Day 5 - St. Petersburg, Russia

July 5th continued...

Upon arrival at the palace we parked along the street and walked through the main gates into the courtyard where you could get a view of the expansive façade. Through the ornate fencing around the court yard of the palace was as magnificent a view as the tour books showed. As you approached, you could see that the paint was layered on, it appeared thick from years of repainting. However, the style and magnitude of the building were still beautiful. It was amazing knowing it was once a family’s house, a summer residence none the less.

There were at least half a dozen other tour groups at the site with other non-group travelers lined up to enter through the main door. While you waited to enter there was another band playing. Inside the first rooms had been converted to accommodate the tourist attraction aspect of the building with coat check, a ticket counter and the very important shoe booties. Everyone had to put them on over our shoes before we could begin walking around the palace.

The tour was a walk through about eight rooms on the second floor, all which appeared to be part of one wing of the palace. To get there we had to walk up the Main Staircase, which had a stairway on either side of the room with large windows looking out to the gardens.On either side of the room by the windows were sculptures designed to designate the east from the west. The cherub on the east was waking up and the one on the west was sleeping.As we walked up the stairs and entered the first few rooms, it was fairly crowded with other tourists. As a result, the rooms with narrow walkways were difficult to see any of the details Kate was talking about. Several times we had to stop and wait to move on to the next room.

The ball room, or Great Hall, was easier to see and navigate because we could walk through the whole expanse of the room and not feel crowded. As we went through these rooms it was clear why the general public was not happy with the Tsar’s.

Every inch of the walls, floors and ceilings were decorated in some way. Every available space was covered in gold leaf, mirrors, carvings and porcelain or tiles.
The reason for the booties was very clear after the first room -- each floor was a different wood inlayed design / parquet. The excess of the whole building was indescribable; every room had only one purpose. Other palaces and castles I had seen were not this extravagant -- they were built more as a home within a fortress for protection.

As we walked through each room Kate told us about the architecture and pieces of furniture. All the rooms had been refurnished after World War II because the buildings were bombed or taken over by the German troops and destroyed. They were renovated to their original design with the assistance of photographs and architectural plans. Also, prior to the war some people had taken one or two chairs or other pieces of furniture and hid them away. When the war was over they were then able to use the original pieces to make copies for the rooms. We saw throne rooms, a room with paintings in thin frames covering the walls almost like wall paper and then the Amber Room. This was one of the few rooms in the palace that we were not allowed to photograph to protect the amber. The walls in this room were covered in a mosaic of amber pieces with carved designs with the addition of gold leaf and mirrors. There was a two headed eagle carving and framed sections of design, with the frame made of amber as well. Apparently this room had been moved several times before ending in this palace. The current room is a complete replication of the original, aside from one framed section that was found many years after WWII and returned to the palace.

After visiting the rooms of the Palace we went outside to see the gardens. It was more crowded outside than inside. There were peddlers selling “traditional” Russian souvenirs including sets of Nesting Dolls or Matryoshka Dolls. Once you navigated your way through them, we still had to get through all the other tourists. Kate showed us a few buildings from the outside; including the bath houses that had survived the war in good shape due to the fact that the Nazi’s used it as a casino. She also pointed out the pond and island that would be used for open air concerts. The musicians would set up on the island and guests would listen to the music on boats floating around the island. Unfortunately we really did not get to see much of the grounds. I read about the palace prior to our trip and there are many gardens and buildings that make up the complex. I am not sure if it was because we did not have much time, or if the buildings are not in good shape and that kept us from seeing more.Melissa ourside the summer palace

There had been so much construction and reconstruction at the palace I left with very mixed feeling. It was remarkable and beautiful, but I wondered how much was real and how much was just there for the tourists. This is not isolated to Russia, it is the unfortunate effect of time on any historic building and city. You have to suspend reality and try to imagine what it was like without the guards, tourists and modern additions. We left the palace and headed back to the city itself for lunch. We passed the Coke plant, the Wrigley’s plant and car dealerships which gave the area a little more of a modern feel. This modernization did not last long, old Stalin Era apartments were everywhere and while there was some construction as we got closer to the city, there was very little sign that any development was going on. It was mostly road construction. Given that all the drivers act like they are personally in charge of the road, I think it is a good idea.

Once we were in the city Kate took us to a restaurant that was located in the basement of a building. This was clearly a place that catered to tourists. They had traditional style costumes on and the walls were wooden, like a log cabin. We were given English menus and for the most part the waiters spoke English. It was pseudo authentic. Chris got Borscht and Beef Stroganoff. I ordered a chicken dish that I thought was something new, but really it was a Chicken Kiev. There was nothing wrong with it, it tasted pretty good, but I had been hoping for “real” Russian food.

Next, Kate suggested we go shopping. The plan was to shop on the second day, but we were running a little ahead of schedule. This suggestion made me nervous; our next stop was going to be the Hermitage / Winter Palace which was what I was most looking forward to out of this whole trip. I heard it was almost impossible to see even half of the exhibits if you had a full day. It was decided anyway, so we went to a shop a few blocks away that was the ultimate tourist shop.

While most shops that sell souvenirs are designed for tourists, this was a whole new level. Every item in the shop was priced in Rubles and in Euros. The staff were all wearing name tags with flags representing the languages they spoke and there were at least 14 just walking around the shop with calculators to help with the conversion process. The things available to purchase were not different than what we passed on the streets or had available on the cruise ship; Amber Jewelry, Nesting Dolls, Shawls, Russian Folk Art painting (Khokhloma) on all types of items and small lacquer boxes. The store was a little crazy with all the other tour groups. Chris and I looked for a set of dolls to bring back as our “thing” from this trip but it was hard. The items seemed well made, but they were expensive. He found one that he liked that, the price was not crazy expensive (the really nice ones were $500 and up) and it had illustrations of famous St. Petersburg landmarks on the front of each doll.