Thursday, June 16, 2011

St Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a very cool city -- love the architecture, love the canals, it's been fun to just walk around randomly within the Strelka and people-watch in the parks and on Nevsky Prospekt. The fact that it's currently 11:30pm and it's light outside s if it were 11 AM is still a bit weird.

Great day, though. Started off a bit gray, but we were inside looking at overly-baroque palace rooms (tons of gold leaf, I swear) and then it cleared up and got sunny when we had a chance to go to the gardens at Peterhof. By the time we got back to the city at 5:30, it was a perfect sunny day, felt like it was noon, and we headed off into the city to look at stuff.

The palaces were really amazing, and definitely grand on an imperial scale. We spent a few hours in the presence of hundreds of pounds of gold leaf and silk wall coverings, all painstakingly recreated and restored to Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof after the WWII. We saw some of the pictures of the palaces right after the war, and the Germans left them in utter ruin. Just brick walls, with caved in ceilings and floors, most of the walls crumbling and bombed-out. They destroyed everything. And yet, within a couple of decades, much of the palaces was rebuilt, restored, re-gilded, re-painted, re-everything'd. It's really quite amazing, considering the financial position of the USSR after WWII. But it was, apparently, a priority and they've done a truly fantastic job at both palaces. Using descriptions, photographs, and whatever they had managed to put into hiding before the palaces were taken over by the germans (they did manage to save a lot of the artwork, etc), they have a dozen or so rooms in eah palace completely restored. I guess it'snot really restoration when you are making reproduction stuff from scratch, but they were very careful to match what had been there. LIke I said, it's a roccoco-confection sort of place. Makes Versailles look quite plain, actually.

The Amber Room is a huge draw, too -- a large room entirely covered in amber mosaics and carvings. It's one of the most-visited rooms at Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, and it is a bit jaw-dropping. (No pictures, though, hmph). It is, of course, an entirely new Amber Room from the one initially installed in the palace -- the Nazis took the entire room away and it has never been seen again, our guide told us. When the Russians attempted to take down the panels to save them and hide them away, they fell apart and so they put their efforts towards other rooms that could be saved. Even knowing that it's all new (an opened in 2006, I think), it's pretty cool.

We visited Peterhof second,
and walked through the two parallel sets of rooms leading to the ballroom and reception rooms. If anything, this is an even grander palace, with rooms from each of the periods represented -- baroque and neo-classical, with oriental rooms and french-inspired salons. And the gardens! Mark says that he actually thinks they are more spectacular than Versailles, mostly because the huge fountains and canals and statuary are all up against the palace. The view from the garden terrace up to the main building is a collection of spraying fountains, dozens of bright gold-leafed statues, and terraced stone. It's quite impressive. The fountain - Samson and the Lion -- is the tallest fountain (In Russia? I'll have to look it up) and all the dozens of fountains in the palace gardens work without any pumps - they are all entirely gravity-driven.

We only had a half-hour or so in the gardens before we had to leave -- traffic is abominable in the city due to this conference, so we had to head back. It would be easy to spend a day there and see the various buildings and planned gardens in the huge park.

On the way out, though, we stopped to take pictures of this spectacular church. I have no idea what its name is, and other than the fact that its a Russian Orthodox church, I know nothing about it. It was just such an eye-catching thing that we had to stop!

We napped for a grand total of 30 minutes before I was too antsy and wanted to head out and look at things. The sun is out, everything looks spectacular, and we needed food, anyway.

St Isaacs Cathedral is half a block away - we walked over yesterday to take a look, so we went back today to climb up the 265 steps to the colonnade and walk around for some very nice views of the city. The church is technically a museum (it was a museum of Atheism for awhile, then that was moved to another building) and there are a lot of icons and paintings inside. But mostly, the inside is enough to gape at all on its own -- fourteen kinds of marble, soaring ceilings, a huge dome, and tons (probably literally) of gold both inside and out. The church is almost too big to see from the outside, hemmed in by traffic.

The streets are absolutely packed tonight, and so we decided that since tomorrow is our anniversary, so we'll have a nice dinner, today can be our McDonalds day (you know the drill, once in every country we have to eat at McDonalds, to see if things are weird), so we tracked one down and...oy! It was like Mosh-Pit McDonalds. Absolutely PACKED with people, ten or twelve deep at the six registers, people yelling and pushing and in general in complete chaos. We did manage to squeeze to the front to order our two Royale Cheeseburgers with fries ( it really is Royale Cheeseburger -- pronounced that way and written рояль чизбургер. )

We escaped with our lives, brown bags and diet-cokes clasped in our sweaty hands, pushing our way back out of hte building through the hordes coming in. We decided to risk drinking the diet-cokes, even though they're made with St Petersburg water, water that even locals boil before drinking it) - the filters and such should be enough. We hope. We've never had issues before, even in Egypt. I'll let you know. We're sticking to bottled water for drinking and tooth-brushing.

We walked back along the Neva river, admiring the buildings and the truly astounding number of people. Why? Ah-hah! There is a Sting Concert in Palace Square tonight. There are thousands of people streaming in to the square and lining every street nearby to try to get a glimpse. We pressed up against the barricade and watched -- the sound was good enough that everyone in the park could hear it. Very cool!

Still listening to the concert, we walked out along the river, across the bridge to view the canals and snap some pictures of the very cool buildings (mint green seems to be a popular color, and pale lemon yellow). We tried to walk directly back to the hotel, but we got stopped by one of the hundreds of police and militia (some with riot gear) who are out in force tonight for the concert, and had to loop around and try to get upstream to reach the street..I felt a bit like a salmon trying to swim upstream, but we did make it.

There are police of at least three different flavors out tonight, mostly trying to keep traffic moving, I think. The regular police, the militia/paramilitary group, and another sort--they have different uniforms and badges, but I'm not sure what everyone does. They manned the barricades and kept people out of the streets, but it was still a traffic mess. Lots of people partying tonight (with the concert and white nights), so we decided to retire relatively early -- and still didn't get back to the hotel until 11. And it's still bright outside. The sun doesn't set until nearly 11 and it's up again by 3-something. It never really gets dark. I can't quite get used to it.

Tomorrow? Meet our guide and go to the Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress, Church on the Spilled Blood and wherever else we want to go. Just walking, so we'll see where we end up!

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