Thursday, September 17, 2015

St. Petersburg - Day 5 (continued)

Sunday, September 13
If this morning's trip to the Hermitage was spectacular, this evening's trip to Catherine's Palace was magical.
We journeyed to Pushkin, a town about 17 miles from St. Petersburg, where the palace is located. Although the sun was setting when we arrived, we could still appreciate the stunning blue and white facade that stretches 984 ft in length
and is adorned with a profusion of ornamentation, including gilded window frames. (No longer real gold, but when it was, it used 100 kilos of gold.)
This place is known for its splendid interiors with fine furnishings and china.
We entered through an elaborate staircase - seems to be the norm -
and then were guided through a series of rooms. The first one had a replica of one of Catherine's gowns made of paper mâché. 
Our first major room was the Portrait Hall, where we were treated to a flutist.
We also learned that the Chinese porcelain heaters on the wall were not really used for heating but were only for decoration. They seem to be in almost every room.
Then we viewed the Green Formal Dining Room,
 set as if they were expecting company. We traveled down a series of interconnecting hallways
To a series of other Imperial rooms
and came to 
the highlight of the evening - the Amber Room.
Dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world," the Amber walls were admired by Peter the Great when he visited King Frederick William of Prussia in 1716. To celebrate peace between the two countries, the King loaded up the walls in 18 boxes and shipped them to Russia. They comprise 180 sq. ft. and 6 tons of Amber. 
They were first installed in the Winter Palace but Empress Elizabeth had them moved to Pushkin after she demolished the first palace and had the current design built in 1756 by the famous architect Rastrelli. I say design, because the Nazis blew up the Palace in 1944 and stole the amber room. To this day it has never been found. So everything we saw was a re-creation, including the Amber Room, which has been meticulously restored from photographs and archives.
Imagine putting together those little pieces!
We then went through a few more dining rooms

We then went to the Grand Hall where we were treated by an appearance of "Catherine the Great," chamber music and dancing.
The grand finale of the evening was dinner at the Czar's Village Restaurant next door to the Palace, which was lovely.
A couple of notes - people always think of Catherine's Palace along with Catherine the Great, but it was first built by Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. She died before it was completed and then her daughter Empress Elizabeth rebuilt it. Catherine the Great (or Catherine II) was the one who enjoyed it during her 34 year reign (1762-1796).
Catherine II was neither Catherine nor Russia. She was a German-born princess who married Peter III. He was more interested in drinking than ruling, but she embraced all things Russian - changing her name, her religion and her loyalties. Six months into Peter's rule, he was deposed (and later killed) and Catherine took over.
Fascinating woman. All things considered, she was a fan of Peter the Great and continued moving Russia towards the modern world. However, she did little to improve the lot of the serfs, who were 1/2 of the 35 million inhabitants of Russia. She was also known as a tireless worker, rising at 5 am and putting in 10-15 hour days. On a personal note, she is known to have had 21 lovers and rumor has it her husband fathered none of her children (since she had no children the first 8 years of her marriage and then Paul, the next Czar, was born.)
Darkness had set in on our way back to the ship and we could see the sights of St. Petersburg lit at night-- the bridges (of which there are 800) and the Hermitage nestled along the Neva River.

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