Our cruise schedule in St Petersburg meant that we had to settle for just two palaces. For those who are aware of the devastation wrought by the siege of the city then known as Leningrad, the quality of the restoration of both the Hermitage and the Catherine Palace is quite extraordinary. The craftsmanship employed, particularly in the gilded and marbled interiors, has been superb. One can only wonder at the bureaucracy that manages to combine such Herculean efforts to promote tourism with primitive and understaffed border controls. Why would you want visitors standing in long snaking lines on the quayside when they could be happily spending roubles in the souvenir shops? Do spies arrive on cruise ships? Seriously?
Queues seem part of the St Petersburg experience. Fortunately we shipboard tourists enjoyed priority access to The Hermitage or we might have been waiting yet. The guide did explain how many years a tour would take if you spent just ten seconds in front of every picture. But why would you concentrate so much fine art in one place that it cannot be appreciated?
As it was, rigid planning produced the absurd spectacle of fifty people trying simultaneously to inspect a single Raphael whilst an equally fine painting by the same master ten yards away was ignored. Briskly we passed through an entire room full of Cézannes – nothing worth looking at here – in order to stick to the timetable. Pause for a moment to admire a Tintoretto that happens to catch your eye and you are lost.
“Did you happen to see a tour guide with a Russian flag?”
“Sure, five in the last five minutes, which do you belong to?”
At least the queues to enter the Catherine Palace are enlivened by the antics of a comic opera band of uniformed buskers and the palace itself is worth the wait. The façade is bright with blue, white and gold, and inside sunlight streams through huge windows, illuminating baroque magnificence in the splendidly appointed apartments. To the rear one can stroll through spacious parkland and enjoy the view of an elevation no less magnificent than the frontage.
And so back to photographing the architectural marvels of St. Petersburg through the windows of the tour bus because we had no visas to wander around on our own and no chance to spend any roubles!