Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Art report / Russia 4

Some people who have heard about my disappointment at the Hermitage have wondered why we got stuck in that bad situation.  Here's more info, which you might keep in mind if you're planning a trip to Russia.

There are two kinds of tourist visas to Russia: a regular visa, which allows you to wander about as you wish, and a 72-hour-tourist visa, available for people who come on cruise ships.  The regular visa costs about $160, so tour operators don't want to buy it for a day stop.  The cruise ship visa comes with the requirement that people must take the official tour offered by the cruise ship, set up as part of the package when the ship arranges its docking.  So you get the tour provided by the official tourist people, visa price included.

Our guide was a former schoolteacher and had good English -- during a longish bus ride he entertained us by reciting poetry in both Russian and English -- and our own tour leader was able to negotiate a few minor changes in the itinerary (we didn't have to stop in the souvenir shop) but we were pretty much stuck with the official plan of two museums, one church inside, one church outside, lunch, and driving around and around St. Petersburg.  That didn't leave much time for any one attraction.

Our "church inside" was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  The inside surfaces are entirely paved with elaborate mosaics; the outside features an array of colorful onion domes.  It was our favorite site of the entire tour and we could easily have spent a lot more time there.

In case you ever find yourself in Russia on a regular visa and get to visit the Hermitage on your own, be prepared for two different admission prices: one for Russian and Ukrainian citizens, and a much higher one for everybody else.  But at least you will have a chance to see some art!!  Give yourself at least one full day, maybe three!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Art report / Russia 3

I am a lover of cold weather, but on so many of my foreign travels I bring a heat wave with me.  We just about melted in Greece and Turkey in 2008; when we spent a month in Germany in 2010 it was so hot across Northern Europe that 11,000 people died in Moscow and many of us wanted to die in Berlin; when I went to Antarctica with a suitcase full of heavy-duty winter gear it was 52 degrees one afternoon.

The day before we left for the Baltic I checked to get the forecasts for every city on our route, and didn't find a single one with a high of more than 60 degrees.  Ha ha.  Perhaps once it got below 60 degrees; our jackets and scarves stayed in the suitcases and we wished for shorts.  It was 87 degrees in St. Petersburg, and that is not a city known for its air conditioning.  Fortunately the big palaces were built with plenty of insulation and stayed tolerably warm-but-not-to-die.  But it was kind of unpleasant in the restaurant and as we strolled through the streets and parks .

We were unimpressed by the time we spent standing on line, not just to get in (three separate lines at the Hermitage)  but to get your passport checked on the way off the ship and to get it checked again on the way back to the ship.

There were crowds everywhere.  Fortunately none of us had things to check in the cloakrooms.

In practically every room of the museums you would see a dour lady sitting on a chair in the corner.  Occasionally one would rise and shout at somebody who committed an infraction, but mostly they just sat there looking glum. 

As we waited on line to get back on the ship we noticed that there were two glum ladies sitting together; at least they got to wear semi-sharp uniforms and had somebody to talk to.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Art report / Russia 2

After they hustled us out of the Hermitage without letting us see very much art, we went to Catherine the Great's Palace, a 45-minute bus ride out of St. Petersburg.  It's a palace -- really big, full of gold trim and baroque trim on everything.  From arrival at the front door to actually entering a room with something notable to look at took one hour.  We waited on line to get in the building, then we waited to get little booties to put on our feet to protect the parquet floors,

then we waited on line in a stairwell for a while

to get into a big room where we staged up and waited for fifteen minutes

before heading on through the endless series of rooms along a corridor.

Each room was very similar to the next one: many of them had big tables set with fancy dinnerware.

Every room had a big porcelain stove (you're seeing only one-quarter of the stove: it served four different rooms).

Our guide was big on pointing out the details of the fabulous furniture, which frankly didn't do much for me.

Then we strolled through the gardens

past Catherine's hermitage, which literally means a little place where you can go and be alone, like a hermit.  You might say it was the start of the tiny house craze.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Art report / Russia 1

In almost three weeks of northern Europe, I was able to find surprisingly little art to report on.  We visited four elite museums but had what I would describe as a satisfying art experience in only two of them.  I'll tackle these in ascending order of satisfaction.

I've been disappointed in museums before (read about our bad day in Berlin here and my bad day in Paris here) but at least I always got to see some art.  That was not to be at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  According to the National Geographic, the fourth greatest museum in the world, with the largest collection of paintings in the world, but according to Kathy, a dud. 

The Hermitage started off as a variety of state buildings, including the royal residence and a large administrative headquarters, so you can imagine that the decor was over the top.  Many, many, many fabulous parquet floors and grand reception rooms:

A life-size gold-and-jeweled peacock clock -- on the hour, he spreads his tail:

In a huge room crowded with tourists, two tiny Da Vinci paintings, which I could not get close to:

Da Vinci, Litta Madonna

Da Vinci, The Benois Madonna

Here, I finally got up close enough to look at some art without 27 people in front of me:

Michelangelo, The Crouching Boy

El Greco, The Apostles Peter and Paul

The greatest disappointment was the Rembrandt collection, the largest of any museum in the world with 15 paintings.  We got to briefly pause in front of two of them before being hustled along by the guide.

Rembrandt, Danaƫ

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son (detail below)

There are three million pieces of art in the Hermitage Collection.  I am not exaggerating:  those six paintings are the only ones I got to stand in front of long enough to take a photo.  What a thrill.