You got a preview when I realized that I could post pictures from my phone on the WordPress blog app, now here’s the real thing!
I fell in love with Irkutsk, and I think you’ll see why (including the Decembrist Trubetskoy Manor and lots of views of the River Angara…and even another Lenin statue, since they’re ubiquitous, even if far from my favorite statues):
The incredible blue ice at Lake Baikal (and scenes from Listvyanka):
The Volkonsky Manor, a Decembrist’s home in exile:
Remember the nice Russian women who spoke English and were on the train with me when I got on in Irkutsk? Well, Natasha really did mean her invitation to come check out the ship she crews on, the Mir. It’s a large sailing ship used as a training ship for the merchant marine cadets. (I just checked and it even has its own wiki page, so google it to see lovely pictures until I can get mine…groan…off of my camera finally.)
Aasa and I headed out to the quay where the ship is moored, next to an old submarine that’s now a museum and by a lovely Russian Orthodox Church. We managed surprisingly to get there right on time, and were wondering what to do to hail the ship as neither of us wanted to pass the “no entry” sign at the bottom of the ladder even though we had an invitation. Shouting “ahoy” seemed appropriate for a sailing ship yet also extremely embarrassing. Luckily for my dignity, one of the crew members came out on deck and we called up to him to ask for Natasha.
We then were lucky enough to get an hour tour of the ship. You have an idea that the ship is big when standing on her deck, but it just didn’t really sink in how big (capacity for 200 people) until we got to go all around it. We saw the officers’ dining area, the crew’s dining area, and the captain’s (which made me feel like I was in a Horatio Hornblower novel of the Napoleonic wars). We saw where they store the sails. Since the crew member who repairs their sails was there, we got to see the cuff-like device they use as a thimble to get the huge needles through the fabric of the sails. We went down into the warmth and noise of the engine room (which made me feel like I was in a movie set.) We saw the navigational bridge and got to try out a sextant, which was incredible.
After our tour, we sat in the crew’s lounge and had tea. Unfortunately, Natasha got called away to lead a school tour. Since it was a busy Sunday, we left.
We stopped for lunch and then headed over to the Museum of Political History. The museum apparently acts as a concert venue on Sunday afternoons, so we couldn’t see all of the exhibits, but as we were both pretty tired we didn’t mind too much. We started out looking at an exhibit of documents and photographs (and a few artifacts like uniforms) from the Russian Civil War. The English language guides were extensive. The highlights were the room that was Lenin’s office and the room next to it which was also a recreated office. We could see the balcony where Lenin would address the crowds.
We then ran upstairs to a one room exhibit on the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the title of the exhibit indicated that it would address whether the collapse was natural or a “criminal conspiracy”, it was really just an exhibit of (interesting) political posters and an outline of the events leading up to the collapse. Not that I think the collapse was a criminal conspiracy, but I was hoping to learn more about various schools of thought in Russia and how they viewed the collapse. What I got out of that was at least the museum curators view the collapse the way we do in the West.
The last part of the museum was what we had come for, so it was unfortunate that it was on the end of the route. I was exhausted, so I only took a twenty minute walk-through. This part of the museum had displays (photos, articles of daily living, documents) on the Stalin period through Brezhnev. The most interesting display to me was the nook that was set up to look like a samizdat writing/publishing room. (Samizdat was the underground publishing movement under Communism.)
I wanted to take a look at Dosteovsky’s
neighborhood on my way back so I detoured a few blocks to see the street he lived on and a couple of houses where Raskolnikov might have lived. (I already posted pictures of those and the WordPress app even uploaded it in duplicate so you can enjoy it to your hearts’ content.)
Saturday was our day to be Peter-centric in Peter’s city. We took the metro out to Peter and Paul Fortress, the original fortifications built as St Petersburg became a city. You get a great view of the other side of the river from the fortress.
It is much like other fortresses with ramparts and such. Near the center is the cathedral. Sadly, the outside was undergoing renovations, but the inside was pretty and interesting. Aasa and I spent awhile deciphering the ornate Cyrillic lettering to try to figure out whose Romanov grave is whose. (We didn’t, at least for most of them.) The effort made us hungry, so we walked over to a restaurant by Peter the Great’s cabin. I enjoyed duck risotto and great conversation.
As the ticket office for the cabin was momentarily closed, we walked a few blocks over to see the cruiser Aurora, which is quite impressive. I can see where it made a good piece of Soviet propaganda. We didn’t bother to wait in line to board it, however, as we were anxious to see the Peter’s Cabin Museum.
This is one of the most interesting historical site museums I’ve seen. It is actually the entire furnished cabin that Peter the Great lived in (for all of three weeks) as the Peter and Paul Fortress was being built, and is therefore the first building in St Petersburg. Peter declared it a museum about 15 or 20 years later, which is either a comment on how he viewed himself or how he viewed St Petersburg – I’m guessing the former. And then they built a building around it to preserve it, which is a little odd and quite clever.
Sightseeing, as always, taking longer than expected, we had to postpone visiting the Museum of Political History to the following day so we could run some errands before the ballet. Alas, my conversation was not sufficient to prevent all toothache, so we headed to Stockman’s on Nevsky Prospect to buy a home remedy (cloves) and some bread, cheese and salami for dinner. Then it was a mad rush back to the hotel to eat and change and head to the Mariinski Theater.
We saw La Bayadere, with some updates to the original Petipa choreography. The third act was especially amazing with one of those huge scenes of the corps de ballet in white classical tutus taking up the whole stage like in Swan Lake. We also saw a male soloist in the second act whose leaps to my non-connoisseur but mildly knowledgeable eye seemed to have the same grace and “ballon” as the principal dancer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he rises to become a principal.
The theater itself is gorgeous. Interestingly, it doesn’t have seats, but actual chairs, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a theater before. We were in the third row of the first circle (essentially a third floor seat) and since there is no incline to the balconies, this last row was raised on specially built boxes with little indentations for the chair legs. They also let you rent opera glasses at the coat check, which meant I could see the expressions on the dancers’ faces.
One cost of the charming gold angels and embellishments on the walls of the theater is that part of one obstructed a small part of the view from one of our seats. I was pretty upset as I had tried really hard to get good seats. The good news was that we had a great view other than that – the theater is not so big that you’re far away from the stage in the circle boxes where we were. It was a lovely end to the evening.
Picture: view of St Nicholas with the Mariinski in the background seen on our walk home from the metro
No really, just ask Aasa. My conversation helped distract her from the tooth ache that plagued her trip, poor thing. Apparently my conversation skills are just that good.
I suspect things like the Hermitage also helped, if I’m quite honest. How could it not distract?
We walked to the Hermitage, getting great views of the Neva, St Isaac’s, and of course the Winter Palace.
At the Hermitage, we went to check out the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art as planned. There is a painting by Matisse of red dancers on a blue background that reproductions don’t do justice to. You can see the tension and the movement of the dancers quite clearly, despite what looks almost like primitive figures. It’s a powerful, stunning painting – one of my favorites from their collection.
We also took a look at some of my favorite State Rooms. As we were heading back from one wing, we heard men’s voices mixing in harmony. Somehow there was a small male A Capella group singing while we were there and we had managed to time our visit so that we heard them. Serendipitous!
I’m not sure how it happened, but we ended up staying at the Hermitage longer than planned. (Surprise!) That was pretty much our touring day, as we went out for a very late lunch/early dinner at a place around the corner from the Hermitage. This place has a cabaret at night, and we made grandiose plans to go see the cabaret that we never followed through on because we were so tired from touring. Instead, we went shopping so we had food for breakfast and could try Russian sparkling wine in the coziness of our hotel room, with our poor sore feet raised!
My second day in St Petersburg, I spent most of the day in the Hermitage Museum, using the first day of my two day pass. My goal: to check out the Italian Renaissance and Spanish paintings, alongside some of the State Rooms, so that when I went back the next day with my friend Aasa, we could go to the Impressionist/Post-Impressionist floor.
You enter the Hermitage through a central staircase (also called the Jordan or Ambassador Staircase), which is simply magnificent. It’s all white and gold paint. I then proceeded through a number of State Rooms, including the small throne room (for those intimate occasions) and the large throne room (when one wants to impress). I took a brief detour through some Russian culture rooms, which include Nicholas II’s library. I decided I want that room – it’s fantastic.
On my way to the Italian gallery, I passed through my favorite room in the palace: the Pavilion room, which currently houses the Peacock Clock. It’s another white and gold room, with a Moorish theme, so there are balconies and arches. It’s absolutely breathtaking – I could get used to living in a room like that!
I’m not going to describe all the museum galleries. Suffice it to say, the Hermitage (as you no doubt know already) is one of the greats like the Met or the Louvre. They have a room of Titians that is great, and a big, grand room full of Spanish art (primarily de Ribera and Murillo) that is breathtaking.
I thought I was covering a lot of ground when I made it through the State Rooms pretty quickly. Of course, the State Rooms mostly don’t have art in them and only make up a quarter of the second floor. It took me considerably longer to get through the Italian gallery! Before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon and I started thinking about heading back to the hotel to meet up with my friend.
But before I did so, I stopped in an adjacent Hermitage exhibit called the Winter Palace of Peter I. This building doesn’t really exist anymore as Catherine the Great built a theater over it, but they have rebuilt several rooms amongst the archeological remains and furnished them as they would have looked in Peter’s time. More impressively (as in impressive-creepy), they have a life-size wax figure of Peter the Great made from death wax casts of his face and hands and using his actual hair. I think he would have been very disapproving of my insane desire to giggle when I saw it (him?).
I wended my weary way home, where my friend Aasa had arrived. I’m very lucky to have her able to join me for my stay in St Petersburg. We’ve known each other for a long time and always seem to pick up our friendship where we left off, despite living on different continents.