and reassembled in the entrance of this grand home. Aside from the French staircase, the exotic Moorish room and impressive Rococo Theater, this palace was famous for the long drawn out murder of Grigori Rasputin by the young Felix Yusupov in 1916. The basement rooms were laid out exactly as they were when the chilling deed was done. And the room, even with its dummies, was chilling to see. The courtyard through which the bloody and dying Rasputin fled is now a kindergarten playground.
We left the palace for the Smolny Institute, the former school for young girls from noble families created by Empress Elizabeth and later expanded by Catherine the Great. I was amazed by the spartan living conditions, small iron beds and cold rooms the wealthy young girls were subjected to. The institute was later taken over by Leon Trotsky during the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917 the impressive Neo-classical school building with its massive hallways and contrastingly unpretentious rooms became the seat of the new All Russian Congress. The institute’s same spartan rooms also housed the office and adjacent bedrooms where Lenin and his wife lived and worked until 1918 when the government moved to Moscow. It remained the Leningrad Party Headquarters until 1991, which is why, in 1990, I had been unable to visit the institute. Natalia had met us for this very special tour that had to be arranged well ahead of time because it is now the office of the Mayor of St Petersburg and the general public is not allowed unless special permits are prearranged. We later found out that Gennadiy had been employed here since the 1970s as a security officer and recently retired as a Major of Security (with special parking privileges!)
By now it was mid afternoon so Gennadiy brought us to the charming Cafe St Petersburg across from the magnificent Church on Spilt Blood. We enjoyed a wonderful smoked herring salad with diced potato and dill pickle and a delicious hot borscht. I am so in love with this food!
After lunch we drove out to the Piskaryevskoe Cemetery, the site of the mass graves of over 500,000 unknown souls, victims of the siege of Leningrad. I had been moved to tears listening to the sad music of Schumann's Traumerei when I first visited this solemn memorial in 1990. Although this time there were no babushkas sweeping the paths with brooms and the music piped through the outdoor grounds was more uplifting than sadly pensive, I still felt the presence of those haunting souls who were lost in this tragic siege.
After Gennadiy returned us to Natalia's she informed us our luggage had arrived and would be delivered that evening. Much relieved, we rejoiced and headed out to celebrate with a leisurely dinner at the enchanting Zoom Cafe. We were probably the oldest people in the trendy restaurant but we settled into the cozy living room style atmosphere quite nicely. Dave had a delicious meal of cucumber salad with chopped egg, scallions and sour cream followed by boiled potatoes with pike perch, mushrooms, mozzarella cheese and dill all baked together like a casserole while I had mors (a cranberry type drink that was refreshingly tart) and the most amazing smoked whitefish salad mounded on diced potatoes, cucumber, dill pickles, onions and combined with a mayonnaise and French dressing combination. (I still dream about this dish.) If I had known how large the portions would be I would have stopped there but since I had already ordered I also enjoyed a lovely chicken soup with diced carrots, potatoes
Me in Zoom Cafe bathroomMe in Zoom Cafe bathroomMe in Zoom Cafe bathroom

Here I am showing my reflection while looking at the TV in the mirror
and dill (perfect for rainy cold days). I then struggled through a delicious side dish of roasted buckwheat groats with tiny sautéed carrots, onions and dill. The meal lasted for hours and we enjoyed the young people around us as we drew on the paper with the provided colored pencils and admired the talented drawings of patrons before us who drew cartoons and sketches on the well worn menus. I made a visit to the ladies room and heard someone talking, when I went to the sink to wash my hands on the mirror in front of me was a thin TV imbedded into the glass. Now that was a first for me! Since we had absolutely no room for their delicious desserts and it was still quite bright at 10:30pm we went for a stroll to walk off the meal along the canals to Nevsky Prospect stopping in the amazing Taleon Imperial Hotel across from the Stroganov Palace.
When we arrived back at the B&B Natalia was waiting up to tell us that customs would not release my bag and required me to come to the airport to show them the contents of my bag before they would release it (in the contents list I was required to fill out I mistakenly wrote down medicine which somehow sent out some red flags). Natalia then called the English speaking guide Constantine to drive us to and from the airport. He persuaded the customs agent to release our bags by saying we were tourists and to let us go. $50 later (for our driver and ride to the airport) we had our bags and by 1:30am we were back at the B&B too tired to tour the famous St Petersburg raised bridges. I should have gone anyway because I was so revved up I think I finally fell asleep around 2:30am.

June 1, Day two in St Petersburg
Natalia again served a lovely breakfast at 8am. This time we dined on blinchkis (a true Royal Russian breakfast!) with sour cream, smoked salmon, sweet cream cheese, vegetable spread and more currant jam, cheese and cold cut plates and fruit drinks. She told us that blinis were really puffed pancakes but blinchkis were the traditional thin crepe-like pancakes but were often miss labeled as blinis. We had a leisurely breakfast enjoying the company of Natalia and the other guests. Dave especially enjoyed spending time with the delightful young German who was an engineer from Hamburg.
St Petersburg is known as the Northern Venice so a trip to St Petersburg is not complete unless you view this fabulous city and its amazing architecture from the Neva, Fontanka, and Moika rivers and its numerous canals. At 10:30am we left the B&B to begin our walk to the Fontanka River to take the 11am (English speaking) canal tour. We began our tour near the famous stone drawbridge, the Anichkov Bridge with its four famous “Horse Tamers” sculptures and beautifully ornate iron railings. On our tour we passed nearly 50 bridges and many famous churches and palaces among them St Nicholas Cathedral, Church on Spilt Blood, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Strogonov Palace, the Yusupov Palace, the Sheremetiev Palace, the Winter Palace, the Engineer’s Castle, the Summer Gardens and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Although it was sunny we accepted the offered blankets because it was quite chilly on the water.
After our tour we walked to the boxy Mikhaylovskiy Castle or “Engineer’s Castle” where Dave rubbed Rastrelli’s bronze statue of Peter the Great for good luck (I was not so lucky since I was not tall enough to reach his foot!) The unusual salmon colored fortress surrounded by a moat was built as a residence for Emperor Paul I to allay his paranoid anxieties of being assassinated, but despite all his efforts for protection, Emperor Paul met his demise by being strangled in his bedroom 40 nights after he moved into the castle. Yet another murderous coup that was inspired (or ordered) by a family member. Gotta love these Russian Royals.
We left the castle and strolled down the tree lined alleys passing by the many gardens, marble sculptures and fountains of the lovely English styled Summer Garden, a childhood favorite of Alexander Pushkin. Dark green patterned parterres create lovely shaded alleys to stroll under. There are several small parks within this park and I think the most charming is the garden dedicated to the famous children’s writer Ivan Krylov. An unusual statue of him sits in the middle of this grotto with fantastical animals carved into the base. Opposite the park on the bank of the Fontanka River stands Peter the Great's Summer Palace (which had no heating as it was intended to be used only in summer). The wind picked up as we approached the Neva River so we walked, heads bent into the wind, towards the Hermitage Museum. The Winter Palace Courtyard was filled with performers for the annual Children's Day celebrations so rather than work our way through the melee to get to Nevsky Prospekt we decided to get our (3:30pm) lunch in the fast but unimpressive Hermitage Cafe and then spend the remaining time visiting the uncrowded rooms in this enormous museum. I had been lucky to visit the Hermitage three times in 1990 and was thrilled to once again view a portion of the massive collection of art and antiquities (my favorite is the impressionist paintings) but I was sad to see that the bright colored Gaugins were not on display. It is physically and mentally challenging to take in all that is in this massive museum but we did our best in the time left to us.
We left as the Hermitage Museum closed and walked down Nevsky Prospekt (the 5th Avenue of St Petersburg) to the Kazan Cathedral where, surrounded by glowing gold icons and clouds of sweet incense, we attended a beautiful candlelight service listening to the haunting sounds of the men and women's choir. Their melodic Russian Orthodox harmonies echoed throughout the huge stone church and moved my soul. After the service we walked across the street to the famous Singer Cafe (located upstairs from the Dom Knigi bookstore) for an enormously thick hot chocolate and the best tasting tart cherry pie I have ever eaten. All this in a window overlooking the beautiful Kazan Cathedral!
We took our time walking home along Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Street through the beautiful columned arcades in Rastrellis’ great yellow Gostiny Dvor, meaning the old “trading rows”, the city's fashionable mall located inside the striking 18th century building that covers an entire city block. It was within easy walking distance of our B&B but even so, I was too tired to shop (I know, a shocker!) After a brief rest we had a late dinner and a short evening walk before retiring with the sun still shining at 10:30pm.

June 2, Day 3 in St Petersburg
This was our last breakfast with Natalia and again she did not disappoint. We had huge bowls of steel cut oatmeal, assorted homemade jams, breads, cheeses, cold cuts, open faced sandwiches, yogurt, and fresh strawberries. I could stay here forever. Since we were checking out today Natalia kindly agreed to let us keep our packed bags at her place so we could spend the entire day in the city before boarding the ship.
Dave and I headed out to the subway and with Natalia's guidance we found the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Lavra at the opposite end of Nevsky Prospeckt on the bank of the Neva River. Lavra (or Laura) indicates a monastery of the highest rank. Dave and I walked in the rain from the metro to the monastery, one of the biggest and oldest orthodox monasteries in all of Russia. The monastery was built by Peter the Great in honor of Alexander Nevsky on the very location where Nevsky defeated the Swedes in 1240. The rain let up as we walked through the lovely gardens and well attended St Lazarus Cemetery and the Tikhvinskoye Cemetery where magnificent tombstones and monuments mark the graves of some of Russia’s most famous leaders including Alexander Nevsky himself along with artists and musicians such as Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. The territory of Lavra was once the religious and cultural center of St Petersburg. When we went inside the magnificent St. Trinity Cathedral we were fortunate to listen to another beautiful choral service. I bought a small icon of the Madonna before heading back into town to the wonderful Russian Museum. On the way to the museum we stopped inside the famous Hotel Europe to see how the other set traveled (but as impressive as it was I was glad I was able to enjoy Natalia’s warm hospitality and the opportunity to experience a taste of life in a real Russian home).
The Russian Museum is my favorite museum in all of St Petersburg. With its gorgeous collection of icons and Russian art, I feel that it reflects more of the soul of the Russian people than the collection of foreign works and elaborate gold rooms found in the Hermitage. In the middle of the Russian Museum we were surprised to find playing the amazing archival black and white movie clips of the Russian revolution with Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin. We even watched a clip of the palace guards firing on the demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in the Palace Square! It was truly jaw dropping. Later Dave and I enjoyed a delicious late lunch of borscht and brown bread in the Russian Museum’s lovely museum cafe (far superior to the cafe in the Hermitage).
Natalia had arranged a guide to drive us to the Viking River Cruise Ship at 4:30pm so we walked back to her B&B leaving lovely memories like bread crumbs in our wake. The guide she had arranged for us was none other than Anastasia Dukhanina (www.dukhanina.com), the artist who created the paintings I had been admiring on the walls of Natalia's living room. I had fallen in love with a particular painting of Anastasia's depicting a cottage in Chernobyl, Belorussia. Belorussia is coincidently where both our hostess Natalia, and Zhenya, Dave's daughter-in-law, are from. Anastasia was selected as one of two artists representing her region to paint the remaining houses in this now forbidden land. I bought the painting but felt like I was taking a national treasure from this country.
We said our sad goodbyes and Anastasia drove us out to the Viking Riverboat, located some distance from the city. We checked in, had dinner (a pretty good beef stroganoff) and went to bed wondering where our friends Donna and John were for as of midnight they had not yet arrived!

June 3, Day 4 in St Petersburg
We found out this morning that Donna and John had been through Travel Hell with missed connections and long waits that extended their trip by many sleepless hours but at least they and their luggage arrived safely. After catching up at the ship's breakfast we all boarded the Viking tour bus for the hour-long drive back into St Petersburg for a brief tour of the city and the Hermitage.
Our bus stopped first at the beautiful blue and white Smolny Cathedral (adjacent to the Smolny Institute that we had visited with Gennadiy). After a ten minute walkabout we got back on the bus and headed into town passing the Summer Gardens on the left and the Peter and Paul Fortress on the right across the River Neva. Bus after bus lined up and spat out endless streams of tourists in front of the entrance to the Hermitage. Once inside we all climbed the famous Jordan Staircase that, despite its enormous size, was so crowded I was unable to get a photograph without being jostled about. Donna took our picture in the huge Armoral Hall, just one more huge glittering room of many in this palace. We spent our short 2 hour visit rushing from room to room in the crush of eager tourists jockeying for the best viewing position. The one advantage we had over our previous trip was that Alexey, our guide, was giving an excellent tour that we listened to in our radio transmitters. This was a Godsend for Dave because without this device there would have been no way he could have heard Alexey over the din. It was also a Godsend for me since I would stray from the crowd to photograph or see what I preferred to see and when I got left behind I was able to listen to Alexey’s lecture to figure out what room to go to. After I explored the Malachite Drawing Room I found Alexey in the White Dining Room, the room where the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in 1917. Later Alexey pointed out the famous Danae by Rembrandt that was recently restored from the 1985 assault by a deranged person using a knife and acid scarring the historic painting. The impressive Pavilion Hall on the first floor is home to the enormous gold Peacock Clock but my favorite is still the second floor with the stunning collection of French impressionist and postimpressionist paintings. The Hermitage Museum is the largest art museum in the country and one of the most respected art museums in the world. Its five magnificent buildings, arranged side-by-side along the River Neva present an imposing picture of power. We have been told that if you were to spend one minute looking at each item on display you would need 11 years to see them all, and that does not include the many works of art stored in the archives! Dave and John were both overwhelmed by the museum, the crowds and the noise and, exhausted, decided to return to the ship for a nap after the tour of the Hermitage.
Donna was a trooper and despite her lack of sleep and arriving around midnight, she decided to join me for a walking tour of St Petersburg. We were lucky to have sunny skies and cool weather as we started our tour at the Alexander Column in the now empty Winter Palace Square. We walked across Nevsky Prospekt through St Isaac's Square past a wedding in Alexander Park to Decembrist's Square and the imposing statue of the Bronze Horseman overlooking the River Neva. The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great and took 12 years to complete and later made famous in Pushkin’s poem of the same name. It is perched on an enormous granite boulder claimed to be the largest stone ever moved by man. The 1500 ton “Thunder Stone” is shaped like a cliff and was selected and then conveyed over ice all the way from Finland.
From there Donna and I walked across the gardens to purchase tickets for the climb up the 350 steps to the dome of St Isaac's Cathedral with its 12 statues of angels overlooking St Petersburg. I spent some time here catching my breath while I photographed the panorama of the city below. From this vantage point I was able to photograph the immense Hermitage Winter Palace in one frame of my camera! This enormous cathedral rests on 10,000 tree trunks planted into the marshy banks by serfs.
The red granite columns at the entrance to the church each weigh about 80 tons and were installed without mechanical assistance.
Descending the stairs was easier than the climb but just barely. Once down we entered St Isaac's Cathedral and stood in awe at the ornate iconostasis (the icon that separates the altar from the rest of the church) and its tall columns of malachite and lapis lazuli. The marble and granite, the gold and silver ornamentations and numerous icons and frescoes that date back to the mid 19th century decorate the rest of the interior of this impressive church. On the open main floor the church (there are no pews) a children's art class was just ending and I photographed a sweet little girl with her painting of angles flying above the famous open bridges on the Neva River. Donna and I explored the small side chapels that were lovely in the glow of the many lit candles. I bought a beautiful golden Christmas tryptic icon for a mere 200Rub (about $7).
Across from the cathedral was the famous Astoria Hotel where Hitler, convinced Leningrad would fall quickly, had planned to hold a victory banquet in the hotel’s Winter Garden. If we had had more time, we would have enjoyed the lovely high tea that was set out for the afternoon. Instead we walked to the Russian Baroque St Nicholas Cathedral (also known as the Sailor’s Cathedral), my favorite church in St Petersburg. See this link for a video of a service inside this cathedral: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=L1LsgTBVHdk. St Nicholas with its intimate chapels on the ground floor, was one of the few cathedrals that was not closed during the Soviet era. We were unable to see the upper Epiphany Church on the second floor and a service was in progress on the first floor where many of the alters were roped off from non parishioners. Nonetheless we were able to enjoy the very intimate feeling of this low ceilinged cathedral with its many small alters covered in magnificent gold and black icons.
As we walked out of St Nicholas Cathedral Donna purchased a bouquet of fresh purple and white lilacs for 30kp from an old Babushka seated at the entryway. She smiled and graciously agreed to be photographed with us. It was now bright and sunny as we walked along the canals. We ended up at the Fontanka River and had a clear view of the beautiful blue domed Troitsky (Trinity) Cathedral. I had glimpsed the stunning starred domes from the canal trip and was hoping to finally get a better look. Two of the cathedral’s domes had been destroyed by fire in 2006 but they were restored in 2010 and were brilliant in the afternoon sun.
Realizing we were going in the opposite direction of our next stop, the Choral Synagogue, we turned around passing the as yet unnamed yellow cathedral on the left and St Nicholas on the right until we at last found the beautiful Grand Choral Synagogue of St Petersburg, the first synagogue in the city. Tsar Nicholas I was responsible for the exile of most of the Jew in St Petersburg but after his death, at the end of the 19th century, St Petersburg became one of the biggest world centers of Jewish life. The elaborate Moorish exterior seemed to me a stark contrast to the inside of the church which was spacious and welcoming. The interior of the synagogue reminded me of the early meeting houses in New England with its airy bright light, crisp white trim and sunny yellow walls. The dark pews, blue dome and sparkling chandeliers contrasted with the natural brightness increasing the fresh and open feeling we got once we were inside. Quite a contrast to the dark and heavy golden interiors of the Russian Orthodox Cathedrals. In the vestibule a young girl was selling matryoshka dolls but these squat shapes were quite different than any I had seen before. She opened up each doll and assembled them in order on the table and when she came to the 10th painted doll it was no larger than the head of a pin!
We left the synagogue for our dinner reservations at Sadko, recommended by our hostess Natalia and Chris, our Viking Rurik Cruise Director, you can see a video clip at (http://vimeo.com/10699864). This romantic Russian restaurant, located near the famous Mariinskiy Theater, was decorated with red glass chandeliers and ribbons of hand painted flowers that framed the arched ceilings inside. Sadly our husbands were unable to join us but that did not stop us from enjoying an amazing meal. Donna and I wanted to sample as much as we could so we decided to each have a glass of red wine and then split everything else that we ordered. We started with meat stuffed pelmenis(Russian dumplings) in a light broth, followed by a rich and tangy cream of celery and blue cheese soup. Our main course was an amazing noodle-less beef stroganoff with tiny roasted potatoes and plenty of mushrooms. For dessert we split the “Sadko dessert” which was a crown of lady fingers surrounding a sweet cream filling topped with sliced strawberries and a mint leaf. This could only be accompanied by a strong cup of decaf expresso coffee. While we savored our dessert the waiters (who happen to attend the conservatory next door) came into the restaurant singing the most beautiful operatic duet. We thought this would be the perfect end to an absolutely wonderful day, but the day was not over yet!
We left the restaurant, walked past the statue of Rimsky-Korsakov, on the way to the Conservatory Theater for the stunning performance of the Swan Lake Ballet. Although we were not in the magnificent Mariinskiy Theater the sets and the performance itself could not have been better, even Dave was riveted and that is saying a lot! As we left I bought a sweet little Cossack doll to add to our collection for the Christmas tree. It was still quite light at 11pm for the hour long bus ride back to the ship but from the bus we enjoyed the full moon on the Neva and the review of the sites we had seen from the memorable day we had spent in St Petersburg.

June 4, Day 5 in St Petersburg
This morning we all hopped on a bus for the hour long trip outside the city to the famous Catherine Palace or Tsarskoye Selo in the lovely quiet town of Pushkin named for Russia’s greatest poet. Our guide Alexey tells us that his family came from this sweet little town. Of course the lavish 980 foot long palace is the centerpiece of Pushkin with its dazzling gold halls, rooms and exterior facades of gold leaf not to mention the impressive gardens including the Grotto, Hermitage and acres of manicured parks and gardens. The whole of Tsarskoye Selo is a majestic architectural ensemble created by the most famous architects, painters and craftsmen of the time who transformed the residence into a Baroque and Classical masterpiece.
We were greeted outside by two horn players, the rest of their otherwise large troupe must have abandoned them in the early morning hours. I think their intention was to keep us occupied while we waited in line for the opportunity to get inside the palace but their other reason was to pass the hat. Once inside we explored the private and public rooms including the famous Amber Room (where we were not allowed to photograph). I was most amazed with the enormous golden Great Hall or Bright Gallery that is the largest state room in the palace occupying the entire width of the palace with its windows on both sides bringing in bright light to help the gold leaf sparkle. The entire Venetian ceiling painting hovers over the intricate parquet floor creating a sumptuous ballroom or banquet hall. I stood there trying to imagine the light of hundreds of candles bouncing off the mirrors and gold gilt decorations. When I visited the palace in 1990 they were just beginning to restore the rooms, installing new molding and layering gold leaf. It was amazing to see the completed restoration of the interior although they are still working on gilding the ornamentations on the exterior of the palace.
I loved the elegant Cavalier’s Dining Room but if I had to choose a room to live in I would choose the pale Green Dining Room with its white and pink molding. The soft colors and the rich parquet floors bring a sense of balance that is quite restful after the over done opulence throughout the rest of the palace.
Outside the palace the lilacs were in bloom and filled the air with their sweetness as we strolled a tiny portion of the extensive grounds with its large parks, grottos, tree-lined walkways, ponds and many outbuildings. A flute player added music to the charm of the gardens leading to the Hermitage. As I looked up the gold on the exterior of the palace sparkled brilliantly in the bright sunshine and was even more striking against the rich blue sky.
Many more hours were needed to fully appreciate the palace, grounds and the town of Pushkin but instead we were hustled back on the bus to the ship for lunch before our next hour-long bus ride back into St Petersburg for the city tour. I would have much preferred a picnic lunch on the palace grounds to have more time at this amazing museum.
The next tour began at the Resurrection Church of Our Savior also known as the Church on Spilt Blood, site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The church, covered inside with floor to ceiling mosaics, used over 20 different types of minerals in the designs and was built as a permanent memorial to the Tsar. The five colorful domes outside the iconic church were covered with jewelers enamel. We did not have time to line up for the entrance to the church's interior but I took a quick peek through the back door to get a glimpse of these magnificent mosaics that I had remembered from my earlier visit in 1990. When I got back to the bus I had found that Donna had tripped on the trolley track in the street bruising her knee. Fortunately it was nothing serious but she had green “paint” on a surface wound that Alexey insisted was necessary.
The next stop was to the “requisite approved Pushkin gift shop” where of course we did buy gifts. In addition to the gifts I bought, Dave bought me a beautiful small enameled Faberge egg pendant for my gold chain as an early birthday present. Not a bad stop, really.
By now it was getting cloudy, windy and cold. We stopped briefly at the eastern tip of Vasilevskiy Island near the Naval Museum, formerly the stock exchange building, to see the iconic tall red Rostral Columns, built as navigational beacons during St Petersburg’s long dark nights, but we didn't stay long due to the cold.
We hopped back on the bus and drove to the nearby Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of St Petersburg and the birthplace of the city. The tall gilded spire of the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral pierces the sky and has become an iconic symbol of St Petersburg. With the golden angel weathervane on top, it is the tallest building in St Petersburg. The fortress was built by Peter the Great to protect St Petersburg from a Swedish invasion but also served as a jail for political prisoners. One such prisoner was Peter the Great’s own son Alexei who was jailed, tortured and finally executed here. (Gotta love this family.)
Crystal and cobalt chandeliers hang from the cathedral’s vaulted tropical green and white trimmed ceiling. Pink and green faux marble pillars, faux marble was the style then, support the towering ceiling that hovers over the white marble floor on which was a real potted palm tree adding to the tropical feel inside. There was much restoration going on inside the church while we were there. Several women were painstakingly applying gold leaf on the icons, pillars and iconostasys. The main altar was obscured with scaffolding but we were able to see the Grand Ducal burial vault located inside the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul where the sarcophagus of all the Tsars (except Peter II) from the Romanov family including Nicholas II were proudly on display. Peter the Great’s white marble sarcophagus was decorated with fresh flowers that we were told were replaced daily. The actual bodies are interred below ground under the church. In the case of Nicholas II, the remains of his entire family as well as his servants that were killed with the family are buried together here.



June 5, Day 6 in St Petersburg
Today Donna, John, Dave and I were met at the ship by Natalia Bazhenova, (www.welcometospbru.com) a guide recommended by our hostess Natalia Sorokina (from the B&B Assembly) for a prearranged private day tour outside the city to the palaces of Peterhof and Pavlovsk. Natalia picked us up at the ship at 9:30am to begin the hour drive to Peterhof or Petrodvorets. She gave an informative narration of local history on the way but drove painfully slow on the freeway. She entered an off-ramp, thinking it was the turn to Petrodvorets, drove about 20 yards, realized she took the wrong exit and then, in the middle of the exiting and fast moving traffic, began to drive backwards up the off-ramp and back onto the highway. Everyone but Dave held their breath. Dave apparently had done this before, no surprise here! I was wishing we had Gennadiy and his speedy city driving skills. Her slow driving took us an extra half hour to get to Peterhof and since it was quite cold we decided to tour the inside of the great palace first.
Peter the Great modeled Peterhof (translation Peter’s Court) after the palace of Versailles but the succeeding Tsars and Tsarinas all added their own extensions, more palaces and fountains until it was the mind-blowing palace that it is today. The Grand Cascade with its three tiers of gold fountains pooling towards the Gulf of Finland is best viewed inside the palace from the impressive formal dining room intended to humble any dignitary or nobleman who visited. Of course the jaw-dropping golden fountains that flank this immense cascade are best viewed from outside the palace. This system of waterworks has remained unchanged since 1721 and still conveys water a distance of 12 miles without pumping stations.
We toured the inside of the palace and although the opulence and excesses of gold and precious metals serves to astound, we found the serenity and peaceful elegance of the White Dining Room with windows to the sea to be our favorite room in the palace. We were shown ornate incense burners placed on the long dining table that were used to camouflage the body odors from infrequent bathing and too much cabbage! The Grand Ballroom is, as to be expected, grandly golden but surprisingly the Throne Room is light and airy with no gold gleaming but instead white ceilings with classical stucco moldings edged with soft green hover above a beautiful parquet floor. This is yet another Russian example of a copy of French designs installed and created by Italian architects.
There was much more to see outside the palace so we began our tour around the Grand Cascade, the surrounding gardens and through the alleys to the Adam Fountain (Eve was flanked at the opposite end of the grounds). Further into the park we found the lovely Monplaisir Palace. This small palace designed by and for Peter the Great sits on the Gulf of Finland in the Lower Park. It is a “simple” one story building with large French windows opening to the manicured gardens surrounding the pink and white palace. This palace was a homey retreat from the larger, more opulent structures the Tsar was accustomed to. It does seem to be much more relaxing than the grand palaces he has called home. In 1762 Catherine the Great was staying at Monplaisir when her lover, Count Orlov, delivered the news that the coup had succeeded removing her husband Peter III from the throne assuring her accession to power. Natalia took our pictures here with the Gulf of Finland as a backdrop.
On our walk back we passed The Umbrella and The Settee, two trick fountains that surprise people with a refreshing spray in the summertime. Since the temperature was only in the upper 60s I was not eager to be “tricked” so we continued on our journey passing a beautiful stone aviary on our way to the famous Roman fountain, copied from St Peter's Square in Rome, and the nearby dramatic Dragon’s Cascade, a waterfall with three colorful dragons perched at the top spewing water down the black and white 20 meter chessboard. We left the grounds by way of the Neptune Fountain in the quieter Upper Gardens. This fountain predates Peterhof by nearly 50 years. The sculpture was created in Nuremberg to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years War but was sold to Tsar Paul I in 1782 because there was not enough water pressure in Nuremberg to make the fountain work!
Beautiful aviaries, cottages and small palaces dot the landscape along the Upper, Lower and Alexandra parks covering 1500 acres of the palace grounds on the Gulf of Finland. We had only a couple of hours to explore Peterhof’s palace and grounds which was not nearly enough time to explore, photograph and appreciate this enormous estate without feeling terribly rushed. I think if Natalia had not driven so exceedingly slow on the way to Peterhof we would have gained at least a half hour or more which is important when you are trying to cram so much into one day. Although Natalia was very sweet I do think our guide Gennadiy would have been able to give us more time at these two parks.
We returned to the little town of Pushkin, this time to see Pavlovsk, the romantic home of Tsar Paul I, son of Catherine the Great. Paul and his bride Maria traveled throughout Europe collecting antiques and paintings on their 14 month honeymoon in order to create the beautiful ambiance of this most special palace, but Paul only spent 4 months in his new home before he was murdered in a coup (again, that family was dangerous!) Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Alexander I and Emperor Nicholas I, continued to live here until her death. Outside the palace, I watched horse drawn carriages take tourists through the peaceful English gardens in this, the largest of the palace parks.
St Petersburg has always been a city of ideas. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 on swampland and transformed the wilderness into an engineering triumph with its famous architectural buildings, palaces and churches collectively known as the Venice of the North. Its residents incited the Russian Revolution, withstood the siege of Leningrad, and when the Soviet Union fell, ushered in a wave of democracy restoring the rich legacy of history, art and architecture making this one of Europe’s major cultural centers. Natalia brought us back to the ship late in the afternoon in time for us to sail away from St Petersburg carrying memories that will last a lifetime.

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23rd September 2012

Hi Kelly, This is absolutely wonderful! I'm totally impressed and looking forward to reading more and more. Best wishes, Gwynne
24th September 2012
Green Dining Room

thoroughly enjoyed the blog
What a treat to travel vicariously through this most exciting part of the world ! Thanks.

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