Our last day took us to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s most amazing palace. It’s about an hour outside of St. Petersburg and parts of it echo the design of Versailles. (There is a hall of mirrors that takes its lead from France.) It’s a gorgeous building, all yellow with white trim, and gardens that are simply beautiful. It is often recognized for its beautiful fountains, all cascades down a couple of hills in the ‘backyard.’ There are also lovely rows of linden trees, all perfectly trimmed, that line one side of the palace.
What I learned about Peter the Great: he loved how Amsterdam looked, so he often tried to bring that architectural essence to St. Petersburg; he had ideas (like building a city named after himself or even building a fortress in a poor place for defence purposes) and then often acted on them without thinking them through; he had a cruel streak, and executions were not uncommon if you ticked him off; he was exceptionally tall for his time period in history, and many say he was 6’8″; and, interestingly, he had a window at Peterhof where he could see if any Dutch or English ships were sailing towards him over the Gulf of Finland. He liked to sneak down, board the ships, and then pretend he was just a sailor. Often, the captains and crew knew it was him, just based on rumours of his extreme height, but played along to humour him. Then, he would bring them all back up the hill to his palace, where he might introduce them to his wife, Catherine.
About twenty minutes before you reach Peterhof, you pass by a lovely building on the right hand side of the road. It is the place where Vladimir Putin has created an official presidential residence, in case the capital of Russia is ever moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. (The locals call it “Putinhof,” but you can’t really get a sense of it from the road. It looks impressive, and I’m sure it’s beautiful too, but it’s private and used for official visits by foreign dignitaries.)
Peterhof is fabulous, but vast. You aren’t allowed to take photos, you have to check your coats and bigger bags in cloak rooms, and you are shuffled through by Russian women who guard each room. You also have to put paper booties (like the blue ones we wear in Ontario hospitals if someone is in isolation) over your shoes. The floors are beautiful, obviously, with great tile and wood work designs, so the booties are there to protect the floors. I did, though, wonder about the slip factor. I tended to slide around a bit. :(
After we finished at Peterhof, we headed back into St. Petersburg to see the Church of the Spilled Blood, which was raised on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. It’s a beautiful building on the outside, but on the inside it reminded me of what it might be like to be on the inside of a kaleidoscope, all gorgeous jewel toned mosaics and high domes that seemed to raise your eyes up to heaven. (The only thing, again, was the crush of people. There seems no way to avoid masses of tourists here, and getting up at dawn to get to such historical places still doesn’t ensure that you will have a bit of quiet.)
Tonight, a few of us went to see a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It was so beautiful. The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is one that was frequented by Catherine the Great, who lived from 1729-1796. She was Empress of Russia and married Peter III, who was the grandson of Peter the Great. (I know, it’s confusing, this Russian royal lineage!) In both the Winter Palace tour yesterday, and at Peterhof today, we learned about her sense of style. The rooms she decorated are mostly white, and not very fussy. Peter the Great’s daughter, though, Princess Elizabeth, loved everything done up in mirrors and gold. (She is famously remembered for worrying about which dresses to wear, how to do her hair up, and what her portraits looked like.) Catherine the Great was a hard worker, following in Peter the Great’s footsteps, and she often worked eight hour days in her office on political affairs. It figures that she would also love theatre and the arts!
The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is part of the Winter Palace, which is part of the Hermitage complex. (So much art, so little time!). St. Petersburg is often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” with lovely little canals splitting up certain parts of the city. The theatre, though, sits across the road from the River Neva. It is like a little jewel of sorts.
The design of the theatre is lovely. There is a little orchestra pit section, with a balustrade separating the musicians from the audience, and the stage hovers a bit above the heads of the musicians. Throughout it all, I kept thinking of how the structure seemed both literal and metaphorical. (These are the kinds of things my head goes on about when I’m watching something on a stage…) Above, on stage, the lovely story of a young man who falls in love with a swan princess, and a stage full of beautiful colours and costumes, and amazing ballet moves. Below, in the orchestra pit, a group of musicians who do this for a living. They trundled in a bit close to the start up, with one violinist shoving her purse under her chair nonchalantly. Another guy, the percussionist, leaned against a balustrade as he waited for his part, until his friend nudged his arm off of it and gestured at the conductor. The ‘leaner’ shrugged, moved his arm, and then returned to his job of drumming.
It all seemed, to me, quite poignant. Here, in a theatre that Catherine the Great loved and frequently visited, hundreds of years after her time, a bunch of tourists from around the world trying to pretend they were posh and cultured. Throughout it all, the musicians living life, providing music for the dancers above. While the dancers have to “keep their faces on” for the audience, for the sake of creating an illusion, the musicians can roll their eyes, or speak under their breath to one another, or give a quick kiss of greeting to a fellow oboe player in passing, before beginning.
I found myself watching the musicians more than the dancers at times….and perhaps this is one thing I’ve learned from seeing parts of St. Petersburg. There is always a veneer on things of historical import, but there is also always an ‘underneath’ with many stories. I thought, today, of thinking of this city as being somewhat like an onion. There are many layers, many stories, many many people, but there is not one correct interpretation. This is what stymies me a bit, but what doesn’t really shock or surprise me. It is not what it seems, to the outsider, but perhaps this is what makes it all the more intriguing.
I’m headed homewards tomorrow and will look forward to seeing my two furballs, Sable and Gully. I also will enjoy being able to drink water from taps again, and am again so thankful for the ability to call Canada my home. For all the times I travel, and for all of the wonderful things I see, and the amazing people I meet, I always begin to long for the scent of pine, the nattering of the squirrels, the friendly people in my hometown. Maybe, just maybe, we travel to see the world, but then find ourselves in new ways, rediscovering our gratitude for home, in the very journey we have undertaken.
Now….home….my dogs…some music….cold water….wind chimes, wine, poetry and friends. And writing. Always writing. :)