Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Russia - Day 4

Today was a sit down day. It started normally enough, with a breakfast that seemed to drag on because we all came at different times. From there we took a taxi for a very misty ride to Katerinsburg, a baroque palace that grew around the country residence of Peter the Great and Catherine I, was built up to palace proportions by their daughter Elizabeth, and was finally lavishly decorated by her daughter Catherine II. Together with the nearby palace of Alexander, the two structures housed over 80,000 pieces of art. In addition, the palace of Catherine II was famous for its gold-gilded halls and its Amber Room (where every wall was made of a mosaic of amber, lavishly decorated with amber-inlaid tables and wall decorations.

Early in World War II, the Bolchevik curators of the palace stripped the walls and doors, and packed them with every piece of portable art to send to Moscow for safe-keeping. The only room that could not bestripped was the Amber Room, since the mosaics were to delicate, so they covered the walls with a thick layer of plaster. Indeed, the Hitler forces occupied St. Petersburg from 1941 to 1944 (the St. Peterand Paul fortress notwithstanding, as the 19th century fortress was not capable to stop an assault by a 20th century army), and Katerinburg was used as barracks for the occupation forces. The German army never reached Moscow, and after their retreat from Russia the palace curators came back to find it in smoldering ruins. The roof had caved in, the outside of the palace had been heavily damaged by bombarding, and the Amber Room had been stripped of all its amber.

Reconstruction must had been very slow in the post-war years, since the Soviets has little interest in recreating the lavish trappings of the palace (they did repair the building, the fa├žade, and some of the rooms, but in a very sober Soviet-era style. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union there was renewed interest in restoring one of the famous historical monuments of Russia, and in 20 years they have made astonishing progress in the restoration. After much work, two tons of gold, and an unimaginable amount of amber (most of it fake, man-made amber I suspect), the main rooms of the palace are open for visitors to enjoy (of course, after paying a very hefty entry fee). They are indeed breathtaking, although they brought to my mind the ridiculous disparity of wealth distribution between the Romanoffs and the Russian peoples.

After coming out of our visit Gustav claimed he was faint with hunger and thirst, so we had to find a restaurant and sit tight through a trickling of orders for food and drink. Russians must be baffled bythese people who sit at the table for hours, slowly putting in orders for a bite of this, a shot of vodka, a bite of this other thing, aglass of wine, maybe a little dessert, another glass of wine, a bottle of water, a glass of Amaretto, a coffee, another dessert, and so on and so forth. No wonder in Germany they put so much stock on “ein gemuetliches restaurant”!

Finally we peeled ourselves off from the comfort of the restaurant,and Chrissy and I managed to drag the family for a walk through the palace gardens. They are imperial in size and lay out, but drab because of the winter and Soviet neglect. And then we came back to the palace complex, and Gustav decided that he had another glass of wine. I was ready to scream! Two glasses of wine later we finally called for a taxi and got back to town, where my wonderful Chrissy insisted on atour of some of the metro stations. It may not be Moscow, but the metro of St. Pete is also nicely decorated (including Lenin portraits and revolutionary stars from the time the city was renamed Leningrad). Grumble, grumble, we heard from Gustav and Anna, who were making common cause for finding something to eat and drink. Again!

So we are walking through the street, when Gustav spotted a pizzeria with a huge display of wine bottles. “This is it” said he with conviction. “We eat here, and damit basta!” And then the coalition between Gustav and Anna fell apart, because she wanted to have Russian food. Big argument followed, with both parties being stubborn thanmules. Gustav pulled rank over his daughter, but she repaid him byrefusing to eat anything, while at the same time complaining bitterly that she was hungry. Chrissy and I kept out of it, munched on our pizza, and I reflected on the many times in which these two have fought with each other. Not a happy meal.

So we go out, followed by our little dark cloud of bad vibes, looking for a place where Anna could eat something. Nothing would satisfy her,and I thought she was going to go on a hunger strike until she spotted a Mexican Cantina! Yes, right in the middle of St. Pete there is aMexican restaurant, and Anna made a beeline for it. So we sat down todinner for a second time, and started again the ordering game: AMichelada, and then some nachos, and then a strawberry margarita, andthe a glass of red wine (I give you one guess for who ordered it), and then some cactus salad, and then another glass of wine, and then . . .It was exhausting, but at least harmony had returned to our little party, both contestants having gotten their way. Sigh. Indeed“Turismus muss Weh tun”!

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