St Petersburg and the palaces beyond
Beyond St Petersburg, 16 miles south in Tsarskoe Selo, aka Tsar's Village, lies fabulous Catherine's Palace. In 1752, Tsarina Elizabeth commissioned Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to build it in her favourite Baroque style and then named it after her mother, Catherine I. Later, Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, made changes in keeping with her preferred Neo-Classical tastes. World War II damaged many buildings in and around St Petersburg, but restoration work undertaken since the war has wrought miracles. Today, Rastrelli's gold and white mirrored Great Hall, similar to that in his Winter Palace, is stunning. Blue-tiled stoves add not only warmth, but great beauty to rooms and the gardens allow one a glimpse of Russia's famous woods, embellished with a lake, Turkish Bath House, Admiralty and sculptures. Catherine the Great commissioned a second palace for her son Paul and his wife, and while that was being built, from 1782-86 the couple travelled Europe incognito as the Comte and Comtesse du Nord, buying tapestries, porcelains and other treasures to decorate what is now Pavlosk Palace.
In this six hour tour of the two palaces, the wealth displayed is staggering. The concentration of riches in the imperial family over the centuries compared with the poverty of the masses brings home the reality of what gave rise to the revolution of 1917.
Another day trip is that to Peterhof, 19 miles west of St Petersburg, where Peter the Great celebrated his 1709 victory over Sweden by creating a palace on the calibre of Versailles, the French court he visited in 1717. Photographs of the interior are not allowed, nor were we able to linger because of hundreds of cruise ship passengers visiting Peterhof. Tsarina Elizabeth had Rastrelli alter the original 1714-21 design of Le Blond, and in the 1750s Rastrelli built another magnificent gilt-and-white Baroque ballroom with painted ceilings almost to rival the Sistine Chapel. We were awed by intricately designed inlaid floors, a detailed Chinese room, an oak study, picture galleries, and more. But the real masterpiece is outside, the Grand Cascade Fountain, in operation May to early October, with golden statues and water jets dominating a view from the palace along the Marine Canal to the Gulf of Finland. And for fun, the architect added trick fountains which occasionally drench the unsuspecting!
In addition to these two splendid day trips, we went to the opera one night primarily to see the famous Mariinskiy Theatre, aka the Kirov, elaborately decorated in gold and pale blue. Sadly, my selection of a Czech opera in plain clothes with Russian surtitles proved to be totally incomprehensible and not compelling. We left after the second act, only to become hopelessly lost walking to our restaurant. We'd refused to pay US$40 for a hotel car to meet us when we knew we could call 6 000 000 and get a taxi for one-third the price. What we didn't realise was that you have to have a local phone number for the taxi company to call you back. They won't call an international mobile phone. Even with a map, street signs in the Cyrillac alphabet of the Russian language proved indecipherable (another reason to travel with a guide) but a kindly shopkeeper managed to understand my husband's hand gestures and called us a taxi. Another night out, coming from a brilliant Beethoven piano concert in the modern Mariinskiy Concert Hall, created in 2006 with superb acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota, we just paid the street taxi the Russian equivalent of US$28 and didn't quibble. But always agree on the price first.
Two great dining experiences stand out during our five days. Jamaican John Greaves recommended The Old Customs House Restaurant run by Anthony Gear, an English resident of St Petersburg since 1992. At the mention of John John's name, champagne appeared at our table. We enjoyed an excellent meal while African American blues provided the perfect background atmosphere in the cozy, brick-lined enclave. I was floored to meet the singer, Russian Dmitri Koustov, who together with Gear is making a blues CD. A complimentary after-dinner glass of Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey Grand Cru de Sauternes 1919 led to Mr Gear carrying us off to another restaurant he represents, Gloss Wok & Sushi, very mod, youthful with an attractive menu, in the courtyard of the Stroganov Palace. From there, he led us into the most highly rated Russian Empire Restaurant, Nevsky Prospekt, 17, inside Stroganov Palace with opulent gold-encrusted crystal and porcelain place settings, and five halls restored for dining. Photographs of President Putin, UK's Prince Andrew and other celebrities were displayed but the most exciting part was visiting the secret chambers, one within another and another. Less dramatic was the reasonably priced café inside the Art Nouveau style Singer building which houses a great bookstore and café overlooking Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral.
The final day, our anniversary, we splurged on a terribly expensive Sunday brunch in the elegant Grand Hotel Europe dining room where, from 12:30 p.m. until 4 p.m., guests indulged in all manner of exotic food under a vaulted ceiling of stained glass, while a live jazz band played. Black caviar, oysters, smoked salmon, pate de fois gras, roast lamb, ham, Italian pastas, Chinese duck, truly the most luxurious brunch I've ever seen, with Moet et Chandon, vodka, fine wines - and the nicest waiters! This is an experience I would definitely recommend as the perfect end to a fascinating introduction to Russia.