Editor’s Note: This is the final of a three-part series of Lee Juillerat’s recent travels through Russia.
Some people spend days or weeks visiting St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city that many believe is the country’s most fascinating.
We had two days to find out. Two very delightfully busy days.
We — eight members of Alden Glidden’s family plus Liane Venske and I — were off the overnight train at 8:30. A few hours later, a local guide whisked us to the Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
Desolate to dazzling
The Fortress is where the city was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, who recruited European architects to transform a desolate swamp into what many regard as Russia’s most beautiful city. Beautiful it is, with gilded domes, dazzling facades and towering spires, including the Fortress. Along with being grand, its history includes being a former prison while its cathedral is where members of the royal house of the Romanovs are buried.
We visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, with walls and ceilings lavishly decorated with mosaics. “Spilled Blood” refers to the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The golden domed Saint Isaac’s, likewise, is eye-popping ornate,
That afternoon we too quickly galloped up and down stairs at the State Hermitage Museum, seeing highlights of its fabled art displayed in 360 rooms. There are legendary paintings — “Benois Madonna” by Leonardo de Vinci, “Return of the Prodigal Son” and “Abraham’s Sacrifice” by Rembrandt, “The Lute Player” by Caravaggio — and others by Michelangelo, Matisse, Gauguin and Raphael. Walls and galleries of Flemish, French, Oriental and Russian art. Up and down the grand white marble Jordan Staircase. Gold Rooms. Exquisitely detailed mosaics in Pavilion Hall.
But even more enchanting was that night’s visit to the Mariinsky Theatre, named in honor of Tsar Alexander II’s wife. Unlike paintings, statues and mosaics, the performers in the ballet, “La Bayadere,” were live — often passionately and athletically alive. Created in 1877, “La Bayadere” is a love story that combines elements of ballet ensembles, duets and solos. The ballet is, as the program describes, “A colourful and vast canvas, woven together using highly complex choreographic language.”
Day two was well choreographed. A morning drive took us to the Peterhof Museum, Peter the Great’s lavish 1,500-acre estate, arriving in time to watch as rows of fountains, including the aptly named Grand Cascade with sculptures cast in bronze and gold, were turned on. We wandered the tree-lined grounds, leafy gardens and wooded paths past geometrically designed flower beds and sculptures. Before entering the Marly Palace, a residence built for the tsar’s guests, we slipped covers over our shoes to protect the floors.
Outside, another path took us along the Gulf of Finland. Returning to the gardens we passed an array of spouting fountains — the two-tiered Roman; the seven-tiered Pyramid; the Neptune; and the Adam, located near the Eve. The pairing said to suggest the tsar’s “earthly paradise.” There were fountains with fish-tailed boys spouting water through conchs, fountains shaped like lions and dragons, another of Sampson. But our favorite was the Umbrella, which rains a curtain of water whenever a person wanders too close. Like others, we tried to run the watery gauntlet without getting wet.
Russia, in miniature
An early afternoon visit to the Grand Maket Rossiya was intended as a stop for Tanner and Wendy Glidden’s three sons — age 5 to almost 13. But it brought out the child in all of us, dazzled and enthralled by re-creations of Russia in miniature. The entire country is encapsulated, from the sights of Moscow to the birch-wooded forests of Siberia and Russia’s Far East. Everyday life is featured — farmers working in fields, construction crews, captives in prisons, car-clogged highways and operating passenger and freight trains. Every 13 minutes, simulating day turning to night, the lighting gradually fades to darkness, then, after two minutes, slowly returns to day.
Rain was causing the daylight to fade that early evening as we cruised St. Petersburg’s main river, the Neva, on a sightseeing ship. We passed The Hermitage and other sights we’d seen and visited. It felt like touring Venice as the boat branched off into canals, too soon completing a loop that returned us back to the dock.
Good times, rushing through Russia.