Friday, 29 July 2011

Last full day in St. Petersburg

Monday 25th July 2011

Various optional tours (chargeable) were offered on the Monday. I'd elected for the Catherine Palace in Pushkin during the morning and the Yusopov Palace in the afternoon. The bus to the Catherine Palace didn't leave until 9.15 a.m. so, after an early breakfast, there was time for a walk along the four-lane highway which followed the river into the city centre. I explored one or two side roads but the mainly residential area was fairly nondescript - it could have been a million miles from the grandeur of the civic buildings and palaces in the city centre.

The four-lane highway passing the River Station leads to the centre of Saint Petersburg.

Just after 9.00 a.m., the usual coaches were lined up to take us to the Catherine Palace and, once everybody had been sorted onto the appropriate coach, we set off in convoy, this time negotiating the complex of slip-roads leading to the cable-stayed road bridge next to the River Terminal for our journey in a new direction to Pushkin.

The palaces and parks we were to see were developed by Empress Elizabeth and later re-developed to the taste of Empress Catherine in the late 18th century. The centrepiece is the massive baroque palace called the Catherine Palace after Peter the Great's second wife who was the Empress Elizabeth's mother. The architects Rastrelli, Rinaldi, Cameron and Quarenghi were all involved in the creation of the 'Russian Versailles'. The area has, once again, started to be known as 'Tsarskoye Selo' (the Tsar's Village) but that name fell out of favour following the revolution so the area is also known as 'Pushkin' after the revered Russian poet.

Our coaches dropped us off on the approach road to the Catherine Palace and we joined the throng of visitors walking towards the Palace. We eventually joined a large queue awaiting admission to the palace where we were entertained by a group of uniformed musicians. As I listened to the music, I realised they were not mere 'buskers'. I was so impressed, I purchased the CD their leader was selling (stopping playing his trumpet to serve customers and then picking up the tune again). The sleeve notes told me that they were the 'Catherine Palace Orchestra', now established 20 years and having played at numerous official functions during that time. I was quite sorry when the queue finally shuffled forward and we moved into the Palace itself.

The Catherine Palace Orchestra performing for the queue.

The Catherine Palace is certainly impressive, if somewhat 'over the top' for me. The Germans got as far as St. Petersburg during the second World War and during their occupation of the Palace, it suffered considerable damage. Considerable resources have been expended (some from War Reparations) to bring the palaces and parks to their present state of renovation. Our tour was necessarily brief but we saw the Main Staircase, the amazing gilt and mirrored Great Hall (which was used for balls), a number of Anterooms, the Arabesque Room, the Chevalier, Minor White and Green Dining Rooms, the White, Crimson and Green Pilaster rooms, the Portrait Room, the Picture Room, the Drawing Room of Alexander I and a rather grand Waiters' Room. The Amber Room is perhaps the most famous room, completely inlaid with pieces of ambers in various shades of toffee colour. It's definitely baroque and cleverly executed, but a little sickly for my taste.

The Catherine Palace, viewed from the Catherine Park.

Once outside, at our Guide's suggestion we gave the Alexander Park (with the large Alexander Palace) a miss and spent the rest of our time exploring the Catherine Park. All too soon, we were hurrying back to our coaches which took us back to the ship for lunch at 1.00 p.m.

Pictures of the trip to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin are here.

At 2.30 p.m. I departed by coach with the group visiting the Yusupov Palace, situated on a bend of the Moika River near the city centre. Our guide had arranged to purchase photographic permits for those who wanted to take pictures but, when we arrived at reception, we were told that the people who dealt with the permits were on break so photography would not be possible. Mindless bureaucracy is still alive and well in the Russian Federation!

The entrance to the Yusupov Palace at 94 Moika.

A little background ... Apparently Tsar Peter the Great never liked Moscow, his original capital. He built a new capital at what is now called Saint Petersburg where the River Neva flows into the Gulf of Finland. The area was originally swampland so construction was no easy task. The city is still penetrated by numerous minor rivers and canals, giving rise to its description as "The Venice of the North", although I was more reminded of Amsterdam. Numerous grand residences were built to accommodate members of the Royal court and the city delighted in its sophistication. Even today, Saint Petersburg regards itself as the cultural capital of Russia. There was a wooden palace on the site of the Yusopov Palace at the beginning of the 18th century and ownership changed hands many times. The 'golden age' for the Palace was initiated by its purchase by Prince Nikolai Yusupov in 1830. Nikolai Yusopv was from an ancient family of Russian nobility, educated in Europe. His immense wealth allowed him to indulge his taste for collecting. On the death of Prince Nikolai in 1831, the Yusupov Palace passed to Nikolai's only son, Boris. The palace received the attentions of the finest architects and artists to create a suitable home for the Prince's collections. The rebuilt Palace included a private theatre! In the 1860s, there was a further major reconstruction of the Palace carried out by Nikolai Yusupov the Younger, followed by yet further improvements in the 1890s. The last Yusupov to own the Palace was Prince Felix Yusupov the Younger who commissioned the final changes to the Palace between 1911 and 1916.

The relationship of the Royal court with the Tsar's familiy had become threatened by the power gained by Grigory Rasputin - a peasant from Siberia who had become close to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra through his apparent ability to help the Tsar's haemophiliac son Alexis. Rasputin was lured to the Yusupov Palace in December 1916 and murdered in the basement. In the following year, the Russian Revolution swept away the previous hierarchy and the Yusupov Palace was seized by the State. The custodians of the Palace realised the importance of the Palace and its collections and it remained more or less intact until the Second World War when aerial bombing and a serious fire caused major damage. At the end of the war, the State carried out meticulous restoration so that visitors can once again view the Palace as it was at the end of the 19th century. The building is now the 'Palace of Culture of Education Workers' but it is referred to as the 'Yusupov Palace' without embarrassment.

There were quite a few parties touring the Palace but the lady attendants in each room were diligent in closing the doors to each room as parties entered and left so it wasn't the 'scrum' we'd experienced elsewhere. I found the private rooms quite atmospheric. As you might expect, there were drawing rooms of various colours, dining rooms of various colours and grander rooms for balls and banquets. There was a series of Picture Gallery rooms for the display of various types of art. Much of the art had been removed for display elsewhere, but impressive displays remain. There was a rather gloomy Oak Dining Room and an equally gloomy smaller dining room in Prince Yusupov's Apartments improbably sporting embossed, coloured leather 'wallpaper'. Equally improbably, this room is now used as one of the souvenir shops. I did rather like Prince Yusupov's Study, filled with bookcases. The Moorish Drawing Room with mosaic floor, elaborate wall decorations and marble columns was rather over-the-top. I was perhaps most impressed by the threatre with its elaborate gold leaf and painted ceiling. Monighetti was the architect in 1860 but it was then 'modernised' to accord with the then-current taste by Stepanov in 1899. The guide book refers to the theatre as "a precious casket, created with intricate virtuosity". We descended to the basement and a re-creation of the events surrounding the demise of Rasputin. I couldn't help thinking that, having despatched Rasputin in violent fashion, less than a year later the whole of the aristocracy was either killed or exiled in the shattering events of the Revolution.

We returned to our coaches but, to our surprise, we were delivered to the landing stage by the Hermitage, to complete our journey back to our ship by hydrofoil. This made a pleasant conclusion to a busy day.

Pictures on the journey to and from the Yusupov Palace are here. I took no pictures inside the Palace, as explained above.