Imperial Palaces and Soviet Entertainment

Community Highlights Europe Imperial Palaces and Soviet Entertainment

26 May, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

Today began my seven-day Petersburg Card pass: a city pass that provided free entrance to dozens of museums and several free tours. I had used a similar pass in Paris, Copenhagen, and, most recently, during my time in Florence; I always strive to make the most of the passes and get my money’s worth out of them.

One of the free tours the card provided was a hop-on-hop-off bus tour through the city; one of the first stops on the tour was near to my hostel, so I decided to utilize this tour to get me around town for the day. The bus drove down the Nevsky Prospekt towards the Palace Embankment area, stopping at a few stops along the way; during the drive there was a recorded audio guide which was somewhat interesting.

I got off the bus at the Peter and Paul Fortress stop, but decided to walk over to see the cabin of Peter the Great. Peter I founded St Petersburg in 1703 and his cabin was the first structure to be built in the new city; it took three days to build and he only spent a short amount of time actually living in the cabin. The cabin has been protected and preserved for over 300 years and was quite a treat to get to visit (free with the Petersburg Card!).


The cabin itself is housed inside of a larger structure, with the cabin being rather small (only three or four rooms). The museum allows visitors to walk around the exterior of the cabin, but not inside. The windows are open, allowing one to look inside at how the cabin looked during Peter I’s time. The two main rooms, his study and the dining room, took up the majority of the cabin. Inside the small bedroom, there was a metal mold of Peter’s hand that was made during his time in Amsterdam, along with some of his clothes and a walking stick.


Next to the cabin was a small boat that Peter had built. He went to Amsterdam to learn shipbuilding and became quite skilled at it, using his knowledge to found the Russian navy. The entire museum reminded me greatly of a similar cabin I visited back in 2013 outside of Amsterdam: another cabin of Peter I had been preserved there, built during his time studying and learning in the region. Around the cabin was a smallish park; the entire museum was located on the bank of the Neva River.

After leaving the cabin, I walked over to see the cruiser Aurora, which played an important part during the October Revolution in 1917 that brought the Bolsheviks to power. During the final hours of 25 October (7 November, NS), the Bolsheviks threatened to storm the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government was cornered. In an effort to force the ministers to surrender, the Bolsheviks had the Aurora fire several blank shots at the Palace (along with some live shells fired from the Peter and Paul Fortress). The cruiser now stands permanently moored in the Neva as a museum. I arrived well before the museum opened and, since my card didn’t provide free entry, I didn’t plan to go on board.


Finally, it was time to visit the famed Peter and Paul Fortress. This was the first fort built in St Petersburg, built to help defend the territory. The fort is a sprawling complex with several bastions around it; inside the strongly fortified walls are numerous buildings and a large church. Entry to the Fortress itself is free to anyone, but to enter the various museums cost extra; my card granted me free access to the prison bastion, the church and discounted entry onto the fortress walls.


I hurriedly rushed over to the fortress walls as it was nearly noon: every day at noon a canon is fired from the walls of the fortress. I made it up with a few minutes to spare; the crowd around the square and along the walls was quite large. When the canon was fired, the entire wall shook – it was quite a sight to see. Once that little bit of excitement was over, I walked along the walls, which provided some good views across the Neva towards the Winter Palace.


I then visited the Trubetskoy prison bastion, which was used by both the tsarist and the Bolshevik governments to imprison many criminals. Included among the list of former inmates is Leon Trotsky, who spent a few months in the prison. After the Provisional Government ministers surrendered to the Bolsheviks, they too were imprisoned here. The museum has several cells open for visitors to see; each one is relatively the same: a basic bed with a small table and a lamp; the room itself is larger than expected, allowing an inmate room to comfortably walk around.


The final stop in the Fortress was the Peter and Paul Cathedral: a rather modest and smaller cathedral with an immensely tall gold tower. Inside the cathedral are the graves of every tsar, from Peter I to Nicholas II (he and his family were reinterred in the cathedral in 1998). The inside of the church was very impressive, but the real sights were the graves.


Peter I (the Great):


Catherine II (the Great):


Alexander III:


Nicholas II and his family:


It was very special and exciting to visit the graves of these great leaders; people I have read a great deal about in my many history books. Seeing sights associated with Nicholas II really hammers home the terrible way he and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks.


Leaving the Peter and Paul Fortress, I walked back across one of the bridges and visited the Marble Palace, so named because of the excessive use of marble to adorn the interior of the palace. It was built for Count Orlov, a favorite of Catherine II; she acquired the palace after his death. Nowadays, the palace is partially restored and partially used as an art museum.


The restored portions of the palace were very impressive: all of the state rooms were grand and exquisite. The main staircase leading to the first floor had marble on all sides; it would be quite something to see the palace entirely restored to its original glory. I walked through the many wings of the art museum; some it was quite interesting and modern.


I decided to make the Stroganov Palace my next destination. As with the Marble Palace, it has been partially restored and partially turned into an art museum. The state rooms were grand and impressive, but I found myself again wishing that the entire palace had been restored. The current restoration provides a glimpse of the former glory – of what the palace could look like once again.


The final stop for the day was St Isaac’s Cathedral, which I had passed by earlier in the week. My Petersburg Card got me into the cathedral itself as well as access to the roof. I hurriedly made my way up to the roof as I was concerned that it would start raining. I was exhausted from climbing the stairs, but the view was well worth the effort. The cathedral overlooked all of St Petersburg, providing great views of the Winter Palace, the Neva River, and several other buildings.


Returning to ground level, I ventured inside the cathedral and was awed by the insane décor of the place. Every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered with decorations and paintings, in typical Russian Orthodox fashion.


This concluded my sightseeing for the day; it had been an exciting, jam-packed and exhausting day. I walked by the Winter Palace once again, this time discovering several different statues and decorations that I hadn't noticed before. In addition to that, the main gates had been fully restored in the past few days (the first day there was some protective covering over one half of it).


I relaxed in the evening by reading at Starbucks before heading back to my hostel. I had found a few different Starbucks locations around the city, but my favorite one was inside of a small mall; it had a good seating area with several large and comfortable chairs in which I could read.

27 May, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

Today was part two of my adventures around the city itself. I planned to take the hop-on-hop-off bus over to the Church of the Spilled Blood first thing in the morning, but after waiting around for it to show up without any sign of the bus, I decided to walk over. I would become very familiar with Nevsky Prospekt during my 16 days in the city, making the hour-long walk (each way) nearly ever day.

I arrived at the church shortly before 10:00 and got in line to get tickets; the church opened at 10:30 (as did the ticket office), so the wait was very short and I was second in line. An older French couple was behind me and the woman kept coming up to the front, asking the Russians in front of me so many questions. Initially she asked why they weren’t buying tickets (answer: because the offices were clearly closed until 10:30). She came back up a few minutes later asking when the ticket offices opened and if they church was closed on this day. She again came back up, asking if the Russians thought the ticket office would open that day. This continued until the office eventually did open. It was rather comical as she was quite impatient and clearly did not understand opening times.


I was the first person to enter the church, which allowed me to take some great photos sans tourists. It was yet another Russian Orthodox church: paintings covered every wall and the ceilings; the iconoclasts were gold-covered; icons were placed around the church for prayers. It was a massive building with onion-shaped domes – almost like a miniature St Basil’s in Moscow. The focal point of the church was in the rear, where a canopy had been erected over some cobble stones: this was the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by assassins as he was riding in his carriage. The spot had been perfectly preserved in the church and there was a memorial to him there (the name of the church was from the spilled blood of the tsar).


To quickly complete the saga of the impatient French woman: I spent 15 minutes in the church, but she was in and out in less than 5 (probably less). I was shocked! After all of her questions and impatience to get in, she spent very little time in the place!

I left the church and walked through the pleasant park that was adjacent to it in order to reach my next attraction: St Michael’s Castle. This castle has been built by Tsar Paul I and used to have an actual moat surrounding it; it was his personal residence, though he only lived in it for a short time. He wanted the color of the exterior to be unique and reportedly based it on a woman’s outfit he chanced to see at court. Paul was murdered in his bedroom of the castle in March 1801. After his death, the castle was used for various other purposes, including a school, all of which dramatically altered the interiors of the castle itself (the re-purposing of the building during the 1800s did more damage to the interiors than the Soviets).


There were only a few state rooms that had been restored and available for touring, all of which were in the tsarina’s section of the palace. The bedroom where Paul was murdered has not been restored, sadly. The state rooms were quite remarkable. Near the end of the tour through them was the dining room, which was the last place that Paul was seen alive the night he was murdered.


My next destination was rather unique and “off the beaten track” of typical tourist spots: the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines! This was just down the street from the Church of the Spilled Blood, but I had to walk down an alley to reach a rather shabby looking courtyard to reach it. The signage wasn’t the best, but my searching was worth it.

Upon entering, the friendly staff (who spoke excellent English) explained how everything worked and provided a map of the machines, with explanations on how to play the various games. All of the arcade machines were from the 1980s, still in working order and they still ran on the same Soviet-era coins! My Petersburg card provided free entrance and a small packet of coins to play the games with.

There were tons of kids playing the various games. Everything was very dated and retro; I was reveling in the campiness of it all. I played several different games:
• A shooting game where a man on a horse moved along a track; you pressed one button to first the gun at targets; you had 16 shots
• A “racing” game where your car was projected on a screen on a model track spun in a circle; there were other stationary cars and no real racing or driving needed; I didn’t quite understand this game (picture of the "track" below)
• A block game where you launched a stick at a configuration of blocks/shapes in an effort to knock them all of the screen
• A submarine game that was just plain ridiculous and impossible
There was also a game of US road signs: 64 signs were displayed on a board on the wall, below there was a board with the same signs as buttons, but in a different order; the top board would light up one sign and you had to press the corresponding button. Yes, we have similar games to this day, but not with 64 different signs/symbols! In Soviet Russia, video game plays you!


The arcade also had original “soda machines” from the Soviet era. These were huge vending machines that provided three different options/flavors of soda. I’ve absolutely no idea what the different flavors were, but one of the people there told me to try a certain one as it was a “typical” flavor. The soda was bright green and was rather tasty, though I’ve no idea how to describe the flavor (I’d definitely have it again though).


After lunch I resolved to take one of the many canal cruises, two of which were free with my city card. When I was getting the ticket for the cruise, I asked if it was in English (as my guide indicated it would be), but the cashier said no, only Russian tours available. I indicated I didn’t want to do the tour, but she quickly scanned my card, which used up the tour credit and made it impossible for me to go on a different one; the bitchy cashier kept saying “Just look! Just look!” and handed me the ticket. Needless to say, I was rather pissed.

The boat tour itself was alright; I had walked along the tour route several time and already seen the majority of the sights. Without the commentary to accompany the tour, it was a bit of a letdown (especially as we passed boats with commentary in English). The tour lasted roughly an hour and I was happy when it was over.


As part of the city’s celebrations for its founding in 1703, there was a free concert being put on this evening in Palace Square, so I decided to brave the chilly weather and go see it. The weather had taken a decidedly cold turn and I needed to wear my heavy winter jacket! When I reached the square, there was a large crowd surrounding the temporary fencing that had been erected, but for some strange reason very few people were actually going inside. I simply walked right through the metal detectors and got quite close to the stage.

The concert was superb: an orchestra played classical music, accompanied by various opera singers and occasionally some dancers on stage. I did not recognize many of the arias being performed, but they were all beautifully sung. When it came time for me to leave, the square was packed with people and I had to literally shove me way through people to get out (people would not move aside to let anyone pass!). Overall, I was very glad that I went to the concert; it was a fun and unplanned event and a grand way to spend an evening.


28 May, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

Today I planned to visit one of the main attractions of St Petersburg: Tsarskoe Selo, now known as Pushkin, where the magnificent Catherine Palace is located. I had originally booked a guided tour for 2 June to see these sights as they are located some distance from the city, but the tour operator notified me that the palace would be closed that day; so I resolved to tour the area on my own.


The suburban railway network has regular trains running from St Petersburg out to Pushkin; I simply took the metro out to the Vitebsky Station where the train would leave from. The station was eerily deserted when I arrived, looking as though it was no longer in use. The only signs of life in the darkened entrance hall were the security guards. Upstairs, I found the ticket office where there were several cashiers working; having roughly 40 minutes until the next train, I got in line to wait. And I waited… and waited… and waited. I was only third in line, but each customer took an unbelievably long time to order their train tickets! By the time I made it to the front, I had about five minutes to spare; when I showed the cashier the sign that I wanted to go to Pushkin (in Russian, on my phone), she held up a sign (in English) stating that suburban tickets are sold from a different area! There were no other signs anywhere in the station to indicate this! I rushed over to the ticket platform where there was absolutely no line, purchased my ticket and hopped on the train.

Russian suburban trains are rather interesting: the tickets have barcodes, which you scan at turnstiles in the station to gain access to the boarding platform; then someone on the train examines them, stamping the back of them; when leaving the station, you once again scan the ticket to get through the exit turnstiles. The trains themselves are quite Soviet-esque: the cars are large and devoid of any decor, simply filled with rows of wooden benches; they’re the definition of simplistic (Russia, the 1900s called, they want their peasant trains back!), but they do the job! In Soviet Russia…

The train trip lasted for roughly 40 minutes; once I arrived, I looked into hailing an Uber to drive me to the Catherine Palace (which was about a 40-minute walk from the station), but as there were no cars available at the time, I was forced to walk. The tiny village of Pushkin is rather pleasant, fully of parks and the walk was quite enjoyable. In what seemed like no time, I had arrived at the palace complex.

Once again, I was confronted with Soviet – I mean, Russian ridiculousness with regards to ticket sales. The palace grounds and park were access by purchasing one ticket, while the palace itself required a separate ticket – simple enough, sure, but remember, this is the USSR… er, (Putin’s) Russia. The ticket window for the grounds could only sell tickets for the grounds, you then had to get in an entirely different line for tickets to the palace. More on that later…

My St Petersburg Card got me free access to the grounds, so I spent some time walking about the large gardens and park. The palace ticket office did not open for another 90 minutes, so I spent the time walking about. The Catherine Palace itself was absolutely stunning: it was a brilliant shade of blue, which was accented by the pure white columns and decorations. The building stretched on and on, reminding me a bit of Versailles.


The gardens were rather nice, with a large lake nearby and several small buildings here and there. No fountains adorned the grounds here though; the grounds were more simple, but elegant and refined. Near the entrance a man was playing classical music on a flute, which added created a nice atmosphere for the place.


Not having seen any signs for where the palace tickets were sold, I retraced my steps several times in case I had missed it. Nope, I hadn’t. The Soviet-Russians obviously didn’t think signs were important. I noticed a rather long line forming near-ish to the palace and, assuming it was for the tickets, I decided to get in line. I had to wait for nearly an hour before the ticket office opened and even then, a limited number of people were allowed in at one time.

Finally, it was my turn and I was able to buy my ticket (the palace was not free with my Petersburg Card during the ‘high season’). The entrance area of the palace was PACKED with people – the crowds were absolutely insane! Tour groups accounted for the majority of the people; those of us touring solo were easily lost in the mix; walking about the palace would be a continual battle to get away from one tour group or another.

As frustrating as the process to get into the palace was, it was all worth it: the Catherine Palace is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. The building has been mostly restored to its pre-WWII glory (the palace had been heavily damaged during the Siege of Leningrad). Each room was as magnificent as the last.

The first room was a dining room. Gold-covered decorations were everywhere: on the walls, the ceilings, around every doorway (no two doorways in the palace were decorated the same). The candelabras were intricately woven and covered with gold, making them shine.


The grand ballroom was next: an immense room that was even more opulent than the dining room. The ceiling was covered with beautiful paintings. One could easily picture dancers moving about the room during the days of Catherine the Great.


The next several rooms included another dining room, a room with some amazing red panel wall coverings (one of my favorite decorations in the entire palace), a room with similar green panel wall coverings; each room was elegant and richly decorated.


This all culminated in the famed Amber Room. The walls of the entire room – floor to ceiling – were covered in pieces of amber. The variations in the colors and shades enhanced the natural beauty of the amber. During the Second World War, the Amber Room was looted by the Nazis and the original amber was lost forever. The current restoration was only completed a few years ago. Photos were forbidden in the Amber Room… but I snuck one quick one.


The rest of the palace was much like the rooms that came before. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.


After exiting the Catherine Palace, I still had enough time to make it to the nearby Pavlovsk Palace. Thankfully there were several Uber drivers in the vicinity and I was able to take one over to the palace (a 15-minute drive). The palace was in a different village, named Pavlovsk, and it was built by Catherine the Great for her son, Grand Duke Paul (later Tsar Paul I). My Petersburg Card provided free entrance to both the palace and the park.


Surprisingly – and happily – this palace was far less crowded that the Catherine Palace. Overall it was a smaller palace, far less grand and not nearly as well restored, but what was available was still amazing to see. The various state rooms available for visiting were all quite nice and each one had a small display showing the destruction and condition of each room after the Second World War. The pictures make the palace nearly unrecognizable: rubble and debris everywhere, much of the place burned down or bombed out. It is a miracle that the Soviets were able to restore anything at all! This comparison between the war-time and present conditions would become quite common in all of the tsarist palaces I toured.


There was a nice library room which contained one of Paul’s thrones. The nearby grand dining room was perhaps the most elegant and impressive room in the palace, due primarily to its large size. The palace church was equally impressive: the royal balcony is open to tourists, where you can look down upon the church and also admire the royal chair sitting on the balcony.


The primary attraction of Pavlovsk is the magnificent grounds: the park is one of the largest royal parks in Europe. Next to the palace are the typical formal gardens, but beyond these are rolling hills, a huge forest, lakes, streams, and various buildings. The park was filled with people enjoying the sunny day and I spent some time aimlessly wandering around the walkways.


The park itself had an exit right next to the Pavlovsk train station, which made returning to St Petersburg quite simple. This station had automated ticket machines with English options, so buying my return ticket was a breeze (the station in Petersburg had them as well, but in my morning rush, I had missed them). The journey back to the city was equally uneventful.


This featured blog entry was written by Glichez from the blog World Tour: 2017-2018.
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