Today is not as cold as it has been but it is still cold enough to warrant warm clothing.
After ‘another’ Scenic breakfast, we board the coaches and head for what we could call ‘Palace Day’. Fortunately, the trip to Catherine’s Palace is about an hour away and I manage some sleep-eye. We arrive, before opening time, in misty fog and take a walk around the beautiful gardens. There is only one thing wrong with the gardens; there are no flowers in it as preparations have been completed for winter and they are just waiting for the snow. Autumn leaves are covering the ground and workers are raking them up, perhaps to be used as compost. This is where Catherine the Great used to spend her ‘free’ time. It is mainly a summer palace but she chose to visit in the winter as well.
During the war, the Germans destroyed much of the original building. We have to put ‘booties’ over our shoes so as not to damage the fancy floors. All palaces have grand staircases – this one is exceptional. As we enter the Great Hall, the timber carvings everywhere have been covered in gold leaf. With the numerous mirrors on the walls it looks immense and for the wealthy. Rooms go on and on. There does not seem to be a hallway as there are enormous doors at both sides of the room.
The celebrated Amber Room, its walls lined with panels of amber (6 tonnes), gold leaf and mirrors, was dismantled during the Nazi occupation and taken to Germany where it vanished in the chaos at the end of the war. After more than 20 years of painstaking restoration work, thanks to the financial contribution of the German government and using black and white photos of the original, it has been completely re-created and was reopened for the tricentenary of St Petersburg in 2003.
Our lunch is at the Podvorie Restaurant. The local food is rather ‘hot’, salty and spicy, and I don’t eat too much, although they do cook up a salt-free ‘hash brown’ for me. The live music is performed by a group of 5 in custom folk dress.
Our second palace visit for the day is to the famous Peterhof Palace. This is 32 km west of St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland and is the brainchild of Peter the Great. Peterhof was severely damaged during World War II when it was occupied by the Germans, and was completely gutted in 1944 when they blew it up as they retreated. The German invasion happened very quickly and so the sculptures were buried to protect them rather than store them in another location. Pre-war photos and drawings were of invaluable help during restoration, which took several decades but has finally been completed. The magnificent chandeliers and paintings are originals, where were carried away into safekeeping during the hostilities. The 150 fountains in the 1000-hectare park have been drained for the winter and so we will have to revisit the Palace at another time to enjoy their splendor. Peterhof was just a summer palace and so there is no restored heating here, and it is being prepared for the winter with all the sculptors around the fountains being covered in timber devices to protect them during the severe weather.
On our return to the ship, we get our ‘marching orders’ for tomorrow as we depart this interesting country. To travel on a ship for 11 nights with a load of travel agents has been interesting. I often wondered if I would buy travel from some of the agents, (“are they ‘really’ travel agents?”). We leave the ship at 9:00am and after 4 hours of free time in the city; we will be taken to the airport for our departure back home.
I hope you have enjoyed our quick trip to Russia and you have been somewhat ‘educated’, as we have been. Next trip? – Africa in 2013. We already have 17 confirmed travellers so just 3 more for the inclusion to Kenya and up to another 10 to do Africa and Victoria Falls. Give Lyn a call.