Even in the milling crowds that flow in silent awe through endless corridors and cavernous chambers of the Hermitage, you can still imagine the richly-gowned figure of Empress Catherine the Great, utterly alone in this city of empty rooms, the size of five cathedrals, wandering miles through anemic winter light, with only skittering mice and the soft echo of her own footsteps to keep her company. The palace is so vast, and the air outside so cold, she can see her breath, even in the warmest rooms. Built in the mid 18th Century, the robin’s egg blue-and-gilt Hermitage is a monument to Peter the Great’s heroic efforts a half-century earlier to emulate the glories of Europe, open a window to the West, and propel Old Russia out of the dark ages.
It is here that Catherine, a Prussian princess by birth, takes up self-imposed solitude in what she comes to call her winter palace, attended not by a royal court, as was the custom in Europe, but by just a handful of servants who stay out of sight and tiptoe among the shadows in padded slippers. Court favorites live elsewhere, and visit the Hermitage only on invitation.
She corresponds regularly with French philosopher and celebrated wit Voltaire, to whom she reveals her secret affection for her tiny palace companions.
You can almost picture her, in shimmering teal blue silk, her white hair brushed straight back from her high forehead, taking her solitary daily constitution through one great hall after another, glazed ceramic Dutch ovens radiating heat in the corners. Outside, she can see the frozen Neva River, and in the sky beyond that, a winter storm blowing down from Finland, sweeping dark across the Baltic Sea (150 years later, a very different kind of storm will overwhelm the Hermitage as Bolsheviks seize Tsar Nicholas and the royal family, then draw up revolutionary documents in one of the palace’s least extravagant rooms).
Today virtually all the palaces in an around St. Petersburg are museums. The Hermitage holds one of the world’s greatest art collections. Beneath your feet in basement vaults are roughly 3,000,000 more priceless artifacts, some of which are occasionally rotated up to the galleries for exhibition. During World War II, the treasures were moved to secret hiding places. This was a prudent action, because during the horrendous 1,000-day siege of what was then Leningrad, Nazi bombs reduced the Hermitage to a shell of its former self. After the war, the museum was restored to exact historical detail.
Every year in deep winter, Catherine travels three days and 400 miles in an enormous horse-drawn sleigh for an annual state visit to Moscow. In warm months, she moves 20 miles to her summer palace, also robinsegg blue, with extravagant gold and white pilaster detail, a glittering oasis of flower and pear gardens, lakes and pavilions in the dreary Russian countryside. Today, a prosperous suburb surrounds the summer palace.
Like the winter palace, Catherine’s summer palace (not to be confused with another summer palace next to the Hermitage) is a tourist Mecca, even in late May before the official arrival of summer. Crowds choke the attractions – and the reason is obvious.
The port of St. Petersburg is a prized cruise ship destination. So it is not surprising that on any given day you can see three or four, perhaps even five behemoth cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers berthed at the port, just up the coast. These huge cities of the sea disgorge armies of tourists every day in conga lines of tour buses, which wind up at the gates of the monuments.
That’s why, in St. Petersburg, it is essential to hire a private guide, who can get you into the shorter lines and ease the way through the multitudes inside. But even in the shorter lines at the summer palace, you might have to wait half an hour outside the entrance, just to gain entry to the private inside lines, then another 15 minutes to get to the private ticket booth, then another 20 minutes to go through the single entry point to the palace.
Once inside, it is yet another 15 minutes to get up the narrow staircase with the packed crowds from the cruise ships. So you have to bob, weave and squeeze your way through separate tour groups of Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Brits and Americans following guides waving flags.
In the end, we see very little of the palace interior. We do, however, appreciate our brief peek at the restored Amber Room, a gift from Frederick 1 of Prussia (Nazi soldiers looted the room’s original several tons of amber in World War II).
They call St. Petersburg Russia’s Venice. Canals crisscross the old city, luring people to open-deck boats, where they can bask in the very long afternoon sun and the white nights of summer. The boats putter through the canals, passing historic buildings on both sides, then wind up on the Neva, where by late evening, daylight fades sufficiently for the spectacle of the nightly illumination, which transforms the waterfront into a Disneyesque fairyland with necklaces made of thousands of tiny light bulbs.
Beyond the port, and further west along the coast – just a short hop by hydrofoil – lies Peterhof, Peter the Great’s early 18th-Century gift to himself. With a royal canal leading from the Gulf of Finland to a spectacular cascade of fountain terraces, Peter intended Peterhof to impress visitors approaching from the sea, and it does — even to this day.
But Peter himself was content to live in a corner of the palace grounds in a modest royal residence he called Mon Plaisir (“my pleasure” in French, the lingua franca of the day). In another corner he built a little cottage surrounded by a mini moat and tiny drawbridge. He called this special retreat his Hermitage, and it was here that he entertained his closest friends. The entire upstairs is a private dining suite with a huge round dining table and views in all directions. The first floor is the kitchen and pantry. Food was delivered directly to the guests by a clever system of pulleys and dumb waiters in response to the ringing of hand bells, so nobody ever had to lay eyes on even one servant. The consumption of alcohol and food at these exclusive private banquets is said to have been prodigious.
In summer here, the day hardly ends before the new day begins (by contrast, winter in St. Petersburg is essentially one long night, broken only by a few daily hours of light.) At 9:30 p.m. in May, evening sun warms a city park where a Russian tenor accompanied by a small orchestra is singing old favorites to an audience of students, pensioners, young lovers and a handful of foreigners.
It’s almost midnight now after a long day, and from our hotel room I can see people still promenading up and down Prospect Avenue, St. Petersburg’s main drag. In Moscow, the partygoers, night crowd, crazies and bikers would be kicking up a lot of noise on the streets. But here it’s more like Paris or Luxemburg, gentler, not so hectic. Here you don’t see the thousands of men in black, or the fleets of sinister-looking luxury cars. The tourists have all gone back to their floating city-hotels, and everybody here is Russian, in Russia’s most Russian city. It almost makes me want to stay and really get to know the place. But I know the tourists will be back in the morning, and I swore I wouldn’t wait in even one more line.