So. To answer that last question, (the one about what would happen when the Red Arrow departed) – nothing happened. Nuffin at all! Except that at 11.54pm the Red Arrow car attendants pulled themselves up to their collective full height, clicked their heels and stepped collectively onto the train. A minute later, without a hiss or a roar, or even a blast from the horn, the Red Arrow was rolling smoothly out of the station. By the time the car attendant arrived to take our breakfast order Maggie was asleep under her doona. The night passed uneventfully and when we arrived in St Petersburg, on time to the minute, The Hymn to the Great City was blasting triumphantly from the station’s loudspeakers. Hooray!
Our ongoing education of the Romanov dynasty continues as we knock off a couple of the big-ticket items. Our first stop is at Peterhof, (above), a complex of ceremonial palaces and ornate gardens built in the early 1700s by Peter the Great and expanded in the middle of that century by Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. Occupied by the German troops during what the Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War (WW2 for the rest of us), it was left in ruins, and like much of St Petersburg has been restored to within an inch of its life. Although the palaces were only used for ceremonial occasions, and Peter (the Great) lived in a rather simple shack at the water’s edge, the rooms are sensational and the décor features more gold than you’d see at the Mardi Gras parade. The gardens are also a folly, with hidden fountains and water-based tricks that Peter (tg) used to spring on his unsuspecting guests.
Next stop is the Hermitage, one of the largest and oldest museums anywhere, which also incorporates the Winter Place, home of the Tsars and the whole complex sprawls along the Palace Embankment on the edge of the Neva. The buildings served as an extravagant showcase for Russian relics and art and back in the day, was the venue for elegant masquerades, grand receptions and affairs of state.
Incidentally, there were two rooms that stood out. One was the dining room where the Bolsheviks unseated the elected officials, and so begun the period of Communism. And the second was the room where Alexander III, mortally wounded in an assassination attempt just down the street, bled out and died. But more about that in a moment.
St Pete’s is much more touristy than Moscow. Maybe it’s the cruise ships that stop here on a round-trip from Helsinki, but the roads are clogged with buses and the things we want to see are often obscured behind a big group of Chinese tourists.
On our way home, we step into St Isaac’s Cathedral which dominates the downtown area. Said to be the holiest in all of Russia the interior is again breath-taking, with the central dome rising 101.5 metres with another ton of gold-leaf. Unfortunately, the pix don’t really do it justice.
In a great little restaurant in 9-Ya Liniya we meet and adopt another god-daughter. Bronte is just 19, studying law in Sydney and she’s spending a short semester in St Petersburg studying the Russian language. She already speaks German and French, so Russian should be a snap. But even Bronte is struggling with being the only white gal in her class and with a teacher who speaks no English. We spend a delightful evening together, culminating in a visit to Bronte’s favourite pierogi shop where we sample the local delights. We just know where this wonderful combination of sugar, cream and pastry is going to end up as sadly we lack the metabolism of the average 19-year-old.
On our way back to the hotel, we walk along the river where the local denizens swirl and sway, dancing the salsa under the Rostra Column on the bank of the river. It’s just after 10pm and the sun is slowly setting in the west.
Back at the hotel with the blackout curtains closed it’s hard to believe it’s after 11pm. This must be the famed “White Nights” of St Petersburg. I’m starting to feel like Al Pacino’s character in Insomnia. If Al Pacino found himself in the Solos Palace Bridge hotel after midnight, unable to sleep and with his missus slumbering beside him under her doona, and had he snuck out the front door of the hotel down to the Neva river, this is the photo he would have taken. Night, what night?
On our last day, and off the leash, we walk to the Cathedral of St Peter & St Paul which is the oldest in St Pete’s, and houses the tombs of the Romanovs from Peter (tg) to Nicholas II and his family who didn’t finally make it here until 1998.
Finally, we complete the cathedrals of St Pete’s with a stop at The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built on the very spot where Emperor Alexander III was assassinated in 1881. Although most of the places we’ve been visiting have architecture which is predominantly Baroque and Neo-Classical, the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood takes its cues from Medieval Russian architecture in the spirit of romantic nationalism. It’s another OMG moment as the church contains over 7500 square meters of mosaics, according to the guide, more than any other church in the world.
Our last night in Russia and we’re on the Metro off to the ballet again. (Yes, it is deeper than Moscow – much!) This time we’re going to see Giselle in the Mikhaylovsky Theatre. This is a beautifully decorated old-fashioned theatre with seating on five different levels in the classical European style. But apart from the stalls, the seating in the circles – we’re on the third level, is only two or three deep. We realise how wonderful our seats are for the Sydney ballet as we spend much of the performance trying to get a clear view of the stage past the heads in front. The ballet was enjoyable, competent, but no better that the Oz Ballet. One important difference was there was no racial divergence in the corps de ballet, all were lily white Russians, and at the end, after an initial burst of applause, Russian audiences settle down to clapping in unison, and about two claps per second. Bizarre? But one thing I did notice, is that the orchestras are much more muscular than in Australia, and maybe that’s a fact that the pit is not hidden under the stage, but sits in front of the stalls, which is probably where it always was until someone realised they could fit in six more rows of seats if they poked the musos out of sight.
An early start this morning for our transfer back to Moscow. Our driver picks us up at 3.30am but then we stood and waited at the side of the canal until the bridges were lowered at 4.00am after allowing the commercial shipping to pass. It goes without saying it was perfectly light.
Our Sapsan (bullet-train) rattles off to Moscow at a top speed of 250 km/hr. A quick waltz with the Moscow subway, dragging our bags as we change from the Leningradsky terminal to the Belarussky. And now we’re on the Moscow to Berlin Express, sailing through the birch forests of western Russia. We’ve just stopped at Smolensk, crossed the border into Belarus, and made the mistake of stepping onto the platform at Orsha where we are besieged by babushkas selling strawberries and apples. The land is flat and looks like it’s been recently harvested. But it’s as flat as tack. Perfect land for rapid transit of panzer divisions and cavalry you might think. Now it’s on to Minsk for passport control, and dinner. Warsaw follows during the night and by breakfast time we should be pulling into Berlin.
Unlike the Red Arrow, this train is a modern, sanitised Strizh (high-speed express). Compared to the Red Arrow our compartment is a little like a cell, with no red curtains and woven carpets, just lino and a tatty blind. But the bunks look comfortable, (Maggie has already sampled hers for a quick, pre-lunch nap), the food in the dining car is fresh, and the bar is open. I think the only risk we have in this 19-hour trip is over-eating.
Goodbye Russia. You’ve amazed us with the quality of your architecture and your wonderful buildings. Your people are friendly and enormously resourceful. We’re staggered by the amount of rebuilding in St Pete’s after WWII and the authenticity with which it’s been carried out. If we come back again, it’ll be to ride the Trans-Siberian Express. But that’ll be another chapter. We’ve walked more than 95kms (according to the app) in the last seven days and we need a day of rest.
So, it’s probably time to pour a cold one and I’ll see you all back here in about a week.