Monday, September 19, 2011

Aline here. A writer friend once said to me that she wished she could unscrew her head, to get a rest from the permanent churning of ideas that went on inside it. I try to find holidays which give me so much else to think about that there isn't room in my head for anything else, and this time I found the perfect destination.

St Petersburg. Of course I knew about the amazing buildings, had seen pictures, even, but nothing prepares you for the dazzling reality of palaces of white and green and blue and gold, and onion-shaped domes with turquoise and red and gold, and fountains and cascades with statues of gold, and the hushed interiors of churches with Gregorian chants and icons of gold, and gold and gold and gold, everywhere. The grandeur and the insane extravagance that led to plots, assassinations and ultimately revolution, make you gasp in amazement. And yet, the history of what we were looking at was in its way stranger still

It was our first visit to Russia. We had long wanted to go, since our daughter had a wonderful time at Krasnoyarsk University in Siberia (despite temperatures of -40 degrees – strange girl!) but we didn't know what to expect, were a little nervous, even. And yes, it's true that the Cyrillic alphabet is incomprehensible, that the Russians don't smile readily, that the ubiquitous policemen carry guns (always alarming for Brits!) and look as if they wouldn't hesitate to use them. The housing is drab and middle-class families live in cramped apartments, but the designer shops in the city centre are witness to growing prosperity. Our beautiful and brilliant guide felt free to be extremely rude about Putin – something she said she wouldn't have dared do ten years ago.

The buildings which are the glory of St Petersburg, though, tell an astonishing story. You might expect that under Communism those monuments to a decadent monarchy would have been demolished, but far from it. They were a source of pride to the new Russia, a demonstration of the wealth and prestige of the state, and so they were preserved. Until the Nazis came.

Like that other over-ambitious European, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler's triumph in Russia was short-lived. But before they left, they took their revenge on the palaces – the Hermitage, the glorious Catherine Palace, Peterhof with its fountains to rival Versailles and scores of others – by shelling them into tragic ruins. With millions dead and so much destroyed, thee was bitterness even in victory.

Yet phoenix-like, the palaces have risen again. The photographs showing the meticulous restoration are very moving: the matching of the decoration from sketches and records, the painstaking copying of painted ceilings, the jigsaw work on the floors of patterned wood, the miles and miles of gold leaf applied. The domes shine out once more, the rooms sparkle with chandeliers and mirrors and Peter the Great's fountains give a whole new dimension to the word 'bling'.

They say that travel broadens the mind. I can only hope it has, because at the moment my creative thoughts are having to jostle for space!


Frankie Y. Bailey said...


I've never thought of going to Russia, but your blog makes me want to hop on the next plan. It sounds breath-taking.


Aline Templeton said...

I can certainly recommend it, Frankie. But not till the spring! Temperatures in St Petersburg are beginning to drop now and though furs and troikas and snow sound glamorous it wouldn't make sight-seeing very easy!

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