Thursday 15 September 2016
Today we meet local guide Natalya again to continue our exploration of St Petersburg. We walk along to the Metro Station near to the main Muscovskiy train station that we arrived at yesterday, and around Plaschad Vosstaniya (Resurrection Square) to the entrance to the Metro. Although the metro system is much simpler overall here than it was in Moscow, it is not that well suited to where we will be going as it involves lots of walking deep underground to connect to the different lines. But we do take it some of the way and the stations are almost as impressive as the ones we visited in Moscow. I particularly liked the beautiful mosaics in the Admiralteyskaya station where we exited.
From the metro we have a short walk to the fabulous St Isaac’s Cathedral, that is now a museum (with a small functional chapel). We marvel at the huge bronze doors, spectacularly painted dome ceiling and magnificent Sanctuary seen through the Holy Doors.
Then we walk past the Alexandrovskiy Gardens, the golden-spired Admiralty Building and into Palace Square where the magnificent Winter Palace stands – the former official residence of Russia’s Tsars. There are men and women in period costumes promenading around the square and horse-drawn carriages arrive, contrasting starkly with the ultra-modern cycle tour buggies. On the other side of the square is the General Staff Building. It has the longest facade in Europe of 580m long and a Triumphal Arch in the middle commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon.
The Winter Palace is home to the Hermitage Museum – one of the finest art galleries in the world. The building has over 1,500 rooms and contains the works of masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Velázquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary pieces by Matisse and Picasso. Inside we pick up our head-pieces so that we can hear Natalya’s commentary amongst the crowds. We also get instructions what to do if we get separated from the group because every group loses someone! The head pieces are really useful because they start to crackle when you get out of range of Natalya so you know that you have ventured too far; she can tell you which way to turn when you go through a room even if you can’t see her and she can speak to you directly if you are not with the group when you should be. We are eternally grateful that we are not here in peak season when there 100x as many people as there are now.
There are absolutely stunning rooms with gold everywhere. And of course the magnificent artworks, arranged into collections by country:
- Italian Collections: Leonardo De Vinci paintings, Michelangelo sculptures
- Spanish collection – Goya, Velazquez
- Dutch collection – Rembrandt
- Venetian – glassware, embroidery, lace
- Egyptian – sarcophagi, statues, urns
I particularly liked the painting by Antonio Canal (Canaletto) depicting the Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice which uses a cunning trick of perspective so that if you view the painting from different sides, different parts seem much bigger than when viewed from the other side (see pictures below).
We had heard that everyone is required to have a job in Russia, even if it is only part time so in tourist sites such as the museum there are many staff whose role it is to stop people touching anything. These are often referred to as the KGB Babushkas and when we saw them sitting with fierce (or was it bored) faces, we thought the name was very apt!
After such lavishness and over-the-top decoration we had lunch in the delightfully plain and calming cafe at the Impressionists gallery (now housed in the General Staff Building) before our free afternoon. Most of us decide to stick together and we catch a bus 3 stops down Nevskiy Prospekt to go to the Faberge Museum and find our way successfully to the not-as-obvious-as-you-might-think building down a side street beside the canal. We had no idea of the prolific nature of the House of Faberge and how broad the range of items that were produced. Most of us were aware of Faberge eggs that were made for the Tsars each Easter and contained ‘exquisite surprises’, but we were blown away by the details such as the little bird that pops out the top of one and is made from real hummingbird feathers.
We are keen to do a canal cruise and had been told that there was a good tour that left from outside the Faberge Museum. There were touts everywhere that spoke good English and we were told that there was a 2 hour tour or a shorter 1 hour 15 minute tour. It was nearly 5pm and was getting cold with rain threatening so we opt for the shorter version. After a long, involved process that seemingly required them to write full details on every individual ticket we finally get on board. We sit up on the back deck with a complimentary mulled wine and blankets for our legs. Unfortunately, we had been very mis-led and the commentary was only in Russian and the woman sat inside and just droned on the entire time (whereas on other boats we saw the guide pointing things out); and we only had a short time on the canal before we headed out onto the Neva River where we saw all the main sites we had seen the day before (but from a different perspective). We had all been looking forward to cruising through the canals with a much closer view of the buildings alongside, and were very angry with the staff when we got back but they just shrugged.
We got rid of our frustration by walking to the fabulous Eliseyev Store/Food Hall – what an absolute treasure trove of gastronomic delights. There was a live band playing and we feasted our eyes.
Then we caught a trolley bus back down Nevskiy Prospekt towards our hotel – we had been told that it was 2 or 3 stops and just to look out for the monument. But there were buses in front so we couldn’t see ahead and we knew that if we missed the right stop we would be taken a long way in the wrong direction but if we got off too soon it would also be a long walk. In the midst of all this consternation, an announcement was made in English that the next stop was for Resurrection Square and the main train station – so we got off very relieved.
Near the hotel is a huge shopping centre, the Galleria, that has a whole range of different eateries on its upper floors, so most of us decide that we will go there for dinner. Anne, Adelina, Gill and I choose a Russian restaurant and indulge in carafes of a very nice house red wine, dumplings with wild mushrooms, Siberian Pelmeni (another sort of dumpling, panfried and with a pork filling) and salad, and finished with a sweet treat (Gill and I shared a strawberry mint cake whilst the other 2 had pancakes).
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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