Wednesday 2 October 2019

Don’t leg it before you egg it, says the advice to Australian travellers. That means a visit to the Faberge museum, luckily only a ten-minute walk from the Hotel Belmond. The museum is on the bank of one of the canals that Peter the Great, founder of St Petersburg, envisioned as a city feature to copy Amsterdam. Most of the canals were subsequently filled in but a few have survived, now used for brief tourist trips in crouching boats – to fit under the low bridges without decapitation.

A statue in front of a building

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These two blokes were scared of heights, so they sat on the roof rather than stand up.

I thought we were lucky with the weather, since the rain had held off and the temperature seemed okayish to sit out on the open deck for the hour excursion. Wrong. By the time I returned to the wharf I was an Icypole, with seized-up legs. However, that did not deter us from observing St Petersburg from the water – firstly from the canal and later the Neva River which is exceptionally wide in parts and goes down to 24 metres deep – just where they needed to build a bridge. The Russians have been happy to call in the world’s best engineers, designers and architects for their big projects and give them credit for their ingenuity. Even though smiling isn’t popular, I detect a layer of kindness beneath the clamped jaws. Let us not forget that Russia lost 27 million people in the Second World War. Imagine the entire population of Australia being wiped out – and that still not being enough? Even today, every family has blanks on its tree where aged and venerated grandparents should be. 

Taking the river cruise and seeing the city from many different angles emphasises the brilliant decision to keep the building height limit down to about seven stories. The original reason was that nobody could have a building taller than the Czars’ palaces, except cathedrals

because God has unlimited height rights. In the city you can see the dome of St Isaac from virtually everywhere, but away beyond the city limits, and therefor height restrictions, the tallest building in Europe is being completed. It is the Lakhta Centre, 87 stories, 462 metres. It looks like a giant rocket ready to launch. 

We passed a first world war battleship, the Aurora, tied up in the river and looking like a fierce old dog that has lost its teeth. It apparently survived the most unsuccessful sea battle that Russia fought in WW1. When Russia joined in the second world war the navy cranked up the Aurora for another go but it was like entering a T model Ford in a Formula One race. After failing to threaten anybody it grumbled home to its rocking chair in the river where it is meticulously maintained by the naval cadets. 

A large ship in a body of water

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The Aurora, a great old warrior from WW1

Coming right down to the tiny and the historical, we went into the Faberge museum where some of the famous Easter eggs are on show along with many of the other personally precious Faberge products like snuff boxes and jewellery. The exhibition is filled out with plates, vases and exotic tableware from the 18th and 19th Centuries plus quite an extensive art collection of Russian painters. The building in which the exhibition is housed used to be a palace and has been meticulously recreated – but now as a museum.

The Faberge jewellery business was started in 1842, supplying a wide range of clients from royalty down to mid-market. By 1872 Carl Faberge was running the business and began making his famous Easter eggs, almost exclusively as gifts between members of the royal families. Besides their exquisite craftsmanship and precious materials, each egg contains a surprise. Some open to reveal tiny items inside. Two of them open at the top and a bird pops up, flaps its wings and sings. Others double as clocks. It took a craftsman at least a year to make one egg. The full collection is dispersed around the world, with pieces in museums or private hands. The largest single collection, of 10 eggs, is in the Moscow Kremlin Armory. 

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Press a button and the rooster pops up, opens his ivory beak and crows.

My personal experience with Faberge was many years ago when I cottoned on to Faberge 

Brut aftershave. It was supposed to disarm women’s sexual resistance (unfortunately not the ones who sniffed me) and became the world’s top selling aftershave. It was not made by the Faberge jewellery company, but came from a licence arrangement with Unilever to use the name. 

I spent some time admiring the art collection. Here were Russian artists little known outside the country, but whose work is up there with the best – in portraiture, landscape and impressionism. One artist who I’ve now seen frequently is Ivan Aivaovsky who is well known here for seascapes. He specialises in showing sailing ships breaking up on the rocks while the poor sailors are doing badly in a rowing boat trying to save their lives – but you know that the next wave will see them all in the drink. 

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Not a Bondi surf boat. A painting by Ivan Aivaovsky who liked the ocean to win.

A large white building

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Maximum building height in the city
A person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera

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              The famous sculpture of Ivan Wellhungski guards the Fab