Rushing into our Russian adventure, my family and I grabbed a taxi to chase the tour bus. We were on a group visa, so it’s a miracle they let us through the port. But, after passport and ticket checks, they sped us to The Hermitage, to join our fellow cruisers.
We found our group, just one of many, queued round the block to witness the world’s second largest museum. With pillars and a mint façade stretching 233, 345 square meters, The Hermitage stole the breath we’d just caught.
Once inside, our tour guide Yevgenia directed us past classical statues, up marble stairs and to Winter Palace Small Throne Room. Here we saw the stunning silver guild throne built for Tsar Nicholas I, in 1833.
Travelling back in time, we walked through The Military Gallery, marvelling at the 332 portraits of generals who thwarted the 1812 French invasion of Russia. These included a large depiction of the Duke of Wellington.
Then passing another throne, we reached the most magical room, the Pavilion Hall. Here architect Andrei Stakenschneider had combined pale marble, gilded mouldings and crystal chandeliers to awesome effect.
Centre stage in Pavilion Hall was the Peacock Clock, a feat of engineering art. Its shining silver and gilded bronze animated a peacock, cockerel and owl, which moved as it chimed. Created by James Cox in the 1770s; the clock was procured for Catherine the Great, by her lover and ally Grigory Potemkin.
Tearing ourselves away we moved out the Hall, past Italian masters and gazed up to the Raphael Loggias – replicated ceilings of those in Vatican City’s Papal Palace.
The Italian theme continued as then we met Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy, a marble statue, bent over as if with foot pain. Intended for the Medici family tomb, the statue was created when Medicis regained rule of Florence, following the failing of the Republic.
Next we basked in the Small Italian Skylight Room, with 16 and 17 Century artists such as Veronese, and Carracci.
Finally, we reached the Rembrandt Room, where we discovered the dramatic Danae painting, depicting the mother of Demi God (Perseus) as she awaited Zeus. Remarkable from the first, Danae was styled on Rembrandt’s wife, before being altered after her death, to reflect the features of his mistress.
In 1985 Soviet Lithuanian Bronius Maigys slashed and chemically burned the painting’s canvas, in an act of madness. Restoration started on the day of vandalism and now the painting is faithfully repaired.
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul
Imaginations ignited, we headed back to the bus – to our next stop – The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Safeguarded in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Cathedral contains the tombs of the tsars including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the Romanov family.
Each Russian ruler brings sensational stories, including Peter I, who built the capital from swamp; Catherine II– who overthrew her husband to gain the throne- and the Romanovs who were killed by Communist revolutionaries.
As we heard their history, we paid homage to the Cathedral’s characters, as well as its icons, wood- carvings and canopies.
Heading back outside, we heard one final fable of The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, that of its roofer. In 1829, the spire’s angel was damaged by lightening and could only be repaired by expert Petr Telushkin. Petr climbed the spire without any scaffolding to complete the job. As a reward, Peter the Great gave him a flagon for free alcohol in any Russian Empire tavern. Rather than carry the tankard, Petr got it tattooed on his neck – so he just had to tap it to get free alcohol. In today’s Russia flicking your neck with your fingers still remarks upon drunkenness or desire to drink.
Thirst awakened – we headed for lunch. After driving over the Dvortsovyy Most and Birzhevoy bridges, we circled back round the Winter Palace – for vodka shots at a barn conversion. Being the youngest of the group – and a fan of liquid lunches – all unwanted nips were passed to me. Thankfully potato salad and stroganoff soon arrived to soak up the booze.
Spirits high we headed to our next stop, Yusupov Palace. Named after its once residents the Yusupov family, the Palace includes over 40,000 works of art and its own ravishing Rococo theatre.
The Palace started life as a gift to Peter the Great’s niece, before being bought in the mid-18 Century, by Count Shuvalov – whose heir commissioned Vallin de la Mothe to renovate it – in a similar style to the Small Hermitage. Then, in 1830, Prince Yusupov bought the palace, and it remained in his family until seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
A year before, the palace was the sight of a dark drama, the murder of Rasputin. We relived the mad monk’s final night, as we we walked through the Arab living room and down to the Garrison, where wax figures recreated the scene.
In 1916, in a bid to save the Romanovs from ruin, Prince Yusupov and nobleman Purishkevich invited Rasputin (advisor to the tsars) to Moika Palace, before poisoning him, shooting him and drowning him in the river outside.
The Moika River Tour
Retracing the murders’ steps, we went from the Palace to The Moika River. Here we piled onto a tour boat, with blankets on knees, to experience the capital’s lighter delights.
From the Moika we sailed along the Kryukov Canal, with views of St Nicholas Cathedral, Mariinsky Theatre, the Stroganov and Mariinsky Palaces, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the General Staff Building on Palace Square.
While soaking in our surroundings, we noticed a teen wave from the blue bridge, so we waived back. Then, the next bridge we came to, he was there too. He was racing the boat to greet us from every crossing. Our mascot’s marathon stretched over an hour, so when the trip finished we rewarded him with rubles.
Charmed by our first day in St Petersburg, we headed back to the ship to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures…