And now we’re in St. Petersburg. I’ve been interested in the history of St Petersburg for quite a while. Here’s the wiki because the alternative is that I will just sit here and write and write and write and bore the crap out of anyone who happens to be reading this, so it’s better that I end it all right here. And continue on with writing instead, about our travels.
So this morning, again bright and early, and not happily bright and early, but more like, oh God, why are you punishing me bright and early, we went downstairs and met our new guide. Ludymila, or Luda for short, our Exeter supplied guide, wasn’t quite as experienced as our Moscow guide, Anna, but she was keen to make sure our time was well spent. Though she did one distracting trait, and that was that every day, when she took her leave of us, she’d warn us, again, to be careful of the pickpockets. It got to the point where we’d go to the front doors of the hotel, and look out expecting to see a gang of pickpockets just outside, jostling for position to see who would be first to slip the $50 watch from my wrist. Well, her warnings must have had some beneficial effect, as we were never pickpocketed once during our entire stay.
First off, we spent part of the morning at the Yusupov Palace. The Yusupovs were reputedly the richest family in Russia before the Revolution. Yusupov Palace was the favorite palace of the last scion of the family, Prince Felix, who owned fifty-seven, of which four were located in St. Petersburg. Fifty-seven palaces, all for one family, and the question is, not why the peasants and workers revolted in 1917, but why didn’t they do so sooner?
So, the palace was pretty magnificent. I thought we’d be pretty inured to palaces by now, having visited some of the best that Europe has to offer, but really, the Russian stuff pretty much takes it all to a whole new level. Plus, Yusupov Palace also has the distinction of being the location of the assassination of Rasputin. And, just for the right touch of the macabre, they’ve restored the room where Rasputin was poisoned, shot, shot again – three more times, clubbed, and finally wrapped in a rug and thrown into the nearest canal, in the middle of the winter. The restored room also has wax figures of the assassins and their victim, just to set the proper mood.
After Yusupov Palace, the only other planned activity was a visit to Peter and Paul Fortress. So we asked Luda to take us to a museum dedicated to the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. As expected with the Exeter guides, Luda knew just the place. We spent the rest of the morning touring the Museum of the Siege located in Rumyantsev Mansion in the city. There’s another museum, on roughly the same subject, located out in the city outskirts, which we drove by on a later day. Again, the benefit of having Luda with us was boundless, as the museum really isn’t much visited by foreign tourists, so having a guide along to translate the informational placards was helpful indeed.
Following the Siege museum, we asked Luda to pick something small and casual for lunch. She ended up choosing a chain restaurant that specialized in piroshkies. Here again, is another one of a whole long list of fast food options that are outside the rather narrow band of American tastes. Every year there seems like there’s some new variation on a sub shop. But why can’t we get Cornish pasty shops, or piroshky stands, or lunch counters with grab-and-go cabbage rolls? Okay, I’ll concede the last one might be a stretch, but I’d knock over a little old lady to get in line for a meat pie.
For the afternoon, following a hearty meal of piroshkies, meat filled of course, we visited Peter and Paul fortress. Originally constructed to defend the harbor and city by Peter the Great, it’s now a repository for the remains of the tsars and their wives. Oh, and there’s a mint, but we don’t visit those any more since experiencing a surfeit of coin collections many years ago during a visit to Scandinavia. Now when asked if we’d like to tour a mint or numismatic museums we just decline, politely.
The tombs of the tsars are a bit less overdone than one would expect, especially after you’ve spent any time touring their palaces, country homes (also palaces) and the little pied-à-terres they kept in town (also palaces, but small ones – only seventy or eighty rooms). Tsars, and the other Russian nobility, did like their palaces. Anyway, the tombs are carved from single blocks of semi-precious stone or marble, and probably cost enough to keep a good size town heated for a decade or so, but are otherwise fairly unadorned.
Also, along the way to the fortress we discovered the Flying Dutchmanrestaurant. Why one would create a restaurant in the likeness of a doomed ship and a cursed crew, I do not know, but I’d eat there just for the experience.
After a long day of taking in sumptuous palaces, war museums, and fortresses, we were bushed and begged Luda to take us back to the hotel so we could rest a while before the evening’s doings. For there was yet another group tour, this time of the Hermitage Museum, with a champagne reception in the museum accompanied by a string quartet.
Afterwards, we and our fellow tour peoples, and all of our guides, toured the Heritage art galleries all on our own. Not a single other tourist was to be found. We were followed, however, by a couple of security guards, most definitely to keep us from swiping a Monet. It was in a word, well two words, totally awesome! This, I think was the highlight of the trip for Mary, as she had been wanting to go to the Hermitage for pretty much forever. And now she has.