We were delighted to see the "English Spoken Here" sign outside one of the Metro windows at Mayakovsky station which was a 5 minute walk from the Vokzal on the main thoroughfare of the city, Nevsky Prospect. The inevitable ritual of deciding whether we will go with single tickets or a multi pack took a few minutes and soon we were on the two-and-a-quarter minute escalator ride deep into the bowels of the city that Peter the Great built, recalling our past memories of the much more modern Almaty Metro.
A stop was all we needed to get us to Gostiny Dvor station whose exit lay directly opposite the imposing Kazan Cathedral and adjacent to the Dom Knigi bookstore, both locations to be explored later during our stay. Our stay was at the Art Rachminanov Boutique hotel which is located on the unsurprisingly named Ulitsa Kazanskaya. Rachmaninov was supposed to have stayed at the place before the apartments were converted to a hotel. Its entrance is merely a door among many on the continuous wall of businesses. Predictably they did not have room ready, so we left our bags and quickly retraced our steps back to the Metro.
There are several ways to get to Tsarskoye Selo - we opted to take a marshrutka (minibus) from outside the Moskovskiye Metro station. Per our favored guidebook, we were supposed to locate the large Lenin statue on the square near this station and stand behind his back (perhaps because he would have disapproved of our intended destination for the afternoon?) where the said marshrutka that would cover the 45 minute journey to the Tsar's village would depart. Sounded nice and easy, except for a crucial mistake we made. First, we failed to differentiate between the Mayakosvkaya and Moskovskiye Metro stations. Having already started our morning at the first named, our minds automatically tuned itself to this station(!). It is also possible that we were further misled by Moskovsky Vokzal and its eponymous Metro cousin.
A few minutes later, we were looking for a large Lenin statue on a non-existent square off Nevsky Prospect outside Mayakovskaya station. Had Russia too started dismantling its Lenin statues like the other former Soviet republics had done? After a few minutes of confusion, we turned to Google Maps which advised us on plan B.
At the Vitebsky Station (handsome is a better choice of word than pretty) we got our tickets for Tsarskoye Selo. After encountering shiny modern railway and metro coaches in Russia thus far, we finally got to see something a little bit historic on this suburban local train. We loved the novelty of the bench style seating laid out in rows on the short 40 minute ride. We managed to get on the Marshrutka for the quick ride to the village and made it there by noon when it is opened to the public. Chapters have been written on the crowds that can be seen there in the summer and how to avoid standing in queue by buying tickets online. We did not see any of the promised hordes, possibly due to the late season and the rain. Still we had our online tickets and were escorted through a separate pathway directly to the grounds at the back of Catherine Palace.
We had a little over 4 hours to visit the palace and the adjacent Catherine Park (the Alexander Palace was closed for renovation, we would not have been able to cover that today anyway) before heading back to the city for our evening ballet performance. Crowd control was in effect with people being let in batches through the grand staircase and then onto the various halls and rooms. Photography was permitted except in the Amber room where staff kept a strict watch on visitors.
The Catherine Palace was designed by the architect Rastrelli in 1752 for Tsarina Elisabeth (daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I). She named it Catherine Palace in honor of her mother. The next ruler to leave a mark on the palace was Catherine the Great who got the Scottish Charles Cameron to redesign the Baroque interiors according to her more Neo Classical taste (a very good move says V who tired of all the gilded ornamentation of the Baroque interiors).
The Great Hall is massive and impressive with its floor design and single large ceiling painting (The Triumph of Russia).
We passed through the private apartments of Tsar Alexander I (grandson of Catherine the Great and her preferred choice of successor over her son) who succeeded his father Paul I after agreeing to a palace coup to assassinate him. . He annexed Poland and Finland and turned back Napoleon's forces in 1812.
The park features several structures of interest - the Cameron Gallery, the Lower and Upper Baths, the Great Pond, the Hermitage, the 25m high Chesma Column, Turkish Bath, Marble Bridge and many such. One could spend hours, days even and that is what the monarchs did.
After circling the pond, we found some of the pavilions closed because of "too much humidity" to protect the interior contents. And with that we quickly found the exit and a short walk to a nearby bus stop yielded us a marshrutka to a Saint Petersburg Metro Station - Moskovskaya! But we never got to see that Lenin Statue as we decided to get off at the curiously named Kupchino Metro Station that came first.
We had enough time to check-in at Rachmaninov - the "hotel" had artwork on the walls, several of which matched the appearance of the composer. Every room had a distinctive artwork on the door with the name of the artist and biography displayed next. After quickly refreshing ourselves, we came down to find a marshrutka with the word "Teatralny" written among many other words that seemed to refer to places and after quickly verifying that this is indeed where we wanted to go, boarded. We found a Subway adjacent to the Mariinsky II (the modern theatre) and indulged in our favorite travel meal, the Subway Veggie that was luckily available in its Russian incarnation. Thus fortified, we got into the historic Mariinsky Theatre for the 7pm performance of Swan Lake. V is not shy of admitting to getting some unconscious repose after the initial excitement wore off.
Heavy rains greeted us at the end of the performance with a bit of a traffic snarl caused by the long line for taxis. Us being hardy world travelers(!) we walked in the rain looking for a bus stop and made a short list of buses that headed towards Kazan Cathedral (adjacent to our hotel). The city was completely deserted with only the occasional person walking by. After a long wait, our bus arrived much to our relief. And we even managed to get a late night supper snack at a counter style basement eatery whose cashier was Uzbek, allowing us to exchange a few pleasantries before heading back to our art hotel.
And so, finally after 4 consecutive nights on trains and days walking in strange cities, we eventually got ourselves a stationary place of rest to assume the horizontal position necessary to obtain a full night's rest before beginning our attack on Saint Petersburg the next day.