I went to Russia! Episode 1: Visiting St-Petersburg… in the 19th century.

Even though I only spent 3 days in St-Petersburg, I have way too many pictures to throw all in one post. So here is part one of my short stop in Russia. I won’t say anything about the country for now, just share some pictures of two of the most impressive sights of the former Imperial capital: Peterhof Palace and the Winter Palace, the later now part of The Hermitage Museum.

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We went to the Hermitage on the first day. Michelle had wanted to go for years and it was one of the main reasons for the Russian stopover. Thousands of people were lined up in the massive inner courtyard, and the lines then spilled outside on Palace Square, as you can see on this picture! We knew the city would be busy in August, but this was completely ridiculous. As it turns out, we had come by coincidence on the one day in the month when admission is free. We left immediately.

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Much better the next day, especially since we had paid a little extra for online tickets and waited in line for zero minute to get in.

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If you wonder weather or not the Hermitage is big, read the small print. The Hermitage actually comprises many buildings, but the Winter Palace is by far the largest and best known. It is the former principal residence of Russian Tsars and, if Wikipedia is to be trusted: “The Winter Palace has been calculated to contain 1,786 doors, 1,945 windows, 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases.” I am actually skeptical of these numbers, as the window to room ratio looks very low. Most rooms have several windows.

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The grandiose rooms and hallways have been transformed into one of the most important art museum in the world.

150---07This is one of very few rooms left as it was before the revolution, the Tsar’s personal library.

I could have taken thousands of pictures of the artworks, but they obviously can all be Googled. So I will show you two.

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Veterans organizations in Canada and elsewhere often criticize governments for not doing enough to support injured former soldiers. As you can see in this 1838 Horace Vernet painting, the situation is not exactly new!

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A portrait of 19th century European Jewry, or at least how it was perceived by many: “Spanish Grandee Leaving the Moneylender”, Florent Willems, 1849.

The Hermitage mainly houses the collections of the Imperial family and a few important collections of former Russian aristocrats. I couldn’t help but smile when the labels read: “Acquired in 1925. Formerly in the collection of Count so and so” Acquired? I guess: “Stolen in 1925” would look bad.

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Most visitors to The Hermitage visit on gigantic guided tours, crowding around a painting as someone babbles Wikipedia entries to them. They create massive jams, while most of the other rooms are not crowded at all. I cannot possibly understand why someone would want to visit this way.

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The Hermitage has one of the world’s great art collections, and the Winter Palace is an incredible building, but is it a good museum? I am no expert, but I have never been in a major international museum that lets the temperature and humidity get so high inside. Worst, hundreds of paintings are exposed to direct sunlight. Hopefully it is not as bad as it looks to me and the collections remain in good condition.

Moving along… St-Petersburg has an extensive network of private minibuses that ply pre-determined routes. These are very common everywhere in Asia, South America and Africa, but while cheap, they can be difficult to figure out, overcrowded and plain disgusting. In St-Petersburg, they are cheap, clean, and in the case of the major suburban touristic attractions, very user friendly. So based on my Estonian friend Maksim’s recommendation, we headed to Peterhof Palace, which is actually a network of palaces in the outer limits of the city (we were not allowed to leave the city limits, more on that tomorrow).

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This palace is nowhere near as big as the Winter Palace, but it amply compensates with a spectacular setting.

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The place is often described as the “Versailles of Russia”.

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Some of my friends will remember the nice balcony I used to have on George Street in Ottawa. This one kinda puts it to shame.

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Apparently the location of the whole thing was chosen in part because the hydrography was good for building fountains.

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There are also lots of beautiful gardens.

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And gardens with fountains.

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And a nice cottage for the guests. And a few more pictures.

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Tomorrow, more about St-Petersburg, and how to visit Russia without a visa.

#Russia

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