Sunday, July 25, 2010

One Final Postcard: From Peterhof

Our final afternoon in St. Petersburg (which now seems like a million years ago, like I might as easily have danced through the Russian woods with bears) was one I probably wouldn't have picked for myself. Our hosts wanted to give us one last taste of something splendid, so after our brief tour of the Hermitage, we boarded a boat for Catherine the Great's summer palace, in what was once her summertime refuge in Peterhof.

Peterhof is about a 45-minute boat ride from the city center. Getting there is a study in Russian urban planning. The move toward suburbanization hasn't taken hold in Russia, so the farther you go from the city, the more derelict the landscape becomes. The grounds of Peterhof are the exception, and the sheer amount of wealth that once accumulated there -- and the fact that the royal family claimed every inch of it for a massive, ornamented palace and its rolling grounds -- tells the tale. As does the working-class town that has taken shape around it, and the high iron fence that separates the two.

You pay to ride the boat. You pay again to enter the grounds. You pay to eat, and to tour any of the interior spaces of the palace. And boy, do people pay. Thousands of tourists arrive everyday for the privilege of walking the grand staircase to the palace, snapping photos, and wandering the gardens and fountains of what is often referred to as the Russian Versailles.

An exhausted Lev was along for the ride (he'd partied till dawn the day before), as was sweet Svetya, and wonderfully awkward Pasha, who practiced his English by shouting staccato words and pointing, making sure we didn't miss things. "Duck . . . duck!" he said, pointing to some waterfowl in a fountain. "Train!" he said, to the passing choo-choo carrying children from one garden to the next. "Finland!" to the land mass across the horizon as we departed the boat.

If I had a do-over for that day, I might've opted for a simple boat ride along St. Petersburg's canals, finding a little slow quiet in an otherwise frenetic city. Maybe I would've broken off from the group, walking through Vasilievsky Island, which is rumored to be sleepier and more residential than the rest of St. Petersburg. But had I done that, I would have missed taking virtually every form of transportation known to man (all tolled, we'd ridden boat, taxi, city bus, commuter train, local metro, and of course our own two feet that day; 13 hours later, we'd be on a plane). And I would've missed key moments with arguably the most important part of this entire trip: the people.

With that, I want to give the final words of this trip log to one of my favorite people from this visit -- beautiful Nastya, who shared overnight train berths with us and prompted that memorable nightcap in Nizhny Novgorod. This is from a note I received just after leaving Russia:

During our meeting and later I was thinking about importance of human sympathy and minimal meaning of national mentality. Let philosophers and politicians think about our differences, but I am sure that it was my great pleasure to have conversation with you, to understand you even feeling a lack of words.



Johno said...

Wow! Great quote to end a fantastic post.

Rosemary said...

Ditto what Johno said. I'm going to miss Russia! This has been a great series of posts, Christy.