Sailing on the Seabourn Pride, we are on our way from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. Before dinner we attended a special lecture by Dr. Mark Elovitz on Putin and what is going on in Russia. It was both fascinating and scary.
We were fortunate to be invited to dinner after the lecture with Elovitz and his wife, Martha Marx. There were 10 of us and no one was shy. We covered a lot of territory. Some of the guests live in Monte Carlo, others in California, and one, Marnie Quinn, a retired executive with Ford, had lived in Anchorage. The conversation covered the map.
After arriving in port the next morning, we started off on a tour that took us to The Hermitage, St. Petersburg’s enormous palaces that contain one of the largest art collections in the world. We started in the Winter Palace, the 1760s main residence of the Russian tsars.
The Winter Palace was the climax of Count Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s quest for an architectural style unique to St. Petersburg. The pale green façade was improvised with stucco for lack of enough stone. He added bold statues, arched windows, contrasting columns, a variety of forms and a shock of color. It boasts 1,786 doors, 1,945 windows and 1,957 elegantly and lavishly decorated rooms, many of which are open to the public.
A bonus for us was that we met Fannie Katz of St Louis. She is a St. Louis travel agent and the New Orleans-born “aunt” of our good friend Marilyn Glattstein in Louisville. She is cute, fun, interesting and has traveled the world for years.
The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died before the palace’s completion and only Catherine the Great and her successors were able to enjoy the sumptuous interiors. Many of the palace’s impressive interiors have been remodeled since then, particularly after 1837, when a huge fire destroyed most of the building.
Home of the tsars until 1917, this baroque palace is now part of the sprawl of buildings, which houses one of the world’s most fabulous museums, the Hermitage. Its 3 million items were acquired by seven tsars, supplemented by the confiscation of private collections after the revolution.
Today the Winter Palace and four more buildings arranged side by side along the river embankment house the extensive collections of the Hermitage.
The Hermitage Museum is the largest art gallery in Russia and is among the largest and most respected art museums in the world. The museum was founded in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of 255 paintings from the city of Berlin. Today, it displays a diverse range of art and artifacts from all over the world and throughout history.
That afternoon we visited St. Issac’s Cathedral. Encrusted with 14 colored marbles and 43 other types of precious stones, mosaics and paintings, it has an enormous gold dome. The inspired interior of this elaborate structure, returned to the Orthodox Church after a period as a Soviet era museum of atheism, is well worth studying. The iconostasis is framed by lapis lazuli and malachite columns. The enormous gold dome was covered by gray-green cloth during the war to prevent it being such an obvious target.
To support this colossal church’s weight, thousands of piles had to be sunk into the marshy ground and 48 huge columns incorporated into the structure. It was designed in 1818 by Auguste de Montferrand and opened in 1858.
Then it was on to the Church of the Spilled Blood (or the Resurrection of Christ) erected on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by a revolutionary group. Looking for all the world like St. Basil’s in Moscow, it seems out of place in this Italianate city. On the exterior, jeweler’s enamel covers the surface of the multi-colored domes.
Inside, more than 20 types of minerals, including jasper, rhodonite, porphyry and Italian marble are lavished on the mosaics of the iconostasis, icon cases, canopy and floor.
By this time we were pooped and glad to get back to the ship and a French Martini! Then it was time to grab a bite to eat and get on the bus for an hour-long trip to the country to the Catherine Palace.
Rastrelli’s Catherine Palace with its ornate, blue façade, more than 1,000 feet in length, resembles St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, but then the architect was the same one. The long, classical gallery of heroic Roman and Greek busts that runs alongside the palace was the work of the Scottish architect Charles Cameron. It was designed as a covered walkway for Catherine the Great.
Dismantled by the Nazis in 1941, the Amber Room, a 19th century masterpiece, has been rebuilt entirely thanks to old photographs and archives. There has been much speculation on the whereabouts of this fabled room. Some say it was dismantled and hidden, others say it was destroyed.
Our tour arrived in two buses and we were met by the Catherine Palace marching band in their robin’s egg blue and white uniforms. With military marches they played us up through the gardens and into the house where we were given protective covers for our shoes so as not to scuff up the beautiful parquet floors. We were served champagne and ushered into the blue and white and gold mirrored ballroom for a concert by the State Symphony Orchestra.
After the concert, we toured the palace and saw the reconstructed Amber Room. The Russians had given up on ever finding it, figuring the Germans had made off with it and broken it up. So they did a new one. It was glorious and just made the evening!
Following that we toured the rest of the palace and then headed out the door only to be serenaded by the band again. It was a magical evening in an incredible setting.
The next morning six of us toured “The Repository,” the state-of-the-art institution in the countryside where irreplaceable national treasures are conserved and stored for the Hermitage.
We saw 14th century frescos from a church that had been destroyed centuries ago. Eighteenth century carriages and sudan chairs were being put together and their finishes restored. There were 24 to-die-for chairs with pink silk damask that were 300 years old.
They deal with everything from paintings, to frames, to jewelry and Catherine the Great’s favorite horse (stuffed)! It was a great opportunity to see some very special pieces of history being lovingly cared for and preserved.
In the afternoon we toured two palaces. The Vladimir Palace on the banks of the Neva River was not much to look at from the outside but it was fascinating inside. Brad said it was “shabby chic.”
By far the highlight of the afternoon was the Yusupov Palace. Oh My! It was an old house that had been renovated in 1830 in showy opulence mixing many styles, has a splendid staircase and reception rooms, a ballroom, a theatre, an oriental salon complete with onyx mantelpiece and fountain. It has an ochre façade and the family coat of arms over the doorway.
It is always said that Rasputin was killed in the basement of the Yusupov Palace in 1916. Well, that is not quite correct. At the entrance of the building guests ascend a few steps into a reception hall and then a grand staircase to an upper floor. On that floor there is a small living room for the young Yusupov prince, Felix. The living room stairs descend to a small dining room that was part of his suite and is actually on a level with the street. This is where Felix and a number of co-conspirators attempted to poison Rasputin at the dinner table. When his cyanide-laced meal failed to have its intended effect, Felix shot him with a revolver.
The group then wrapped Rasputin’s body in monogrammed curtains from the palace and dumped it in the river. Monogrammed curtains? How stupid! When the police found the body, the curtains served to help identify the culprits.
Felix was exiled to a family country home, and the other conspirators were sent to a harsh military posting.
Our third day in St. Petersburg we went back to the Hermitage Museum to tour the “gold and diamonte collection.” The curator led us through room after room filled with cases of gold from prehistoric times to the late 19th century. We saw the most exquisite leafy crowns of thin gold, necklaces, coiled bracelets, earrings and buttons all found in tombs of ancient rulers. They were breathtaking.
Then we saw the “brilliants.” These were incredible jeweled items. There were horse saddle pads covered with thousands of emeralds and another covered with diamonds, gifts of the Turkish Sultan. Catherine liked the emerald pad so well that she had a bridle made of emeralds to match for her horse!
There was everything you could think of trimmed in diamonds except for crowns! Strange.
There were jeweled bouquets of flowers to be worn anchored in wigs.
There were not as many Faberge pieces as I had expected. But there was no lack of humongous jasper, malachite and other semiprecious urns. They had to be the biggest “birdbaths” I have ever seen. They were so big and heavy that it took 300 horses to transport them from the mountains where they were made. Exterior walls had to be knocked down to get them inside the palace, and the floors had to be reinforced to support their weight.
At the end of the day, we gathered on deck for a “Caviar and Champagne Sailaway” from this fascinating city, the cultural capital of Russia. Our ship is now headed for a day in Riga, Latvia.
About the Author (Author Profile)
A fixture in Louisville society, Carla Sue Broecker has been writing her weekly column for more than two decades.