Saturday, September 17th, 2005
It had been said a number of times over the last few days that the Hermitage would be the highlight of our time in St Petersburg and the trip in general. Considering that I’d been pretty impressed with the city thus far, that was a pretty high bar to try and clear. The Hermitage is the second largest art gallery in the world, second only to the Louvre, and is housed in the former royal Winter Palace on the Neva in downtown St Petersburg, facing onto St Petersburg Square. Now I’m a long way removed from OAC art with Mrs Goetz, droning on about the golden ratio and “The Raft Of The Medusa”, but I think I still like art. And stuff. Oh, and I’d seen Russian Ark and even though I didn’t really understand it, I was quite blown away by the museum it took place in.
After entering through the majestic Grand Staircase, we headed straight up to the third floor where the French impressionist and post-impressionist galleries were. It was something else being surrounded by works by Monet, Cezanne, Rodin, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Matisse… yeah. The centrepiece of the 19th and 20th century collections were two galleries of Picassos. Pretty goddamn impressive. The galleries themselves were quite spartan, not decorated like the lavish galleries on the lower floors.
Traffic inside the Hermitage wasn’t too bad while we were upstairs, but heading down to the main floors created a logjam of tour groups, with one group jockeying for position with the other as we moved from room to room. It made keeping up with our tour guide really difficult and the fact that she didn’t speak very loudly meant that I didn’t always have the benefit of commentary as I looked around. But guidance wasn’t really necessary to be overwhelmed by the art everywhere – the walls, the ceilings, the paintings, the sculptures, geez louise. They were particularly proud of their Titian gallery and works by da Vinci and Michaelangelo, and rightfully so. By the time I reached the Rembrandts, my brain was full and I think I stopped absorbing anything and was just wandering around, slack-jawed at the majesty of it all. I did grab a tour book, tough, so that will help fill things in. Did I mention that we skipped many many galleries, didn’t look at loads of works… the standard line was that if you looked at every piece on display for just ten seconds, it would still take you something like a billion years (okay, eleven) to get through everything on display. Their collection is over three million pieces. Yeah.
What I particularly liked was the security there – each gallery was manned by one stern-faced, purse-wielding little old lady. I’m convinced they were ex-KGB and could kill you without even blinking. I half-expected them to leap up and snap the necks of all the people ignoring the “no flash photography rule”, but I guess even they know a losing battle when they see one (I only used the flash once, for Michaelangelo’s “Crouching Boy”, but as it turned out, my non-flash photos still turned out quite well). We sort of had to power through the Hermitage because of scheduling – if we stayed on schedule, we’d get back to the ship just 15 minutes before having to leave on our next tour. I didn’t lay good odds that we’d make it, but somehow we did.
Tour two was to see the fountains and gardens of the Peterhoff Palace. Located a short ways outside of St Petersburg in the town of Peterhoff, we started the tour from a dock just outside the Hermitage. Yeah, we rushed from the museum back to the ship only to get brought back to the museum… but we got to get on a hydrofoil! It wasn’t as cool as the one that GI Joe had, but still. Neat. We took off down the Neva river and out into the Gulf of Finland. The trip took about half an hour and deposited us on a pier directly off the gardens of the Peterhoff Palace. Originally built by Peter the Great and expanded upon by his daughter Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, the lower gardens are famous for a huge array of elaborate fountains which are also notable for not using pumps – they do their thing entirely by gravity. That’s just cool.
Unfortunately, the Grand Cascade, the main fountain outside the palace, was turned off while we were there – there was some sort of stage and PA set up in the middle of it all that probably wouldn’t have reacted too well with huge chutes of water. Apparently the president of Malaysia was around so maybe he was, like, doing something official-like. Anyway, it was a pity but it did allow a better look at the gold statues in the fountains. As we were leaving, we passed through the largest and most interesting souvenier market I’d seen in St Petersburg yet. I had some rubles to divest before we left Russia so I grabbed some postcards featuring the working Grand Cascade. I didn’t really understand the souvenier market – every stall pretty much sells the exact same merchandise, claiming to have authentic Russian memorabilia and whatnot but I can’t help but wonder how traditionally Russian a set of nested dolls painted with an ersatz Harry Potter is. But they seemed to be doing a brisk business, so what do I know?
So that was Russia. We’re en route to Tallinn, Estonia, and I’m more than a little sad to be leaving. I fully intend to return to St Petersburg someday and see the sights that I only got to glimpse through a tour bus window. I don’t know how well I’ve conveyed my impressions of the city… wait for the photos. They’ve turned out quite well. I’ve never been to a city so steeped in and defined by its history. Everything was so amazing to see and to learn about, I simply have to go back someday and take more of it in. For now, I have four more countries to explore and will surely be ready to head home at the end of next week. But someday.