Magnificent Russian monuments
Laura Tanna, Contributor
For years I've been hearing about the magnificent treasures of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a city founded in 1703 by Russia's Peter the Great in his quest to have a navy and port with access to the Baltic Sea. Most people visit on cruises, stopping for a day or two, only to say it isn't enough.
Instead, we booked five nights at the famous Grand Hotel Europe, centrally located on the Nevskiy Prospekt. I emailed the concierge for advice on visas and guided tours. The Russian Embassy in Kingston is most helpful, especially when one has a prepaid hotel voucher, forms in duplicate, money and photos. Had I known there is a fast train between Moscow and St Petersburg, we might have gone to Moscow too, but I didn't include it in our visa application.
The hotel's proposed itinerary was perfect. The White Nights of June meant our late-afternoon flight, directly from London, allowed us to check-in, unpack and take an evening boat trip through the Griboedov Canal, the Fontanka and Moyka Rivers and onto the Neva for a view of the whole city. Dinner cruises are also available. We dined later in the hotel's Caviar Restaurant on borsht (beet soup) and beef Stroganov with a shot of cold vodka. If you're a wine lover, bring your own in duty-free because wine is extremely expensive.
Travelling with a friend from the United Kingdom, we shared the cost of a private car and driver with an excellent guide, who got all the entry tickets and saved us standing in line for sometimes up to an hour for those in huge groups or without a guide.
We started where the city started, at Saints Peter and Paul Fortress, built with forced labour and a grisly past, where political prisoners, up to 1921 were tortured and imprisoned, including Peter's own son, suspected of treason. We chose not to view the Trubetskoy Bastion cells and instead marvelled at the Cathedral first built in 1712 where a Baroque gold iconostasis, marble columns, ornate chandeliers and beautifully painted vaulted ceilings house the tombs of most Romanov Tsars. Even Nicholas II, who was killed during the 1917-18 Russian Revolution, was reinterred there in 1998.
Next, we passed the statue of Tsar Nicholas I on horseback near St Isaacs Cathedral, its golden dome visible throughout the city. Peter the Great's birthday fell on this saint's day, hence the name of this vast cathedral designed in 1818.
Icons are instruments of education and worship in the Russian Orthodox Church and the iconostasis separates the altar from the main church. Here, rich green malachite columns served as outer frames for the virgin and child on one side, Christ on the other, while vivid blue lapis lazuli columns provided an inner frame with carved oak and bronze doors, exquisite gilded sculptures, wall and ceiling paintings.
The Kremlin has St Basil's in Moscow. St Petersburg's equivalent is the astonishing Church On The Spilled Blood a.k.a. Resurrection Church of Christ, built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1883. The vivid and varying onion-shaped domes in Russian Revival style so captured our attention during our initial boat trip that we asked to see the interior, even though not a part of our tour. We were speechless at the riot of colourful religious scenes inside the high vaulted walls, produced entirely with tiny mosaic tiles fitted together from more than 20 kinds of minerals and marble. This is a must see. And that was just the morning!
Now you understand why after two hours of the afternoon tour at the Hermitage, which is an assemblage of buildings over time, we were surfeited with St Petersburg's splendours. The Winter Palace, built between 1754-62 by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli for Tsarina Elizabeth, begins with its stunning white and gold main staircase in Baroque design and leads on into hall after hall, room after room, of magnificence. The malachite room with two tonnes of this stone, the gold drawing room, the throne room, the various galleries with vast collections of prehistoric art, classical, oriental, Russian, on and on. Catherine the Great added on to Elizabeth's original palace, including the Raphael Loggias, inspired by Catherine the Great's visit to the Vatican.
Another day we toured the marvelous art collection in the Russian Museum but it was the less-often-visited Yusupov Palace on the Moyka River we enjoyed the most with its excellent art collection, stained glass windows, Rococo-style family theatre, gorgeous tiled Moorish Room, and basement recreation of where the infamous Rasputin was poisoned and shot in December 1917 by Prince Felix Yusupov.
We were even offered a short concert of Russian folk songs in the ballroom. But the most beautiful singing was at the 10 a.m. Russian Orthodox Church service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, built 1801-11, just a short walk from our hotel and open to the respectful public.
The enormous wealth of the imperial family and its alliance with the Church made me appreciate perhaps why the communist government banned religion after the revolution, considering how much forced labour went into the accumulation of the wealth and the construction of these cathedrals and palaces. To its credit, the Soviet and now the Russian governments have restored these monuments and freedom to worship.