Friday, May 30, 2008

St. Petersburg: Last Day

Late night departure for Moscow on the schedule, so we finished our packing early and enjoyed a last Astoria breakfast before our bus was loaded up with bags and we set out for the embankment, where we embarked on the hydrofoil that was to take us out across the Gulf of Finland to the Peterhof, the summer palace beloved by Peter the Great. A half hour’s smooth and speedy run over choppy seas.

Arriving at our destination, we disembarked and took a long walk up the tree-lined alley toward the distant palace.

Very lovely light, enhanced by the incredible variety of green hues of the trees and lawns.

Peter, it seemed, was an avid gardener, and the vast gardens are laid out with graceful symmetry in all directions. Rather than repeat the visit to another magnificent palace, our guides had chosen wisely to lead us instead through the bathhouse,

whose rooms were still elegant but far more intimate in scale. The baths and showers were ingeniously designed, as were such conveniences as a ceramic device for ladies to take a private pee under their skirts in public places…

An untoward event in the great, intricate bath and shower complex designed, if I remember right, for the tsar himself. The attendant in the room turned on the switch to demonstrate the action of the generously proportioned central tub, with generous streams of water from above and from the sides. Whilst other members of our party moved to the right around the tub, I chose the other direction, to the left, to a place where I was apparently concealed from the woman operating the system. Before I knew what was happening, the floor and walls opened up in further, furious jets of water, drenching me from head to toe.

Great entertainment for the rest, but a somewhat less than pleasant shock for the recipient of this unexpected shower. I did recover in short order, though, and the embarrassed attendant was profuse in her apologies. Fortunately, I had chosen a t-shirt and very light cotton pants for the day, and I fairly soon dried out in the open air. Jeans would have been a disaster. I was promptly renamed Peter the Wet.

A leisurely walk through the gardens to the giant “dragon” waterfall,

whose painted dragon, at the top, spewed forth the water that spilled down the checkerboard sections of the slope; and past spectacular fountains—designed, our Ada told us, to rival those of Versailles and operated by simple gravitational pressure as the water flowed down from the hills some forty kilometers distant.

The by now familiar gilded statues everywhere, glinting magnificently in the sun and reminding us how fortunate we have been with our St. Petersburg weather.

Our driver had brought the bus out from the city to meet us, and we drove back in through impossibly crowded streets and interminable traffic jams. Lunch awaiting us at a restaurant named Sadko—a fine, overly generous meal that started with a ratatouille layered “cake” with beetroot slices and topped off with melted goat’s cheese; in Ellie’s expert opinion, one of the best dishes we have had; then chicken kiev with a creamy mustard sauce and napoleon pastries for dessert. All served with more than the usual smiles from pleasant wait-folk.

Another frequently obstructed drive on to the Russian Museum,

where the curator, Alexey Kurbanosky was on hand with the generous gift of his time to give us the guided tour to the collections—much of the modern part of which, he told us, was out on loan to an exhibition in Moscow. He gave us, instead, a useful and interesting introduction to Russian art history, starting with the icons of the Middle Ages and leading up through the early contact with Western Europe in the times of Peter the Great,

(here he is...)

through Neo-Classicism and Romanticism to the late blooming of Impressionism and modern concepts. No contemporary art at all, but the curator’s obviously passionate explication of the paintings was an object lesson not only in art history, but in how to look at art and understand the psychological and symbolic function of its detail.

It was a short walk from the Russian Museum to the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, also known as the Church of the Spilled Blood because it was built precisely on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a group of revolutionaries who called themselves “The Will of the People.” We stopped to gape briefly at the spot, and admired the interior of the church, which is decorated almost entirely with large-scale, intricate and brightly colored mosaics—and of course much gilt.

The expense and devotion which the royal families and their pre-revolutionary subjects lavished on their religious sites defies belief.

The bus took us to our final art stop for the day, the opening for the artist Peter Belyi at Marina Gisich Gallery. Not knowing what to expect, I was much impressed by the work, an installation entitled “La Bibilioteca di Pinocchio”—Pinocchio’s Library. It comprised a row of “library” shelves patched together out of roughly assembled construction lumber, recycled from demolition sites, each with a line of “books”—sawed off chunks of the same lumber of varied book height, whose split edges and layers did, remarkably, resemble books. It was as though the paper used to create those things we read and which contain the sum of much of human knowledge had reverted to its original state. I saw the piece as being about silence and denial, knowledge frozen into the lies that officialdom can feed us, the willful state of ignorance in which we all too often bask. As rich as it was conceptually, the installation had a powerful emotional punch, even in the context of a crowded gallery opening.

On, then, to dinner at a restaurant neighboring the Mariinsky Theater, its walls inscribed with messages from grateful ballerinas, opera singers, designers and musicians. There was even one, dated 2003 and signed by a certain Laura Bush. From there, we boarded our St. Petersburg bus for one last time and said our genuinely fond farewells to our guide, Ada, on the way to the station to catch a late train to Moscow. We piled our luggage into small berths and pulled out of the station at 11:30Pm, in time to settle down for as much sleep as we could manage.

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