Today we explored the very “European” and beautiful city of St. Petersburg by car, foot and boat! After the train ride through the countryside of Russia, it was a pleasant surprise to see how unique and different St. Petersburg is from Moscow. It’s also been an unpleasant surprise to feel the wind whip off of the Gulf of Finland when the snow is falling and it is many degrees below freezing and you are not equipped with warm clothes to keep the cold out… but one of the fun challenges of living out of a suitcase. As the Russians would say, “c’est la vie!” (not really, they would huff some funny sarcastic curse under their breath!)
A fun fact we have learned is that this is the northernmost city with over 1 million people; even though it’s a port city and a strategic location, it’s really cold. Another fact is that this place has been called many names as the country migrated from Tsar rule, through the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet era and now quasi-democracy, including: Leningrad, Petrograd, St Petersburg.
The Nazis laid siege to the city of Leningrad, and blockaded the city for almost 900 days in World War II. It was a terrible time, when over one million people died and monuments and palaces were razed. There is still restoration underway today from the Summer Palace to Catherine’s Palace to many, many cathedrals.
Brooke’s thoughts on St. Petersburg:
St. Petersburg was so beautiful, but it was freezing. Imagine Antarctica, BRRRRRRR! The problem was that we don’t have jackets like everyone else here with warm and cozy parkas and fluffy gloves. We had four layers on, a jacket, our warmest pants, and closed toed shoes and we were still freezing. I can’t stand it, and I don’t think Mom could either. I mean come on, it SNOWED. Still, Brayden and I don’t get many chances to be in weather like this so it’s kind of nice having a break from full on, hot sunshine every minute of every day in California. Here we get c-c-c-o-o-o-o-l-l-l-l-d-d-d-d w-w-w-e-e-e-e-a-a-a-a-t-t-t-h-h-h-e-e-e-e-e-r-r-r-r.
I thought the city was pretty and colorful. I saw buildings that were pink, blue, yellow, white, red, green and beautiful. I also thought that the people looked unhappy, but when you spend time with them they are funny and nice and happy.
We first stopped at St. Isaac’s Square, marked by the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is the fourth largest domed cathedral in the world (Il Duomo in Florence, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London). Similar to many cathedrals in Russia, it is magnificently gaudy with its byzantine golden domes that we disagree if they look like ‘onions’ (Brooke), candle flames (Brayden), byzantine helmets (Brad) or Islamic domes (Brandy). Whatever the architect’s inspiration, they are beautiful and glisten in the sun light. An interesting fact is that the massive roof was brass (to limit the mass required to be supported by the structure) and then gilded gold by applying gold mixed with mercury which liquefied and then was spread across the dome. Sixty of 100 builders died of mercury poisoning… but as we’ve learned in Russian history, the value of human life (particularly serfs) was very low.
Brooke’s thoughts on St. Isaac’s:
I thought St. Isaac’s was HUGE. It was gigantic. I couldn’t believe how much color there was inside of it. A few paintings were designed as tile mosaics but looked like paintings. I preferred the tile work. I thought they were more beautiful because so much more work had been put into them than the paintings. Actually, some of the tile mosaics took a little over NINE YEARS to build! WOW! You’ve got to be very patient to have that job.
St. Peter and St. Paul’s:
We had a fun lunch, looking back across the Neva River at the city, where the kids ran around catching snowflakes on their tongues. After lunch, we explored the first settlement and fort established by Peter the Great when he was determined to capture the city. It was created on the smallest island in the Neva, named Hare island, and was a strategic fort, church, mint and is the place of Tsar burial from Peter the Great all the way to Nicholas the Second.
Brooke’s thoughts on Peter and Pauls:
I don’t want to be rude, but Peter and Pauls Cathedral didn’t interest me too much. It was just a bunch of graves inside a cathedral. The graves were of tsars and royalty in Russia. You could tell if a grave held a ruler because it would have a two-headed eagle on it. Kids are not too fond of graves and death stories, but I still thought it was interesting. The graves were pretty much all the same except for two others that were different. These graves were made from different material. One was jasper, and the other was rhodite. The outside of the cathedral was pretty. It had golden onion domes that looked like candles lit up from the sunshine with glitter.
Certainly the heart of the city, and the highlight of our visit, is the Winter Palace and the Hermitage museum. It would be hard to convey the beauty, or the overwhelming scale, of the baroque style place. The Palace was constructed in the early 18th century (yes, built by serfs), and like many beautiful palaces and buildings, was created as the vision of Peter the Great – but completed after his death and then enlarged by Catherine the Great. Catherine started the collection by acquiring 225 paintings; it is now one of the largest and most impressive collections in the world.
We meandered up the “Jordan Stair Case” into the reception hall, ball room, throne room and then lost all sense of navigation after about our 255th room filled with art (mostly European). We were mesmerized by the Rembrandt hall, and loved the works by Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s statue, Ruben and just about the whole place. The highlight for us was the golden (everything is golden in baroque Russia) peacock clock, a favorite of Catherine’s. The intricate little details were fanciful and fun, and we all agreed that we could have spent all day watching and playing with it.
By the time we emerged from the doors of the Hermitage, we felt overwhelmed and exhausted, but inspired.
Brooke’s thoughts on the Winter Palace and the Hermitage:
The Winter Palace and Hermitage were absolutely amazing!!! Everything was decorated in gold leaf and when we were walking up the staircase I saw an amazing sight: there were paintings that looked like they were statues with shadows. This technique is called trompe l’oiel (trick on the eye). When we went to the ballroom, everything was either gold leaf, white, or a mirror (mirrors made the space look much, much bigger than it really was). My favorite room in the Hermitage was the chapel. I liked that Catherine had a little door that she could come in and out of secretly. The room was packed with tourists. I also really liked the gold chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
The paintings were pretty, although the number of them was overwhelming, but I still liked seeing them.
Canals and Rivers on the boat:
We took a break from art to explore the city by boat, cruising through the canals and rivers and then out onto the Neva River to see the city walls up close. It reminded us of Amsterdam and Venice and Paris all at once.
Brooke’s thoughts on the boat ride:
We went on a boat ride, but the warm and cozy room smelled like cigarette smoke, so we stayed outside. It was very cold outside because the wind was blowing on us from the river. The boat went through the canals of St. Petersburg and we saw the restaurant where we had eaten earlier. I thought that the city looked really beautiful from on the boat. All the buildings seemed to be lit up because of the sun shining on them. My favorite part of the boat ride was when we went under the bridges and Brayden and I would start jumping and trying to touch the underside of the bridges. That was a lot of fun.
Well, a sad part (there are many dark and sad parts of Russian history, same as everywhere except Bhutan) of Russian history was the plunder of the country’s wealth, jewels and cathedrals after revolutions and during war. The first significant pilfering was after the Bolshevik revolution, when royalty and aristocrats were imprisoned in gulags (or worse!) and wealth was sold or smuggled out of the country. The second major plunder was during wartime, including Napoleon’s invasion, World War I and World War II. WWII, in particular, was terrible as the Nazis stole art, artifacts, jewels and statues and then burned down palaces on their retreat. The Faberge Museum was created by a benefactor (actually, that is another interesting story where an oligarch was not paying his taxes and Putin forced him as punishment to create a fund to reclaim lost Russian treasures, and the first acquisition was the “Forbes collection” which included 10 original Faberge eggs for $150mm… beats the gulag!) who created a charitable fund to acquire lost Russian art. The current Faberge museum was a highlight of our trip; beautiful and quaint and a spectacular collection of eggs, cut stone art, and even a Renoir!
Brooke’s thoughts on the Faberge Museum:
I liked the Faberge eggs at the museum. I really liked the surprises inside because they were very beautiful. My favorite egg was the yellow coronation egg. It had a very pure yellow color, but they say that no one knows how Faberge made the yellow color. I also really liked the little carriage that went with it. The carriage had every single little detail of the real carriage. When they recreated the real carriage, they actually used the model made by Faberge to see all of the details! My other favorites were the the snake-clock egg and the egg that looked like a tree. In fact, I think I liked all of the eggs! I also really liked the miniature eggs we saw. They were for people who were less wealthy than the Russian royalty. My favorite charm was the owl that looked like an egg.
We also saw some paintings in a dark room that had lighting that made the paintings look like they were lit from behind. My favorite painting was an impressionist painting of some beautiful flowers (can’t remember the name of the artist – but Dad told me the artist was Renoir).
Catherine’s Palace and Alexander’s Gardens:
We visited Catherine’s beautiful (yes, baroque) palace, went for a Segway adventure, replete with a crash landing, to explore the grounds of Alexander’s Gardens and had a joy filled lunch at a music filled Russian dinner hall.
My favorite room in Catherine’s Palace was the Amber Room. This room was different from all the others. The walls were made of pure amber. Everything looked like the color of my hair with some yellows and some oranges. The palace was beautiful from the outside, but even prettier on the inside.
After we visited the palace, we went on a Segway ride through the gardens. My hands were numb from the wind because it was so cold. I was able to go really fast on the Segway because every single Segway was cranked up to a high speed. The gardens were whizzing by us so quickly, but they were really pretty when we stopped to look. It was a great day!
On the segways we didn’t wear helmets and Brayden hit a bump while crossing a bridge and then went flying and fell off. Dad got a great photo of Brayden flying off with his legs in the air. Brayden had done a dramatic dismount. It’s funny now, but at the time not so much. First thing, you hear a big BANG and then faster than you can say “Cheese and sprinkles”, your brother has fallen off his segway and done an elbow to knee to head roll and the segway is still driving off on its own with no driver. It was crazy, but funny because Brayden is now safe.
Aida Opera at the Marinsky Theater:
After the amazing day we went to the opera called “Aida.” Everyone in it had beautiful costumes. My favorite costume was the Pharaoh’s daughter’s. She wore a red cape over her sparkly white dress and a helmet that was gold. It was also very funny because the opera was in Italian and the translation on the monitor was in Russian!! The theater was beautiful, similar to the theater we went to last night for the ballet, but even more grand. Everyone got dressed up, drank champagne (Brayden and I had sparkling water), and the theater was amazing.