Monday, October 30, 2006


Thursday, October 5, 2006

Weather: Silvered and bracing.

We woke up early for a visit to Kizhi Island on Lake Lagoda. Not quite the Potemkin experience from Mandrogy, Kizhi boasts one of the oldest churches in Russia, some 300 years old with 22 onion domes all in unfinished pine and aspen. As was typical at the time of construction, the building has no solid foundation, merely laid on top of the ground. The result is that it is unsafe to enter. At this time, a metal skeleton has been erected within it to keep it from toppling over. Plans are underway to construct a proper foundation, hopefully to begin next year.

The local bell ringer was in top form and performed for each group as it passed by his belltower.

We did get quite a thorough tour of a farmhouse moved to the site from another village. Our guide claimed it had been occupied as recently as the 1950's. She left the impression that the house was purchased from the family, contents and all.

John and I found that a bit implausible as she pointed out a photo of Tzar Nicholas II with Alexii in the upstairs living room. This is somewhat of a trend for our guides to tint history in shades of sepia and rose. The big things are always the worst, the poorest, the most violent and the good things are the richest, sweetest, most beautiful and desired. Another trend is an open palm extended toward us at the end of each encounter. Valera chimed in again, "Please to show your appreciation to Nadja for our tour today." I declined and hurried back to the boat to warm up.

John cut about three chords of wood during his nap this afternoon. I caught up on a little reading, followed by an hour or two of sleep myself. When this lake we traveled across was created, there were casualties as well.

Our caviar tasting was interesting, but pricey at 36 Euros apiece. For years, John has sung the praises of Ossetra vs. Beluga. Tasting them side by side, I must now agree.

Dinner followed - John and I were joined by three sisters traveling with our South Carolina group. Apparently, their mother is traveling with them and had fallen on Kizhi this morning, hitting her head in the process. The ship's doctor believed she had broken her nose, but another passenger, a doctor from Newberry, SC did not agree. I was surprised that all three had left her alone to have dinner, but they didn't seem overly concerned. They travel together frequently and at times, their conversation approached "Music Man" proportions (pick-a-little, talk-a-little...). One of them was quite eager to share her dinner with me, but I declined (politely, I hope). They were also quite insistent that John and I attend the vodka tasting the next night. "...and it's only 13 Euros!!" was an oft-repeated refrain.

More to come...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Potemkin Revisited

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Weather: Inspiring!

This is our first morning not rousted from sleep at an outrageous hour in order to get ahead of the unwashed masses beating at the palace gates, panting with envy as we swept past.

The view from the boat is quite pretty. The leaves have started to turn on what is primarily a forest of white birch.

A leisurely breakfast, we witnessed our first passage through one of the almost 20 locks on the various rivers and canals of our voyage. The lock system, while quick and efficient, is showing significant signs of wear and degradation from lack of maintenance.

It was quite cold - as you can see by my joyous expression!

This was a small overgrown eating area outside the power plant at this lock. I wish the detail of the friezes had come out better. Notice the Soviet crest on top of the building, apparently established in 1951.

This photo appears to be some sort of Communist equivalent to "Veni, Vidi, Vici" but from Lenin's perspective, instead of Caesar's.

Our cruise director, Birgitte, a tall, masculine, young woman, announced a surprise "green stop" at Mandrogy Island. This is a reconstructed artists' village, revived in the last few years by a Russian developer. Almost Potemkin-like, the island is primarily used by tourists from the river cruises during the summer. In winter, there are a number of rental/guest cottages used by Russian families who vacation and hunt in the area.

The artists that populate the island are selected through a competition and live there during the entire year. Artists are expected to work actively as the tourists come through to see and shop. Housing is provided, along with a salary. Profits from their sales are subject to royalties to the developer.

The construction and architecture of the cottages and businesses comprised a unique blend of what looked like Alaskan Native totem-style and Russia fairy tale ginger bread. (John took some photos here, but I haven't gotten copies yet - will update later.)

Our guides from the ship were quick to point out that this area was quite the tourist trap and to be aware of price vs. quality. Many on the boat were quite intrigued by the Vodka Museum there, which boasted more than 2,000 different kinds of vodka. The description I just gave is more interesting than the actual facility, which was basically a liquor store that sold shots and had lots of bottles on display.

I was thoroughly enjoying the ambiance of the island until a yellow jacket took an interest in me, sending me fleeing back to the safety of the boat. John returned to one of the artist's shops and struck up a conversation with a printmaker who did etchings and lithographs. John brought back a fount of information about the island, most of which I've shared above. He also spoke with an embroideress who makes most of her money from the Russian Orthodox Church, providing robes and vestments. All she sells on the island are ticky-tacky birds and flowers. One can never underestimate the lack in taste of the travelling masses. Perhaps I've said it already, but to quote my good friend, Noel Coward, "Why do the wrong people travel, when the right people stay at home?"

The rest of the afternoon was spent with Comrade Nikolai in a brief, but ineffective lesson in the Russian language. He provided several handouts, which I kept. Only one or two of them were of any real use or effect.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Farewell, St. Pete!

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Weather: Misty, dreary and overcast

Before I go any further, dear diary, I seem to have caught the attention of one our serving wenches, a blonde named Ira (short for Irina, I believe). Foretold of my Broadway aspirations (how fame does precede one!) she appears eager to return with me and to take her place within Brighton Beach society.

Once again consigned to the confines of our minibus, we set out for Peterhof. Over the river and through the wood, it seemed, we traveled the St. Petersburg highways and byways.

As we climbed into the van, we found the Grand Inquisitor had taken it upon herself to rotate seat assignments. John and I had stowed ourselves discreetly and quietly in the back of the van on Monday, hoping to avoid engagement with the rest any more than necessary. She attributed the shift to a command from the tour organizer, whom most of the SC crowd had travelled with before, about not monopolizing the guide as we spent the time driving. She then proceeded to monopolize the guide from the rear of the minibus, much like she did the day before from the front seat. At least from this perspective, she was less likely to notice how John's and my eyes rolled continuously at the inanity of her questioning.

Peterhof - - vast, expansive, and often compared with Versailles, was significantly damaged during WWII. Most rooms showed before and after photos to convey the level of destruction as well as the Herculean effort to rebuild. The term restoration is bandied about at every turn, but one has to wonder just how some of the decisions on color, finish, etc., were made.

The fountains and garden are a visual splendor. Interesting that the water flow is all driven by gravity alone - no mechanical pumps in use. A long central channel leads to the Gulf of Finland - the original "infinity edge" - just breathtaking.

We returned to St. Petersburg, arranging our travel to include a stop at one of the few churches that is not currently a museum, glimpses of the bronze Peter the Great statue of him on a rearing horse. Onto L'Ermitage, we made a bee line for some individual items, including the Peacock Clock, a gift to Catherine the Great from Prince Orloff. Next we fled to see the two DaVinci paintings, followed by the Raphael and the Titian room. John and I made an early escape as the view degenerated into Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. We did manage to find some of the particularly impressive rooms that were once part of the Winter Palace.
The Church of the Spilled Blood holds some of the most amazing mosaic work in the world. Interesting was an image of an adolescent Christ in one of the domes.

For me the day's highlight was the last stop of the day at Yusupov Palace. As elaborate and decadent as the royal palaces we'd seen, it was even more fascinating as a living house that was actually lived in by the family. The basement room has some creepy was figures depicting Dimitri with Rasputin as the assassination was about to begin.

I also found it noteworthy that this was the only residence that displayed a practical bathtub. My favorite part of the palace was a 200-seat confection of their private theatre. Frosted with gilt rococo moldings, I would have killed to see the backstage area.

Our ride back to the boat was tense, as the time for the boat's departure from St. Petersburg drew near. We did manage to arrive with only a few minutes to spare. We will travel overnight and tomorrow on the River Svir.

More to come...

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Dead Bird

"Swan Lake" Conservatory Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 2, 2006

The Conservatory Theatre is part of the school where Tchaikovsky studied and taught. Imagine how many of his compositions debuted in that hall! We arrived to find the entrance and lobby in well-preserved condition. To our horror, the interior of the house had been butchered in what looked like a mid-twentieth century Soviet renovation. Just dreadful!!

The act curtain seemed based on an older more classic design with fringe and other passementerie - very much at odds with the severe and bland appearance of the house.

Hopes for a true Russian ballet in the best sense were dashed as the curtain went up to reveal one of the ugliest Swan Lake sets I've ever seen. Programs were not included with admission, so I will not be able to accuse identify either designers or dancers by name.

Act I brought out the cast in a mish-mash of costumes. Blue was the apparent theme, however, no two garments managed to share the same shade - anywhere! Our guide on the bus had prepared us for the choreography originally set by Marius Petipa. (On occasion a ballet director will have the artistic need to make some modifications to original choreography to suit either a particular dancer, or perhaps make new interpretive choices. This is typically noted in a program as "Choreography after...") Not recognizing a single move in Act I, I commented that the evening's choreography was "after Petipa and Ivanov were dead and spinning in their respective graves."

Prince Sigfried's only connection to his character was his age. Incapable of acting and merely acquainted with the steps, he created a vaccuum of performance energy every moment he spent on stage.

Our Odette/Odile, performed without an iota of emotion. Technically weak, she did manage one or two very nice penche' arabesques.

Von Rothbart was one of the largest dancers I've seen on a stage. Credit him for at least trying to bring some interest to this tired and under-rehearsed prduction. Only the female corps de ballet offered any visual interest and they were spotty at best. When the swans entered wearing romantic tutus, I immediately longed for the opera gloves and chest hair sported by Ballet Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Say what you will about the Trocks, their Swan Lake Act I, Scene 2 was far superior to what we were forced to endure - those boys can dance!

If this performance is representative of the quality of dance instruction at the Conservatory, their administration needs to find new artistic direction.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Days of Glory

Monday, October 2

Weather: Dreary, overcast and misty.

We started the day early, departing at 8:15am for our first stop, Catherine Palace.

We've been divided into mini-vans in groups of eight. John and I have been grouped with three couples from SC on our trip. The six of them bonded remarkably quickly. Our SC tour organizer mentioned that she tried to group people with similar interests. Apparently, John and I were the odd men out, as it were. Our guide is Zenya, a compact and seasoned guide of the city. She is fairly tolerant of the inane questions peppered at her by the member of our van who seems to have no connection between thought and speech.

The drive to Catherine Palace is almost 90 minutes. By the time we arrive and enter the gates, John and I are sharing knowing smiles during the endless onslaught from this vapid woman, our "Grand Inquisitress." Another wife in the crowd is similar, but has no concept of personal space during a conversation - a "close talker" as I call it.

Catherine Palace, enormous and restored, is splendid in its mix of real and faux finishes. Many rooms, had photos of the building before and after the devastation of WWII. I can't help but wonder, though, how much of the restoration is accurate to what was there before and how much artistic license was taken. Regardless, the result is amazing and overwhelming in its scope.

The portrait below is of Elizabeth I of Russia, daughter of Catherine the Great (I think). The German milkmaid genes from her mother seem to have blossomed her into quite a big girl.

These are some of the rooms we toured in the palace.

This is Catherine the Great.

I believe this is her father-in-law Paul. We saw several versions of this portrait during our trip.

I had always thought Faberge's expertise was in jewelry and fine metalcraft - didn't know they'd moved into electronics.

I think I've decided how to redecorate my apartment.

Ceiling mural - a bit dark, unfortunately.

More ceiling murals.

Some beautiful cased cobalt cut crystal.

On the same grounds is Alexander Palace, used as the primary residence of Nicholas II and Alexandra prior to the revolution. Less than one-fourth of the building is open to view. I was struck by how much less ornate the rooms were.

Catherine the Great

Nicholas II and Alexandra

Nicholas II

From Alexander Palace, we travelled into the middle of St. Petersburg to visit St. Isaac's Cathedral, a municipal building sometimes used for religious celebrations (as are most of the churches in the country, it seems - more on that later). Most recent use was for the re-interment of Maria Feodorovna on September 28, 2006, fulfilling her wish to be buried next to her husband, Alexander III, some 80 years after her death. The guides here speak of the Romanoffs with an odd mix of pride and embarrassment over the accomplishments and deeds of the Tsars.

We declined to visit the Russian Museum, taking the opportunity to visit a nearby tourist trap souvenir shop. They saw John coming a mile away. He completed most of his gift-shopping here. I made a couple of small purchases, somewhat deterred by the inflated prices.

Our final stop was Pavlovsk, the palace of Paul I, husband of Catherine I and father of Alexander I.

The building is rounded, similar to the Basilica in Rome. Photographs were not permitted inside.

Dinner was less impressive this evening. Choices of battered cod or roast beef with potato. As John ordered the cod, a fellow passenger avidly discouraged his choice. In a thick Jewish brogue, she announced that she'd marry the chef in an instant, know she'd " down to a size 8 in six months. I love it, completely inedible!"

We boarded buses again after dinner to attend a local production of "Swan Lake" at the Conservatory Theatre, across the street from the Royal Maryinsky Theatre (dark on Mondays). The Kirov Ballet and Orchestra is in New York while John and I are in Russia - ironic? Riding over, John and I speculated as to the anticipated quality of the production. I offered that I was hopeful for a live orchestra - John hadn't considered that, which led us to further ponder whether we were about to attend the Russian equivalent of community theatre.

More to come...