October 6, 2017
The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world, although according to our Russian tour guide, Irina, it is the largest and grandest museum in the world. Set in several buildings, including the Winter Palace built for Tsarina Elisabeth, the large Hermitage, the new Hermitage, and the General Staff Building, the collection within its walls was the pride and joy of Catherine the Great.
In a 10 year period (1764-1774), Catherine acquired (purchased and/or won – she loved to gamble) over 2,500 paintings, 10,000 carved gems, 10,000 drawings, and a large amount of silver and porcelain. Today, she might be considered a bit of a hoarder.
What’s unusual about this museum complex is that the rooms in which the art is placed are equally as fascinating as the paintings, sculptures, and furniture. Each room is a different color and was obviously chosen to complement the artwork. It all just looks like it belongs.
The interior gardens viewed through the windows are also beautiful, but, unfortunately, are not accessible. The gardens were open for only one day before being shuttered again because some tourists did not respect the spaces and trashed them.
Our tour gave us an overview of the marvelous works held in the Hermitage. To visit the entire complex would take days, particularly at the speed I visit museums (i.e., snail’s pace because I read everything available). The large tour groups also slowed our pace. If you come, make sure to buy tickets in advance and give yourself enough time to see everything. If you don’t go with a personal guide, make sure you get the audio guide. There is a lot of intrigue and background surrounding some of the acquisitions; it would be a shame not to have the inside scoop.
One of the most famous pieces is the Peacock Clock, a gift to Catherine the Great in 1781 from Grigory Potemkin, one of her many (many, many) lovers. The clock still works – the timepiece is located in a toadstool at the base of the piece. Once every Wednesday (at 7:00 p.m.), the museum allows the clock to chime – the peacock spreads its wings and the many other woodland creatures come to life. If you can’t make it to the museum on Wednesday evening, there is a video detailing the show.
There are too many works by Rembrandt, Van Duck, Rubens, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, da Vinci’s, and others to mention.
We only spent three hours in the museum, far to little time to even scratch the surface. It is a wonderful collection of art, which rivals many of the museums to which I’ve traveled.
Our hotel was touted as having the finest high tea in St. Petersburg so, of course, we had to try it out. Although service was a tad sketchy, it did not disappoint.
Hot black tea was the only thing this early afternoon meal had in common with an English high tea. There were no cucumber sandwiches and scones. Instead, there were little salmon, caviar and sturgeon sandwiches, hot perogies filled with meat, mushrooms and other vegetables, and a wide variety of sweet items, including excellent fruit cake. The tea even came with sparkling wine – Rod had my glass as well as his.
We’d had an early tea because dinner would be late due to our evening cultural activity. As a part of our hotel package, we chose two tickets to the ballet at the Mikhailovich Theater. Don Quixote is not my favorite ballet – I find the plotline confusing and distracting to the overall performance. Notwithstanding, the ballet company did a magnificent job in their interpretation. Don Quixote is one of the only ballets where the dancers are allowed to infuse their own “flavor” into the characters they portray. The prima ballerina was phenomenal and had excellent feet.
The theater itself had several levels of balconies in addition to the orchestra area. Our front row seats in the hotel’s box were fantastic, right on the level of the stage and the second box in from the front. We were able to see everything. That included people on cell phones and those sleeping through the performance. We estimate 80-90% of the patrons were tourists (mostly tour groups). Many were unclear on the finer points of how to act in a public forum. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time.
The ballet let out around 10:15 p.m. It was a short walk to Tsar, the restaurant Rod reserved for tonight’s dinner. The restaurant serves traditional Russian cuisine fit for a Tsar or Tsarina with all the trappings of fine dining. There was crystal, fine porcelain, chandeliers, a harpist, and the requisite portraits of long deceased nobility.
Rod chose a house specialty called “Julienne with crab” and the Chicken Kyiv with fried potatoes. I decided on the frisée salad with smoked roasted cheese and the halibut with spinach whipped potatoes. We still aren’t quite sure why his appetizer was called “Julienne with crab,” but it was a creamy pate of crab, potatoes, dill and, perhaps mayonnaise. Unbeknown to us, they messed up the order by providing a dish without the crab, so they brought another out with the main course. (We didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like, so we didn’t know any different.) It was tasty (both times). Rod’s Chicken Kyiv was tender and juicy. My halibut was flaky and succulent, and the spinach whipped potatoes were smooth and delicious.
We topped off the meal with a shared dish of Lingonberry sorbet (we have decided it is not our favorite berry). They also offered complimentary shots of house-made cherry vodka (pronounced wadka). Again, Rod reaped the benefit of my not drinking alcohol.
We enjoyed the meal immensely, unfortunately, it was also the source of a poor decision on my part.
Since Tsar is one of the finer restaurants in the city, I decided that ordering a salad would be okay. St Petersburg has a problem with its water because it comes from the local lake. The internet said not to drink the water and to take precautions with what we ate. It also said, however, that the top hotels (like where we were staying) and restaurants (like where we were eating) boiled and cleaned all the water they use and should be safe. My frisée salad did not have a lot of lettuce, but that lettuce was ultimately lethal to my system. By the middle of the night, I was suffering, badly. All for a few fresh vegetables. I know better but forgot to listen to my common sense. Not pretty, not pretty at all.