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Saint Petersburg – Home of the Hermitage

August 17, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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The most European city of Russia, St. Petersburg, was founded by the famous Tsar, Peter the Great as his “window on the west”. The city lying along the Neva River was, for a short period of time, the capital of Russia, but upon Peter’s death the capital was once and for all moved it’s thrown back to Moscow. Today it stands to be one of the most beautiful cities of Russia and home to the infamous Hermitage and former palaces of Peter the Great and his ever so loved wife Catherine the Great.

With the possible exception of the Louvre, there is no museum in the world that rivals the Hermitage in size and quality. Its collection is so large that it would take years to view it in its entirety as there are nearly three million works on exhibit. The museum is especially strong in Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, as well as possessing outstanding collections of works by Monet, Van Gough, Picasso, and Matisse. While I personally enjoyed the later collection there was one Renaissance piece I have to mention, Da Vinci’s Modonna Litta, which would be as famous as the Mona Lisa had it only been stolen too!

Hermitage Ensemble includes five buildings. They are located on the banks of the Neva: the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage, Old Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre. Not least among the attractions of the Hermitage is the museum itself, with its fine interior decoration and architectural detail. The origins of the Hermitage can be traced back to the private art collection of Peter the Great, who purchased numerous works during his travels abroad and later hung them in his residence. Catherine the Great expanded the collection considerably, and she and her successors built the Hermitage collection in large part with purchases of the private collections of the Western European aristocracy and monarchy. By the time Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, he was heir to the greatest collection of art in Europe.

From the gorgeous Winter Palace we took a boat to visit the Summer Palace, known as Peterhof. Peterhof is an immensely luxurious royal estate, lying on the shore of the Baltic Sea. The estate was founded by Peter the Great and shortly after 1710 the tzar had a beautiful park with several palaces built.

Peterhof is comprised of several different areas and buildings including the Grand Peterhof Palace, the Upper Gardens, the Lower Gardens, along with several pavilions and museums. The Grand Peterhof Palace sits less than 100 meters from the shores of the Gulf of Finland atop a 16 meter high bluff. The focal point of both the Lower Park and the Upper Garden is the magnificent Grand Palace with the Grand Cascade in front of it. The Grand Cascade, which goes downhill from the palace towards the Baltic Sea, is one of the largest fountain ensembles in the world.

During our time is St. Petersburg we went to see Swan Lake in the magnificent Mariinsky Theatre. The Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre is considered to be the most important and most spectucalar opera and ballet stage in St. Petersburg. Mariinsky theatre was constructed in 1859 and the architectural decor of the sumptuous auditorium has hardly changed since the 19th century. The ceiling painting is the work of Italian artist Enrico Franchioli. The splendid curtain, an emblem of the Mariinsky Theatre, was created by the famous Russian theater artist Aleksandr Golovin in 1914 during the peak of Russian ballet. White sculptures, brilliant gilt, magnificent bronze chandelier and blue drapings complete the glamourous effect. I’m already a huge fan of any ballet, and to see Swan Lake in this breathtaking theater was truly a dream.

Another highlight of St. Petersburg was the The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Both the interior and exterior of the church is decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, designed and created by the most prominent Russian artists of the day Vasnetsov, Nesterov and Vrubel. This a cathedral along with St. Basils in Moscow displays the candy-land like architecture which has been one of my favorite things about my visit to Russia.

Since St. Petersburg was much more affordable in terms of restaurants and cafes than Moscow, we were able to enjoy and experience the local foods of the country while we were here. As I’m sure you know vodka and caviar are two Russian favorites, but dishes like borshch and belini’s are just as popular.

Vodka became a Russian thing because the Russians didn’t have many grapes, but they did have a lot of grain. Distilled grain wine was easy to produce and could therefore be sold at low prices, competing with popular drinks such as beer and mead. Although initially consumed as medicine, vodka had grown in popularity so much that by the end of the 15th Century, Grand Duke Ivan III, Tsar of all the Russians, imposed a state monopoly on the production and sale of vodka, as well as other alcoholic drinks, thus considerably swelling the state’s coffers.

Borshch is beet soup and one of the most famous Russian traditional foods. The soup is full of vegetables and meat. The layered flavors in this soup are best with a dollop of fresh sour cream.

Belini, a thin pancake, much like a French crepe, was one of our favorite Russian foods! Blini are most of the time served rolled with a variety of fillings: jam, cheese, onions, or even chocolate syrup. Blinis are such an important part of Russian cuisine, a festival called Maslenitsa celebrates the beginning of spring with them.

Russia was such a unique place to visit and a wonderful experience. From Red Square and the Kremiln to the Hermitage and Peterhof Palace we truly saw it all. We really enjoyed every bit of our time in this exciting country, I can’t believe it has already come to an end. But with every ending there is a beginning… Stockholm, Sweden here we come!

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