Thursday, July 21, 2005

St. Petersburg - Day 1

Day started very early. This is the second day that we had to set our watches ahead; with the two hour difference and the 6:45 start we were all somewhat tired. But this is St. Petersburg! Vast, monumental, colourful, opulent, but dowdy, this is a city that needs time to explore. But we only had two days. Our guide, Alla, packed in an enormous amount of sight-seeing, history and culture into the little time we had.

St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great. He grew up in Moscow (and I mean grew – he reached 6’8”). He found a boat that had been given to Ivan the Terrible by Elizabeth I, fixed it up himself and dreamed of starting a Russian fleet. He eventually did, after travelling incognito to England and Holland where he observed the ship-building (both merchant and navy) industries worked. On his return, he encouraged the Russians to adopt more European styles – no beards, European clothing - and hoped to build a city that would be a “window on Europe”. After winning some land from Sweden on the Baltic, he started to put his dream into reality. St. Petersburg is said to have been built on people’s bones as many died in its construction due to primitive conditions, limited food, disease from the flooding of the Neva delta, the difficult climate and very long working hours. First to be built was the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress. Peter, himself built a small house for himself, which still stands, though it is encased in a brick structure to preserve it.

We started our day driving to a spot near St. Isaac’s Cathedral by the statue of Peter the Great, also known as the Bronze Horseman. What is remarkable about this statue is the the horseman is only supported by the back legs of the horse (usually a sculptor will have the tail as a third support). The statue was designed by the same architect who designed St. Isaac’s Cathedral (August Monferrane) but sections were created by different sculptors. After taking a bit of time for photographs, we moved on.

St. Petersburg is built on the Neva and Fountain rivers. Our next stop was a cruise on the rivers and canals. We passed the many palaces and gardens. The colours of the buildings are striking. Alla explained that they have to be painted every three years. We passed under a number of low bridges. Even the bridges on the Neva are low. All freight traffic takes place at night when the drawbridges are raised. From midnight to 3:00 incoming vessels enter and from 3:00 to 6:00 traffic goes the other way. We cruised near the Aurora, a battleship famous for firing a blank shot in 1917 to signal to the rebellious forces to storm the palace. This was the start of the Russian Revolution.

After our cruise we went to see the Bronze Horseman, the monument to Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great. She, a German Princess, wanted to establish her right to the Romanov throne and so was making connections between herself and Peter the Great. The scuptor wanted to depict him as a lawmaker and not as a soldier. This is one of the many monuments where newly married brides and grooms go and pose for photographs. We saw some when we passed the monument later.

Next stop - the Hermitage. It is said that if you stopped for a minute before each item in the museum you would need 11 years to see them all. With only 2 hours we did a speed tour. We went through some of the rooms of the former Winter Palace. The opulence and excesses are extreme. The floors have incredible parquetry, each room with a different pattern. The ceilings have elaborate designs. The beginnings of the art collection stem from Catherine’s time. She was a voracious collector, sending emmisaries to buy out complete collections from people around Europe. She kept the collection for her own private viewing. The visit is something of a blur. We stopped before paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens. We looked in a loggia with a copy of Rapael’s frescos (his were in plaster, these are oil on canvas). We had a quick look at paintings of the impressionists and then it was lunch time.


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