posted on 19/03/19
Everything about this city is epically extraordinary. Peter the Great, keen to open “a window on the west” and gain direct access to the Baltic, went to war with Sweden. In 1703 he captured the mouth of the river Neva, built a small fortress, then set about creating a city that would send a signal to all of Europe that Russia was no longer a benighted backwater overrun by Mongol hordes or ruled by brutish Ivan the Terrible.
The site, though strategically important, was otherwise entirely unsuitable – a scattering of 42 waterlogged and mosquito-infested islands in a boggy delta. Over the next 20 years prisoners of war, soldiers, peasants and criminals were conscripted as forced labourers, as many as 100,000 dying from exhaustion, starvation, dysentery, malaria or execution.
From this brutality was born a city of staggering beauty – Russians themselves refer to it being “built on bones”. Architects and craftsmen were drawn from all over Europe and their influence is plain the see. Indeed, Peter’s window was partly a mirror – the canals emulate Venice and Amsterdam, the Rococo and Neoclassical style of the buildings directly replicate the popular European tastes of the time and one of the waterside boulevards is even named the English Embankment. Catherine the Great, a highly intelligent and cultured Pomeranian princess who was in the vanguard of the enlightenment, continued the work Peter had begun and avidly amassed a huge collection of European art.
The result was a dazzling masterpiece and cultural treasure trove unsurpassed in its architectural integrity, enormous scale and world-class art collections. Despite catastrophic fires, the Russian Revolution and a 872-day siege during the Second World War, St Petersburg has been fully restored to its former splendour.
The Hermitage Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of paintings, is so full with remarkable exhibits that we make two separate visits. The collection is mainly housed in the enormous Winter Palace (home of the Tsars from 1732 until it was stormed by revolutionaries in 1917), but parts of it are displayed in the complex of buildings that surround it on the Palace Embankment – the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Small Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre, the Menshikov Palace and the General Staff Building.
One estimate has it that you would need eleven years to view each exhibit on display for just one minute. On our trip, with Russian art specialist Andrew Spira, introduces you to some of the highlights – Monet’s Poppy Field, Matisse’s Dance and Picasso’s Three Women, along with significant works by Cézanne, Degas and Gauguin, as well as Leonardo’s Madonna Litta, Michelangelo’s Crouching Youth and a room of Rembrandts, to name but a few.
On the trip we also visit the Catherine Palace, named after Peter’s wife but much extended by their daughter Empress Elizabeth. The scale and opulence defy description but even Catherine the Great, no penny pincher, deplored the expense when she saw the state accounts. One hundred kilograms of gold was used to gild the exterior alone while the amount used indoors is virtually incalculable.
The so-called Golden Enfilade of state rooms is overwhelmingly impressive, the Hall of Light alone measuring 1,000 square metres. The legendary Amber Room is lined with panels of amber mosaic. These were stripped out by the German invaders in 1941 never to be seen again. A 20-year restoration was completed in 2003 at cost of more than $12 million.
Our trip also includes the Peter and Paul fortress, the Menshikov Palace and The State Russian Museum, the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, the Pavlovsk Palace, the ground-breaking Neo-Gothic Chesme Church and the Neoclassical Shuvalov Palace.
It is a packed itinerary but well-planned and paced, with expert commentary and insight from Andrew Spira to help you digest the most enormous banquet of food for thought and feasts for the eyes.