Sunday, December 11, 2011

On the Road: St. Petersburg

Four days in St. Petersburg gave Doug and me time for a good overview of, according to travel specialist Rick Steves, "a showpiece of vanished aristocratic opulence shot through with the grimy ruins of socialism . . . Russia's most accessible and most tourist-worthy city."

His assessment was correct! Our tour started with a stop at the cruiser Aurora, which has been a museum since 1956. Its importance to the city's history began at 9:40 p.m. on October 25, 1917: a single blank round was fired from its bow to signal the storming of the czars' Winter Palace and the start of the Russian Revolution.

The Peter and Paul Fortress was a unique stop. We walked into bleak solitary-confinement prison cells - symbols of the city's grim history; enjoyed lovely, quiet parks; marvelled at the gold steeple and opulence of the cathedral housing the tombs of the Romanovs.

Another significant site in St. Petersburg is the Church on Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881. Although it was a grey, rainy morning, the five domes were lovely - jewellers' enamel was used to cover the 10,760 sq. foot surface.

A canal cruise is a great way to see the city, frequently called, along with Amsterdam, "Venice of the North." During an early evening cruise, Doug enjoyed dancing with one of the entertainers.

The Hermitage consists of several buildings, but the most impressive is the Winter Palace, official residence of the Imperial family until the Revolution.

Catherine the Great amassed one of Western Europe's best collections, including 2,500 paintings, 10,000 carved gems and 10,000 drawings. The floor-to-ceiling opulence in the hundreds of rooms in the complex is a visual feast!

We also visited St. Isaac's Russian Orthodox cathedral, which took 40 years (1818-1858) to construct. During WWII, the gilded dome was painted over in grey to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft. Under the Soviet government, the building was stripped of religious trappings, but with the fall of Communism, regular worship was resumed but only in the left-hand side chapel. The main body of the cathedral (nearly 43,000 sq. feet) is used for services on feast days only.

During our stay in St. Petersburg, we attended a ballet performance of Swan Lake at the 582-seat theatre built by Catherine the Great in the Hermitage complex.

Our 4-day visit to St. Petersburg ended with a full-day's visit to the lavish imperial palace, parks and gardens at Tsarskoye Selo. The jewel of the 1,400-acre site is the Catherine Palace; the 980-foot long Baroque facade is adorned with atlantes, columns and ornamental window framings.

Mirrors, gilded carvings and the vast ceiling painting make The Great Hall an unforgettable experience.

Exquisite stucco bas-reliefs in the Green Dining Room were said to be based on motifs from frescoes discovered in Pompeii.

The parks and gardens are popular with couples getting married.

As Doug and I were leaving the summer residence of the Russian czars, we stopped at the sculpture honoring Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be the greatest of Russian poets and founder of modern Russian literature.

(blog entries by Heidi Hutson)

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