A Travellerspoint blog

Russia

When did Renaissance Art become a Contact Sport?

Day 24 Hermitage and St Isaac's Cathedral

sunny 18 °C

Our plan for today was to visit the Hermitage, the winter palace and home of the Russian Tsars between 1763 and 1917.

We catch an early morning trolley bus to Nevsky Prospekt, where we get the feeling the locals are staring at us. We do look very smug with ourselves having figured out the public transport as well as looking like tourists! The Palace is now a museum of art work and all the rooms have been renovated back to their original glory. Very little of the furnishings from the 18th Century remains courtesy of age as well as a significant fire in 1837. Catherine II ordered construction and enhancement of the five buildings that make up the architectural ensemble of the State Hermitage Museum. She was quite the collector and seemed to have a penchant for collecting valuables - diamonds and artworks. She seemed to collect a lot of very generous gifts from a guy named Orlov - the Orlov Diamond about the size of a golf ball, the Orlov Dinner Service consisting of over 3000 silver and gold plated pieces and a magnificent horsedrawn carriage we saw in the Kremlin. Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783) was the favourite of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia who presumably fathered her son. He led the coup which overthrew Catherine's husband Peter III, and installed Catherine as Empress. It is understood, for some years, he was virtually co-ruler with her but his repeated infidelities and the enmity of Catherine's other advisers led to his fall from power.

Like the Kremlin, tickets and queueing is required. The weather is kinder today and brilliant blue sky illuminates the magnificent building.
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Once inside we checked our bags and cameras in the cloak room allowing us to experience the wonders of this place. We enter first to the Main Staircase and our mouths drop open and jaws hit the floor. It is MAGNIFICENT! Gold, marble, granite and art painted on the ceiling which is so perfect it looks dimensional.
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We are then attacked! Hoards of mostly Chinese, Korean and Indian tourists armed with selfie sticks surge into the serene and majestic spaces turning the artworks and architecture into a sport, seeing how many photos they can take - mainly selfies with duckface poses or taking photos without even looking or registering which Renaissance Master they are actually photographing. Jen nearly loses an eye when a tour leader directs her flag at a rare 15th century da Vinci, 16th century Caravaggio or 17th century Rubens while leading her flock of lemmings around the venue. They are loud, dressed in garish Russian Cossack and Soviet souvenir hats, yell at each other and generally swarm the place. Tom nearly drowned as a mob flooded the door as they eagerly moved on to the next room.

Despite humanity en mass, the architecture and opulence is mind-blowing.

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The, fairly self evidently named "Gold Room"
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The "Malachite Room", named because of the huge malachite pillars featured in its design. In the 1830s to 1840s, when the room was designed, Russia had discovered a large resource of malachite in its mines and was able to extract solid pieces for the columns. Despite the fire and ravages of time, this room is supposed to be as true to its original design.
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The St George Hall (Great Throne Room) dating to 1795. Whilst the floor as been replaced, the timber inlay is true to its original design, being the Russian Heraldic design, which is also mirrored in the detail on the ceiling.
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Boudoir of Alexandra Feodrovna, Empress during 1850s. This was her private drawing room, just off her bedroom, private bathroom. There is a door in the back right corner that leads to the Nursery.
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The "Golden Drawing Room"
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Peter the Great Hall, this is the smaller, less formal, throne room. The gilded silver throne was made in England and the painting behind the throne features Peter I with the goddess Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom, whispering in his ear. The silver thread embroidered red velvet has been restored or replaced. There is an interesting section showing the process they went through to replicate and repair the furnishings in recent times. As they did, they discovered pins and old needles left behind by artists from centuries ago.
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Medieval German Armour
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We spent about 3 hours meandering through 15th to 18th century art by all the Masters. About three quarters of the way through we are just about overdosed on Renaissance art work. The architecture for each room is what amazed Jen and I and the explanations as to what each room was used for or symbolised was amazing. The size, the painted walls, the ceilings were spectacular. The photos speak for themselves. The enthusiasm of our fellow tourists began to wane - the look on the poor Indian Dad's face, moments after he'd sat down on the bench seat next to us, as a wave of respite settled over him, when, moments later, his tour leader excitedly announced that there was "another two magnificent pieces" in the next room that they "absolutely must see!"

The Hermitage is massive and, as they don't allow water bottles or food, its difficult to see it all in one visit. Once out of the Renaissance Art rooms (which are by far the majority), we wandered the décor areas depicting formal and informal chambers of the Tsars which was fascinating (and by now, most of the competitors had burned out and gone onto their next adventure, so it was much quieter by now).

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It was now late in the afternoon and a short walk to the St Isaac's Cathedral. Peter the Great was a "great" fan of Isaac Newton and arranged meetings with Mr Newton in London as a young Tsar. It is understood by this time, Newton had locked himself in the Tower of London and was in the process of losing his mind. Peter was fascinated and much of his decision making as leader was influenced by the intellectual. He established the Neptune Club about the same time as the mysterious Order of the Masonic Lodge. There were many parallels with this two secretive organisations.

Not surprisingly Peter the Great dedicated his main Cathedral to his respected intellectual mentor, nominating St Isaac for the main Russian Cathedral.
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The Cathedral is now a museum as well as a place of worship. Fourth largest in the World, behind St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's in London and Santa maria dei Fiori in Florence. Its exterior is supported by has 112 solid red granite columns, each carved out of a single piece, 17 m tall surrounding the cathedral, each weighing 114 tons.
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Inside the Cathedral are huge ceilings, massive art works and mosaics, domes and gold gilding everywhere you looked. As it was late, the cathedral closed the entrance and we could sit and enjoy the space as it gradually emptied. With nobody around, a quiet calmness came over the whole area and we had the Cathedral almost to ourselves.
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Our Russian visit draws to an end. We finished packing with some shots of vodka. We were very impressed and surprised with what we had seen. We highly recommend a trip to Russia: amazing sites, people warm and friendly, easy to travel around and a cultural smorgasbord. Helsinki here we come!

Posted by tszeitli 23:12 Archived in Russia Tagged hermitage culture public_transport cathedral russia renaissance_art selfie_sticks Comments (3)

Sparkling St Petersburg

Day 23 The Cultural Heart of Russia

overcast 10 °C

With two days to explore, our first day is a quick general seeing day as tomorrow is set aside for the Hermitage, the winter palace for the Russian Royal Family.

The quickest way to get to know a city when you only have a couple of days is a Hop On Hop Off bus. Today is also a stark change of climate. 9 degrees, windy and its COLD!
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Once on board and rugged up, we quickly realised how impressive this city is, so many historical buildings and the amazing history. Moscow is the political capital but St Petersburg is the historical capital. This city was in the recent past called Leningrad during the USSR days, Petrograd, in honour of Peter the Great, and was also the old capital. There is a massive sense of patriotism in St Peterburg amongst its citizens. They describe Hitler's siege lasting 872 days from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944 as "the most terrifying blockade in the history of mankind", telling of the determination and endurance of the residents of St Petersburg to protect the town and save it from destruction by the Nazis.

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Peter the Great established the city on 27 May 1703 on the banks of the Neva River and, whist he was still to set up schools and universities, he invited intellectuals, architects and artists from London, Paris, Germany and elsewhere in Europe to come to create the city. We could see how so much of the city is reminiscent of Paris, London, Venice and other beautiful European cities.
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Many of the buildings remind us of Paris, but it is also distinctly Russian. Peter the Great had a vision for the city and this city planning is clear as we travelled around.
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Peter the Great Statue installed in 1782 in what was then called "Peter's Square", now called Decembrists Square

All the buildings are about the same height as it was decreed in the 18th century that no building shall be higher than the winter palace, the Hermitage. There are also numerous bridges over Venetian like canals.
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The bridges weren't an original feature of the city as Peter the Great, a sailor, wanted people to traverse the city by boat, which the people hated. So as soon as Peter the Great moved on, bridges were installed.

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Bridges are highly decorated and the most dramatic one is Anichkov bridge with four bronze cast horses. It took a while for all four horses to be installed. Each time pairs were cast, they were gifted to to Berlin as a gift to the King of Prussia, and the next set sent to Naples. The first pair modelled on stallions but the other two are modelled on mares. It is said that the "nether regions" (if viewed from below resemble Napoleon's face and/or the lover of one of the sculptor's wife).
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Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square features the Hermitage on one side, The Admiralty, General Staff Building, Triumphal Arch featuring Roman Goddess of Victory, Nike, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Alexander Column in the centre.

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The New Hermitage, just around the corner from Palace Square, features the most impressive Atlantes, each 5 metres high carved out of grey granite that took 3 years to carve, and another three to polish.

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We visited the church of The Church on the Spilled Blood, it's history is quite unique. Alternatively named the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood to symbolise both the Crucifixion of Christ but also is the site where Alexander II was mortally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881.
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In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in the early 1930s. During the Second World War when many people were starving due to the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi German military forces, the church was used as a temporary morgue for those who died in combat and from starvation and illness. The church suffered significant damage. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the sardonic name of Saviour on Potatoes.

We wandered Nevsky Prospect, the main street adorned with Neoclassical Buildings, including the Singer Building, the sewing machine company and, in its day, the Globe atop symbolised the spread of the company's products around the world.
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Buildings are beautifully decorated and often with a sense of whimsy.
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St Petersburg also boasted a Bazaar modelled on Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Its architecture is similar and now houses a series of shops and eateries.

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A full day on the tourist trail, thoroughly exhausted, eyes as wide as they can be, a great day. Dinner was one of those experience where you just wing it. A staircase leading down that looked a bit dodgy, and down a dark set of stairs that surprisingly opened up to a traditional Azerbaijani restaurant full of locals. Nobody could speak English but the menu was in a form of English, and with some pointing and gesturing (which had to be repeated a couple of times as the kitchen sent word back that some things we'd ordered were unavailable) we managed to fill our table with delicious local food. We left feeling very satisfied with our efforts, and we think our waiter was too, and relieved to see us depart. Nightcap of Vodka from Siberia!
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Posted by tszeitli 08:25 Archived in Russia Tagged architecture history vodka cold peter_the_great hoponhopoff neoclassics Comments (4)

Subway Spotting

Day 22 - Subways of Soviet Era

semi-overcast 20 °C

Our last day in Moscow and we still had some time in the morning for sightseeing.

We considered ourselves quite expert at navigating the subway and at only 50 rubles each, we did a little "subway spotting" as Moscow's subway platforms are magnificent. Created about 100 years ago when Art Deco was en vogue, we marvelled at the architecture and design. We stayed on the red line, getting on and off the train at 6 stations and each was unique and majestic. No need for a timetable as the next train is arriving just as the lights of the previous one fade into the distance - about 30 to 60 seconds between trains.

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The main / central station at Revolution Square is a sight to behold, with its figures taken from life in Russia. Like the Russians in Irkutsk, Moscovites are equally superstitious rubbing the nose of the Dog, the gun of the Cossack or the book of the Reader as they pass by on their commute, even the willy of the little boy - not sure what that's meant to bring luck for!
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Jen had a field day with the camera and the lighting and I just wondered around looking at the statues and paintings.
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Moscow was a big surprise to me and totally different to what I expected. The Cold War and socialist days are definitely gone!

We are getting the hang of backpacking so caught the subway and local train to the domestic airport with no dramas. Unfortunately nearly 3 hour flight delay meant a few more beers, dinner at the airport and a late arrival in St Petersburg at our hotel around 11 pm left us a little weary.

Posted by tszeitli 15:51 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow russia subways art_deco Comments (3)

Moscow - the Heart of Russia

Day 21 Tackling the Kremlin

storm 20 °C

Jen was really looking forward to this day but I could tell she was a little apprehensive. Last time here she had a little run in with Russian security guards with Kalashnikov weapons when she tried to get into the Diamond Fund.

The process of getting tickets is also a little a little tricky with various exhibits being "owned" by different Government Departments so you have to buy the tickets from separate ticket offices.

Things had changed since Jen was here as a totally new ticket booth had been established next to the Kremlin in the Alexander Gardens. There were lots of people lining up but it was only about 45 minute wait. Tickets we got were the Kremlin, the Armoury and the Diamond Fund.

After a street breakfast and then another line up for about 40 minutes to get into the Kremlin - it was going to be a busy day. Russians don't like to queue so if you are facing one way and there is a small gap, they will often jump in and act as if they were there all along! Eventually we were in and straight into the Armoury.

The Armoury was divided into sections of Russian Religious heritage, Russian royal family artefacts including carriages, weapons, clothing, dining and table ware, paintings, goblets, vases, religious icons, thrones, crowns and clocks just to name a few things, and arranged chronologically starting with pre 12 th century and then through each century to the early 20th with the removal of the Tsars. It also included the Orlov Table Service consisting over 3000 pieces of gilded gold silverware for Catherine the Great - massive wine decanters, soup terrines, plates, cutlery - incredible. The level of gold and gilding was amazing and the whole display was quite remarkable. It just gave you a glimpse into the wealth and power of the Russian Royal family. Ladles hammered out of gold nuggets, bible covers of gold, encrusted with diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. Enamel from the Russian Craftspeople of the day who were able to seemingly replicate precious metals and stones. We spent over 2 hours just wandering through the displays and at times just in amazement of the detail, and the extravagance of the artefacts.
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We then visited the two main Russian Orthodox churches which Jen had not been into before. With white exteriors, a peculiar feature of Russian Orthodox churches is the presence of onion-shaped domes on top of the cupolas. The gilded gold domes stood out and sparkled when the sun's rays hit the top. Inside were the burial chambers of numerous past tsars and gold leaf painted pictures of the Russian emperors.
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While visiting the heavens opened sending tourists ducking for cover. When clear skies returned, fortunately all the tourists didn't and we enjoyed the atmosphere in the square around the churches.

We then tackled the Diamond Fund. This two room display houses the best of Russia's collection of diamonds and precious jewels of the Russian family. It was spectacular with diamonds, rubies and other stones some about 2 cm in size. Also were the crowns and many other jewellery pieces.
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The rest of the day was spent walking through the Kremlin, the main shopping centre next to Red Square called "GYM" (pronounced guum) were we had lunch.
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and walking around St Basil's and Red Square.
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We set off exploring for somewhere for dinner, finding ourselves navigating Tverskaya Street which was being rebuilt, completely. Not just in sections and resurfacing, the whole road, about two kilometres, all four lanes, plus trolley bus centre lane and footpaths, down to about three metres deep. Safety, PPE, Traffic Control and HAZOPs was being practised loosely.

We came across Guznetskiy Most, a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants and bars - a great place for people watching while we enjoyed our meal and a glass of wine, snuggled in our blankets.
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Moscow's afternoon twilight is beautiful this time of year, especially with GYM illuminated with fairy lights and the fading rays highlighting the domes of St Basil's.
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Posted by tszeitli 09:48 Archived in Russia Tagged kremlin gold russia diamonds comrades Comments (0)

Freedom - now for Mockva and Red Square

Day 20 Ambassador day in Moscow

storm 15 °C

We arrived in Mockba after 5098 km and probably smelling a bit after 4 nights without a shower. Our friendly driver took us to the Ismaylova hotel about 5 subway stops from Red Square. We definitely enjoyed our first shower in 4 days, a change of clothes and enough time for a snooze before our guided day tour. Dmitri collected us and we immediately took off to the subway. He gave us a crash course in buying tickets (60 cents per trip) and getting around.

Exiting the the Subway at Revolution Square station, we are instantly struck by the beautiful buildings. It is quite a surreal experience in that first sight of Red Square and the Kremlin Walls. Modern life, with plenty of capitalism, then envelopes us. This is not the city that Lenin and Marx would have envisaged. And certainly much different from life and times during the Soviet Era.

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Statue of Karl Marx

Our walking tour took us past the Bolshoi theatre to see if we can get last minute tickets but sadly sold out. There are actually three theatres in the complex but the main one is a spectacular building and featured on the 100 ruble note.
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Dmitri then took us to an exclusively Childrens Shopping Centre with a panoramic look out. The building is 6 floors just for kids and a beautiful lead light in the ceiling depicting Russian Fairytales. It was a kids paradise.
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The view from the top was amazing and it also gave Jen a chance to get her bearings as she was here in 2011. She was already sensing there had been many changes to Mockva over the past 5 years. It is a massive city - 10 lane road infrastructure one kilometre from Red Square.
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On our way to scope out tickets for tomorrow, we watched the Changing of the Guard outside the Kremlin at the Eternal Flame. An enduring respect for patriots who fought and gave their lives.
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We then caught the subway to Gorky Park and once on the Promenade, Dmitri turned our tour into a multimedia experience by using his Bluetooth speaker creating an incredibly poignant moment for us, playing Winds of Change by Scorpion, which opens "I follow the Moskva, Down to Gorky Park..." Goosebumps!

A storm was brewing giving an opportunity for some great photos.
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The foreboding Ministry of Defence, formerly the KGB building

Gorky Park, is a wonderful green space near the city that, during Soviet times was not a nice or safe place to visit, but now it is full of cyclists, rollerbladers, prams, beach volleyball, rose gardens, and Observatory and more.
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After lunch, we continued to walk around and came across a 96 m tall statue of Peter the Great in the river. It's one of this statues that you either love or hate. Our opinion was it was pretty hideous and totally over the top, out of character with the City.
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We walked around the back of the Kremlin and then through a display centre of a new development on the river next to Red Square. The 5000 room Rossiya Soviet Hotel Complex has been demolished and a modern recreational, interactive, historical, cultural "SuperSpace" is going to be built. The display was pretty cool as you took an iPad and scanned QR reader codes and taking you through the new development with interactive multimedia. The Rossiya Hotel had an interesting past, bugged rooms and dodgy dealings during the Cold War.
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We then walked through the White area (the original old part of Mockva) with 17th and 18th century buildings, many are still in use with their original architecture, some restored, others are crumbling. The walls seemed to talk.
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A children's park featured a large sculpture installation by Mihail Chemiakin entitled Children are the Victims of Adults' Vices, "an allegory of the fight against global evil" - indifference, intolerance child labour, prostitution, alcohol, drugs. The blindfolded innocents was quite striking.
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We then had the opportunity to venture in to this mid 17th Century Church in the process of being renovated. It was spectacular inside a quiet calm sanctuary that had been unchanged in over 200 years.

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It was a massive day exploring Mockva - we needed a beer!
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We headed home and were treated to a spectacular Russian Sunset.
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Tomorrow Jen and I tackle the Kremlin and Red Square.

Posted by tszeitli 23:40 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow sightseeing freedom soviet_past mockba gorky_park Comments (4)

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