BEDAZZLED BY ST. PETERSBURG'S IMPERIAL MONUMENTS
Cruising aboard HAL's Eurodam familiarizes us with captivating Baltic ports. Of them all, St Petersburg stands out. There, ship's excursions prove perfect for first time visitors like us. With the need for costly visas eliminated and transportation simplified, two sightseeing days are filled to the max.
Local guide Tanya introduces her storied city. Named for his patron saint, apostle Peter, Tsar Peter founded St Petersburg in 1703. This new capital provided crucial Baltic access and prospered, despite frigid winters.. Nowadays, icebreakers keep the port open year round.
Our tour reveals a dizzying kaleidoscope of legendary city sights. French-inspired architecture tags this city as "Paris of the East" An enormous equestrian statue memorializes Tsar Peter; nearby, Decembrists' Square recalls an1825 revolt. Massive red granite columns support St Isaac's, a Russian Orthodox cathedral designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshippers.
Driving through old neighbourhoods and on into the countryside, we reach World Heritage "Peterhof", Tsar Peter's summer palace. Strolling alongside resplendent yellow, white trimmed buildings, we pause at a Russian Orthodox Church topped with golden domes.
"Starting as a small family residence, this royal complex eventually encompassed these auxiliary buildings, upper and lower parks, several palaces and even a forest," Tanya explains. Tsar Peter designed Peterhof's first thirty rooms in 1714. Daughter Elizabeth and grandson's wife Catherine the Great expanded his efforts.
Inside, the Tsar's bedchamber and oak-paneled office seem surprisingly austere compared to nearby chambers. The ballroom's gilt carvings border tiers of towering windows. Between, sixteen circular paintings feature Ovid's Metamorphoses and Virgil's Aeneid. And painted among ceiling clouds, daughter Elizabeth ‘floats.' Tanya smiles, "As you see, they loved the embellished Western European style...and today, Peterhof is often compared to Versailles." In adjacent Chesma Hall, twelve gigantic paintings celebrate Russia's naval victory during the Russo-Turkish war.
From the front terrace, we gaze over the Grand Cascade. This magnificent creation incorporates sixty-four fountains, two hundred gilded statues, bas-reliefs and other ornamentation. Amid its central pond, Rastrelli's golden Samson wrestles a lion.
A stroll along the lower gardens' Marine Canal takes us to a pier on the Baltic. Aboard a hydrofoil, we're back in the city within thirty minutes. Swimmers bask along the beach where Tsar Peter first established his defense fortress against the Swedes. Gold-spires soaring, Peter and Paul Cathedral entomb Russian royalty from Peter the Great to Alexander III. Disembarking along the Palace Embankment, we behold Catherine's fabled Winter Palace.
Visiting "Resurrection of Christ" Church concludes this day. Onion domes sparkle with blue, yellow and green glazed decorative tiles, two in gold. Inside, 7,500 square meters of glorious mosaics drench walls and ceilings with brilliant, almost overpowering colour. Breathtaking motifs frame radiant biblical scenes and figures. Shimmering in gold, silver and coloured enamels, Holy Gates enclose the main altar.
"Assassinated here in 1881, Alexander II's son established this memorial on the very spot of his murder; it became fondly known as ‘Church of Our Saviour of Spilled Blood'," Tanya relates. "Following our revolution, the church was ransacked and became a warehouse. Russian artisans took over 27 years to restore it to former glory. Using early pictures and lithographs, even the stolen Holy Gates were accurately re-created."
Wondrous artworks fill our second day. "One of the world's oldest museums, The Hermitage houses three million pieces of art in the Winter Palace and four other buildings," says guide Eva. "We'll just sample some of the most notable."
A marble spectacle in itself, the 18th-century Jordan Staircase leads upward to a lavish second floor ballroom. Following her husband's death, Catherine the Great met eligible bachelors in the smaller Pavilion Hall. There, the bedazzling Peacock Clock, a magnificent gift from one such suitor, still works.
Over a hundred grand halls and rooms exhibit 13th to 20th century European art. Among many marble sculptures, we spot Voltaire, eyes a-twinkle. Catherine, we learn, commissioned Houdon to create this likeness of the French philosopher, her beloved friend and correspondent. Another gallery encloses Tsar Peter's original Rembrandts, collected while studying shipbuilding in Holland. Adjoining rooms contain Catherine's extensive masterpiece collections by da Vinci, Raphael and Goya. Paintings by Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse form the largest collection of French art outside France.
A docent welcomes us into the Golden Room, an exclusive vaulted gallery. Pointing out exhibits of nomadic Scythian treasures, she recounts, "Uncovered during excavations and sometimes grave robbers, Tsars would purchase these fine gold artifacts." We marvel at the delicate workmanship of each exquisitely crafted piece.
Indeed, St. Petersburg's dazzling monuments are a splendid legacy of imperial Russia in its heyday.
IF YOU GO:
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PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan
1a St Petersburg, a cityscape along one of the city's many canals.
1b Golden-spired, Peter & Paul Cathedral entombs Russian royalty.
1c Russia's largest Orthodox basilica, St Isaac's Cathedral once held 14,000 standing worshippers.
2 Overlooking the Grand Cascade fountain from the front terrace of World Heritage Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg, Russia.
2a The Grand Cascade fountain as seen from the lower gardens at World Heritage Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg, Russia.
3 Resurrection of Christ Church became fondly known as Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. Its onion domes sparkle with blue, yellow and green glazed tiles.
3aThe interior of Resurrection of Christ Church is drenched with the colour of 7,500 square meters of glorious mosaic.
3b Inside Resurrection of Christ Church, the replicated Holy Gates dazzle today's visitors.
4 At the famous Hermitage art museum, the Jordan Staircase is a marble spectacle in itself.
4a The Hermitage, as seen from the storied Winter Palace of Catherine the Great.Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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