Friday, 7 September 2012

St. Petersburg, Russia, without a tour

A while ago I posted the drill for getting a visa to Russia. It turns out that the visa was possibly the most difficult, the only difficult thing about going to St. Petersburg on our own, without a tour. Many of our friends, including arts professionals, had recommended against it - "You may not be able to get into the Hermitage, because of the crowds," "It's difficult to get to some of the places without a tour," and of course the concern about the language. But I'm leery of city tours and especially don't like being guided around museums in a herd. And sometimes it makes the trip more interesting to have to get places on your own. So we just did it. And it was just lovely.

First, our hotel, the Petro Palace, was just what we wanted. It is very close to the Hermitage, about three blocks, and also close to St. Isaac, the huge cathedral whose bright gold dome is visible from just about everywhere. The hotel has a nice modern lobby with a little bar where we sat each evening with a drink and checked our email on the free wifi. The room seemed rather spartan at first, with a thin carpet and quite simple furnishings, but the bed was comfortable, the air conditioning worked, and everything was clean and in good repair. We were on the central courtyard, which was also quiet. They serve a large buffet breakfast with a variety of meats, cheeses, pastries, eggs, cereal and so on. By the fifth day I was a little bored with the breakfast, but it was really just fine. A couple of days it was really crowded, perhaps with a tour, but it was hard to tell because most of the guests were not English speakers.

The first day things did not get off to a great start when we located the central ticket place for the train we would be taking to Helsinki but could not find the right window to purchase the tickets. Finally the information clerk had someone lead us to the window, where we waited for more than an hour on a very short line. We met some very interesting Germans in the line and in the end the ticket buying process was easy even though the agent did not speak English.  Our guidebook had said we could get the tickets from the hotel concierge, but he kindly recommended the ticket office because he would have to charge a substantial fee for doing it for us.

Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace
The Hermitage did indeed have a line of perhaps 100 people. It wouldn't have been that bad a wait, but I am a member of the International Council of Museums, which enabled us to use the tour group line and we  hardly had to wait at all. The Hermitage is crowded, but no worse than the Metropolitan or the Louvre, and only in front of the most famous paintings. Several tour guides asked me to move away from the two Leonardos so they could give their 30-second spiels in front of them. People snapped their pictures and moved on quickly. Although I had seen the Madonna Litta in the London Leonardo show, it was still great to see it in the Hermitage's daylight, where it actually looks better. And the Benois Madonna is still charming, the Madonna holding a flower and Christ's hands encircling hers, while he concentrates on the gesture. The Titians and Rembrandts were not as crowded and we could spend as much time as we wanted in front of everything. Actually, I was surprised by the number of not very interesting paintings that lined the rooms, filling in around a masterpiece or two.What were most interesting were the actual rooms of the Winter Palace, restored to luxurious (or gaudy, depending on your viewpoint) glamour, with amazing parquet floors and extensive gilding.

Floor of one room in the Winter Palace

Parquet detail of another room

The objects are also amazing, a vast range of porcelain, semi-precious stones,silver, gold, glass, coral, inlay, gilding, carving and casting.

Detail of a Sevres porcelain and gilt candelabra
 The only reason I wanted to go to St. Petersburg was to see the Hermitage, and it was a disappointment, not for the palace, but for the paintings. Three other major collections I visited after my art history training was over - the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Berlin Museum (in Dahlem), and the Prado in Madrid - were miraculous, life-changing, overwhelming. The Hermitage collection was just big. I wonder if somehow I wasn't attuned to its assets, wonder if perhaps the works needed cleaning. But mostly I wonder if the tsars in their eagerness to acquire European culture were buying their art in huge lots and not always paying attention to the quality of what they got.

Not to say I am not delighted to have been there, having spent the better part of two days there. But for surprised delight I would recommend the State Museum of Russian art where, as we had in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, we discovered wonderful 19th-century artists and huge masterpieces we had never heard of. The museum has a small collection of very icons, of a size and quality I don't recall ever seeing anywhere. I'll post some images on another entry, since I can't seem to get any more on this one.

Peace Bears near the Admiralty
 Without a tour, we had to create our own itinerary, of course. Looking online and in our Fodor's guide, I decided that we should take one day and go to Peterhof. It was easy to take a hydrofoil from the dock next to the Hermitage. There's another dock next to the Admiralty, which was closer to our hotel, but the ticket person was in some kind of a swivet and we decided to go to the Hermitage one instead. Our good fortune was that the boat left  as soon as we boarded. Like much of St. Petersburg, Peterhof was full of Russian families on holiday and crowds of people filled the park, wandering, picnicking and enjoying the extraordinary fountains. Everything seemed to require an additional ticket and after seeing some of the smaller outbuildings, we skipped the main palace and just explored the gardens.

Palace, Peterhof

Fountains went off at 2 p.m.

Formal Fountains, Peterhof

Peterhof Palace Fountains

We noticed the Singer Sewing Machine building, now a bookstore with a nice Cafe Singer (or Cafe Zinger, as my credit card bill identified it). On the way to purchase train tickets, I spotted an amazing church that turned out to be the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, built in 1883 by Tsar Alexander III on the spot in the street where his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated in 1881. The fantasy exterior is appropriate to the fabulous neo-Byzantine interior, every surface covered with mosaic religious images. A small altar marks the exact assassination spot, revealing cobblestones of the street. We also went inside St. Isaac's Cathedral (1818-1858), near our hotel. It's a huge neoclassical structure with gigantic marble columns and that gilt dome. Inside was another amazing display of mosaics, this time depicting religious figures in neoclassical style, many of which copy original paintings that apparently were deteriorating. Only telephoto photographs could prove to us that they are mosaic.

On a more modest scale I found wonderful landscape paintings in the Marble Palace museum, which also houses examples of contemporary art from the Ludwig Collection. (Again, I wondered if Mr. Ludwig passed on some of his less brilliant acquisitions.) At the Stroganoff Palace we encountered an exhibition on the War of 1812, the Russian War of 1812. the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, subject of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and celebrated in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, being commemorated this year with no reference to the minor war that Americans give the same name. That palace also displayed photographs of the rooms before their most impressive restorations. In the Mikhailovsky Castle we were surprised to come upon an exhibition of photographs made by Howard Buffet, who has a foundation to help people in underdeveloped countries. We watched a video of him and his father Warren, surprised to find Nebraska neighbors exhibited in Russia.

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