An Emperor and a Queen

Took off early today to catch the hydrofoil to Peterhof, the summer palace of the Tsars. The hydrofoil took us out onto the broad Neva River for about a half hour trip. We arrived just in time to hear patriotic Russian music and witness the ceremonial setting of the fountains for the day. A long canal feeds the fountains which are powered by gravity. Talk about curb appeal!

Inside, the palace sparkles in gold, silver, and every other precious stone or metal you can think of (no photos were permitted inside). The main staircase and ballroom are white but covered with gold leaf moulding in various shapes, and all of the doorframes in the palace are intricately carved and dressed in gold leaf. To the point of being gaudy. One can imagine the message of power and wealth communicated by these walls, but I thought they also communicated a sense of insecurity and an attempt to keep up (or surpass) big brother (Western Europe). Many other rooms had walls and furniture decorated with gorgeous silk, paintings on the walls, and mirrors on the ceilings. All in all Willie was quite correct, this palace exceeded even the magnificance of the The Winter Palace.

The former soviet landladies who used to spy and snitch on tenants have all been seconded to work in the museums, ensuring with dogged determination and sharp elbows that we didn’t take photos, wore our booties, checked our coats and kept moving.

The grounds are incredibly beautiful as well with formal gardens and fountains in every direction.

Peter the Great was a humble man and despite his tall stature (6’5″ when most Russian men were about 5’9), he always preferred small, humble surroundings. Peterhof was built to impress (and to please his wife Catherine I who came to Russia as a peasant slave and later rose to Empress – she loved glamour and glitz and they usually had their own separate living spaces). He built “Mon Plaisir,” a small house built in the Dutch manner (the red brick building in the photo below), but it was directly on the Baltic with breathtaking views and had its own elegance.

We lunched on salmon/cream cheese filled crepes followed by chocolate ice cream cones before returning to the boat which dropped us a short walk from our hotel.

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Shirley and I dressed for dinner and headed for a restaurant recommended to us near the Mariinsky Theatre. Traffic is crazy here so we didn’t have time for a full meal but the place was really fun (red chandeliers) and we will return. We crossed the street to the sumptuous Mariinsky Theatre where we caught up with Wilie to see the opera The Queen of Spades. Tchaikovsky composed the music and his brother wrote the libretto based on a Pushkin short story, and the opera is widely considered to reflect the quintessential Russian sensibility. The theatre is the most ornate and beautiful I have seen (except perhaps for the the Chagall on the Palais Garnier ceiling). There were at least 5 set changes and the largest chorus I have ever seen along with some magnificent opera stars. The music filled my soul and has lingered with me for days.

Jan

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