Sunday 29 September 2091
Almost palaced out, we took a final lunge at the summer palace of the first, not-Great, Catherine, about an hour by car south of St Petersburg. It resides in huge gardens in the suburb named after Russia’s leading poet, Alexander Pushkin. His bronze likeness slouches, searching for a rhyming couplet, in one of the public parks now afire with autumn leaves.
“The boy stood on the burning deck . . .um, what rhymes with deck?”
The 300-metre-long palace is in the very ornate baroque style, with room upon room decorated in gold leaf covered caving and paintings. The building, gift wrapped in gardens and ponds, was a present from Catherine’s husband, Peter the Great. The main reception room is massive, with windows on either side positioned to take advantage of the 22 hours of sunlight per day in summer. There is extensive use of mirrors to turn the large into the enormous. Even though this is supposedly a highlight of a trip to St Petersburg, it has a feeling of being too overdone to be authentic. Everything looks new, everything glittering. The famous amber room, where all the wall and ceiling panels are made from pieces of amber, was only completed (as a reproduction) in 2005.
Imagine all the people . .
I did like the portrait of Catherine’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was keen on schmuttas. She ruled as Empress of Russia from 1741 to1761 and when she died, left behind 15,000 dresses. Ah, the Australian fashion industry could do with a few Elizabeths!
“Dressmaker, dressmaker, make me a dress. Yes, another one!”
Although the palace left us a little underwhelmed, it is still an ever more powerful magnet for tourists. The mornings are restricted to ticketed tour groups (multiple flocks of them which included us) but in the afternoon the floodgates are opened, and in stream all the rest who couldn’t book tickets but will not able to go on living until they have visited Catherine’s palace. Their queues fill the park’s pathways to vanishing point and on a typical day they can wait for four hours just to get inside the door to join the swarm of serious jostlers. Some of the tour guides call the queues the Chinese wall, indicating the number of tourists now coming from China.
I think we are nearing saturation point with tourists trying to see the most famous sights around the world. The weight of numbers is not only making visiting an ordeal, it is also destroying the very places and objects they have come to see. The future will perfect virtual reality tours and the kudos of ‘been there done that’ will diminish.
Can a palace be too perfect?
After talking to locals about vodka, some interesting conclusions have emerged. In general,
Russians don’t like it. Even though it is virtually synonymous with Russia, they find the taste and the smell offensive. That’s why the way to drink vodka is to fire each shot straight down the gullet. It used to be a tradition to hold your nose while you were drinking it to avoid getting a whiff of the stuff, but modern vodka has been largely deodorised. Nevertheless, no sipping, no staring into the glass while you make a whirlpool and no commenting on its colour; it is clear anyway. Down the hatch, breathe in, say ahhh and try to smile – is the way to do it. Vodka’s only purpose is to induce inebriation.
I bought a bottle of cherry/plum vodka for private swigging. With a mere 20 percent alcohol, it takes a while to penetrate the senses. It helped me through last night at an organ recital in the blazingly lit concert hall across the road from our hotel. I had to buy a program, only to find it was all in Russian. Apart from some Bach, I didn’t know what I was listening to and obviously wasn’t meant to. However, he was a good organist and, with the help of the vodka, I came back uplifted – sort of.