It’s been three days since we sailed from our overnight port call to St. Petersburg, three days spent thinking about what to tell you about, what I could tell you about since it is one of the two most overwhelming port calls I’ve ever experienced – Antarctica being the other one. Mind you, like Antarctica, it was overwhelming for good reasons. And like Antarctica, it held some of the greatest unknowns, some of the greatest expectations and some of the greatest dimensions. The unknowns? The political culture, exacerbated by the paperwork required to go/get there. The expectations? The almost improbability of what we would see. The dimensions? Not great expanses of white ice in this case, but like Antarctica, there is space and scale that is difficult to grasp – buildings and collections on a massive scale. And of course, we arrived in the midst of the White Nights, where, like Antarctica, daylight endures almost forever.
We met our guide and driver at the appointed time and place (just after immigration at one of the port’s modern and spacious cruise terminals), and were immediately swept up in Olga’s charm and knowledge.
We immediately knew that we would have a very special two days in front of us. First stop – the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul on Hare Island, one of St Petersburg’s many islands.
This fortress, a site of enormous historical importance, appeared to be much like fortresses with their ramparts, guns and barracks elsewhere in the world. What struck me, however, was how this site has been creatively transformed into a multi-use tourism attraction. In its whole, it is an impressive fortress, but within its walls, many of its buildings have been re-purposed into disparate, individual museums, each attracting its own admission fee, each becoming part of Russia’s growing tourism industry. We got there reasonably early, but already, were experiencing the crowds that would present for the rest of our two days in St. Petersburg. We didn’t go into the separate museums (partially because of a lack of time), but we did see some of the fascinating features within the fortress – such as the Twelve Chairs.
One very small, insignificant thing that struck me was the logo on the ice cream kiosk – the multi-coloured, rainbow swirl that we in Western countries associate with ice cream. I am fascinated by the spread and franchising of brands around the world, but this small observation made me realise how very western Russia is becoming – and of course, the Golden Arches, international clothing chains and expanding professional firms are all there, too.
Next stop was the Synagogue. Whilst not as overwhelmingly elaborate as the other places of worship which we would soon see, it was magnificent in its own right, a far more simple elegance. I was extremely moved by our visit, given that it is entirely possible that some of my distant and remote ancestors might have worshipped there, perhaps migrating to or passing through St. Petersburg from my family’s ancestral homes further south in the Belarus. It was a very strange feeling, finally making my pilgrimage to the region which was only a name I learned about growing up. Now it was real.
Already trying to absorb something more than just a worthy architectural site, our next stop would be the Hermitage, at our appointed hour of 11:45 a.m., going through a special entrance reserved for guides with fixed visiting times. We did not queue, we did not have to muscle our way through crowds – at least at the entrance. It was a beautiful, warm, summer’s Sunday, so once inside, however, we found ourselves maneuvering around hundreds of Russians as well as international visitors.
How can I explain this palace of 300 rooms, each with its extraordinary ceilings, individually designed parquet flooring and most of all, its incomprehensible collection of art? How can I explain the intricate gold leaf swirls decorating the ceilings of the more important rooms, the often Escher-like geometrical designs of its floors – different in each room, or the massive portraits and possessions of Peter the Great? Or the collections of Western Art? Or the mirrors, vaulted ceilings, magnificent chandeliers and grand staircases which are reminiscent of Versailles? Perhaps one of the more unusual, fascinating pieces was Peter the Great’s metal lathe – an elegant machine, standing much higher than my husband’s lathe, given Peter the Great’s unusual height!
Sadly, our several hours wandering this palace to art and history passed all-too-quickly, hoping somehow that each hour could be miraculously transformed into a day, allowing us to trade an hour for a day. Not to be this time, but Olga and I made a pact that I would return in the cooler weather, with far fewer visitors, and more time to be embraced by the Hermitage’s warmth as we set off exploring its treasures in more details.
Time for lunch. Olga saw that the line at the café would take us at least 20 minutes to get through, so undaunted, she raced us through endless rooms, corridors and passageways of the Hermitage where our destination would be the staff canteen. Using her Russian guile telling the guard that I was an important figure in the cruise world and that my husband, Terry, needed somewhere quiet to relax and eat, Olga got us past the guard. We descended another staircase, and found ourselves in the basement staff canteen. Leaving my cameras in my backpack and speaking English in a low voice so as not to attract too much attention, we had lunch, a lunch which can only be described as personifying all reports of ordinary Russian cuisine. Enough said, but it was lunch, and we got to see a part of the Hermitage that few other visitors would ever get to see, unless, of course, they had Olga as a guide.
Time to set off again – Andrei, our amazing driver (whom himself had been a Chief Officer on cargo ships) waiting for us metres from our exit, a practice which we so appreciated during our two days. Driving through the streets of St. Petersburg – clogged with traffic, encountering unannounced and tricky road closures (one because of a cycle race) – you cannot but be struck by the harmony of much of its architecture, especially along the embankments and a tendency to compare the solid masonry buildings of St. Petersburg with some of their French cousins, and even their Dutch second cousins.
Nothing would prepare us for our next site. Nothing. We knew we were approaching the Church of the Spilled Blood when we saw the familiar ornate onion domes, familiar because almost every news broadcast out of Russia is made against the backdrop of the similar exterior of its Moscow counterpart.
Once inside, though, the grandeur, beauty and inspiration of this church was revealed. It’s 7,000 sq metres of micro-mosaics, covering the walls and vaulted ceilings of this magnificent church tell stories and depict religious and historical figures in a medium one would usually expect to find in much smaller displays or as the surface for a piece of furniture – not covering almost the entire interior of this substantial, architecturally fascinating building. Gold leaf, precious stones, masterful detailed painting are only some of the elements which are used in these micro-mosaics.
If we were on a coach tour of Western Europen, our next stop would probably have met by cries of “Oh no – not another cathedral!” But, we were in store for another ecclesiastical marvel, St Isaac’s Cathedral. French architect, August de Monterrand, was commissioned by Alexander I to build the cathedral, a project that took 40 years to build with most of its construction taking place during Nicholas I’s reign. Its relatively simple classical façade belies another massive and magnificent interior, characterised by its sheer size and richness in every detail. Malachtite columns, gold leaf, lapis lazuli, trompe de l’oeil – a cathedral more than fit for a king!
Our last stop for the day was a chance to unwind in the lobby of the Astoria Hotel, but not without the ulterior motive of our tour guide! There was one fascinating and fun thing to see in the hotel, and that was the collection of small brass plaques which hang on either side of the lifts, discreetly displaying the names of the famous people who have stayed in the hotel. Small, discreet plaques telling us that the likes of P. Domingo, Woody Allen, M. Thatcher, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Kylie Minogue, Prince Charles and George W. Bush have all called the hotel home when they visited St. Petersburg.
We were happy to go back to the ship for dinner, almost too tired to eat, but so full of the first of our amazing two days.
A civilised 9:40am start on Monday, and we headed to perhaps the most interesting (artistically) of the city’s museums, the Russian Museum with its extraordinary collection of Russian art. Another massive museum installed in an elaborate palace of some 300 rooms, we got to see only a small portion of the wonderful art on display (more than 400,000 pieces make up its collections), but at least we got to see the icons, and even for that, our visit was incredibly special. But like other ‘headline’ art (such as the Fabrege eggs), the Chagalls and Kandinskys tour the world, and see little if any of their artistic home, so that was a bit disappointing.
Lunch next – at a delightful Italian café … and then an opportunity to explore the waterways of Venice of the North, this magnificent city which is threaded by canals and its majestic Neva River, guarded over by its two bright red Rostral Columns, and at one point, spanned by a bridge designed and built by Eiffel.
Our hour-long boat ride – accompanied by a complimentary glass of champagne – took us past many of the sights we had seen over the past day or so, and past many new ones, guaranteeing that one day we will return. Returning to the ship, a drive down Nevksy Prospekt whet our appetite for coming back to explore this wonderful shopping street. (I have since heard that my Kiwi friend, Sophie, now visiting St. Petersburg, has indulged her retail whims.)
So, what is this place, St. Petersburg? It is a place which is full of riches greater than anyone can comprehend. It is a place of magnificent architectural beauty, but at the same, host to the architecture of more modern, and less kind eras. It is a place which is a repository for monuments which I have not described above, but which occupy a host of prides-of-place around the city – the Sphinxes at the University Embankment and the Senate Square with its bronze horsemen. It is a place which is increasingly catering to tourists (including many hundreds of cruise ship port calls each year), with its coffee map and Q-Codes next to its artistic works hanging in museums and on buildings, and in or on other places of interest. It is a place which can even be explored by Segways. It is a place of surprises, of expectations more than met, of a strong yearning to return.
The last word in this blog, however, needs to be about our wonderful tour guide, Olga. I was so happy that I had brought along a wee gift for her – a book about New Zealand English for this full-time English language teacher and tour guide. It was a small way of showing our appreciation, because she gave so much to us. She told us the history, she pointed out the visual puns – for example, the flooring matching the ceiling above and the stories in the mosaics. She answered questions with great grace and knowledge. It was so hard to say goodbye, it was so hard to keep back the tears that I think both of us felt welling up.
I now know where my ancestral ties can be found, and they are still there, in a Russia which preserves its past, but is at the same time looking to the future.