Tuesday, August 02, 2005

St. Petersburg - Day 2

Alla suggested that we meet a little earlier so we would be first at Peterhof, so we boarded the bus before 7:00 and were first to arrive after a drive through the city, through suburbs and finally to Peterhof. Along the way we sawt the triumphal arch built after the Napoleonic War. We saw large apartment blocks built in Soviet times. W passed one of the first subway stations which were built like grandiose temples. Some of the subway is over 75 feet deep, running under the Neva River. Along the way we saw dachas – modest county homes. Now the newly rich entrepreneurs are building large homes.

We arrived at Peterhof before it opened and were the first to get in, donning our museum slippers to preserve the beautiful parquetry. This was the area of some of the fiercest fighting during the siege. The Nazis occupied the palace and surrounding area for almost 3 years (the siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days) and they destroyed many of the nearby palaces as well as Peterhof, the gardens and the fountains. Fortunately about a third of the artwork was hidden before the arrival of the Nazis and is back in the reconstructed palace. Over a third of Leningrad was destroyed and people lived without heat and barely any food. Adults got 250 gm of rye bread a day and children and the elderly got half that. The flour was mixed with cellulose, so the bread provided only about 100 calories. The death rate was high, from the bombing, but mainly from starvation. The total death toll was 1.2 million.

Although Peter began the construction of the palace, much work was done subsequently by Empress Elizabeth ( an extravagant lady and dauaghter of Peter the Great). The main palace is very extravagant. Each room was opulent and overdone. Peter the Great wanted a palace greater than Versailles and he certainly created something over the top. The ballroom had amazing parquetry floors and gilt everywhere. The Chesme Hall celebrates the Russian victories at sea. The artist had never seen a ship blown up, so the navy blew up an old ship in Livorno harbour so he could properly depict the naval battle. As in the Hermitage, I was so impressed with the floors. I don’t think we have many craftsmen today who could create floors like these. One room is the picture room. It is filled with paintings – portraits of women, reminiscent of Vermeer. Room after room of silks, gold, elaborate floors. It is hard to imagine the lifestyle of the people who lived there.

The garden is extensive, but the jewel of the palace are the fountains. They are fed by a system of reservoirs and pipes and are gravity fed. The fountains are extensive and there are even trick fountains, so that when someone steps on a spot or sits on a chair, the fountain starts. We did not need trick fountains on the day of our visit. As we waited for the fountains to start, a light drizzle started and as the fountains spouted more strongly, so did the rain. Many of our group decided to go back to the bus, but I felt that this may be my one visit to Peterhof and I did not want to miss the gardens and a glance at Monplaisir, a smaller palace on the site. By the time we had walked that far, the heavens had opened up and we huddled with one of the gardeners under a tree to see if it would let up a bit. There I heard a story about Peter’s obsession with promptness. If you were late to one of his dinners at Monplaisir you had to down a litre of vodka. His son-in-law was subjected to this punishment when he arrived 10 minutes late. Upon downing the pitcher, he promptly passed out and did not come to until the next day when he wrote about his ordeal. Thus we have a first hand account of the punishment.

As the rain did not abate, we had to head back towards the buses. It was hopeless trying to stay dry. Some of the people in the group bought tshirts so they would have something dry to wear. They changed on the bus. I stupidly decided not to. June had already taken her shirt off on the bus and was wearing her coat. Finally, feeling quite damp, I decided to try to wriggle out of my shirt and into my coat. At the point the bus was travelling through St. Petersburg so changing without being seen either by my fellow travellers or the people outside the bus was a challenge. June helped by holding her damp shirt in front of me.

On returning to St. Petersburg we went to St. Isaac’s cathedral. Several of us wore nothing under our jackets. Others wore their new tourist tshirts. We were a well-dressed crowd! St. Isaac’s Cathedral was designed by a French architect, Auguste Montferrand. Like much in St. Petersburg, its size and ornateness was overwhelming. Massive red granite columns, each of which weighs 80 tons stand on each façade. The mosaics go from floor to ceiling and the ceiling is very high. Semiprecious stones such as malachite and lapis lazuli are used liberally – including solid columns in the iconostasis. Even the floors have designs made from different shades of stones and marble. Have a look at some of my photographs to appreciate just how elaborate St. Isaac’s is. Montferrand died a month after the church was completed. He wanted to be buried there, but this was refused as he was not a member of the Othodox church.


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