Nicholas on Horseback
The Famous St. Basil,
St. Petersburg, Russia July 2004
Ka-Boom! The noon cannon at
Naryshkin Bastion bellows across
Petersburg is an absolute jewel
of a city: an urban landscape planned meticulously from scratch by an appointed
architect of Peter the Great.
A treasure trove, St. Petersburg
is crammed with over ninety museums.
Exhibit in Palace Museum
A trip to St. Petersburg simply
must include excursions to countryside
Another full day excursion is to the area surrounding the town of Tsarskoye Selo (The Tsars’ Village) for a look-see at three former royal estates. The marvel of Tsarskoe Selo is Catherine’s Palace, an extravagant property on a scale rivaling the luxury of Peterhof. Twenty of the staterooms including the grand gilded ballroom and two of the 25 dining rooms are open to the public. One of the parlors is decorated floor to ceiling in delicate Florentine mosaics created entirely with genuine Russian amber. The formal gardens and manicured lawns surrounding the palace cover over 1400 acres.
About a mile away from Catherine’s Palace is Alexander’s Palace. This estate gains its notoriety from being the residence of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. The Romanov family lived here from 1904 until their arrest 1917. Nicholas and Alexandra, together with their children, were subsequently exiled to Siberia. Nearby is the enchanting Pavlovsk Palace, one which Catherine had commissioned for her son, Paul. Despite severe damage sustained during World War II, the palace and all its furnishings have been fully restored to be just as they were in 1786. Susan and I are amused that the Russian docents and guides speak of the tsars and royal rulers on a first name basis, with an attitude as if the aristocrats were now modern day folk heroes.
Leaving with fond memories of St. Petersburg, Susan and I press on to Moscow. A truly romantic way to travel to Russia’s capital city is by the overnight train that rattles its way southward, scooting through an earth-colored patchwork of farmlands and dense forests of fragrant Sylvester Pines. Moscow’s train terminals and Metro stations are works of art in themselves, sometimes being called Russia’s “underground palaces.” Both foreign visitors and nearly 8 million daily commuters arrive into the opulent settings of marble interiors, vaulted ceilings, classical sculptures and crystal chandeliers.
The architecture of Moscow is
richly diverse, making tramping around on foot during the day lots of fun. The
city’s neighborhoods have a proliferation of Baroque and Georgian style mansions
and apartments- each uniquely decorated with ornate limestone carvings, dramatic
arches and quirky gables. I’d swear there’s a bakery on every block, as the
smell of fresh-from-the-oven rye bread seems to greet us at every corner.
Moscow’s skyline is dominated
The Kremlin (city fort) with its palaces, onion domed cathedrals and historic monuments remains as Moscow’s glorious centerpiece. Here in the vast museum within the State Armory building Susan and I are mesmerized by what had been the private collections of Russian tsars over hundreds of years. Golden carriages, jeweled thrones, gem-encrusted crowns, glittering Faberge eggs and eccentric treasures from all over the world captivate our attention. And as if these galleries weren’t overwhelming in and of themselves, we continue into the mind-boggling vaults of the State Diamond Fund. This seemingly endless exhibition of the royal jewelry in precious stones culminates with the fiery crown of Catherine the Great, lavishly inset with 5,000 glistening gems. Here too are the colossal Orlov and Shah Diamonds, which rank among the largest cut diamonds in the world.
Stunning Museum in Kremlin
Susan and I stagger out from the Armory in an inexplicable mood to go shopping. And it’s our good fortune that Arbat Street is only footsteps away! The street, which was converted into a pedestrian-only walkway in 1985, slices through what has always been the bohemian district of the city. Today boutiques, antique shops, jewelry stores and funky restaurants claim most of the storefronts, while a mishmash of street vendors, local artists and hucksters in the middle of the street create a colorful maze for foot traffic. It’s a great place to find a kooky souvenir or two, like a set of stacking wooden dolls, lacquer boxes, hand-carved chess set or laser-etched crystal prisms.
The sidewalk cafes secretly serve as a great place to people watch…and the Arbat district is a favored daytime haunt for eccentric members of the community. Susan and I settle in for an iced cappuccino and one of those decadent Russian afternoon desserts like Sharlotka, a sponge cake filled with yellow custard and a berry puree, smothered with dollops of heavy whipping cream. (Oh yes, be forewarned that traditional Russian coffee is laced with vodka and hazelnut liqueur.)
Not far from the Arbat district is yet another shopping center known as the Petrovsky Passage. Here you’ll find the international fashion boutiques like Givenchy, Max Mara, Nina Ricci and Bally. These glitzy stores along Petrovka and Neglinnaya streets are the most prestigious in all of Moscow. After an uncontrollable spree of window-shopping, Susan and I trot empty handed over to the Gosudarstvennyy universalnyy magazine, or as the Muscovites say “the GUM.” Designed in 1893 in an elegant style featuring wrought-iron works and distinctive glass ceilings, the Gum is largest department store in Russia. We sleuth through some of the more than 1000 shops and ferret out some affordable mementos to wrestle back home.
Moscow is unquestionably the cultural hub of Russia. The Bolshoy Theater, Moscow’s oldest and most famous venue for opera and ballet, is just a couple of blocks from Red Square. The city supports over 60 theaters and 80 theater groups. Additionally, international music events are regularly scheduled here in association with the Moscow Conservatory. Taking in a performance at the Tchaikovsky Hall is a must for music lovers. Concertgoers are delightfully surprised by the avant-garde circular configuration of the auditorium and as well as the gargantuan organ powering more than 7,800 pipes. Although the performing arts season runs from October to June, the Moscow State Circus entertains every night of the year. Daredevil stunts, unnerving high-wire acts and precision acrobatics have contributed to its undisputed world famous reputation.
There is much to see on the outskirts of Moscow, including Kolomenskoe, Moscow’s premiere historical and cultural park. Situated among groves of ancient oak trees planted by Ivan I some six hundred years ago, this peaceful hillside showcases several wooden forts and early Russian homes, including a modest log cabin built for Peter the Great in 1702. Three magnificent churches on the site date to the early 1500’s. At the lower end of the park during the 1700’s Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich constructed a fanciful wooden palace, hailed by Russian historians as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Jealous of this architectural accomplishment, Catherine the Great ordered the dismantling of the structure 1768. Only a small model survives, now humbly displayed in Kolomenskoe’s Front Gate Museum.
Another must-see attraction outside Moscow’s city limits is the Kuskovo Estate. Dating back to 1777, this palace was the home of one of Russia’s wealthiest aristocratic families. Remarkably, the interior furnishings, priceless heirlooms and gorgeous artwork have been returned to their original places in this jewel box of Russian history.
Not far away from Kuskovo lies an unspoken treasure, known to few foreign visitors to Russia. It’s the Russian Central Air Force Museum, the largest and finest aviation museum in Russia. The Molino Air Force Base was transformed into the museum in 1960. If you’re not a Russian citizen, you need special government permission to visit here. Susan and I are so appreciative that our guide somehow miraculously made the arrangements for us. Our docent, a former air force pilot, presents us with pamphlet filled with jaw-dropping facts. I had no idea the Russian’s were first in so many aeronautical achievements nor that the United States provided Russia with over a hundred thousand fighter planes during the World Wars. As I my head spins trying to grasp all the Russian aerospace accomplishments, we suddenly step outside the hanger and onto a tarmac lined with a astonishing conglomeration of 150 supersonic commercial planes, dive bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and missile carriers…all in working order!
As we enter the last week of our travels Susan and I embark on an excursion through Russia’s famous “Golden Ring.” The Golden Ring follows one of Russia’s oldest trade routes, leading into the rural areas north-east of Moscow and forming a circle a little over 400 miles in length. The Ring’s main towns, which date back to the early 1100’s, began as outposts of the early “Rus” capital of Kiev. Thanks to determined preservationists, today’s visitor sees Russian life as it was centuries ago.
Our journey departs from Moscow and continues through the towns of Vladimir, Suzdal, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov Velikiy, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, Sergiev Posad. One picturesque village follows another; each with a unique version of a kremlin (city fortress), cathedral, monastery and market place.
Postcard perfect images of rural country life abound: farmers harvesting wheat by hand, horse-drawn carts laden with hay, old women haggling over prices in weathered market stalls. The open-air museums of wooden architecture in Kostroma and Suzdal feature 18th century peasant homes, farmhouses, churches and windmills. Staff members, dressed in native folk costumes; demonstrate how many homes were erected without the use of a single nail.
As Susan and I return to Moscow and prepare for our flight back home, we already share the sense of longing to return. The charms and intrigue of this wondrous country compel us to revisit this enchanting land and its endearing people.
· Café Idiot: 82 Nab. Moiki Tel: 3151675
· Cat: 24 Karavannaya Ul. Tel: 315 3800
Zazou-Lizou Café 48 Shpalernaya Ul.
Tel: 110 0928
· Elf Café: 13 Zemlyanoi Tel 9172014
· Fisherman’s Shelter Izba Rybaka
· Savoy Ul. Rozhdestvenka 3 Tel: 929 8600
· Teatro Teatral'nyj Proezd, 1/4 (across Bolshoi Theater).Tel: 9276068