05 September 2007

Lifestyles of the Czars

On our second day in St. Petersburg we got off to an early morning start (7:15 am!) for a trip to the Palaces of Catherine and Peter the Great.

Catherine's Palace, in the town of Pushkin and about 25 kilometers from St. Petersburg, was the first stop for the day.

Again, large tour groups are allowed in before the general public. So shortly before 8:30 am we found ourselves waiting along with a few other busloads outside the gilded gates.

A small marching band had set up to entertain those who came to visit the palace. We saw this a few times during our trip here. This particular group even did choreographed steps while playing old traditional songs such as "When the Saints Come Marching In" and Broadway showtunes. Alright, those aren't exactly Russian songs, but occasionally they would play something actually Russian!

Catherine's Palace was originally built for Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, as a small hunting lodge. Their daughter, Elizabeth I, expanded the palace to suit her tastes. And then Catherine II (Catherine the Great) added her touches.

The palace was nearly destroyed during World War II. The German Army used it as a barracks during the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). After it became obvious that they were losing the war, they destroyed the building with bombs and fire. Fortunately, the Russians had removed everything they could before the Germans arrived and hidden it somewhere until it was safe to bring it out again. The palace was rebuilt and the originally furnishings brought back.
After a short wait it was our turn to enter the palace. The first step was to put on our little booties to help protect the parquet floors. Aren't they attractive?

They were "one size fits all," which never really works! GLH destroyed a few little booties before he figured out how to ease them up over his gargantuan feet.

And then we were walking in the footsteps of the Czars and Czarinas!

After touring the palace we walked through the town of Pushkin. We also saw this cute, little police car. We had to wonder what a High Speed Car Chase might entail. Perhaps speeds as fast as 50 kilometers per hour?

Then it was time for lunch at a restaurant with great food and fun Russian folk singers.

Check 'em out!

After lunch we headed for Peterhof, one of Peter the Great's palaces. Called the "Russian Versailles," the highlights are the many fountains throughout the extensive gardens.

A large crowd was gathered around one of the trick fountains. As you run across the path some of the stones will trigger a spray of water. But which ones?

Inside the palace, my two favorite parts included this statue of a small dog...

Catherine the Great had artists commissioned to create it after her favorite dog died. It was an incredibly pampered pup and went with her everywhere. It would even eat it's meals off of china placed on the table next to her own plate. Each night it would sleep on a cushion next to her bed, as depicted above.

I also enjoyed seeing Peter the Great's office, which was left exactly how he had it by all of the succeeding czars.

Peterhof was also completely destroyed by the Germans at the end of World War II. But again, everything of value that could be removed was safely stored elsewhere.
In addition, our tour guide explained that when she was a child the gardens were free for anyone to enter and she came there frequently with her family. But now there is a steep charge, which many of the locals cannot afford to pay. It struck me as unfair that the extravagant palaces where built off of the labor of the common people, but now their descendents no longer have access to them.
On the way back to St. Petersburg we drove by Constantine's Palace. Built for Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, one of Catherine the Great's favorite grandsons, it was renovated in 2001 under the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and is now the presidential residence in St. Petersburg.

One Quick Note:
Some of the best tour guides we have ever had have been in St. Petersburg. We were incredibly impressed by the three tour guides we had during our visit. We discovered that all of the tour guides must be certified and attend a school in which they are trained in each of the area's attractions. I even got the business card from Elena, our favorite tour guide. When we go back to St. Petersburg for a longer visit (which we do intend to do!), we want to contact her to be our personal tour guide during our visit.
So, if you are planning a trip to St. Petersburg and want her contact information, let me know!

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