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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Two Lifetimes in Russia

If I write for two days I can not begin to cover all the things we have seen in St Petersburg and Peterhof in two days. It has been staggering. I can’t help but feel that all the studying one does in school about Russia and the Russian way of life is a total waste of time. Unless you can see these things, you cannot ever understand them.

We had to meet all those going ashore at 8:00 AM and get in line for passing through immigration. We went through the line, one by one, and were eyeballed by VERY serious agents who stamped our passports, collected our daily pass and placed a card inside our passports to be turned back in when we were safely returned to our ship. Linda was gagging the entire time as she swears the terminal smelled of cat pee. I thought it smelled of Clorox. Once on the bus, our guide (named Natasha of course) started the tour through the city. She commented on the beautiful weather we were enjoying by saying that Russian’s have a phrase that their weather is nine months of winter and three months of disappointment.

St. PB is a city of five million. The city has been persevered and rebuilt as a protected historical district. If a building was yellow 300 years ago, it is yellow today. This is very beautiful as many buildings are bright blue, toothpaste green or a lovely salmon color. There is a lot of restoration going on but the facades of those buildings are covered with something that looks like scenery flat from the theater depicting…..a restored building fa├žade. There are thousands of apartment buildings but they are all only about eight stories tall as no building can be taller than the palace. The windows are all covered with some sort of covering because Russian’s don’t like anyone looking into their private lives. We saw almost no dogs in the city. Children were on summer holiday although most children get sent to their grandparents for the three-month summer vacation. Ten years ago there were only 3000 children born in St Petersburg per year. Now there are 50,000 born a year and the government pays the parents $8000 for each birth. And, I’m not sure how they do it, but there is almost no graffiti and no litter anywhere.

As you drive through the city most of the major buildings are former palaces and are now being used as naval academies, universities, art centers and museums. This is because after the revolution these palaces became the property of all the people. Even the churches. Now there is almost no organized religion, so the cathedrals are being restored as museums. As you pass into and through the palaces and churches, you are VERY closely watched by babushka ladies who never take their eyes off of you. You are continually warned not to touch anything. If you even brush past a rope, an alarm might sound. But, these places are filled everyday with thousands of Russian tourist as well as tourists to Russia. My overwhelming sense was that the Russian people truly do own all the treasures and they come to visit them.

As we drove through the city, Natasha gave us more background on the city. The buildings have no basements as St PB is build on former marshes that were filled in a couple of hundred years ago. That means the subway is several hundred feet underground and under the Neva River. The stations can only be located inside old buildings as it is impossible to dig a hole anywhere without endangering a building. That is why there is tremendous restoration being done on the Church On The Spilled Blood. Some official gave permission for building to be done nearby and the church started to tilt. As this church is very important historically, there are extraordinary measures being taken to correct this. We had a stop at this church to take photos from the outside and returned the second day to go inside. Across the street there were black market street vendors where I was able to score a beautiful set of Ohio State nesting dolls. How very Russian.

On to the Hermitage. Many surprises. The Hermitage is actually right in town and it is the former winter palace and consists of five buildings. It sits on the banks of the Neva River and is very closely watched by the babushka ladies in every room. The lines are huge and 10,000 people a day go through the Hermitage. After all, the citizens own the museum. Our guide explained to us that after the Revolution the private art collectors in Russia “gave” their collections to the state, as private collections were outlawed. Now all the people of Russia own all the art. There are over three million artifacts in the Hermitage alone. If you spent one minute in front of each item, it would take you eleven years to see everything. In our three hour visit, we were moved through the lower public rooms where there is no furniture remaining. During the Revolution it was all destroyed. But, the gilt and gold has all been restored. It is breathtaking. The upper floors are all dedicated to the various art collections. We were shown the impressionists section and it is surprising how much we actually did see. I purchased a photo book on the way out and found that our group had seen many of the major pieces. Monet, DaVinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin. I was overwhelmed.

We left the Hermitage and continued our drive thorough the city. We made a stop at the Church On The Spilled Blood and walked all around it. It marks the spot where Alexander III was murdered. All Russians revere him and his son had the church built to commemorate his death. Outside the church was a black market of street vendors where I was able to bargain for a set of Russian nesting dolls depicting the Ohio State football team. A true Russian treasure.

We returned to our ship late in the afternoon and again had to face the most serious immigration officers. Not a smile, not a thank you anywhere. We dashed to our room to shower and change to formal attire for our evening at the Yusupov Palace. Then, back through immigration and onto another bus. Many of the men wore tuxedos and the women were dressed in their finest. We were given a tour of the palace, which held many of the original furnishings of the Yusupov family. They were the wealthiest Russian family who were not Romanoff. This is the house where Rasputin was murdered. In the basement is a recreation of Rasputin waiting while they tried to trick him into eating or drinking poison. He didn’t and they had to shoot him. When we went back upstairs we were seated in the main ballroom and served a small hors d’ouvre of caviar and a glass of Champaign. We enjoyed a costumed dance (minuet?) and performance by Russian folks musicians. Following this we were ushered into the Yusupov family theatre and listened to several classical arrangements by a small orchestra and eight solos by opera singers. Outstanding. Then, back on the bus, back to the ship, through immigration and the cat pee lady and an early night. We each fell into our bunk and I don’t even remember Linda turning out the light.
Our second day in St PB started with dour immigration lady, cat pee terminal and onto a tour bus! The drive out of the city was filled with more insight into everyday life. We drove along the shore of the Baltic Sea for about an hour. We passed a few small towns and lots of cottages. The cottages are the places where the residents of St. PB go for the summer weekends to get out of the city. Just like in the US. People enjoying good summer weather, just like in the US. They are mostly wood and in a typical old pointy roof style that one would think of for this area. Every so often there would be a huge estate, just like in the US. We were approaching the Summer Palace. You turn a corner, get out of the bus and there it is. You must walk along the park like drive (maybe ¼ mile) to reach the palace. Again, the lines are long. But, in walking through the palace, it is very ordered. Only one group of 20-24 people is allowed in a room at any time. Babushka ladies count and constantly scan each group to be sure nothing is touched. And, you must wear special “museum shoes”. These are paper surgical booties that you slip over your shoes. This polishes the floors as you shuffle through. The invading armies were billeted here during WW II and the palace was all but destroyed. It has been restored over the last few decades. Prior to the occupation, almost all of the treasures were removed and stored in St PB and then returned during the restoration.

As magnificent as the palace is, it is the gardens that are the real gem. The palace was built in this location to make use of the springs that flow from a lake down to the Baltic Sea. The grounds are covered with hundreds of fountains, each more elaborate and breathtaking than the last. At 11:00 AM, the fountains are all turned on. The water naturally flows through them without the use of any pumps or power. I suppose it is something like gravity. The Russian National Anthem is played and the fountains begin to flow. We spent about 15 minutes watching the Great Cascade just outside the Palace doors. then started walking through the grounds to the Orangery for lunch. There was another magnificent fountain every 100 yards. We walked through parks filled with gardens and MORE fountains.

After a lovely lunch we made our way back through the parks to the canal that runs from the Sea to the palace. We took a hydrofoil from the palace back into St PB where we boarded our bus for more stops in the city. Thankfully we had been to many of the stops the day before and were able to remain in the bus to rest our feet a bit. But, we did return to the Church On The Spilled Blood and this time we were allowed inside and could take photos. Every square inch is covered in mosaic tile. It is spectacular.

Back on the bus, more souvenir shopping and back to the ship. It was getting difficult to navigate the city because all the drawbridges were lifted at 5:00 to allow for a regatta of military ships and sailboats finishing the Volvo Race. Big crowds were gathering along both sides of the river even though the weather was turning rather grey and misty. But, that’s typical. Sunny one day can only mean rain the next. The bus delivered us to the ship, back through immigration and cat pee lady. Linda went to bed and I found the late buffet for some dinner. The best report is we managed to sleep a good seven hours last night.

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