A Fortress, An Island and a Museum

Tuesday, October 02, 2018
Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
There was much to look forward to Tuesday with the Hermitage being opened after Monday’s closure. The two day pass is only available online and we had got that with the idea of splitting our visit into 2 days – an afternoon and a morning – to get a break from too much art (!). Yet another walking marathon day loomed large with our plan for the day -  visit the Peter and Paul Fortress (site of the founding of the city and burial place of the Romanovs), walk through Vasilevsky Island to experience a different part of the city before returning to the Historic district and spend the afternoon at the Hermitage till its closure time. Finally combine dinner with a ride through several Metro stations which all have their own distinctive themes.
Peter and Paul Fortress
We opted to get to Zayachy Island (which is part of the largely residential Petrogradsky district) via the Metro. It was only a single stop from Gastiny Dvor/Nevsky Prospekt to Gorkovskaya Metro station. By now we were feeling like locals as our legs autopiloted their way to the entrance to the Metro across from Kazan Cathedral. We were stopped in our tracks by the closure of the entrance doors. The crowds were still emerging from the exit doors. An elderly security guard (going by his uniformed appearance) approached us and escorted us out to Nevsky and then gestured at the underground passageway a couple of blocks away – the same one we had used the day prior to get to Gostiny Dvor. That would have been Plan B, but it was nice to have someone offer help unsolicited.
Zayachy island was the site of the founding of the Peter and Paul Fortress on 27 May 1703, on the orders of Peter the Great. This is considered to mark the founding of the city. It was first built on wood and then replaced in stone by Domenico Trezzini. Its history is a gruesome one, since hundreds of forced laborers died while building the fortress and its bastions were later used to guard and torture many political prisoners, including Peter’s own son, Aleksey. The cells where prisoners were once kept are open to the public, alongside a couple of museums and the cathedral which houses the tombs of the Romanovs who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. The tall tower and spire forms yet another mark on the city’s skyline that can be seen from other parts of the city.
The centerpiece of the fortress and – for a long time – the tallest building in the city is the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral with its 122.5m tall bell tower. Peter the Great’s grave is at the front on the right of the iconostasis. His bust sits on top along with medallions that were gifted to him by admirers. The last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II’s family (except for Alexey and Maria) were interred in the Chapel of St. Catherine to the right of the entrance. We already said enough about them during our visit to Ekaterinberg. A long corridor inside the cathedral is devoted to panels displaying information about the Romanovs. One particular chart displaying all the Tsars and Tsarinas in a family chart would be useful to carry around as a ready reckoner.
The Trubetskoy Bastion is another place of interest within the fortress. Its former inmates include the likes of Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky, Mikhail Bakunin and Fyodor Dostoevsky. After the 1917 revolution, the communists continued to use the prison for former aristocrats and counterrevolutionaries until 1924, when it was converted into a museum.
Vasilevsky Island
It was Peter the Great’s intention that Vasilevsky Island (largest on the Neva delta) be the administrative heart of his new capital. However, lack of access (the first permanent bridge was not built until 1842) and the hazards of floods and stormy crossings led to the abandonment of Peter’s project and the center grew up across the river around the Admiralty (today’s Historic Heart which we covered, yesterday!). Some of the best views of the city are from the eastern point of the island, known as the Strekla (“spit”or “tongue of land” or “little arrow”). You get to see the wide expanse of the Neva with the fortress on one side and the Winter Palace and the golden dome of St. Isaac’s in a single view. The two Rostral columns – originally lighthouses guiding ships through the busy port – are a distinctive feature with their striking orange color.
We crossed into the island from Zayachy via the Birzhevoy most (bridge) and soon headed to the Vasileostrovskaya metro station enjoying the feeling of being in a real working city – no other tourists to be seen here (and we tried our best to not behave like ones). A very interesting looking McDonald’s catches the eye from across the station. Also catching our eye was a bank branch a couple of blocks away. We did a big outraged dance with the 5000 ruble note and were escorted to the cashier’s office. He smiled pleasantly and broke it down into tiny little pieces of legal tender, the twinkle in his eyes suggesting that this was not the first time he had had this pleasure. This is obviously some big joke perpetrated by lonely cashiers eager to make small talk with irate ATM users.
The heart of the island is a pair of streets separated by a leafy corridor, the Ulitsa 7-ya/Ulitsa 6-ya Liniya. The upscale residential zone stretches from the Vasileostrovskaya station to the riverfront where it meets University Embankment. A statue of a horse-driven tram is at the northern end, directly across from the Macdonald’s. This street was originally planned to be a canal which was later filled in and trams like these shuttled from river to river. This stretch is filled with items of interest – fountains, cafes, stores, markets. After the disappointment of the Troitsky Most experience from the previous day, we were eager for a different culinary experience and this was provided by Veggie Café Ukrop – another chain of veggie cafes! How lucky can you get? And right here on 7-ya was one. This one did not disappoint and the service was friendly, run by young people. We located another branch in the chain close to our hotel and that decided the dinner option for the night.
Fortified thus, we ventured briefly into St. Andrew’s Cathedral (dating back to the 1760s). Despite it being an old church, it lays no claims of tourist interest and is just a neighbourhood church. Still pleasant to visit and spend a few quiet moments. The exterior is Baroque, but the interior is filled with Orthodox icons. The neighbourhood’s Farmer’s Market was mostly Central Asian in character.
Just before the street meets the river, a  yellow building with sculpted heads over the windows catches the eye – this is the House of Academicians. This was where the big brains lived in the 18th century and in Soviet times, it functioned as a residential think tank. Each of the black plaques between the windows honors a great Russian scientist. A special blue plaque identifies the former apartment of Ivan Pavlov, the first Russian Nobel prize winner.
With the river to our right, we crossed the wide highway and enjoyed the sights of the fine buildings across the river and the curious monuments on the riverfront – Egyptian sphinxes, stone books. Next up, the Hermitage! It is close to 3 pm. That should give us at least 3 hours this afternoon in one of the world’s great art collections. And a few hours tomorrow morning.
The Hermitage
One of the guidebooks actually said – if you are put off by crowds, consider skipping the visit altogether! Fair enough. We are not averse to other people and lay no claim to exclusivity. Time to see for ourselves how unbearable it really is. Some people come to St. Petersburg just to visit the Hermitage.
Turned out to be quite bearable. Individual visitors and group visitors have separate entrances (but once inside it is free for all). Our entrance was from the massive Palace Square. Just as with the other great museums of the world (Louvre etc.) there is a lot of advice on planning one’s visit. You cannot just go in and see where your eyes and legs take you. Pick your favorite guidebook and mark your route.
Some basic facts: The Hermitage is a complex of many buildings cleverly connected by vestibules and walkways to appear like a single museum. The most important building is the Winter Palace that is situated on the Palace Square. Designed by Rastrelli for Elisabeth I, daughter of Peter the Great. This palace remained the Imperial official residence until the February 1917 Revolution (when the need for an Imperial residence ceased). The complex covers 8 hectares and its perimeter measures 2km. There are 1057 rooms (not one identical to another), 1945 windows, 1886 doors and 117 staircases. The Hermitage Museum contains over 16,000 paintings, 600,000 drawings and prints, 12,000 sculptures, 250,000 works of applied art, 700,000 archeological exhibits and 1 million coins and medals. A lot!
How did all this art get here? Peter the Great began the city’s first art collection after visiting Europe. Catherine the Great is the one who created the Hermitage in the Winter Palace to display art she had purchased in Berlin.  She sent ambassadors to Europe in search of art. She sometimes purchased entire collections. Subsequent tsars carried on. Until 1852, the Hermitage was only open to members of the royal family and aristocratic friends. Over time rules were relaxed. It was only after the 1917 Revolution, that it was opened full-time to the public. Catherine the Great had a list of rules posted for visitors (here is a short list: leave pretentions of birth, pride as well as hat, sword at the door – argue without anger and without warmth – banish sighs and yawns etc.).
A quick list of what we visited this afternoon: Beginning with the Ambassador’s Stairs (Elizabethan Baroque), Malachite Room (drawing room decorated with malachite, a green copper-based mineral found in the Ural mountains), Memorial Hall of Peter the Great (his portrait with Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom and a copy of his throne, paintings of his victories over Sweden), 1812 War Gallery, Throne Room, Pavilion Room (where the famous Peacock Clock and the infamous crowds are). Then onto the galleries – Leonarda da Vinci (his two Madonnas), Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt (whose Return of the Prodigal Son is one of the Hermitage’s prized possessions). A replica of one of Raphael’s crowning achievents, the Vatican’s Loggia – a 200 foot long, 13 foot wide hallway decorated with colorful paintings. Photos cannot capture the magnificence of this corridor, hopefully the video will give you a better feel.
We were not sure of closing time, is it 6 or 6:30? There was no hush activity that is typical of museums around the world where the staff start getting ready to shut down and start shepherding visitors with announcements coming from speakers. Everything was quiet and no one seemed in a rush. Neither were we. After all we would return in the morning and visit other galleries - Modern Masters, art from other parts of the world etc. We passed through exquisite Italian sculptures and then through Rembrandt’s Gallery when we heard that the closing time was 6 and it was already 10 minutes over. Then the more forceful staff started the shooing and shepherding repeating the phrase “Museum Closed” endlessly.
More Vegetarian Disappointment
After the letdown at Troitsky Most last night and encouraged by our lunchtime experience earlier in the day, we did a repeat of the double veggie-café chain deal from yesterday, albeit with a different chain. Same result. Ukrop fared no better in terms of service and after yet another disappointing meal, we departed. We will attempt to solve the vegetarian conundrum some other day. But now, time to explore the city’s underground.
The Metros
St. Petersburg’s Metros did not escape the need to impress visitors. Unlike the impressions above the ground which were the result of the efforts of Peter the Great and his Romanov successors, the Metro stations are Soviet creations. We already mentioned the impact of the appearance of Mayakovskaya station’s platform on our arrival on Sunday. Now that this day’s visits to the various sights (and meals) were done, we embarked on single metro ride with several stops on the way. We rode on the Red line (changed at Mayakovskaya again!) south to Avtovo station and then worked our way backwards through Kirovsky Zavod, Narvskaya and Pushkinskaya stations. Avtovo station with its marble-and-cut-glass-clad columns that hold up the roof on the platform, Kirovsky Zavod whose decorations of Soviet industry and oil wells and a severe looking Lenin bust at one end of the platform, Narvskaya with its celebration of the great proletariat professionals – miners, engineers, sailors, artists and teachers, Pushkinskaya with a statue of Russia’s beloved poet – it was an enjoyable hour on the Metro experienced late in the evening with no crowds at all, sometimes eerily empty. If these were declared as museums, the busloads will come (but only outside of peak hours, please, say the locals)!
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