The winter queen

Glorious St. Petersburg

Photographs by Shirley Zhao

By Cappy Devlin

Recently, I went to see the movie “Anna Karenina.” Based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, it stars Keira Knightley as an unhappy wife whose fateful sexual awakening plays out as she – and we – are transported from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back. For a few hours, I was immersed in imperial riches and reminded once again of my own, happier journeys there.

I have been to Russia several times – working in Moscow, but always eager to take the Sapsan high-speed train to St. Petersburg in less than four hours. Arriving in St. Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, I like to go exploring with a driver/guide from the banks of the Neva River to the Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg’s main thoroughfare; to St. Isaac’s Square, which spreads out between the Mariinsky Palace and St. Isaac’s Cathedral; to the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, its colorful, crusted ornamentation crowned by spiraling onion domes.

St. Petersburg is a city rich in history and culture, founded by the forward-thinking Peter the Great in 1703. A private VIP tour of the State Hermitage Museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and its high-tech art vault is an extraordinary experience. Over the span of 250 years, the museum’s collection has grown to more than 3 million items, including works from the world’s noted artists. Ushered in through a private entrance, I began my exclusive exploration of the fabulous collections. The Hermitage Storage Facility covers more than 357,000 square feet of floor space. After you clear security, you can marvel at the imperial carriages, the opulent Romanov dynasty furniture collection and the fascinating glass-fronted displays of priceless art works, tapestries, icons and sculptures.

I am always awed by Peter the Great’s throne, the breathtaking Raphael loggias, the imperial carriage, the Scythian comb (circa 500 B.C.) and works by many of the world’s greatest artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and Monet, among this unique collection. In the evening, I would dine at the Tsar restaurant, which is in a historic mansion.

During the day, take a half-hour hydrofoil voyage to the Peterhof Palace, Peter the Great’s former summer residence. This is a splendid palace, surrounded by some of the most magnificent gardens in the world, with terraces, fountains and gilded sculpture.

Returning to St. Petersburg, I like to attend an evening performance at the venerable Mariinsky Theatre, which has a long tradition of excellence. It’s where both George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov got their start. Today that tradition lives on and the Mariinsky name continues to mean the finest in performance art – with world-class artists from around the globe appearing on one of the world’s largest stages. Then I enjoy a late dinner at the well-known 1913 restaurant.

The next day, take in the Winter Palace, a former residence of the czars with a most unusual room. Constructed of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, the Amber Room was given to Peter the Great by a Prussian king in 1716. Installed at the Catherine Palace in neighboring Pushkin, it was later extended to cover nearly 600 square feet with more than six tons of amber. During World War II, German soldiers disassembled the room and it was never seen again. In 2003, a painstaking reconstruction – partly carried out by craftsmen at the American Museum of Natural History’s landmark 1998 amber exhibit – was completed, enabling visitors to savor its brilliance once again.

Before leaving St. Petersburg, try to squeeze in another opera or a performance of traditional Russian folk songs and dancers and then have dinner at Ocean, a famed restaurant on the bank of the Neva.

Leave-taking will be difficult. St. Petersburg has all the ingredients for an unforgettable travel experience – high art, lavish architecture, an extraordinary history and rich cultural traditions that have inspired and nurtured some of the modern world’s greatest visual art, music, choreography and literature.

For more, visit Cappy’s Travel at 195 N. Bedford Road, Mount Kisco. Call (914) 241-0383 or email Cappy@travel-by-net.com.

 

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