Tuesday, 19 September 2017
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The Hermitage … at lastSince retirement, a visit to the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg has been on the wish list. Finally we looked up the flights and found to our delight that such a trip wouldn’t break the bank. The hassle of visa collection in Lisbon proved to be what it was “hassle.” But still thrilled at our panache and courage we set off for an early Christmas present in Russia.

We took advantage of the hotel’s offer to shuttle its guests, at hourly intervals, to the main downtown areas. From the moment we first viewed the St. Isaac Cathedral and the Ostrovsky Square we knew we were in a special place. The bus had driven down broad boulevards bordered by a continuous selection of 4 and 5 storey buildings. These canyons were well maintained, and further decorated with numerous winter coated individuals, wearing every design of head gear ever created, scurrying to home or office seeking warmth.

We said our “spasibos” to the bus driver at St. Isaac, then walked along the Admiralteyskiy Prospekt before entering the splendour of the Ploshchad, (The Palace Square). There the centrally positioned Alexander Column stood guard in front of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Museum. Amazing. Subsequently with the aid of the Museum’s map further delineation of the area into a “Millionaya Street” and the “Palace Embankment” became possible. The Embankment side, the rear of the Museum of course, ran parallel to the Riva Neva, then onto the Docks and the Ferry Terminal and hence to Helsinki.

The Winter PalaceStanding in the Palace Square in overcast daylight or the black of night was simply wonderful. The brilliance of being surrounded by all that the Hermitage could offer was inspiring. It really got to me. Unbelievable. The Winter Palace (old masterpieces) stood directly in front of us and behind, across the square, the General Staff Building, (mostly modern art - 20 Picasso’s). Absorbing the views of a 360 degree revolution around the column was a trip back into a regal time. To a Russian empire, led by the Romanoff family, Alexander, Catherine the Great etc, who had money, power and commitment enough to leave future generations in awe of their efforts. I suppose they never would think that a bloke from Derbyshire would stand in the middle of the Ploshchad, three centuries later and simply say “Thank you.”

My wife and I stood there mesmerised. The Winter Palace sparkled with its green façade, white columns and a roof, adorned with many golden statues. The modern art section, on the opposite side of the Palace square, has a sand coloured exterior which further complements the scene, along with the ten or so strolling folk, dressed and wigged in costumes of that bygone era. Brilliant.
The peace and serenity of the Square was occasionally disturbed by the creaks and groans of a crane. Its operators were struggling to erect a 20 meter high steel structure which later in the day became adorned with plastic branches producing a very robust Christmas tree. Well I suppose such is progress.

We eventually strolled into the Hermitage Museum. There were no queues to hinder us so we were quickly inside. Apparently the alternative quicker access, Internet ticket option, is recommended for the summer months.
Once inside the building we were asked to cloakroom our winter wear before entering the main sections. We readily complied and were soon through security into the museum proper. Now experience has taught me that the only way to succeed in such situations is for “herself” to do her own thing and for me just to wander. So having agreed to meet for a coffee in 3 hours or so, her ladyship hared off in the direction of the Royal Boudoirs and I just let my feet take me where they wanted. After all I was in the Hermitage, it did not matter what came into view.
Within minutes I was surrounded by Titians, and soon learnt that in the eighteen fifties he was “Tiziano Veccelino” to his mates. His “Madonna and Child” really caught my eye. Of course this room was only the beginning of a long slow walk through the majesty of galleries adorned with artefacts from all over the world.

Rembrandt, then entered my viewing arena and competed for my attention along with some 16th century pottery that was absolutely gorgeous. Michaelangelo’s, “The Crouching Boy” statue from 1530, then the Peacock Clock were just two of the show stoppers on view. All sensational stuff. Everywhere I walked the patterned parquet wooden floors were still in pristine condition, even after being battered by thousands of feet over the last 3 centuries. How was it possible?

Engaging with all this wonder I needed a rest and found it in the café area where her ladyship was already in residence. She then proceeded to describe her morning, which basically had been playing in the splendid isolation of Czar’s and Czarina’s boudoir(s). We later found out that one such powerful lady, Catherine, wasn’t satisfied with the architecture of the Winter Palace so in 1708 she had her own, “The Catherine Palace” with its famous Amber Room, built some 30 kilometers away.

The Hermitage … at last.The afternoon passed in similar wonderment to that of the morning. My particular delights were the Skylight rooms with their windowed ceilings and their imaginative internal decorations, (Golden walls and tapestries by the score). And of course I visited the boudoirs.

Our viewing day was simple and straightforward. We soon agreed that we would split the following day between the modern art section of the Hermitage and some shopping, along the Nevskiy Prospekt.
With its canals, river and proximity to the coast the city of St Petersburg is modelled on Amsterdam. There are other similarities which come into view, in the form of trams, trolley buses and Metro. But that is as far as the similarity goes. The Russian version offers no narrow streets, no quaint vertically challenged old buildings, no cyclists to annoy pedestrians and of course no hash cafes. Also the cars, Kia, Toyota, Hyundai etc, (I never saw a Lada anywhere), are not clean and pristine a la Dutch. There is just too much slush and snow this far East. 

Our second day was well underway by the time these comparisons had been drawn walking down the pavements, parallel to the eight traffic lanes, of the Nevskij Prospekt. The shop windows were mostly small and crammed with all types of goods, but occasionally there would be very large shop windows which were filled with moving puppet displays attracting the attention of pedestrians. It was all very commercial. Not a hint of central price control just plain old consumerism. Russian shops were intermingled with the usual Western names, Starbucks, Armani, Zara etc. I even saw a Spa Grocer along with the cousins of two Lagos centre favourites “Calzedonia and Intimissi.” Oh and there was the biggest “shop” I have seen or entered, the GOSTINNY DVOR mall. It covered a squashed rhombus block of some 200x150x300x100 metres. Her ladyship loved it. Eventually I just sat had a coffee and waited.

The cost of goods also appears very reasonable, after all the Rouble has halved in value in the last year. Some items are ridiculous cheap in Euro terms, e.g. Gasoline is 50 euro cents per litre. A coffee and a doughnut can be acquired for the equivalent of 1 euro. Even in the cold and rainy weather the street vendors huddle under umbrellas and four levels of clothing trying to sell cheap Matryoshka dolls. There are of course price extremes, Beluga Caviar is on offer at 700 euros for a 100 grams. Yet Vodka can be had for only 12 euros per litre.

Strolling down the Prospekt there is no hint of the agony the people of Lennigrad endured during the siege or any sign of the turmoil that the country confronted during the revolution. Although the Stroganoff museum, Russian-only antiquities, did have some very vivid photographs of both eras. They were soon hidden by the gorgeous exhibits of the next port of call, the Faberge museum. Here I concluded that the heritage of this part of the world was simply and amply described by the beauty of the exhibits of the Hermitage and these gorgeous imperial eggs.

This part of modern Russia was so different from what I had expected. I really could have been anywhere in the Western World. Yes, I suppose our next visit should be to the villages of the Siberian steppes to see how far this reality, the St Petersburg way, persists.