Day 5 (11 Sep) The Hermitage

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September 11th 2014
Published: September 18th 2014
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Today Natasha was well enough to be our guide as scheduled. She arrived at the hotel to take us on a very good tour of what, to my mind, is one of the most impressive museums in the world - The Hermitage.

The coach took us to St Isaac's square and we walked along the river via Senate Square to see a statue of Peter the Great on a horse with a snake sneaking up the rear of the horse. This square is famous because in 1825 there was an uprising called the Decembrists uprising. This was a secret society that wanted to reform the monarchy and have a constitutional monarchy. In 1825 Alexander I died in mysterious circumstances. His brother Nicholas I succeeded him. It was thought that this was an opportune moment for the new monarch to adopt a new constitution. The Decembrists gathered in the square to ask the tsar to adopt the new constitution. They were surrounded by soldiers and after four to five hours Nicholas I gave the order to fire and the Decembrists surrendered. Six leaders were executed and several thousand were sent to Siberia. The senate building is the constitutional court of Russia.

The statue has nothing to do with commemorating this event. It was a present from Catherine the Great to Peter the Great. It shows Peter as a roman emperor and the snake represents the crushed nations. The statue sits on the Thunder Stone, the largest stone moved by man. Originally weighing 1500 tonnes it was shaved down to 1250 tonnes during the move. This statue has become the statue of St Petersburg like the Statue of Liberty symbolises New York.

Then to one of the highlights of the tour. The Hermitage was commissioned by Elizabeth I in 1764 as the official royal residence and winter palace. It was redesigned by her successors but predominantly by Catherine. By the 19th century it was used mostly for receptions. By the middle of the 19th century the art collection was opened to the public. Catherine started the art collection with only 225 pieces and this grew up to 10,000. Catherine added an extension to the palace and there are a mere 1000 rooms.

The entry to the museum is via the first of five buildings. Visitors to the museum arrive at the Ambassadors' staircase which is designed with statues of the gods. This is to represent the palace being heaven on earth. You walk through into a ballroom with mirrors on the walls and gold everywhere. The opulence and grandeur is mind blowing. Many of the chandeliers are actually papier-mâché covered with gold leaf because metal at that size would simply weigh too much. A lot of the palace was destroyed by a fire in 1837 which raged for 30 hours. The palace was rebuilt in 15 months.

The second building, the smallest, was where Catherine had her small intimate dinners and her secret trysts. The rooms are smaller and more intimate. A piece de resistance is the peacock clock. This was given to Catherine by her lover Gregory Potemkin. The time can be seen in the toadstool, the seconds are depicted in a dragonfly, and on the hour the cage around the owl goes round playing chimes, the cockerel crows and the golden peacock moves his head and neck proudly strutting his stuff.

The third building, the old hermitage, houses the Italian collection of paintings. In fact the word 'hermitage' signifies a place where one goes for peace and solitude. Many large estates and palaces have a hermitage on their grounds. This famous Hermitage Museum began in the original hermitage and grew to take over the entire palace.

A lot of the artworks were owned by the Jews and were confiscated by the Nazis. When the Russians defeated the Nazis in 1945 the art was taken. This building houses the Italian art collection plus other works of art by some of the most famous European painters painters for example Reubens, Degas, Rembrandt and even a statue by Michelangelo, to name but a few.

There is a fourth building which was open to the public as a museum from the outset. The fifth building is the theatre which is by ticket only.

We spent just over two hours there and there is still so much to see. In the Palace Square is the tallest monolith in the world. The immense obelisk weighs in at 600 tons!

After the Hermitage we proceeded to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Alexander II abolished slavery in the 1860s and 70s. The revolutionaries thought that the best way to get rid of the tsar was to assassinate him. They failed six times and at the seventh attempt they killed him. His son Alexander III wanted to mark the spot so he built this cathedral at the place where his father was killed. It took 27 years and was finished in 1907. It is the only strict memorial to the royal family. In 1917 after the revolution it was closed. During the siege of Leningrad it was used as a morgue. The inside was damaged by a fire. Then during the presidency of Khrushchev he decided to restore it. The scaffolding went up and stayed up. People joked that when the scaffolding came down the Soviet Union would collapse. And lo and behold that is exactly what happened. The church was finally refinished in 1991.

We drove past the battleship Aurora. The sailors were on the side of the revolution and mutinied to remove the captain. Then they fired one single blank shot which started the Russian revolution. This was thus said to be the most powerful blank shot in the world.

Our packed lunch was eaten in a park and then it was back on the bus for our canal and river boat cruise on the Mouka river and then onto the Neva river.

St Isaac's Cathedral was the last stop of the afternoon. Peter the Great built a small church to his patron Saint Isaac of Dalmatia. This modest structure was not deemed worthy of St Isaac (or really of the nobility) so subsequent tsars moved and enlarged it. It underwent three significant growth cycles. The original church was replaced by a larger church in another location. That second one was then replaced by a classic cathedral. Finally that third one was substantially enlarged so that its current fourth incarnation is the third largest domed cathedral in the world. Would Peter have been proud? During the Soviet period a symbolic dove was removed from the upper interior of the dome and a Foucault pendulum was hung. Ultimately the pendulum was removed and the dove restored.

We had an early dinner at the Golden Cafe with another Israeli group also travelling with Gesher as we were going with them on a night tour of St Petersburg. I regret to say that this was not the most exciting of tours so I will not comment on it. If we were supposed to be experiencing the famous White Nights of St Petersburg, then somehow we missed the spectacle.

Note: SCROLL DOWN to see more pictures than fit around the text. ALSO we suggest current followers reread our previous days in this trip because we are updating the blog details and photos as we discover more highlights to add.

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19th September 2014

Natasha and the paintings.
Just a minor correction - Natasha is standing in front of paintings by Renoir and Degas, not Rembrandt as it says in the caption. Other than that - terrific!
19th September 2014

Paintings caption in Day 5 updated THX!
Ellie thanks, unfortunately my art knowledge is primitive --don.

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