Saturday, July 31, 2010

EuroTour 2010, Day 32, St. Petersburg

We woke up this morning off the coast of Russia.  


Russia is a big deal.  It just is.  Russian history is among the most fascinating, heartbreaking, frustrating histories from the short lifetime of modern humanity.  For a few centuries it was agrarian and poor, for a few centuries it was a mess of competing feudal kingdoms, for many centuries it was an empire under Tsars, and then for less than a century it was a totalitarian, militaristic state called the USSR.  I am not sure it is easy to classify Russia today.  They experimented with democracy but do not really practice it, they experimented with capitalism but do not keep their markets free, and in my opinion they are experimenting with dictatorship again without quite calling it so.  

There is truly no limit to what can be said about Russia.  Instead, it is time to get off the ship and hop into a bus headed to The Hermitage.

Near the docks one sees Russian housing at its most utilitarian.

Our guide Katerina, preparing us for The Hermitage.  Behind her, St. Isaacs's Cathedral, the fourth largest domed church in the world.    

St. Petersburg sits where the River Neva reaches the Baltic Sea.  Peter The Great ordered that all the buildings face the rivers and canals and be beautiful.  From a distance, they are.

The Hermitage Museum.  The Winter Palace of the Tsars, in green, white and gold, was simply a palace for the Tsars.  In 1764, Catherine the Great, who expanded the borders of the Russian Empire further even than Peter The Great, took a smaller building next to the Winter Palace and placed her art collection there, naming it her Hermitage, a place to be alone with her art collection like a hermit.  Soon her collection outgrew this, "Little Hermitage," and she built a second building.

The art collecting of the Romanovs knew few limits.    Fortunately, Nicholas I visited Munich in 1838 and was impressed by the public museums that were works of architectural art in themselves.  He hired a German architect to build him such a museum, and the New Hermitage was born next to the Little Hermitage and the Old Hermitage.   At this point, The Hermitages were open to the public -- the first public museums in Russia --  though it obviously depended upon your status whether or not you actually got inside.

But guess who we owe today's Hermitage collection to?  The Bolsheviks.  When they stormed the Winter Palace in 1917 and took control of Russia, they declared the Winter Palace and the Hermitage to be state museums.  And, in keeping with their beliefs, the new Soviet State seized private art collections throughout Russia during the following decades, increasing the state's art collection threefold.  Then along came World War II and Russia was forced, yes, forced, to take half of Europe away from Hitler.  In the process, a lot of the art in that half of Europe ended up at the Hermitage.  

My ticket to The Hermitage Museum.  You know, when I think about it, maybe the 70 years when there was simply no way for a Westerner to enter this building in "Leningrad" will be an afterthought.  One can hope that St. Petersburg shall remain open to the world for good.

Museums.  I did not even bother saying much about the Louvre during last month's visit, because how could an educated person who can read English not know that Paris' Louvre Museum is one of the greatest museums in the world?  Well, The Hermitage… let me put it this way.  It is on par with the Louvre.  Barbie and I both actually feel that it is more impressive, but I allow that this could be because the Louvre has always been available to us.  However, the art collection at The Hermitage is simply overwhelming.

And not just a piece of Dutch impressionism here and a touch of cubism there with some Renaissance over here.  Amazing pieces of art from every era of recorded history, grouped together in significant numbers, presented in a royal palace that rivals any in the world.  And they allow photography in the Hermitage Museum, as long as you do not use a flash.  Do you have any idea how many pictures I took?

I am not even going to try to show you a complete picture of what you see when you visit the Hermitage.  Instead, I am going to show you a few favorites here and there, chosen sometimes for the art and sometimes because I particularly like the picture that I took.  All I have to say is that if you care even a little about art, about what mankind has managed to create over the last few millennia, then a visit to the Hermitage has to be on your list.

Cupid, Etienne Maurice Falconet, 1757.

Still life with Drapery, Paul Cézanne, 1895.

Out the window, I spotted the Palace Square, or Dvortsovaya Pl, and the Alexander Column which commemorates Alexander I's triumph over Napoleon in 1812.  You know, Napoleon and the Tsars battled so frequently, and each built an arch or a column every time that they won a battle, that you really cannot help but be disgusted by these men and their ambitions.  Today may be the best time to ever be alive, and I am serious about that, because it would appear that no European emperor is ever going to try to conquer the world again.

It breaks my heart that I am not going to get into that square.  Was there ever a more perfect place for a panorama shot?  Why, you ask, am I not going to stand there?  This gets us into what is pretty annoying about Russia.  I will save it for another day.  We are here for three, and there is no need to get into that on day one.  

Time to stop looking out the window.

Dance, Henri Matisse, 1910.

Dance in context.  I wanted you to see its size in comparison to human beings.

Two Sisters (The Visit), Pablo Picasso, 1902.  Considering how much Picasso has been displayed on the Waste, I thought I would mess with your heads and show you something earlier.

Okay, I am still predictable.

Musical Instruments, Pablo Picasso, 1912.

I did not get the information on the faun, but I wanted to share with you the amazing room where it rests.  You know, when Baroque rooms restrain themselves to be mostly white, I quite like it.

A throne room.  Take that in.  Can you imagine walking through a museum and coming across a room that is itself a work of art to this degree?

The Hermitage Theater, added in the 1780's for the Imperial Family to take in a show with their closest friends.

The Loggia of Raphael, reproduced for Catherine the Great.  When she visited the Vatican, she so fell in love with Raphael's Loggia that she got Papal permission to have Raphael's students recreate the Loggia for her, replacing the Papal coat-of-arms with the Romanov two-headed eagle, of course.  The original was destroyed by fire, making this copy extremely important.

Kiss of Cupid and Psyche, 1797, Antonio Canova.

Portrait of an old Jew, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1669.  

I had to throw in a Rembrandt, and, well, Barbie and I both found the title of this painting too hilarious to ignore.

Black-glazed Hydria, the so-called regina vasorum, 4th Century B.C.  Found off the coast of Campania, Italy.  When you see a vase that is 2,400 years old, you take a picture and you show it to people.

Time for a lunch break.

Outside the Hermitage, you see this wonderful view of the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Peter the Great began planning this city before the territory had been won from Sweden.  As history is a series of coincidences, King Charles IV of Sweden absolutely had Peter defeated, but instead of going into Moscow to finish off Russia for good, he turned to attack Poland, which he considered a more serious threat at that time.  Sweden's battles with Poland gave Peter time to modernize his army and build this fortress, and by the time the Swedes returned Peter was able to win a decisive victory.  

Can you imagine a world where modern day Russia is a part of Sweden?  Sweden, which never had serfdom, and whose principles of human rights have made it the most open and democratic nation on Earth today?  It boggles the mind.

For lunch, we were loaded back onto the bus and taken to a genuine Russian restaurant.

Note the basement decor.  

We were served chicken with some gravy and potato wedges.  I liked it a lot more than anyone else in my family.

Dessert was ice cream.  They offered us champagne and vodka as well, but we passed on it.  We are headed back to the Hermitage, after all.

When you finish a cup of Russian coffee, this is what you see.

Our restaurant was across the street from the Church on the Spilled Blood.  We are visiting this church the day after tomorrow, and I will save the sad history of this church for then.

This city of rivers and canals should rival Amsterdam and Venice, the cities that inspired it.  We would need the Russian government and people to greatly change their mind-set for this to be reality, but anything is possible.  There is something about St. Petersburg that is just not quite right.  There is something angry and distant about this city and its people.  It is a shame, and I hope it will change someday.

This monument was inspired by the Vatican.  In a way, St. Petersburg was Vegas of the 18th century, building homages to the great cities of the world.

Back inside the Hermitage…

A close-up of a Roman statue in the foreground, with a first century AD colossal Jupiter in the background.  

I asked myself why this Waste entry is statue heavy.  The answer?  Pictures of three dimensional subjects look better than pictures of two dimensional subjects.

This may be my favorite picture of the day.  Clearly this Greek woman is contemplating whether or not she should turn to Barbie and ask why her husband has an iPhone in her face.

I do love artichoke.  In case you wondered, the ancient Greeks did as well.

These Greek statues were in front of the Gold Room, where the imperial jewels are kept.  You can imagine the kind of jewelry that the Tsars and Tsarinas collected.   And it leaves little doubt why the excesses of royalty leads to revolution.  By the way, in addition to watches and rings and diamonds and emeralds, the Gold Room also has the imperial collection of Greek and Roman gold artifacts.  From coins to daggers, these pieces that dated to the 5th century BC (2,600 years ago) were amazing.

And with that, our eight hour day at the Hermitage ended.

Back on the bus, this photograph does not reveal the extent to which Soviet-era buildings are horribly ugly.  I suppose they wanted the people to be depressed.  The truth is that I cannot even speculate.  One day in Russia and the only thing for certain is that I would need to have an honest conversation dozens of locals to understand what has happened here.  They defeated Hitler, pretty much without our help, only to live under their own totalitarian, militaristic, and genocidal government.  Yet I suspect there is pride in and loyalty to country, even when it is a horrible one.  Like people who defend abusive parents.

Barbie has felt sick all day, and went to bed almost immediately.  I headed down to dinner.

I started with sweetbreads, even though I know that they disgust most everyone.

A tuna steak.

Pear and lillet sherbet.

Time to go back to the room and see how Barbie is.  We have another long day planned in St. Petersburg tomorrow.  Hopefully some rest will help.

Until tomorrow...

Friday, July 30, 2010

EuroTour 2010, Day 31, Tallinn, Estonia

It is a bit of a tradition to share my first look at a country that I am seeing for the very first time.  Normally this leads to fields seen from an airplane.  Since our current mode of transportation goes back a few thousand years further than manned flight, first-look pictures are going to show more water than anything else.

There she is, Estonia.  What do you know about Estonia?  I shall share what I knew about Estonia before this visit.  A former Soviet Republic, nestled in that not too fortunate neighborhood between Poland and Russia, Estonia has gotten the historical short end of the stick for much of its existence, until the USSR crumbled from within and Estonia joined the European Union and managed to get the "up and coming" label.  

Also, if you read Dilbert in the 90's you saw many comic strips featuring computer work outsourced to Estonia, and if you were like me you might have looked up Estonia to find out if this country was fictional or not.  Yes, I first learned of Estonia from Dilbert, not a history class. 

Omelet and bacon in the sunlight.  There are few better ways to begin a day.

Today we begin the cruise tradition of the shore excursion.  This is where you pay the cruise line to take you on a tour.  Last year we did this very rarely, as we do pretty well on our own with a map and ideas from Wikipedia.  This year, since we are in much less familiar territory, we are joining my parents on excursions almost every day.

We gathered in the Crystal Lounge to await our walking tour through Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.  This couple perfectly embodies the feeling one has while waiting.

Cruise Ship Waiting.  Candid, July, 2010.

Tallinn, Estonia.  Panorama from the cruise ship dock.  You can see the old and the new of the city, and a not too shabby sky.

Unlike Sweden, where the Romans never took up residence, here in Estonia the language is more familiar.  Of course, museum is a Greek word the Romans appropriated, but Rome without Greece is little more than roads, aqueducts, and military strategies.  Back on topic, I shall argue that this Estonian version of museum is a better spelling that forces the tongue to pronounce the word more accurately.  If only English were more phonetic.  Of course, I should be loyal to concept and write foenetik.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  Clearly Russian Orthodox, this cathedral dates to 1900 and its history gives a perfect snapshot of Estonian history.  As Estonia was annexed by Russia's Tsars, this church was built as a Russian Orthodox church.  Estonia joined Finland in declaring and gaining independence during Russia's civil wars after the Tsars fell, and this cathedral became Lutheran.  Along came the World Wars, and Estonia was soon the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, trapped in the USSR.  During this era, the cathedral became an museum for atheism.  Finally, as the USSR dissolved, they turned it an Estonian Orthodox church.  When I laughed out loud at the parade of faiths that took residence here, the guide smiled in agreement.

This cathedral was built as part of the Tsar's effort at Russification of the area.  In fact, the locals hated Russification so much that during their short era of independence they scheduled this cathedral for demolition in 1924, only to lack the funds to tear it down before the USSR reclaimed the territory.

Toompea Castle, built in the 14th and 15 centuries.  The Estonian flag is simple blue, black, and white stripes.  I quite like it.  Our guide said that blue represents water, black the land, and white the air.  I thought to my myself, should not the air be on top, with water below land and land below water, but it is not nice to insult people whose countries have been independent for around 40 out of 600 years.

One thing you learn while traveling, if you do not watch World Cup or the Olympics closely, is that a ton of countries go with the simple three-color-stripe flag.  In fact, I can name at least four that are red, white and blue, different only in the sequence of the stripes, which makes a lot the USA's patriotic songs a bit too unspecific to be of any use.

Outside the cathedral, you quickly learn that there is an interesting gambit going on in Tallinn.  Every moderately pretty woman under 25 is dressed up in some sort of Middle Ages outfit to sell you something tourist related.

A few blocks from the Nevsky Cathedral is the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin.

Graffiti often captures my eye, but this person might actually be saying something.  It is not too difficult to come up with several theories for RetroFuturism.  In my mind, it points in one direction, best spoken by Pete Townshend's lyrics, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."  Of course, the graffiti could be pointing at the garbage bin.

Panorama of All-Linn, or Lower Town, from Toompea, or Upper Town.  As one always finds in places with Feudal histories, on top of the hill you have the old town and below the new one.  In this case, the Upper Town represents the earlier fortifications and became the home of the aristocrats.  The Lower Town grew when Tallinn flourished as a member of the Hanseatic League during the 13th and 14th centuries.  If you want the simplest explanation for the Hanseatic League, during the middle ages when there was no great power in the region, the Hanseatic League was a league of cities in Northern Europe which banded together to form their own NATO/NAFTA situation of mutual defense and free trade.  It was quite effective and made all the cities involved rather prosperous.

Our cruise ship is right THERE.

Mary's Cathedral, again.  We went inside, but pictures were not allowed.  One of Catherine the Great's loves is entombed inside, as he was Lutheran and she had him placed here to respect his religion.  Do not believe the rumors about Catherine.  Yes, there were a few loves in her life, but the rumors come from the insecurities that insignificant men feel towards significant women.

The garbage bin theory is abandoned.  I certainly hope that this is not the name of a local rock band.

These walls and towers date from the 15th century.  I might as well be a jerk and point out that this fortified city was conquered so often that surely generals saw the walls as little more than an invitation.  That said, there is a good historical argument for surrender and survival.  The Estonians lived under Sweden and the Teutons and the Tsars and the Nazis and the USSR, but today they are an independent nation.  Many peoples cannot say the same.

These young Estonian women are part of the guide-book-mafia.  They dress like peasant women from the 1500's and follow you around the city trying to sell you guide books to the city.  I imagine that there is an older, wiser, meaner woman that they all report to at the end of the day, and if they have not met their quota things get quite ugly.

Firstly, I am enjoying the Estonian street names.  Secondly, I am enjoying the purse snatching sign.  They managed to make the victim stick figure seem so nonchalant about her purse.

I forget how old this door is, but it is several hundred years old and marks that this is where a guild met who chose an African saint as their patron.  You really do not expect to see an African man's image above a door in Estonia, but there you have one.

The town hall, with the Raekoja Plats in front.  One might note that using the word Plats for square is close to the German word Platz.  Estonia had it time under Sweden and under Russia, but the Germanic influence probably dates back even further, to the Teutonic Knights and the Holy Roman Empire.

Our guide alleged that these shackles were not for criminals.  They were for women.  And what did the women do to spend a day shackled in front of the town hall?  They spent too much money and purchased items and clothes above their class.  I do not know if this is true.  When the guide asked for guesses, I said, "Witches."  She replied that like all civilized people in the Middle Ages the Estonians burned their witches.

Our tour over, we head towards one of the Medieval gates.

Apparently they began tearing down the city walls to make way for new development, when Unesco declared this a historic site and then Estonia went about restoring and preserving the city walls of Tallinn.  Based on the tourism dollars that get generated, they are certainly very glad that the UN stepped in.

Heading home.

Barbie and I grab a late lunch at the Trident Grill on the ship.  We both felt like having a burger.  Our food syncage is one of the reasons that we travel well together.  For the record; burgers great, fries awful.  They really need to source better fries on this ship.

I bought this post card for my friend's son, and this is actually a better picture of Tallinn than I could take from the ground.  Therefore, I took a picture of the post card for you.  Maybe sometime I shall tell you the boy child post card story.

In honor of our arrival tomorrow in St. Petersburg, the main dining room has presented dinner with a Russian theme.

Barbie started with the Russian Malossol Caviar "New Style."  I will bother retyping the menu for this one;  "Terrine of chopped egg white and egg yolk in buckwheat coat on créme fraiche, topped with Malossol Caviar.

I started with the Pirozhki - traditional pastry turnover filled with duck.

I am trying to only share the meals that Barbie and I order, because adding my parents' meals is, well, twice the work for me.  But in this case, here is my father's Iced Watermelon Gazpaccho with strawberries and peach sherbet.  This was presented with the salad course.  

Barbie's second course, Borscht "Pravda" - beef broth with red beets, sautéed foie gras and little horseradish dumplings.

My second course, cream of spinach with Russian king crab meat.

For an entrée, Barbie ordered a starter: Tartare of tuna and smoked Russian sturgeon.

My entrée, Pink-Roasted Kurobuta Pork with crispy baklava of pistachios, spinach, honey and caramelized shallots, vegetables julienne and apricot us. 

Mother's dessert; "Childhood Favorite."  Forrest berry crumble with crisp tulle stick.  She deducted the vanilla ice cream.

Barbie got the, "Refreshing Blackberry Sherbet."  The menu called ti refreshing.  (In my head, I always add a second r to sherbet.)

Father got the, "Hermitage."  Charlotte Russe, princess cake, and blackberry sherbet.  This entire cruise is mainly about getting my mother to St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, and it would have been more appropriate had she ordered the namesake dessert, but at least someone ordered it.

I went ahead and got the Chocolate Ooze Cake.  No explanation necessary.

They were pushing the cherries jubilee, and mother made the head waiter happy and got a few for the table.  I had to take the picture quickly in order to catch the flame.

We have chosen the early dinner schedule, which means that we get out of dinner by around 7:30 PM and the sun sets around 10:30 PM.  This allows time for Barbie to get some work in and then go look at the sunset.

Barbie photographs the sunset in her pajamas.

My feet have been on the Baltic Sea at sunset.

One last sunset, free of freighters and feet.

We hit the late movie She's Out Of My League.  Cute movie.  as you can see, we did not have to fight a crowd.  When the average age on the cruise ship is, oh, 65, the 10:30 PM movie is not exactly crowded.

Until tomorrow...