Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – Peterhof

BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – PETERHOF
20 June 2016

The day started with a mad dash. We had overslept and woke – with panic! – at 07h48, almost an hour later than planned since we needed to disembark by 08h30 and of course still needed to get breakfast on board!

Fortunately the weather was good so less layers (and no brolly hunt!) meant quicker prep and we were pounding the passages just over 10 minutes later, hair-wash day ‘n all!

Christian, ever-cautious planner as he is, insisted we go past the meeting place (on the other end of the ship from the Windjammer breakfast bar) first. Turned out to be a good call as we were issued our stickers and instructions on where to meet the bus (in 45 minutes; on the other side of immigration) leaving just enough time to have a flash breakfast. Well, hopefully enough time; there was still the gamble of how long passport control would take (but it was a risk we were willing to bear).

We probably did ourselves a favour by being that little bit later judging by the queues, which were virtually non-existent. Other passengers hadn’t been so lucky, had overestimated the time required and consequently been sitting on the bus for the better part of an hour already.

A visa is required for shore excursions in Russia. If you make your own plans, you need to arrange your own visa. If you do the ship’s excursions you travel on a “Captain’s visa”, which really just means it is included in the package and doesn’t require any additional paperwork. We’d done the latter since it was so much easier and visas are an expensive exercise, so sailed (pun intended) through passport control.

We were perfectly to time, arriving at our assigned coach just before 9. Our guide, Uda, greeted us warmly. She gave it another few minutes before expressing that we were waiting on the last 5 guests on our roll for the day. When they still weren’t with us 10 minutes later, she did a few rounds of hurried counting up and down the aisles, double-checking herself. Counting sounds like hard work in Russian (although they probably say the same about us).

Starting with the usual pleasantries, Uda told us we were lucky to have such a warm, clear blue-skies day, sharing that St Petersburg usually only enjoys around
60 sunny days a year. She wasn’t surprised at all that it had been cold and wet in Tallinn the previous day. So much for summer!

The drive into town was about 20 minutes. Uda filled the time with stories about the city, its history and its name.

The city was obviously named after St Peter. The name was changed during first World War because St Petersburg sounded too German, so it was changed to Petrograd (“grad” means city in Russian) to make it sound more Russian. In 1924 it was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin died and was only changed back to St Petersburg in 1991 with the fall of the Communist Empire.

The city is held in esteem to this day by the rest of the country, having gained hero status in the 900 day siege in WWII. The city held the Germans at bay for almost 3 years, but not without loss. Desperately starved of food, the siege shrunk the population by half (mostly because of starvation and exposure) to 1,5 million people. Soldiers and workmen were rationed to 250 grams of bread (or similar substitutes when there was no bread) and general populous half of that. To top it all off, they were subjected to one of the coldest winters, with temperatures dropping to up to 40 degrees below, with no electricity and no heating.

Now the city is back up to 5 million people, thanks to the immigre who come to work and study (this is the cultural and educational capital of Russia) and is the second biggest behind Moscow, which is 600 km away and has in excess of 15 million people.

It sounds like St Petersburg has had more than its fair share of strife, in the early days attributed to its position as strategic trade route between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This sparked the 21 year war (1700 – 1721) with Sweden. Peter the Great won back St Petersburg against Charles VII of Sweden – a highly revered military leader of the time so it was quite the coup – and established his summer Palace, Peterhof, as monument to the victory. His vision were completed OTT, using the Palace of Versailles as his muse, complete with mansions, gardens that went on for days and endless fountains.

Peterhof was our destination for Day 1 of the tour.

On our way out of town, Uda shared with us about how the people of this city lived and live. In olden times there was a big divide between the haves and the have nots.  St Petersburg is dubbed “The City of 1000 Palaces” because it is so grand with a more than representative sample of mansions and stately buildings. The royal and noble people built enormous places, ridiculously decadent in both size and decor. The ground floor would house the hundreds (or in some cases, like the Winter Palace, thousands) of staff required to maintain the place. The owners would then occupy upper floor/s, hosting parties with reckless abandon… if they were there at all.

The Bolsheviks confiscated these inner-city palaces from the aristocracy during the Revolution and nationalised them, turning them into communal flats. The palaces were reallocated room by room, such an entire family would occupy a single room, sharing kitchen and bathrooms with other families. The palaces went from being decadently airy to providing an average of 5 square metres per person.

Uda told us that most families had a dacha (modest chalet) or cottage (quite roomy generally double storey house) outside the city too. This is where they would escape the city in the summer to go to the forests or swimming at the lake (presumably dropping everything on those 60 sunny days she spoke of). From what I can gather, these may have been the family homes that they occupied before moving into the allocated quarters in the redistributed Palace accommodations. Uda’s family dacha was 100km south of St Petersburg, she told us, which had been very far out back in the day, but was the perfect “just out of town” now that the city had grown so much (sounds a bit like Hartebeespoort back home).

We arrived to Peterhof, able to see immediately the grandeur old Peter had intended. Enormous buildings in yellow with white columns and trim, expansive cobbled and gravelled courtyard and walkways, sculpted and manicured gardens in perfect symmetry as far as the eye could see and fountains. LOTS of fountains.

The tour ended up being a walk through the gardens, pointing out notable fountains from the 150 on the property. Not naturally being one excited by such things, it was impossible not to be impressed. If not by the magnitude of the project, then by the impressive application of rudimentary physics and technology, using gravity to move the unbelievable amounts of water to these (largely aesthetic) features. There is no internal recycling of water at all. The water moves from springs about 4km away to the storage lakes, through the fountains and then out to the Baltic Sea.  30 cubic kilolitres of water a day!

There were some fountains of deep symbolic intent – eg the Eve fountain in the Western end of the garden symbolising the end of paradise, with her matching Adam on his own fountain in the Eastern end – and some where enormous effort had been put in above and beyond the fountain, like a checkerboard cascade which had been designed to match the Palace’s blue and white checkerboard floor and which had all sorts of statues (including some oddly out of place dragons) on either side and at the top.

Peter I also had some whimsical ideas like the water road he had put in. With jets on either side of the sand road, twice a day the road became impassable because of the solid water arch they created. He also conceptualised the trick fountains, where jets strategically hidden behind benches would be activated when certain stones in the cobbled pathway where stood upon. There were some proper upside down smiles from some of the grumpies on our tour who got “tricked”!

There was a “should have been” trick in the monument just outside of the trick fountain garden, where legend was rhat one could gain a wish by throwing coins at the metal figure. It was fortunate if your wish was for more coins because this come true simply by visiting the other side of the statue!

On our way out of the gardens we passed Catherine the Great’s swimming pool. It’s enormous. Pity the pool guy who had to maintain that! Can’t imagine she had much time to linger in the pool though, what with her husband being killed and her claiming power via coup d’etat n all. It is now the only mechanically pumped fountain in the Gardens.

The end of the circuit deposited us back in front of the Palace building, with a magnificent view surveying everything we’d walked over the past few hours. And that was only the Lower Gardens. Who knew what the Upper Gardens held.

Despite ourselves, we’d enjoyed it. We had been very fortunate with the weather; I’d imagine if it were cold and or rainy, we’d have had less good humour for the anecdotes and water features.

The stories of the Royal family, their eccentricities, extravagances and anguishes was intriguing.  Mental note to self was to figure out the chronology of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and Nicholases!