By Gabrielle Morgan
I was privileged to enjoy a cruise on the Marco Polo, Orient Line Scandinavian cruise ship, which docked in Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Denmark and the Norwegian Fiords. The ship is an ideal size for navigating the narrow passage of the Fiords. It carries 826 passengers and has a much more intimate atmosphere than bigger liners that carry thousands. The food is superb, staff obliging and friendly and your every need is catered for. The entertainers are world class. Interesting lectures are given the day before every port of call outlining the history of the country and outstanding points to visit.
It was bleak and raining when I left the Marco Polo to pass through a Russian passport check before boarding the tour bus which was to take me sightseeing around the city of St. Petersburg.
My first view was the enormous docks area where steel and materials had been off loaded and moving equipment hindered the bus passage along the roadway. The ten minutes it took to clear the way enabled our guide to tell us some of the background history of the city we were about to see, none of which prepared me for the initial impact of the grim buildings I saw. Aged, grey stone apartment buildings, square and formidable, with rotting balconies and no sign of nature to soften what the eye observed.
As we moved on into the city I became more impressed by the stately buildings and monuments to past Tsars and Emperors. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg on the Neva River in the eighteenth century. He turned the swampland area of the river estuary into canals and today there are 620 bridge crossings. Some of the bridges have cast iron balustrades and decorative sculptures that look hauntingly beautiful in the mild baltic light. In summer there is no dark, just a wonderful pale white twilight. In winter there are only six hours of light. All the apartment buildings, I learned, had inner courtyards where children played, and when I think about it seemed a sensible idea considering the climate, so cold in winter.
The highlight of my two days in St. Petersburg was a visit to The Winter Palace which now houses the Hermitage Museum Art Gallery, one of the greatest galleries in the world.
I was amazed at the grandeur of the Tsar’s Winter Palace. Stopping spellbound on the white entrance hall stairway, I looked up to Romanesque green marble columns supporting gold and white entablature. Imposing marble statuary graced the walls. This was a fitting precursor to the rooms that followed. I was able to walk in the footsteps of Catherine and Peter the Great and imagine the balls and banquets where all the important royalty of the times were entertained. Each room was splendidly decorated and furnished with the finest art and antiques, exquisite in their style and beauty.
The tour guides had great difficulty making themselves heard when they related the history of the art works in the Hermitage. There were so many groups, each leader shouting to be heard. Fortunately our guide was very professional and managed to steer us away from the masses and led us to the most important works by the great masters such as Rembrandt, Michaelangelo and later impressionists Renoir and Monet. It would have been impossible to see every painting as there were over a thousand rooms.
A drive out of town to Peterhof Palace was illuminating. We passed areas which had been specially built for the workers – blocks and blocks of cheaply built flats. Our tour guide informed us she lived in one of these two bedroom flats. Her husband was an engineer, she was very well educated in history and her father was a judge. They drove a second hand car which they had purchased in Finland as she said they were better than the cars to be bought in Russia. I noticed most of the cars on the road were old.
We drove on to the better seaside areas where the wealthy had their holiday homes which were far from ostentatious. Peterhof Palace was in this area. It had been the Tsar’s country retreat by the sea. Once again I was in total awe of the magnificence of this palace which has been restored to its original brilliance. It crossed my mind that it was ironic that the opulence enjoyed by the tsars caused a revolution and now the palaces they had created were Russia’s entry into the lucrative tourist dollar.
I enjoyed luncheon served in a popular Russian restaurant the size of a banquet hall with a balcony at one end and a stage with a grand piano at the other. While I consumed my meal complete with vodka and wine I was entertained by a Russian musical group. They looked striking in their red and gold traditional costumes. In operatic voice, a comely woman with blonde hair and a black haired man with a beard sang in rousing tones to the music of the balalaika. The very spirit of Russia resonated in their voices and bearing. I sensed the strength of their pride, their determination and the depth of their heart. In their song I really felt Russia.
I left St. Petersburg with a feeling of deep respect for a people who had suffered so much through wars and revolution and now faced the immense challenge of the future. Theirs was the city of Nijinsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and the poet, Pushkin who was educated, exiled from, and later killed in St. Petersburg. In this city that has known such richness and such tragedy the past is alive and ever present in the tapestry of St. Petersburg, its gold onion domed churches, palatial palaces and its very heart constant like the flow of the Neva river.
© Gabrielle Morgan