The State Hermitage, located in the former Winter Palace of the Tsars, in St Petersburg, houses one of the finest art collections in the world, with more than three million pieces - it seems that Catherine the Great liked big numbers in more than just her lovers. And that's the problem really: it's estimated that to walk through each of the galleries would total about twenty-five kilometres - i.e. it's just too big to cover in an afternoon. It's also too excessive in style for me to really enjoy: all busily decorated floors, marble pillars, highly decorated ceilings, heavy furniture, dark portaraits of gloomy monarchs, imposing sculptures, huge
crystal chandeliers, and gold and gilt opulence. As the guidebooks say, "One must
visit the Hermitage on a visit to St Petersburg...", and it was
worth it to gain an appreciation of its scale, but I felt something of a failure when, after an hour and a half, I'd had enough and, with that sense of panic I experience in large department stores when I can't see a way out, started frantically searching for an exit.
I tried to justify the brevity of my visit by fact that I hadn't come to Russia to view European art... and that is the strange thing about this city - it's so European in style that I don't feel I'm really in Russia. And then I read in the 'Trans-Siberian Handbook' that Emperor Nicolas 1, in an attempt to make his city more appealing to a Euro-visitor, had exclaimed "It's in Russia, but it's not Russian!" Exactly... great minds think alike!
I found the State Russian Museum more satisfying, with its extensive collection of Russian art, from beautiful twelfth century icons up to more experimental present-day works, and with some fabulous pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depicting the Russia of my fantasies: pink-faced folk, bundled up in boots and fur hats as they ride sleighs through the snowy streets with orthodox spires in the background. Ahhhh, wouldn't it be great to be able to travel back in time?
Of course, what I really
wanted to do on the 'culture' front was go to the opera at the famous Mariinsky, but it was dark for the summer holiday so, with a sigh, I settled for a performance of 'Swan Lake' at a lesser theatre. It turned out to be an excellent choice, though, and the evening was a gorgeous spectacle of waifs in pointe shoes, with swirling skirts and twirling tutus, and of course the music was magnificent - it felt utterly appropriate to be listening to Tchaikovsky in a Russian venue. Oh, and I mustn't forget the
muscular male thighs leaping through the air, in tight lycra!!! This was the kind of evening entertainment from the Russia of my limited knowledge of nineteenth century Russian literature, and so it was disorienting, when the lights went up, to see myself surrounded not by elegant gowns but by modern Russians in business suits, and a smattering of Japanese tourists!
My other experience of Russian music came when I visited Kazan Cathedral, a smaller imitation of St Peters in Rome, which, after being used as a Museum of Atheism in Soviet times, is now restored as a functioning place of worship. Orthodox churches have no seats and I didn't have the stamina to remain on foot for the whole three hour service, but twenty minutes standing in the candllit interior with the divine sounds of the choir floating around my head, was a blissful retreat from the bustle of the busy Nevsky Prospekt, the citys main shopping street.