Story and photos by Barbara Penny Angelakis
ST PETERSBURG RUSSIA:
FROM REVOLUTION TO EVOLUTION
St Petersburg, Russia, is a city awash in color. Pastel buildings dressed in shades of pale yellow, golden amber, rich aqua, soft green, petal rose, sky blue and gold, gold, gold, gleaming under a clear blue sky peppered with billowing clouds. A sky that is repeated on the ceilings of the palaces and museums I visited, dramatized by heroic, angelic, religious or political figures and scenes. Who could have envisioned that the splendid buildings so horribly damaged, even destroyed, by the 900 day siege of Leningrad during World War 11, and mainly disregarded during the Communist era, could ever be restored to their original opulence? It is to the credit of the Russian people and their pride in their heritage that this enormous restoration program was, and is, being carried out.
Petersburg, as it is affectionately referred to by its inhabitants, was a city designed by Peter the Great to be his Imperial Capital. Beginning in 1703, on a marshy lowland where the Neva River drained into Lake Ladoga before emptying into the Gulf of Finland, the city was built on a series of 44 islands crisscrossed by canals. Although the grueling construction work took the lives of thousands, eventually the city rose to be “the Venice of the North” with decorative bridges crossing the canals and buildings designed by the top architects from Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. Named after his patron saint - Christ’s first apostle Peter - the original name was Sankt Pieterburkh from the Dutch, whose civilization so captivated Peter that he determined to emulate it in Russia. World War I saw the name Russianized to Petrograd, while after Lenin’s death in 1924, the name was changed to Leningrad. Finally in 1991 the circle was complete and the name reverted to St Petersburg.
Peter’s determination to raise Russia out of its cultural isolation and into the light of the modern world was the driving force behind his reign and set the stage for the flowering of St Petersburg under Empress Elizabeth I, Peter’s ebullient daughter. Empress Elizabeth was a party girl and had her palaces built in the ornate Baroque style, larger and grander, to accommodate her active social whirl. But it was finally under the 34 year reign of Catherine the Great that the Golden Age of art and science in St Petersburg reached its pinnacle. Petersburg is indeed one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it would take weeks to cover even the most renowned palaces, museums, churches and gardens. I have attempted to cover the highlights but words can not do justice to the abundant riches of this Golden City.
The Winter Palace was conceived by Elizabeth to be her crowning glory. Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Elizabeth’s favorite architect, was commissioned in 1754 to build a lavish palace, and it took almost eight years to accomplish the task. Of the 1,057 rooms in the palace not one is identical to the others and all are individually decorated with precious woods, semiprecious stones, crystal chandeliers, and massive amounts of gold gilding. The Winter Palace was so spectacular that a hundred years later in 1844, Nicholas I decreed that no building could exceed the height of six feet lower than the Winter Palace, this order resulted in giving the city its distinctive look to this day. Of course churches and Cathedrals were exempt from that edict and the golden dome of St Isaacs Cathedral and the golden spire at the Peter and Paul Fortress soar over the Winter Palace. Unfortunately Elizabeth did not live to occupy the glorious building and Catherine the Great – Catherine’s second husband Czar Peter III lived in the palace for a very short time, until his mysterious death courtesy of Catherine - was the first monarch to occupy the aqua palace built at the edge of the Neva River, and facing out into the massive Palace Square.
Peter began the collection of fine art during his reign but in 1764 to accommodate Catherine’s purchase of 225 Dutch and Flemish paintings, The Little Hermitage (French for a secluded spot or place of solitude) was built next to the Winter Palace. As Catherine’s wealth and power grew so did her art collection. She sent emissaries to scour Europe with instructions to purchase rare paintings and decorative arts. In many cases entire art collections were added to her growing body of fine art. The New Hermitage was built to house her extensive collection which had grown to 4,000 paintings by the time of her death in 1796. Successive Czars added to the collection but it was seen only by royalty or the aristocracy until the 1917 Revolution which opened the museum to the public. The entire Hermitage Museum complex now includes Catherine’s private theater as well as the Winter Palace. The Hermitage’s four connecting buildings make the museum one of the largest and most celebrated in the world. Paintings by Rembrandt, da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, and Rubens grace the walls of the Second Floor, while the Third Floor houses one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist art. The First Floor’s galleries contain art from the Ancient world as well as Asian art and culture. The buildings themselves along with their decorative arts, décor, and furnishings are as impressive as the paintings they hold. Don’t miss the throne room of Peter the Great. The throne is solid silver with a double-headed eagle – the royal crest – embroidered on the back of the chair. The painting behind the throne represents the Spirit of Russia next to Peter the Great with the double-headed eagle repeated above the painting on the gilded frame. No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without a day or more spent at the Hermitage.
THE CHURCH OF THE SAVIOR ON THE BLOOD
Nor far from Palace Square is the stunning Church of the Savior on the Blood. The 17th-century church was built in the style of medieval Russian Churches and is located at the far end of the Griboyedov Canal, built directly over the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The location offers a perfect photo-op position to capture the colorful onion shaped domes. Inside the church is a small cobblestone enclosure memorializing where the czar’s blood was spilled and four jasper columns mark the spot. The walls are decorated with Byzantine as well as modern mosaics and paintings, and the alter is adorned with a pair of matched gold and silver jewel-encrusted screens. Behind the church is a market for souvenirs and Russian memorabilia.
ST NICHOLAS MARINE CATHEDRAL
Although there are far more palaces and museums of note then churches, still there are a few that stand out and are well worth visiting. There is the striking blue and white St Nicholas Marine Cathedral sporting the traditional Russian five-domes covered in gold-leaf. The church is adorned with gold items, icons, and stunning art on two levels and we were fortunate to arrive just as services began on the upper level. An a-cappella choir raised their voices, resonating together in perfect harmony, while the priest in full regalia led his devoted parishioners in sacred liturgy. It was an incredibly moving experience which sadly we had to leave for the Mariinsky Concert Hall in time to catch the opera Aida. In striking contrast to the elegance of the church and the soaring voices of the choir, the avant-garde staged and costumed performance coldly echoed the ultra-modern building’s architecture and décor, generating a feeling of fascination rather then the elation one usually feels after a production of Aida. It was indeed interesting to experience a Russian company’s modern interpretation of the opera. Clearly the artistic community of St Petersburg is experimenting and not focusing solely on past production successes.
RASPUTIN AND THE YUSUPOV PALACE
At the opposite end of the square where the St Nicholas Marine Cathedral is, is the spellbinding Yusupov Palace, whose basement served as the assassination spot for Grigory Rasputin in December 1916. The Yusupov family history is fascinating. The first Yusupov was a Muslim Prince who in the 16th-century was sent by his Tarter father in tribute, to serve Ivan the Terrible. The family stayed and prospered and by the second generation had converted to Christianity. As the story goes, after the switch, perhaps as punishment from Allah, only one child per family survived to adulthood even to this day. Whether it was gods will or the desire to secure financial succession in a single child, the family became incredibly wealthy by not having to split its fortune between siblings. As a consequence, the wealth and power of the Yusupov’s rivaled that of the ruling Romanov family. Perhaps that was why Felix, the last Prince Yusupov, survived his murderous conspiracy or maybe it was because he was married to Irina, the niece of Czar Nicholas II. At any rate, the conspiracy was executed by Felix and a few loyal friends to lure Rasputin to his Palace on the pretense of socializing with Irina, a woman of great beauty, who Rasputin, very much a ladies man, coveted - of course Irina was not in the Palace.
Rasputin was taken to the basement and fed cyanide-laced cakes which to Felix’s horror had absolutely no effect. Next Felix tried shooting Rasputin in the head, but he responded by trying to strangle Felix, and then leaving the basement and staggering into the courtyard. The terrified conspirators responded by shooting him three more times. Still alive and very much kicking, they beat and subdued him before tying him up, and dumping him into a hole in the icy river. Obviously you can’t keep a good, or bad man down, because he floated to the surface and was found three days later. An autopsy certified that he had water in his lungs meaning that even after poisoning, shooting and beating, he was still alive and died of drowning. The actual room where Rasputin was poisoned is open to the public by tour.
Returning to the palace proper, which in addition to displaying much of the original ornate furnishings that miraculously survived the centuries, there is an opulent “home” theatre built for private performances which many royals participated in, including Czar Nicholas II himself.
ST ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL AND THE MUSEUM OF MOSAICS
And for the ultimate church experience do not miss spending time in St Isaac’s Cathedral. It took over 40 years to create this masterpiece built by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand. No expense was spared on its construction and its massive dome alone took over 220 pounds of pure gold to gild, making it visible on a clear day as far as 25 miles away. The cathedral sports an observation deck that provides a stunning view of the city and only takes 562 steps to reach. The interior height of the cathedral is 333 feet and holds up to 14,000 people, with each person allowed to occupy one of the square marble floor tiles for the traditional Russian Orthodox standing service. Forty-three types of stone and marble grace the interior including massive columns of single chunks of malachite and lapis lazuli transported from Russia’s own Ural Mountains. But for pure artistic mastery look to the walls. Originally painted, the walls suffered damage from the dampness, so the paintings were replaced by mosaics. The artists devised a method of coloring each tiny piece of glass by heating different chemicals to achieve variations in color and the resulting images are difficult to differentiate from painting until you get up close. Closed as a church in 1931, it was kept open as a Museum of Mosaics and still is considered more a museum then a church, although on special religious holidays services are held.
Next month read about the must-see day excursions from Petersburg to the spectacular Peterhof with its cascade of fountains, and the extravagantly opulent Catherine’s Palace.
In general, tour guides are required for touring palaces and museums and coats and bags must be checked (no charge). Shoes must be covered with little blue wrappers supplied at entrances and deposited at exists. Sometimes multiple fees are charged for visiting the main building and then each additional building on the property, gardens are usually free. Photography is prohibited in some places like Peterhof but allowed for a fee elsewhere.
SAS (Scandinavia Airlines www.flysas.com ) direct service to Stockholm.
St. Peter Line offers overnight ferry service to St Petersburg from Stockholm or Helsinki, for a maximum 72 hour stay without requiring a visa, a saving of time and money. Options include taking the St. Peter Line back to either city. St. Peter Line can also provide hotel reservations; excellent English speaking guides, a necessity for negotiating Petersburg’s highlights on a three-day visit; VIP entrance tickets; ballet and opera tickets; and restaurant reservations. www.stpeterline.com
© November 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.