Today would be the last day of the organized Exeter tour, as well as my first day as a fifty seven year old, which I am reliably informed is totally old. I am so pleased.
Luda and Vladimir (our driver), picked us up at the hotel for our scheduled jaunt out beyond the city outskirts to the country palace of Catherine the Great, as well as Pavlovsk, the summer palace of Tsar Paul I. These palaces were gutted and destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Both have been completely restored, often with some of the original furniture and accessories (which had been evacuated before the Germans arrived) they contained before the war. There are also extensive gardens and outbuildings.
The highlight for us, was touring the Amber Room workshops. Originally, Catherine’s palace contained a room with panels made of carved and polished amber. This was looted during the war, and the panels disappeared, probably destroyed in a bombing. In any case, after the war the Russian government, as part of the reconstruction of the greater palace, decided to try and restore the panels and rebuild the room. The original artisans that made the amber panels were, of course long dead, so a new generation of artisans had to learn how to work with amber and build the panels from scratch. Oh, and they had to rebuild the panels using only a set of black and white photos of the room that were taken not long before the Germans captured the palace. Their efforts, exhibited in the fully restored Amber Room, are remarkable.
The workshop still exists, now doing restoration work on other aspects of the palaces, as well as supporting other museums around Russia. So we got a private tour of something which was, frankly a little more interesting to me than yet another palace. I mean the palaces are pretty incredible, and I’m happy to have visited them, but at this point I think we’d seen a total of seven or more palaces and it was starting to edge into overkill territory. On the other hand, I’m not sure where you would say, enough is enough. All of the palaces we did see were certainly well worth the visit. In any event, I think I’ll be happy with calling it quits, for this trip at least, at seven palaces.
After spending the morning ogling the small country getaways of the tsars, we repaired to a rather large and impressive restaurant, out in the country. It’s built from huge birch logs, sort of like a Lincoln Log house. Remember Lincoln Logs? They were great, we had all sorts of wonderful times playing with them as kids. Yeah, now that I’m fifty-seven, I’m just going to go on and on about stuff from my childhood, like Lincoln Logs, cause that’s what we old farts do. Back to the restaurant, which is rustic and countrified, the specialtie de la maison is, unsurprisingly, rustic and countrified cuisine, or so I believe. But the important thing was that I was having my fifty-seventh birthday lunch in a Lincoln Log restaurant. And this was also where President (Possibly-for-Life) Putin had his birthday party back in 2000. So we have that in common. The food was quite good. As usual, there was meat for starters and meat for mains, and some cabbage for a little roughage. Loved it. And this is also where we met this guy.
A little shopping filled out the afternoon, as Mary was bound and determined to get her best friend’s daughters some nesting dolls. I sat on a couch, cause that’s how we old guys roll.
At the conclusion of the day’s events, Luda, who apparently had overheard us joking about my birthday, presented me with a present of a bottle of Russian Standard Imperial vodka, good for anytime drinking! Amazing! I get to bring back a souvenir for once.
Anyway, for my birthday dinner, we went a bit more upscale, at Restaurant Palkin. Very upscale. Not that the diners were dressing for the occasion, mind you. One group seated next to us was wearing crocs and sweatpants, a fashion statement that we really wished hadn’t been exported to anywhere from the United States. Dinner was…. interesting. Good, certainly, expensive – that too, but odd, in a number of ways, some of which I’ll comment on at a later time. Any way it was a really interesting way to celebrate a birthday, in Russia, or anywhere for that matter.
And that concludes the organized portion of the tour. We made arrangements to spend a couple more days in St. Petersburg, since Mary was determined to examine every inch of the Hermitage. Plus we had a few more activities to sample, and a little more meat to consume, plus a sip or three of some more vodka.