St Petersburg is a city which has survived several name changes, yet kept it’s identity and homage as the great people, good and bad who have lived there. The city is the vision of Peter the Great who, in 1710 took a former swamp and turned it into the Venice of the North, with 342 bridges, a multitude of islands, numerous canals and the magnificent Neva river. This is a low city of imposing buildings, dominating statues and no skyscrapers. The sun shone and the waters of the Neva sparkled in the sunshine to greet us on our arrival.
Flying with British Airways, the trip was arranged by Sarah Davis, the Russian specialist at Audley Travel, whose knowledge of the area and Visas was extremely helpful. Sarah arranged for Maria Luneva to be our guide to the city. Getting to Russia is not easy, the Visa requirements are tough and complicated, one mistake and you have to start again. Audley arranged for us to stay at the Kempinski Hotel, which is just a few minutes’ walk to the Hermitage museum, which was celebrating its 120th birthday with cakes and extra tickets to the Hermitage whilst we were there. The Kempinski Hotel is a very special hotel, housed in an historic building and named after its prestigious address, polished and stylish in the grace of Claridges in London. The central location is perfect with the restaurant on the 9th floor giving you a panoramic view of this lovely city. Watching the sun go down across the Hermitage museum with a glass of champagne was a highlight of the first day.
St Petersburg is a city for walking and the people of St Petersburg really want you to enjoy their city, they smile, point you in the right direction and every room in every museum has a minder who beams and visibly appreciates your enjoyment of their treasures. There is a ‘wow’ factor on every street or canal corner. The Church of Savior on the Spilled Blood, a five domed dazzler best viewed walked up from the Neva River, is the clear bling winner housing 7,700 square metres of mosaics.
Sarah’s insistence that we had a guide was the reason the Hermitage was so enjoyable. Marvellous Maria, with her perfect English and a degree in English History took charge to show us around the Hermitage. Just watching the crowds, as many as 10,000 a day, walk through the museum is an education on the tribes of the world. Clutching our tickets, Maria shepherded us through the museum bypassing the masses and using her influence to get us into the Gold Room (buy the tickets in advance) and persuaded three of the guards to sing for us in the concert hall. Glittering gold sparkling chandeliers and works of art collected by Catherine the Great, are everywhere in probably the largest museum in the world.
One of the main purposes of our trip was to visit the Mariinsky ballet and watch a performance in their own home. As the very helpful concierge at the Kempinski explained, there are three theatres at the Mariinsky and the ballet theatre is the oldest. It was extraordinary to see the dancers who visit London regularly, on their own stage in their own theatre. Maria explained that the ballet is so expensive it is a real treat for people to go and this was obvious from the Russians in the audience; this performance of Swan Lake was their special occasion. Don’t expect the soft comfy chairs of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; hard armchairs are the seats at the Mariinsky.
The other purpose of our visit was to see the collection of Impressionist and Modernist masterpieces collected by Sergei Shchukin, a Moscow textile magnate who’s life was full of heartbreak as he was forced to leave his collection in Russia in 1917 and then suffered the indignity of his precious collection held up as an example of crazy bourgeois taste. Part of the collection is now housed across the square from the Hermitage in the mellow yellow General Staff Building where they are creating a modern museum behind an old façade. The interiors boast of clean lines and use of stone, wood and plain walls, which are perfect for displaying the Degas, Monet, Manet and Gauguin that this remarkable man collected at the turn of the last century.
There are over 90 museums in St Petersburg but do try and squeeze in a visit to the Faberge Museum full of the trinkets and eggs created by Carl Faberge. A riot of colourful objects and possibly the best museum shop.
The final day was reserved for a visit to the Yusupov Palace,the house of Felix Yusupov who was part of the conspiracy to kill the monk Rasputin, a self-proclaimed mystic who started as a healer to the family of Tsar Nicholas II, but when his meddling in the Royal family and state affairs became too much he was assassinated. The Yusupov family were sent to the Crimea for this transgression, which proved to be a blessing in disguise otherwise they would have been killed during the October 1917 revolution. Their collection of jewellery and art was superb even by Russian standards. The fascinating photograph of Princess Zenaida Yusupov wearing the La Pelegrina pearl encouraged a search into the history of this great pearl. There are in fact two La Pelegrina pearls, the only difference is in one letter of the spelling. There is La Peregrina, given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton and sold at auction for over $11 million and La Pelegrina, smaller and with a different troubled history. This pearl found in the Gulf of Panama in mid-16th century weighs 133.16grains. In its time it was owned by Louis XVI of France, but was taken by the French Revolution rioters in 1792 and then sold later to the Yusupov family. During the 1917 revolution, the pearl was one of the few pieces of jewellery Felix Yusupov was able to take with him when the family fled Russia for France. Felix sold the pearl to a Geneva based jeweller in 1953. The pearl has seen two revolutions, the French and the Russian, now it is somewhere in private hands, but as they say, things come in threes so whoever has the pearl better be prepared for a revolution.
Russian history is full of drama, tragedy and disaster, but what shines through is the ability of the people to survive and thrive. St Petersburg is a destination for incredible, art and history but it is the people who make the city great.
- Sarah Davis – Russian Specialist at Audley Travel. 01993 838 227 [email protected]
- Maria Luneva – [email protected]
- Hermitage Museum – www.hermitagemuseum.org
- The Yusupov Palace – St Petersburg
- Faberge Museum – www.fabergemuseum.eu
- The Jewels of the Romanovs – StafanoPapi – Book by Thames & Hudson
Church of Saviour on the Spilled Blood image and Mariinsky Theatre image courtesy Saint-Petersburg.com; all other images copyright Luxury Topping.