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Posts Tagged ‘St Petersburg’

First, a link to an online photo album https://photos.app.goo.gl/1fUHwvLLBzMuZ4v1A There are lots, but it’s only a quarter of what I took. It’s a very photogenic city where interior photography is welcome!

When I first visited this city forty-two years ago we were amongst the first tourists to the then USSR. The plane was escorted from touchdown, security guards were at the gate and the state Intourist staff did everything in their power to get you on their escorted tours and keep you away from the real Soviet Union. We were in our early 20’s, with more interest in the excitement of being somewhere so different than we were in the heritage of the Tsars to be seen in palaces and museums. We somehow ‘escaped’ to visit the one department store, ride the metro, get cautioned for jaywalking and trade cigarettes for Red Army belts with soldiers. One of the few nods to culture was a visit to the Kirov for the ballet – a three hour depiction of the revolution, in dance!

It was of course then called Leningrad, as it had been for c.50 years. Brezhnev was in power and the cold war was in its 30th year. It’s now 27 years since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire is reborn, with Putin as Tsar and all those oligarchs the new nobility. Other than a dubious democracy and an obsession with security, it’s like any other Western city, where money talks and the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants and shops very much the same. The palaces and museums have been renovated, the churches restored and religion no longer out in the cold, and even the opera house (now the Mariinsky) has a sparkling new bigger brother next door. It’s a totally different place to the one I visited before and unlike China, it links itself to the rest of the world with uncensored international TV news stations and social media like facebook and twitter. Relations with the UK may have been at a new low, but it didn’t really impact our visit. Putin came too, to continue courting the Austrians and to fire the city governor, but apart from the sort of heightened security you get with any such visit, life went on.

The chief reason for returning is that I am now interested in the empire’s heritage – the opulent palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum (one of the world’s biggest and greatest, with some 16,500 paintings alone, as well as being the Winter Palace), the now pristine cathedrals and churches like St. Isaacs, St. Nicholas and the more modern but extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, and world class opera and ballet. For a culture vulture like me, it’s a great big toyshop, and it didn’t disappoint, though we did occasionally have to contend with cruise ship visitors and the phenomenon of the onward global march of the Chinese tourists, but early entry to The Hermitage and other special arrangements helped a lot.

Central St. Petersburg is a relatively flat, low-rise city intersected by rivers and canals, though not to the extent of Venice or Amsterdam, on the Gulf of Finland. The whole central area is designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It’s very clean, virtually devoid of litter. With seemingly unrestricted parking, there are parked cars absolutely everywhere. Peter the Great founded it in 1703, bringing in the best of European architecture, art and design. His work was continued by subsequent tzars, most notably Catherine the Great later in the eighteenth century. Apart from its 65 years as Leningrad and ten years as Petrograd, it has retained this name for 240 years, 200 of them as the capital. It’s Russia’s 2nd city with a population of 5 million. The 1905 revolution began here and the storming of the city’s Winter Palace signalled the beginning of the 1917 revolution. The 2.5 year seige during World War II left a deep scar.

Amongst the highlights were the palaces – Winter Palace (The Hermitage), Shuvalov Palace (housing the new Faberge Museum), Menshikov Palace and Yuupov Palace in the city, Peterhof and Catherine & The Great Palace in Pushkin. Perhaps because they have all been renovated relatively recently, everything seems sparklingly new, with the gold leaf positively blinding. The same can be said of the cathedrals and churches, notably St Issac, across the road from our hotel, SS Peter & Paul, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander. The Russian Museum is a brilliant display of 100 years of Russian Art, again in a former palace. I wasn’t sure I was going to like the bling of the Faberge Museum, but I admired the craftmanship and the palace and other contents made it a worthwhile visit. There’s not a lot you can say about the Hermitage except that it is overwhelming, but the palace rooms and the impressionist & post-impressionist collections in particular are unmissable. We got to a lovely ballet at the old Mariinsky and Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman at the new one, so there were arts fixes too. The accompanying photos tell the rest of the story.

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