This first morning dawned…sunny! We put ourselves together and hurried to the morning meal. Breakfast is the one meal I seldom look forward to at home because all of us take a different approach to the start of the day, so it’s either three preparations or someone is left unsatisfied. When we travel, though, I can have salmon and cucumbers; Tony can have fried eggs and bacon, and everyone is happy.
But I digress. Sergei Kirov’s apartment was our first destination, and getting there was best accomplished by bus. I asked the concierge about purchasing tickets and she replied, “Look for the person who is dressed differently.” Our bus arrived and we boarded. As I was looking for someone “dressed differently,” a relatively nondescript woman came up to us and spoke loudly—the ticket person! We paid our fare (€0,54 equivalent each) and were given two tiny pieces of paper that I was terrified of losing.
Finding Kirov’s apartment was a little confusing, for Google Maps on my iPhone and the museum address weren’t speaking the same language, so I went old-school and asked a group of gentlemen talking in the park for help. “Kirov!” “Kirov!” “Kirov!” each of them exclaimed, and then one of them escorted us down the street to a building, the museum sign about as small as our bus ticket affixed to the front.
The building had a lift (prominent partisans lived in luxury!), and we creaked and groaned to the fifth floor. Barely had the words, “Here is where we pay.” left my lips than we were paparazzi-ed by the docents. Three elderly women who took our coats, ushered us to the desk, and proudly offered us the English-language guide to the museum. Given the pristine condition of the booklet, we guessed that perhaps not too many English speakers pop in for a peek at the rooms of a Communist leader. Naturally we were followed, room by room, by one of the docents.
For lovers of Russian history, the apartment is well worth a visit for insight into how the wealthy people lived before the revolution; and how party leaders lived afterward. Kirov was an avid hunter; his bear rugs decorate the floors, and the animal heads adorn the walls. In between, portraits of Stalin and Lenin in every room (except the bedroom, thankfully).
A table in his office holds four telephones, including the “Red Phone” (the phone with the red star) direct line to Stalin; in the adjacent library (and the bedroom) are volumes (in red) of party meeting notes. Fascinating.
In the kitchen, one of the two actual General Electric refrigeratorsin all of Russia at the time! The former pantry had been converted into a mini-history exhibit, with photographs and documents (ration cards and the like) describing life for ordinary people under Communism.
About a half dozen other people were in the museum with us, to our surprise. As we were preparing to leave, however, a massive school group was arriving, and we chuckled as the docents tried to keep the teenagers in order.
From the museum we followed a route past Kazan Cathedral, modeled after, in part, St. Peter’s Basilica, with bronze doors copied from the Baptistry in Florence. Very European. The massive 96 column colonnades extending from each side of the cathedral, very Russian. After the Revolution the cathedral was “reopened” as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, and returned to the Orthodox Church in 1996.
A slight diversion to the pretty book store across the street yielded postcards worth framing; and a second diversion to a whimsical art nouveau style cafe to ogle the beautiful (and expensive, even in Rubles) tins of caviar. If we hadn’t been on a schedule, pausing for a tea would have been lovely. Next time.
The Shuvalov Palace, home now to the Faberge Museum, has its own delicious soap-opera history. Purchased by Tsar Alexander I’s mistress, herself a Polish noble, she and her husband blinged it out with marble and art and all of the other tchotchke that wealthy persons collect. It was the “glittering salon” of Saint Petersburg society, even hosting the future Tsar Alexander II’s 16thbash. During WWI the house was donated as a military hospital; and after the Revolution the palace was nationalized. (Rather amazingly, the art was hidden in secret rooms in the palace during the Revolution, and only discovered in 1919; much of the art was later donated to The Hermitage.) Someone needs to write a book about this for me to read.
By the by, a foundation of some name purchased the Faberge Egg collection of the late Malcolm Forbes for the pocket change of $100 million, along with about 4.000 other pieces of decorative arts, and needed a place to display the trinkets, including the very first, and very last Faberge Eggs!
The very first Faberge egg.
The very last Faberge egg produced.
The House of Faberge was certainly kept busy producing all sorts of beautiful objects for the Tsars and Tsarinas.
The palace itself is worth visiting if you like to look at grand rooms (I do); and many of the trinkets are worthy of a glance. But I came for the eggs, and my eggs-pectations were egg-ceeded. The collection of nine pretty, pretty eggs is only bested by that in the Kremlin (which we have also seen). I have also seen, several times (I am not eggs-agerating), the Faberge collection at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. so it is possible I am an eggoholic.
Now approaching mid-afternoon Tony suggested a light lunch, as we had early dinner reservations. We learned it was quite common to sit for dinner early in Saint Petersburg; on our first night at Gogol we secured the last open table. At 1830!
With clouds moving in we made our way instead toward the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood for photos. Lo and behold, the top spire of the church was under scaffolding for restoration! Perfect! Some travelers collect magnets; we take pride in always seeing something important covered in scaffolding wherever we travel.
It wouldn’t be until after lunch that we would return to tour the even more spectacular, 7.500m2 mosaic-filled interior. So many little sparkling tiles. Alongside the canal by the church is a market of sorts where I hemmed and hawed over a hand carved wooden Santa Claus that I now regret not purchasing, a bad travel habit of mine.
The Pushkin Inn was relatively nearby and we took a chance that at 1400 there would probably be no one sitting for dinner. Haha. We actually secured the last open table, again! Our “Russian cuisine, made with love” began with a lightly dill-perfumed chicken soup (oh, my) followed by Pelmeni. The Pelmeni presentation made us salivate (rhetorically, not literally): a wooden board upon which was placed the bowl of dumplings, a cup of real sour cream; and a small pitcher of hot broth to pour over this sumptuous creation. Russian cuisine, made with love. Indeed.
At this point in the afternoon (after we had returned to the church) we had a choice to make: should we visit the Russian Museum, or should we visit the Museum of Soviet Era Arcade Games, both of which were nearby? We went with the former, but wished we had gone with the latter. Six thousand icons are a bit much to take late in the afternoon (or, really, at any time of day); and the “Russian Expressionism” temporary exhibit that had initially drawn my attention was disappointing.
What would a palace museum tour be without a grand staircase.
A subway connection took us back to the hotel for a little put-the-feet-up time before dinner (12,4km we walked, and that was with using public transit efficiently). That lasted all of 30 minutes, and we donned our shoes again and walked over to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the world. Bronze doors, malachite and lazurite columns and plenty of sparkly inside. A mass was underway in a side chapel with the “NO PHOTOGRAPHS DURING MASS” sign as clear as day, yet that did not stop several ninnies from clicking away.
Our dinner reservation was for All Seasons, a self-described Russian “Gastronomic Pub.” I share a snap of our starter. This was definitely not my Babushka’s Beet Salad: sweet, roasted, and warm sliced beets topped with cold and creamy Stracciatella cheese and dusted with beet powder. It was here that we opted for the New Zealand white because the Georgian was not available; though, the server did try to get us to order the Russian White. Nyet.
For the main I selected the “Tail with Millet and Borodinsky Bread”which translates to, Oxtail with Millet and Russian Sourdough Crumbs. Perfectly portioned comfort food for a cold evening. Tony ordered “Machete with Potatoes on Charcoal”and was in his happy place with steak and grilled potatoes. Our shared dessert was not the “Cheeseake with Chokeberry and Scurvy,” but instead a contemporary and quite delicious take on apple pie that included lemon sorbet and a graham cracker crust.
Back at the hotel, we opened the window that housekeeping had closed, and plotted the next day. Once again the concierge had assured us, “No Snow.”
Good Night, Saint Petersburg.