Saturday, June 28, 2014

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg, Part 1 (Hermitage)

We are officially moved out of our house and living in a hotel until we fly back to the States at the end of next week.  Almost there, Mom!

Anywha, I am reminded again why I shouldn't blog late at night, I forgot to share some more funny stories that Heli told us on our walking tour of Tallinn!  So in downtown Tallinn, there's this really big fancy hotel and back when Estonia was under Soviet control, the KGB set up shop on the 23rd floor.  Of course, they couldn't have guests on that floor, so they came up with a story as to why people weren't allowed to stay on that floor...the view was SO beautiful from the 23rd floor that if you looked at it, you'd go totally CRAZY.  Yeeeeaaahhh that doesn't sound suspicious!  But the hotel was still the place where most foreign visitors were put up in Tallinn, and one time there was this singer from Finland or something staying there.  She discovered that there was no toilet paper in her bathroom, and knowing that the KGB was listening in (and not wanting to go back down to the front desk), she stood in the middle of her room and said out loud, "Wow, I wish I had some toilet paper in the bathroom!"  Two minutes later, there's a knock at the door and a hotel employee is standing there with a new roll of toilet paper, and he tells the singer that if she needs anything else just holler : )  When Soviet rule collapsed and the Baltic republics declared independence, the KGB cleared out of the hotel in a hurry and left most of their spy equipment on the 23rd floor, so nowadays you can go up there and see it for yourself.  Alas, we didn't have time to do that.

Heli also told us that when she has cruise passengers take the tour, sometimes they're surprised at how modern Tallinn is since you hear all these stories about how far behind the times the Soviet Union was when it comes to luxuries the West takes for granted.  One lady told Heli that she was surprised that Estonia had electricity...I mean really?!  (Heli did say that within about 10 minutes of any conversation with an Estonian, they will mention that it was a group of Estonians who invented Skype; it's their claim to fame.)  We also heard a story about a guy from Tallinn who, during the Soviet era, went to Finland or Sweden for some kind of work conference or something and came back saying that those people were MAGIC because they could pull money out of the walls!  Like, literally!  Well, I imagine that to someone who's never seen an ATM, that would be kinda like magic.

But let's move on now, shall we?  Our next stop after Tallinn was St. Petersburg, which was the port I was most excited about and really the main reason why we went on the Baltic cruise.  When I was maybe about 14, there was an exhibition that came through Dallas of jewelry and other items which belonged to Catherine the Great, and my mom took me to it.  I think that might have been what sparked my interest in Russian history, and now I can say I've been to St. Petersburg and seen things like some of Catherine's art collection at the Hermitage!  Rather than doing a tour through the cruise ship (overpriced, don't really get to do that much stuff) we signed up for a two-day tour with a company called Alla Tours.  Our tour guide was mediocre at best but that didn't keep me from enjoying the sites.  And as I mentioned, our first stop on the first day of the tour was the Hermitage.

There I am in front of part of the Winter Palace, which is where the entrance to the Hermitage is.  This is another one of those mega-museums like the Louvre, so of course in two hours we only saw a tiny fraction of the museum's collection.  Wikipedia (source of all knowledge on the interwebs) informs me that the facade of the palace has been painted yellow and later dull red; personally I like the green.

This is a funky-looking lighthouse, one of a pair visible across the Neva River from the Hermitage; Lee took this pic while we were waiting for our tour guide to get our tickets.

And now we start with some pictures of the interior of the Hermitage.  Of course it was originally a palace where Catherine kept her art collection, so a lot of the interior design is as much a work of art as the artwork on display.

Makes the ceilings in your house look downright plain, doesn't it?

This was a long, thin gallery of military portraits of important military dudes after some important battle that I don't remember.  A very few of the pictures are just plain green with no portrait, and that's because a few of the guys died or else were horribly scarred after the battle and didn't care to have their portraits painted.

I think this was a ballroom?  I probably shouldn't be trying to blog about this stuff without consulting my little trip notebook, though I'm not sure how helpful even that would be.  Usually I write about the day's activities in the evenings when we travel, but we saw SO MUCH in St. Petersburg that it would be impossible to remember the particulars of everything we saw and took pictures of.

However, I do know that this is the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Russian royal house.  The eagle was a symbol of the Roman Empire (legions carried a golden eagle standard into battle) and later, of course, the empire was split into the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.  Russia saw itself as a successor state to the Byzantine Empire and adopted the double-headed eagle, which represents the tsar's authority over both church and state.  The West is a bit unusual with its insistence of the separation of church and state, compared with other civilizations where they are not separated and often controlled by the same people.

Inside that case on the left is a giant golden clock, which I'll show you in more detail next time : )

And one last photo of the sumptuous interior of the Hermitage.  More museum pics next time, but for now, cheers peeps!

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