Russia, My Russia: Part V

The previous installment of Husam’s travelogue can be found here.

Like most people, I have heard a lot about the Hermitage, but never in my wildest dreams expected it to be as stupendous as it turned out to be. Everyone knows the Hermitage is grand, not everyone realizes what “grand” truly means.

The museum is located on the waterfront, surrounded by statues. Behind it is a vast open square in the middle of which is the largest podium made of a single piece of granite in the world. The palace itself was built to host the collections of art and sculpture and curiosities that the Russian Empire both produced and collected, beginning at the time of Catherine the Great.

Nothing was spared as successive Russian monarchs tried their best to benefit their country by sending agents to gather and assemble precious collections of art, as well as commission Russian and international artists and architects to design and build. The mere size of the St. Petersburg museum made me realize that at least several other world museums can easily fit inside this gargantuan wonderland.

Once you enter the maze of the Hermitage, even a compass or the latest GPS system, even a laser-guided tour, will not save you from getting lost in its vastness. Your mind will wander in its labyrinth and your heart will jump in every new room you encounter. It is simply endless.

The Hermitage boasts huge exhibits centered Romans, Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian civilizations, rooms that not many people know about. Add to that precious collections of paintings from every epoch and every school of art. Add carvings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, and so on. This is beside the fact that the presentation itself is just as priceless:

Each new hall and gallery has a different theme. The floors vary from marble mosaics to wooden parquet of every conceivable color and design, created with loving care, like a painting that you can walk on. The ceiling decorations vary from oil-paint to gold decorations, while the walls are adorned with lamps, curtains, and accessories. Every hall is also furnished with huge vases, lamps, or tables made of precious and semiprecious stones.

Days and days, if not lifetimes, can be spent in the Hermitage. I tore myself out of there and into the outside world again with considerable difficulty.

The city of St. Petersburg greeted me with islands, canals, and bridges. It’s no wonder they call this place “the Venice of the North.” The people who built Petrograd, as some Russians affectionately call it, didn’t economize on anything.

The only real problem of exploring St. Petersburg is the weather. It was too cold to walk much, and as the sun set, I had my Iftar and conserved my energy for a new day.

The next (chilly) morning, I went to the Hermitage waterfront and embarked on the hydrofoil river and sea cruise, crossing the delta of the famous Neva River into the sea, working my way into the heavily forested shores on the outskirts of the city. In an hours time we reached a small quay that lead in to a long canal, disembarking just in time for the sun to shine briefly between the clouds. One begins to miss the sun in St. Petersburg, I can promise you that much.

The canal itself was built for the royal family to approach the Peterhof Palace. This palace was built for Peter the Great, the despot and dreamer who pushed through reforms that modernized Russia. He was the one who established the Russian navy, and was described as helping tp building ships with his own hands. He bought collections of curiosities from Europe and central Asia and founded the first Russian museum, the Kunstkammer in Moscow, housing his “cabin of curiosities”. Above all, he is the father of St. Petersburg.

Peterhof was built to celebrate Peter’s victory over the Swedes and his annexation of this area into his realm. Again, no expense was spared. The gardens are actually forests of trees, flowers, statues, and water fountains crisscrossed by elegant pathways, beautifully designed so that one suddenly finds oneself walking upon hidden houses, huts or palaces, places Peter hosted guests.

The surroundings are dreamy, yet in his unique sense of humor Peter made sure the visitors wouldn’t surrender completely to fantasies by waking them up through a series trap fountains like water guns. These devices shoot jets of water onto passers-by if they step on a certain tile, sit on a specific bench, or even if a certain path has too many visitors.

The entrance to the upper gardens and the main palace is nothing like I have seen, anywhere. Golden statues and water fountains by the hundreds fill the grand plaza leading to the palace. Most prominent of all is the statue of David, forcing open the mouth of a lion with his bare hands. The lion is Sweden, and the muscular David signifies Peter himself.

After a lengthy exploration of the striking palace itself (how many adjectives can I dig up to describe it all? I am beginning to run out of words), I spent the rest of the day in the gardens, enjoying the newly re-emerged sun and the fresh air. I planned the next day to be one of urban exploration.

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One Comment

  1. Steve Smith
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Abdullatif has the Hermitage exactly right. It knocks you down by the sheer power of contents. Readers might be interested to know that just prior to crumbling of the old USSR, the Hermitage was literally crumbling itself.

    I was there in 1983 before the fall, and noted the poor condition of the rooms housing the art. In one of the French impressionists’ room, a piece of plaster broke off the ceiling and shatered on the floor as I stood in front of a Monet. Talk about a distraction. I checked the condition of the plaster ceilings before I entered a gallery from then on, and there were some rooms I didn’t enter due to the iffy nature of the ceilings. Nobody came to clean up the shards as I discovered when I returned to the room four hours later. Paint was peeling from the walls, dust and a sense of hopelessness was everywhere.

    Still, amid the dust and cracks flecks of paint on the floor, the beauty of the collection was stupifying, nor is the paradox lost on the visitor.

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