Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

by Rachel on November 2, 2009

Catherine Palace, Pushkin

Day 4 in St. Petersburg found us back in the mini-van with Guide Katya headed out of town to Catherine Palace in Pushkin. The drive can take as long as an hour, but thankfully our trip took just 35 minutes. The hitch on our arrival was that our youngest son, then five, needed the WC urgently. He and I dashed to the WC ahead of the pack and sadly, without any handy rubles or relevant language skills. I know I’ve said this before, I find it challenging that so many non-US countries charge people to pee. Can’t these costs be built into ticket prices at places like Catherine Palace where the entrance fee is already a King’s ransom? Am I the ONLY person who often finds themselves without correct change at the exact moment that someone, generally a small someone, cannot wait even a moment longer to use the facilities? I see myself as a quite organized, prepared and generally calm person, but this was not the first time, nor was it the last, that I found myself shouting hysterically in the wrong tongue at a surly and yes, OLD, Russian woman to let me and my small child into the bathroom. This particular old lady moved her massive frame into the doorway so as to completely block my path as I shouted, in English, that someone was just behind me with the requisite change. The sturdy and surly Russian lady was unmoved by my incomprehensible pleas. Not nearly as fit and fast as my sister, and weighed down by the 45 pound sobbing child that I was carrying, it was harder to sprint past her than I had hoped – but I did manage, eventually, to shove her aside, toss my whimpering son into a toilet stall, and stand panting beside him as he did his little business. I love travelling. Really.

Catherine Palace had many of the same problems as the Hermitage. It had crowds, poorly thought out lines, dismal ventilation, and struggles with severe and surly guards over how one must proceed from room to room. It had an additional bizarre requirement not seen ever before by my well-travelled family. In an effort to protect the fabulous floors of the palace (and they were of course utterly mah-vel-ous) all guests were required to don disposable purple booties before they went inside. The booties had no tread of any sort (no rubber dots like any right thinking pair of Gap socks) and the combination of the booties and the highly polished floors was positively deadly. We saw a tall 70 year-old go down right behind us and we all struggled throughout the tour to stay upright. It is an absolutely insane system that must result in broken arms and legs on a daily basis – but the floors are spared. Remember this – impressive things are far more important than people. It was a reoccurring theme of the trip.

Front Gate, Catherine Palace

We arrived early enough that we were among the first 100 or so folks allowed in. After a lengthy wait we ice-skated our way through the amazing series of rooms clad in lovely purple booties that would have made Donny Osmond proud. The Palace was destroyed during World War II and the structures that one can visit today are the product of reconstruction based on photographs (not mine, since no personal cameras were allowed inside) and drawings. The big tourist draw is the “Amber Room.” Its walls are made of amber pieced together in large mosaic panels. It is truly breathtaking. It knocks your purple booties right off your feet – or you wish it would so that you could walk without fear through the rest of the place. The amount of effort, time, money, resources, etc… that it took to rebuild Catherine Palace is simply staggering, and all this work was done while the average apartment building was falling into total and complete disrepair. It struck me as odd that there is so much ill will towards the Tsars and their excesses and yet spending in Russia so strongly favors rebuilding Tsarist monuments and palace reconstruction while the average road desperately needs to be repaved.

Just adjacent to Pushkin and Catherine Palace is the Solvang of St. Petersburg, Podvorie. A wood fortress filled with long tables and accordion playing wandering minstrels (are there any who don’t wander?) it was no better or worse than any other tourist experience of its ilk. We and three hundred other happy tourists sat down to a multi-course traditional Russian meal while people in costume sang and danced. It was all quite lovely in a Russian Disneyland sort of way. The only thing that was missing was a horribly lit group photo that always seems to go along with such an experience – think Hawaiian Luau or Puerto Vallarta Fiesta. Perhaps the Russians could teach us a lesson after all.

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