Tsarskoye Selo, St. Petersburg

Sunday, September 30, 2018
Tsarskoye Selo, Russian Federation
The Trans Siberian Railway chapter of our trip ended at the Moscovsky Station in Saint Petersburg as the train pulled in at 9 am on a cloud covered Sunday morning with the threat of rain on the last day of September. We hurried our celebrations with the obligatory photos on the platform as we had a full day of preplanned (prepaid too!) activities for the rest of the day and evening. Due to the weekly schedule of closures, we had to squeeze in a visit to the Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar's village) with its palaces and gardens on that very day as well as a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake that evening at the historic Mariinsky Theater. There will be no time for a slow immersion into St. Petersburg and its storied architectural delights. Those will have to wait till tomorrow.
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. Touring the various themed Metro stations of Saint Petersburg and Moscow was on our minds and here was our very first. It had an odd appearance like a wider-than-normal prison corridor with red walls and niches through which one presumably entered and exited the train. This was the first station we had ever seen where one could not see the train at all. Even the monorail coaches in airport terminals have glass walls, but these were completely opaque and red as its former empire was. 
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. Get on a bus to Vitebsky Vokzal (supposedly the prettiest station in Saint Petersburg) and catch a local suburban train to the Tsar's village. Unlike the Marshrutka option, this would require us to catch another Marshrutka at the train's destination to get close to the village.
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). Further on are the various rooms and Baroque apartments. First comes the Cavalier's Dining Room with its impressive dining set and porcelain stove behind. Then follow the White Dining Room, the Crimson and Green Pillar Rooms and the Portrait Hall with its 114 portraits arranged like a mosaic on the walls. The original amber panels (1709) in the Amber Room were a gift from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to Peter the Great. These were spirited away by the Nazis in 1944 and were never seen again. They were painstakingly re-created from old black-and-white photographs by the Soviet authorities in 1979 and finally unveiled in 2003 by Putin. Amber's brittle nature makes it a very difficult material to work with.
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. Portraits of Tsars and Tsarinas hang in these rooms. We soon left the Elizabethan Baroque world and entered Neo-classicism with the Green Dining Room. In place of the stucco curlicues, gold leaf and stylized shells are subdued pastels, understated reliefs and clean, white columns (they look so much better, gushes V!). Catherine the Great imported Charles Cameron who had extensively studied the ancient ruins in Pompeii. He also brought in the fireplace in place of the stoves. The Neo-Classicism eventually gave way to the Russian Empire style under later rulers. A few more rooms (Blue State Drawing Room, Chinese State Drawing Room) later, we exited downstairs for a healthy snack at the museum cafe before heading out to Catherine Park outside.
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. From one of the pavilions on the island on the pond, musicians would serenade Catherine and her courtiers as they floated by in gilded gondolas. The Cameron Gallery has a rusticated stone ground floor, surmounted by a Neo-Classical peristyle of 44 Ionic columns. Ranged along the colonnade are bronze busts of philosophers, poets and rulers. A mosque-like building with a distinctive rocket-like minaret is said to be the Turkish Bath (no surprise!) - a reminder of Catherine the Great's dream of bringing Constantinople into the Russian empire. Another reminder of this priority is the Chesme Column, rising from the middle of the pond, celebrating a Russian military victory over the Ottomans. 
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 could see traffic up ahead and thought it better to get on the Metro rather than sit on the bus.
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.
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2019-01-18