For Pete’s Sake
file under pale YELLOW, the color of many of the historic buildings to brighten the city’s look during the long winters
Petrograd. Leninburg. St. Petersburg. You could speculate that St. Petersburg has had a bit of an identity crisis.
This lovely city was built on swamp land and the visions of Peter the Great. It often reminds visitors of Venice or Amsterdam because of its network of canals and bridges. The city’s low skyline reminded me at times of Washington D.C. because the central historical core of this Russian city has also had to follow architectural restrictions. (The congressional Height of Buildings Act of 1899 limited new construction, in part to allow the Washington Monument to reign as the tallest structure) For decades no buildings in St. Petersburg could be built taller than the Winter Palace.
The Winter Palace was Catherine the Great’s refuge in the cold Russian winters when the city’s River Neva freezes, just like the entire Gulf of Finland, the coastal access to this northern city, often still does. Another French word for refuge might be hermitage, and these days the Winter Palace would not be appreciated by a hermit thanks to its some three million visitors annually. A globally known and revered collection of fine art, The Hermitage shows off the nation’s early leaders’ desire not to flee from European ways (like the American colonists of the 18th century) but instead to extend the reach of their neighbors to the west, bringing an elevated appreciation of such achievements to Russia as well.
For that reason Catherine’s sumptuous spaces, in gilded, top-lit, palatial room after frescoed room have been filled over the years to become one of the top collections of European art.
Think Rembrandt, think Rubens. Think Matisse and Monet.
Add Baroque-inspired tombs crafted out of pure silver, ornate chandeliers (one weighing a purported two tons) and oversized stone urns of malachite, and you have a museum that deserves multiple visits not just a “highlights” walk-through. That said, our guide Tatiana, using her microphone and “whispers” audio head-sets, provided a bus-full of Semester at Sea students and faculty an excellent and efficient overview of a collection that supposedly would require 11 years if a visitor were to see it all.
But St. Petersburg beckoned with other treasures for short-term visitors like ourselves: the golden domed St. Issacs Cathedral for views of the city (and our ship!) if you climbed the 262 steps up and down again; photos taken with the colorful onion-tops of the Church of the Spilled Blood as background; canal boat tours; displays of the iconic nesting dolls, matryoshkas, now featuring famous soccer players and cartoon characters as well as successions of Russian leaders and traditional women; shops filled with nothing but expensive furs; sidewalk cafes with complimentary blankets, happily used even on a sunny August afternoon with a chill breeze.
The Jaffa Quartet of four Russian young men provided lively New York-style entertainment at the intimate JFC Jazz Club for a small band of independent explorers from the ship one night. A student in my writing class was genuinely moved to observe the service and gilded interiors of more than one Orthodox church, for the memories and understanding it provided of her own grandfather’s service years earlier in New Jersey. I, too, peered into the interior of such a church a mere walking distance from our ship, and within ten minutes’ time witnessed a small exchange of wedding vows, a baby girl’s christening, many candles lit, icons kissed, and prayers said.
Because odds are that a majority of the 65 sunny days that St. Petersburg hopes to claim in any one year will fall in August, weddings, or more particularly, brides, were seen everywhere during our stay. A friend with more local knowledge explained that winter weddings occur, too, but then the long, extravagant bridal dresses have to be hidden under long extravagant white fur coats.
And then there was St. Petersburg’s subway system.
Not the sandwich shops, though they were as visible as the many Golden Arches and Pizza Hut shops. No, the city’s underground trains had to be dug deeper than any other subway in the world, meaning riding Metro escalators can mean a five-minute ride going down, or up.
Hurtling through the dark in a high-speed subway train with city commuters looking at their Kindles, or listening to music through ear-buds, or talking on their iPhones, you can imagine yourself almost anywhere in the world.
I think Peter wouldn’t mind. I’m not so sure about Lenin.