I somehow managed to be the first person down to breakfast and they tucked me away in a corner then proceeded to seat everyone else in the middle. It was funny.
This morning’s lecture was quite good; an excellent precis of Russian history from Ivan the Terrible (who, apparently, was primarily known as “terrible” because he terrified the Mongolian horde into submission and only then known as “terrible” due to his sadistic and cruel tendencies, no examples of which I will enumerate here) all the way through Putin. We learned how Peter the Great decided that his main naval port, off the Berents Sea, was impossible due to the fact that it’s frozen much of the year. So he decided to establish the new port city of St. Petersburg, which proved very difficult since it’s situated on a very marshy area. At first, he had to pay to have the ships come in and deliver goods. He was also amazing for a number of reasons; he was the first ruler of Russia to venture into Europe, where he and his childhood friend Alexander Menshikov disguised themselves as “regular people” and spent two years living in places such as France and England, among others. In England he worked at a shipyard as a carpenter, with Menshikov right at his side. When he finally returned to Russia he essentially dragged it “kicking and screaming” into the cultural mainstream. And even though he ruled Russia, he still belonged to the fire brigade and worked right along his people putting out fires. At 6′ 7″ he would have been extraordinarily easy to spot.
Our first stop this morning was Menshikov Palace, the first stone building in the city. Situated on Vasilyvesky Island (St. Petersburg was originally composed of 105 islands but is now considered to encompass only 42), it was built around 1710. Alexander Menshikov, although by birth a stable boy, proved to be Peter the Great’s true and lifelong companion. I don’t intend to make this a huge history lesson, so will only add that amazingly enough the Palace survived revolutions and wars virtually unscathed. It now is part of the Hermitage -er- stable (sorry) and contains much of the original furniture and furnishings.
As an aside, I think the Russians are on to something, since you are only allowed to take photographs in their museums if you have purchased a photo permit, with flash photography strictly forbidden. Some of the larger places, such as the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, include that price in the admission. At the Menshikov Palace we had to pay 200 rubles each for the privilege (around $6).
Every single building in this country offers a cloakroom; it is not permitted to take jackets/coats and the like into major venues. At many places this is a free service. Outside the cloakroom of the Menshikov Palace was an enormous wooden chest filled with assorted slippers, consisting of a shoe-shaped piece of felt into which you inserted your shoe, while two 1/2 inch strips of elastic stretched from the tongue to the heel and held the whole thing on. There was much merriment over this, because one has to find two (preferably matching) ones and get them on your feet. And yes, they are slippery!
There has been some restoration done on the Palace, but not all, due to funds. The children’s wing, for example, is in terrible shape with no plans for salvage (we weren’t even allowed to go in there). Our museum guide, a soft-spoken middle aged woman, spoke to our regular guide, Larissa, who translated. It’s an oddly charming place, with several rooms all but papered with blue Dutch tiles, even the stove. Only the floor was spared. Another room boasted beautiful Chinese silk art, another a painted ceiling in the process of restoration.
From there we resumed our somewhat interrupted city tour. Today was our traditional Russian food luncheon, most of which I liked (although the cream sauce on the chicken fricassee … yes, I know that’s French but due to the fact that the Russians have used French chefs for a few centuries now “fricassee” has become a Russian dish … did me in). After the Demidoff Restaurant we were taken to the Museum of the Samoilov’s Actors, to be greeted with champagne and Russian chocolates. I detest champagne … more specifically the bubbles … and was too full for the chocolate, which was probably a good thing, based on how I’ve been eating since I got here.
The Museum tour decanted us into a high-ceilinged hall with many rows of chairs, portraits, a piano and next to that another chair. This was our private piano and balalaika concert. I have never seen anyone play a balalaika, much less with such flying, flawless dexterity.
We were very grateful to have a couple of hours’ downtime before the evening’s great event, attending Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov). I had a nap. Bad idea. It made me not want to get dressed to the eights (tomorrow night we get dressed to the nines) and attend, but I was pretty sure I’d never have such an opportunity again, no matter how I feel about opera.
The Mariinsky is absolutely stunning, its interior surrounded by the gracious curves of white and gold balconies, a giant orchestra pit and what looked like the original stage curtain. Our seats were in the orchestra section. At both concerts—last night and tonight—we had chairs, not the sort of movie theatre seats one is used to in the States. And they are not comfortable, either.
The opera was performed in Italian, with a marquee board discreetly attached to the top of the stage with the words flowing across in Russian. The set consisted of a large greyish-brown curtain upon which were projected images of the scenes they represented, so that the first scenes, which took place in a forest, showed leafy boughs and tree trunks. It was most disconcerting, however, because the stage hands manipulated the curtain to provide nooks or hills upon which the performers climbed, so the screen did a lot of odd billowing. That took some getting used to! Once they got out of the forest a tall house took the place of the trees on the projection screen and the billowing disappeared, making it much easier to concentrate.
Due to the fact that “Don Carlo” is at least four hours long, we were offered the option of a ride home at the first intermission (if so desired). Most of us took that offer. We’d decided to leave our coats in the bus (since it was parked very close to the theatre) rather than deal with the cloakroom so shivered our way across the darkness of ice and snow and biting wind.
Big doings tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll stay awake long enough to share….