Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Russia Day Four

Subtitled: Living the palace life and any day on vacation is better than work, even if it rains

Thankfully today all systems were go with the alarm clock. I woke with a nice comfortable 90 minute cushion to leisurely wake up, get dressed, eat (same breakfast) and even run across the street to get money out of the ATM. Today was meant to be Day One of Palace Day, with Catherine’s Palace and Pavlovsk on the agenda. Katya and Sergei were here promptly at 9:00 and off we went on an hour ride to make the 18 km trip to the town Pushkin.

Getting out of Saint Petersburg is nearly a nightmare. Allow me to digress for a moment and bring you up to speed. I thought Boston drivers and traffic were bad, but this really takes the cake (and I’m told is nothing compared to what I’ll see in Moscow). They make sharp cuts in lanes at high speed. Higher speeds and sharper cuts than I’d feel comfortable with on say, Boylston Street or Storrow Driver. But then they get out on the motorway (like our 128) and it’s like a Sunday drive. Weird. The other thing is that they will not plow you down if you are a pedestrian in a crosswalk with the light in your favor. However, they will creep up to every available inch of pavement before the painted lines before they decide to screech to a halt. That’s exciting. Or not….

Anyway, Catherine’s Palace was one of the summer residences of the tsars, this one, obviously belonging to Catherine II. It was done in the very ostentatious baroque style (don’t be impressed that I know that, I just learned it today) and essentially what that means is really over-the-top over done ostentatious architecture. But somehow here, it just works. First, I absolutely adore the blue the exterior is painted in. I see it a lot, and Katya said that the “marine colors”of blue, seafoam green and yellow were very popular on the palaces. The white trim and gold accents are stellar and almost blinding in the sun. Inside, the palace is similarly over-decorated in the Baroque style, but I guess when I think of “tsar’s summer home” I think big and gorgeous and “show me your wealth”. This does it.

“The” draw of Catherine’s Palace though, is the Amber Room. A German emperor had given Peter the Great panels of amber to line the walls of one room, and not just line them but create patterns around niches, frames, borders, etc. Floor to ceiling amber. This was, as you might imagine, quite an expensive gift (which Peter reciprocated by giving 50 healthy Russian soldiers in return). Well, that was all well and good until the Germans invaded Russia in WWII and made these palaces their barracks. What wasn’t already secreted away to Siberia either got ransacked, damaged or taken by the Germans. You guessed it, the Amber Room panels went missing. And in a drama similar to the Gardner Museum Heist, they remain to be found. Or not, according to Katya. This was the first point we seemed not to see eye to eye on. In my obsessive pre-trip reading, I had read lots of (western) research on what “really” happened to the panels. Most of it points to a Russian “ooops” as in “we dropped them but don’t want to tell Lenin we destroyed them” (for obvious reasons, namely torture, execution or Siberia, seriously). But Katya insists that the Germans dropped them in a lake or sea trying to take them from the country. She is fairly certain of this and looked at me like I was on drugs when I asked if she thought they’d ever find them. Anyway, the German government paid for a complete restoration of the Amber Room, whether out of responsibility since they gifted the originals or because they took/stole/broke/drowned them somewhere. The room reopened in 2005 and let me tell you, it is completely unlike anything I’d ever seen. It helps that I love the color orange, but this was just amazing. All of the detail and carvings and the walls are actually mosaic and not full slabs of amber. It really was a special experience to see it, mystery notwithstanding.

I should mention for the museum-going folks reading this that both palaces today required that we check coats and wear surgeons booties over our shoes, so as to protect the newly restored floors and not rub up against anything with a wet or dirty coat. Which leads me to restoration….I had no idea that all of these palaces were either looted and ransacked or burned or bombed out during WWII. There are photos around both palaces showing the devastation. To think that they’ve been restored mostly to their former glory so (relatively) quickly is beyond impressive. I asked Katya if that created a lot of jobs once the war was over and she implied that it wasn’t necessarily a job you signed up for, it was a job you were assigned and you just did it, even if for very little pay. So I’m guessing it was more something you did because you were told to.

Ok, for really the true highlight of the day: lunch. And not just because I like to eat, this was just a blast. We stopped at Podvorie, which is a 5-star restaurant between Pushkin and Pavlovsk. This ideally located restaurant, believe it or not, is like an authentic Russian theme restaurant. If I hadn’t read that it is legitimately rated, I seriously would not have gone in myself (you know me and themes…). It is a replica wooden cottage that looks better suited to the Russian wilds. Upon entering, a huge furry bear greets you with shots of vodka (at this point I say “Ok, I’m in!”) and there are singers and musicians strolling around stirring up joviality with just about every Russian song that foreigners might be able to hum and clap to. The wooden benches and chairs are decorated in typical rural Russian rustic-ness and it gives off a warm homey feeling. But the food, the food. It was like the endless supper!

First came the wine, a bottle each of their red and white, both of which were quite good. And water and vodka, just for good measure. The appetizers were pickled tomatoes, onions and pickles, slices of spiced pork, tomato halves with some sort of fish salad on them and the piece de resistance: cold beef stroganoff, which honestly I would have eaten for a month of Sundays. It was phenomenal, you know the kind of dish you’d keep sneaking back to the fridge for another bite. More wine, more vodka. Here comes julienne mushroom cream soup, which for a mushroom-phobe was scary but I actually liked it. I had my first ever borsch (No “t” on borsch here, please!) which was a slightly spicy, heavily onioned vegetable soup, pretty tasty. Then the main course was grape leaves stuffed with seasoned meat, which I really liked. Dessert was a blini with ice cream and cappuccino and more vodka. Honestly I was headed for a nap seriously at that point! Too much food (but damned if I was going to leave any of it there).

Then on to Pavlovsk. Surprisingly I have excellent recall of that stop. Pavlovsk was Alexander I’s summer home. It was designed by a Scottish architect (Catherine’s Palace was by an Italian) and it is in the classical style, so much more subdued and cozy. I could picture living here. There were no grand rooms, no ostentatious gold leaf, but just a warm, cozy feel. After we saw the interior, we walked around the gardens which for the most part were not landscaped and manicured like at Catherine’s Palace, but more wild. Then of course it started to pour. Katya apologized profusely, but laughed when I said “any rainy day on vacation is better than any day at work.” How true it is. The rain only lasted minutes and we finished our walk and headed home. Five hours later, I’m still not hungry!

Tomorrow is my last full day in St. Petersburg and I realized today that I feel like I’m losing a new friend. I have been tipping Katya at the end of the day as my tour consultant suggested and Katya said she feels bad taking money from me because we have become so close. As we share more stories about our different lives and upbringings, there are so many things we feel similarly about, so many situations we have both been in and had the same reaction. For someone like me who wanted to learn more about life in Russia and among the Russians, this has so fit the bill. But as an added bonus, I have laughed more with her than I thought I would and I’ve been so blessed to have had this experience with her. She’s gone above and beyond to find out what interests me and made sure I’ve seen it, but beyond that she’s really made me feel like a friend. I only wish I could take her to Moscow.

For the record, those of you who are anxious to see photos, be careful what you wish for. As of tonight, I have 399 shots. The quickie album I'm posting from the shaky wireless connection is still here

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