Anna and Slava were ready for us right on time at 8:30 am (and I wore pair of shoes number two) the next day. No rainfall but definitely dark clouds scuttling across the sky, pushed by a wind that grew steadily stronger throughout the morning.
The morning’s plans were to get to Catherine’s Palace (with its Amber Room). To get us out to Pushkin (sometimes called Tzar’s Village), Slava drove us first down Nevsky Prospekt, the oh-so-straight main boulevard in St. Petersburg. Along the way, Anna told us of an interesting tradition on this street; walking Nevsky Prospekt all night long during the summer’s White Nights period.
“White Nights” refers to the four or five weeks surrounding the summer solstice (June 21) when the nights are the very shortest and the days the very longest in these northern countries. But even the short “nights” aren’t like our summer nights back home: instead of inky-blue skies, the northern summer nights feature heavens that have a creamy, milky glow. And then the sun dawns again.
Anna told us the residents of St. Petersburg mark these long-lit nights by walking Nevsky Prospekt with friends for an entire night. Everyone evidently chooses the night which best works for them, then they amble the avenue, joined by others doing the same. Coffee shops and bookstores remain open; Anna said people see others they know and meet new friends on this night walk. She shared that this was the first year she took along her son, an 11-year-old which seems to be the apple of her eye.
After this story, driving Nevsky Prospekt definitely held more meaning for Mom and me.
We arrived at Catherine’s Palace after about a 40 minute drive. Our reserved tour time wasn’t quite open yet so Mom and I ventured into the palace chapel, Church of the Resurrection, built by the very-pious Empress Elizabeth and consecrated in 1956. Again, services were in session at this church and we quietly observed and wandered through the small church. Note: Men should remove caps inside “working” cathedrals. Women do not have to cover their heads unless they’re worshiping, however Mom and I felt more comfortable positioning our scarves over our heads while we visited these holy places.
Catherine’s Palace is simply an over the top experience. You like gold leaf? How about entire rooms coated in it? Don’t forget the little cherubs, carved scenes from nature and even the light sconces. Yep, all covered in gold leaf. Add in mirrors reflecting all that golden shimmes back to you and you have a few hours of gold overload. But it was amazing nonetheless!
After seeing the multiple rooms with ornate furnishings, gold-plated-everythings and stairways and hallways leading to more golden excess, Mom commented that she perhaps understood why the peasants revolted against the tsars and the empire’s trappings: “When the people were living in poverty and seeing their rulers live like this, there must have been some resentment,” she noted.
The Amber Room (no photos allowed, please) is a smaller room than most in Catherine’s Palace but the walls are adorned with carved amber, top to bottom. Anna told us the original amber has never been found after German soldiers descended upon the castle in World War II but there were so many accounts and drawings and photos of the Amber Room in its entirely that a the nearby “kitchen wing” just across the square from the palace was converted into an amber carving studio to replace the detailed amber panels. Mom hadn’t been interested in an amber jewelry souvenir because she only saw them with sterling silver settings; at Catherine’s Palace, however, a jewelry shop featuringitems made on-site at the palace workshop, had a lovely, angled tablet of amber set in 14kt gold as an elegant pendant; Mom bought it!
Outside Catherine’s Palace is a gracious park and lots of St. Petersburg residents were out to enjoy the sparkling (but cool!) day amidst the trees and flowers. Mom especially enjoys lilacs and, as we were traveling the area on the wings of a late spring, we spotted lilacs in almost every country we visited. Anna knew of an “alley” (her name for it) of nothing but lilacs so Mom and I couldn’t resist wandering its gravel pathway and sniffing the fragrance. It was hard to believe we were in Russia, enjoying lilacs the same as Mom had as a little girl in Wisconsin. Somehow, realizing that lilacs are the same in Russia as they are at home made the world feel a bit smaller.
Slava once again picked us up as close as he was permitted to drive to Catherine’s Palace. He conversed with Anna and sounded dismayed. Anna relayed to us that Slava had found that the road he’d planned on using to drive us to our next stop, Peterhof, was under construction and he’d have to use what he termed a “less beautiful” route. It may have been less picturesque, but the route was enjoyable for us because we had the chance to see some dachas (individual, small homes outside the city) and Anna used the prompt to tell us about her family’s country dacha and the mushroom hunting they do there.
Anna learned mushroom hunting from her grandmother and she, in turn, was teaching it to her son. “We love the mushrooms, all types,” she enthused. “As a child, my grandmother taught me first to find the easiest mushrooms and later on the ones that were more difficult to find or determine whether they were safe or not to eat.”
Anna laughingly said that children may not often listen well to their parents, but when it’s about something that means life or death depending upon what they learn, the desire to listen suddenly ratchets up to a high level! Her own son, she continued, listens very well when she points out the right mushrooms to eat and how to tell them apart.
As we arrived at Peterhoff, the wind was picking up mightily, tipping sunshades and blowing gravel and grit in every direction. The sky was still clear—the day’s predicted rain hadn’t arrived (at least not yet!) but there was a definite stormy feel to the afternoon.
Anna led us to a blini stand before we began touring Peterhoff. Blini, she said, are “bits of food” (like snacks, I imagine) and she thought we’d enjoy a lunch of meat-based blinis as well as those with chocolate, jam and fruit. We added to that a local juice made from cranberries and had a delightful lunch sitting outside the grandeur of Peterhoff.
Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg, loved nothing so much as the sea. Peterhoff is his retreat as close as he could get to the waters of the Gulf of Finland and, in fact, there’s a canal leading from the gulf’s waters right up to the Grand Cascade fountain just below Peterhof Palace. While bridges make it impossible now, Peter the Great used to be able to sail right up the canal and into an artificial stone grotto where he would disembark and head up into his palace via a “secret” entrance.
I’ve never been to France or any of its grand fountains and gardens, but, since Peter used many of these as a model for his own watery playyard at Peterhof, I think I’d recognize the similarity. Anna told us all the water flowing down the Grand Cascade, in the many, many fountains and elsewhere in Peterhof’s lower park originated from a source several kilometers away and uphill from the site. No pumps at all are used—only the pressure from the water dropping from its reservoirs powers the mighty fountains and water displays at Peterhof.
The noise of the water was astounding. And just seeing all that water, flowing, churning, shooting more than 50 feet into the air made me smile, especially considering that back home we’re in the middle of a four-year drought and we’re not even supposed to be watering our lawn, let alone shooting water in the air dozens of feet.
We didn’t choose to go into the Grand Palace or even the less-conspicuous Monplaisir (Peter’s smaller residence directly on the gulf); we’d seen a lot of gilt and gold in the past two days! Instead, we walked through the colorful gardens, stood in the spray of the fountains (the increasingly gusty winds meant we could be 50 feet away from a fountain and still get an unintentional shower) and explored the lower park.
Children ran through the lower park, playing at many of the trick water features there. Anna shared that she’d done the same as a young girl. I imagine generations of St. Petersburg’s residents can say the same thing.
Our plan was to ride a late afternoon hydrofoil back to the center of St. Petersburg but the angry wind caused the hydrofoils earlier in the day than usual. So we took an earlier boat ride, bouncing heavily over the windblown waves and up into the Nevsky River, disembarking in front of the Hermitage.
Anna and Slava were ready to take us to more sites and asked what we cared to see. Mom and I looked at each other; it was already 3:45 pm and it’d been a very intense two days (when you have a tour guide all to yourself, there’s no ‘down’ time to daydream or mentally doze off) and we were both pleased with what we’d seen of St. Petersburg.
They were surprised. Were we certain we wanted to go back to our ship? They didn’t want us to feel cheated in any way in our tour. We assured them we’d been very pleased, and, with the anticipated traffic in St. Petersburg, we were ready to head back to the ship’s docking area and process through Russian passport control ahead of the anticipated crowds.
Slava drove us back—and, yes, the traffic certainly did materialize. We reached the Star by 4:15 pm and took photos of Slava and Anna and gave each their tips (a mixture of rubles and American dollars—something we’d been told they’d appreciate, especially given the ruble’s recent volativity).
Mom and I waved goodbye to Anna and Slava and tried, once again without success, to get the sullen passport control agents to smile. And then we were up the ramp and back home on the Star.
Russia? Well, it still felt a bit dangerous (Anna had pointed out a hillside building bristling with antenna: “That’s where the KGB used to be,” she said. “Now it’s called something different but it’s still the same thing. But now we know where they are and can keep an eye on them.”) yet it certainly wasn’t as mysterious. Churches peaked with onion-shaped domes, gilt and excess, beautiful art, clever fountains–it’s all there. But the best part about Russia was getting to know more about Russian people. Thank you, Anna!