Tuesday, 26 July 2011

More St. Petersburg

Sunday 24th July 2011

The day started dull, became very wet and then, in the afternoon, became warm and sunny. After my usual 7.0 a.m. breakfast, I decided to take a walk ashore.

We were tied-up on the outside of two other river cruise ships from the Vodohod group so, to get ashore, I had to go through the reception area of the 'L. Sobolev' (I presume this is named after Sobolev the mathemetician who died in 1989) and then the 'Konstantin Fedin' (the Russian author who died in 1977 - article here. We were at the newer river terminal of Utkina Zavod, situated on a busy dual carriageway with follows the north bank of the Neva.

I walked in a downstream direction past what is principally a residential area. I passed some modern apartments but most of the housing was 3- 4- and 5-story apartments, in pretty poor condition somewhat relieved by trees, grass and children's play areas. There was a small bus station with people commuting to work. I was amused by a queue of passengers formed up in the middle of the tarmac area, waiting where the bus would ultimately arrive. I couldn't help thinking that they were about to break into a spontaneous performance of Village People's hit 'Y.M.C.A'. In the forecourt of an old factory, there was a badly-wrecked saloon car. It looked as if the emergency services had cut the roof open to extract the unfortunate occupants. I wondered how long it had sat there, a grim reminder of the perils of road travel.

The adjacent factory had once been a large engineering complex but had clearly been abandoned for years. In places, there were holes in the walls and some of the windows and doors were missing. Inside, I could see partly-dismantled, rusting pipework. Thinking about what might have happened to all those who became unemployed when the factory closed, it made a sad sight. In the days of the Soviet directed economy, I'm sure the place buzzed with activity even if it was not profitable in the conventional sense. I wondered whether the Soviet system had ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own internal economic inconsistencies.

In places, pairs of large-diameter, heavily lagged district heating pipes emerged from the ground and wandered around, like large worms. Wisps of steam rose from the ground at one point where there was a manhole set in concrete and, presumably, some sort of valve underground. On the river side of the dual carriageway, a typical Russian floating crane had moored and its grab was unloading gravel from a river cargo ship, producing clouds of dust in the process.

An unexpected sight was a 5-story hexagonal brick tower, complete with battlemented turrets! It appeared to be used as apartments now and I could not guess at its origins, unless it was originally an impressive gatehouse to the adjacent works. I turned back towards the ship near a Soviet-era apartment block, opposite the older river terminal on the south bank of the river. The architecture of the apartment block was impressive but it now wore a tired and uncared-for appearance. At least the rainwater down pipes had been replaced not too long ago, with the Russian pattern of large diameter sectional pipes made from sheet sheel. But, inevitably, where a tall archway gave access for vehicles to the yard at the rear of the property, the down pipes had become battered by numerous impacts from the small lorries and vans which seemed to infest the place.

The epic architecture (and battered rainwater pipes!) of Stalin-era apartments.

When travelling to and from the city centre the previous day I'd spotted, at strategic locations, modern pontoons with a bright yellow awning connected to the river bank by steps. I passed one of these on my walk back to the ship. These are the landing stages for the 'Aquabus' system - a network of small motor cruisers which dash up and down the river.

Later in the morning, we set off from the ship for a visit to the Peterhof Gardens. We travelled by hydrofoil 'Meteor' class number 185 but to board this, we had to pass through the normal neighbouring ships to reach the embankment, walk along to the next pier and cross through two or three different moored cruise ships to reach the hydrofoil itself. We set of downstream, past the remarkable contrasts we'd seen previously but, this time, we carried on towards the sea, past navy ships, a number of floating docks and the tall cranes constructing a new arena. I was amazed to see six or seven ocean-going cruise ships in the new port area, presumably all disgorging thousands of tourists into the crowded city. The coast had dropped behind us and and we were surrounded by grey sea, so the passengers were surprising when the engines suddenly dropped to idling. The explanation became clear as a massive Spanish cruise ship crossed in front of us, heading for the port. As soon as he was clear, we set off again. Whilst we were drifting, another hydrofoil has almost caught up with us and I could see a third following us both! Perhaps it was my imagination, but our captain appeared to increase speed to prevent the following hydrofoil from overhauing us. A flag-bedecked jetty appeared and we quickly docked and disembarked. We had arrived by the 'Royal Route' because Peter the Great was accustomed to travelling by sea from the city to Peterhof.

View of the Great Palace at Peterhof from the Marine Canal, in the rain.

It was raining fairly hard and I was glad of my raincoat. Some of our group had been rather optimistically attired and must have been rather miserable by the time we got under cover. We walked alongside the Marine Canal which leads from the sea to the Great Palace and had our first views of the impressive architecture. We toured the Lower Gardens in the rain. Situated here are a number of smaller Palaces and Pavilions. After queueing in the rain, we were admitted to one of the elaborate Pavilions, where we discarded our wet coats and fitted plastic overshoes in a cloakroom before being allowed to walk on the original wooden floors. After the tour, we were back in the rain where a balustraded promenade gave us the view of the Gulf of Finland so beloved by Peter the Great (a bit grey when we were there). We looked through the windows of Peter the Great's favourite Pavilion - 'Monplaisir' built to give views of the sea.

The Park incorporates 176 fountains and four cascades, powered entirely by hydraulic pressure, the water being led in a pipeline from the inland hills. Some of the fountains are 'Trick' fountains, where the unwary are given a soaking either by treading on one of the stones that releases water or just by mistiming their movements passing through the target area. Apparently, when these were built, this was considered a capital joke. We passed an aviary for exotic birds and a hothouse for exotic plants. There were water features everywhere, none more famous than the huge Grand Cascade in front of the Great Palace. Adorned with dozens of gilded figures, this discharges into the Marine Canal.

By this time, the rain had abated and, near the Grand Cascade, a brass band was playing. All of the instruments were in the form of a straight horn of various lengths and diameters. Two large metal tables supported the larger instruments, so the instruments were not exactly portable! There was time to explore more of the Lower Gardens (and spot a couple of red squirrels scurrying between the mature trees) before we made our way to the coach park for the return journey. We were given a choice - a coach right back to the ship or, since the afternoon was free, a coach to the city centre. I was surprised at how few of my fellow passengers elected, like me, to go to the city centre. A lady guide was provided to describe some of the sights and I found it a fascinating journey.

The coach skirted the Upper Park if the Peterhof and followed the broad Peterhof Highway back to the city centre. We passed various buildings associated with the Peterhof before skirting the impressive Konstantinovsky Palace. In recent times, this has been restored to its original grandeur and was famously used as the venue for the Russia - European Union Summit in 2003. Like a number of grand buildings in St. Petersburg, the Palace is now available for hire. We passed a huge modern building that looked educational. I was puzzled by the marine radar scanner rotating on the roof, until our guide explained that the building was the Academy for Russian Merchant Seamen. Apparently, its completion had been delayed for years and it had become something of a local scandal. A double-track tram system ran parallel to the road on reserved tracks and I was surprised at just how many one- and two-car trams were in traffic and well-patronised for a Sunday afternoon. We passed tall, modern apartment blocks and 'retail parks'. Apart from all the signs being in Russian, we could have been anywhere in Europe.

Narva Triumphal Arch

Our route into the older part of the city took us past the Narva Triumphal Arch, brick-built with cladding and ornamentation in copper. This was completed in 1834 to celebrate Russia's triumph over Napoleon in the war of 1812. Badly damaged in World War II, it was restored in 1951. There's more here. The coach dropped us off near the monument to Catherine the Great and the guide gave us directions to our various destinations. I opted for the nearest Metro Station, Gostiny Dvor.

More later.

Pictures of my visit to the Peterhof Gardens are here.

Pictures of the trip back from the Peterhof to the city centre are included in the set 'Around St. Petersburg'.