Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Culture and Counter Culture:
St Petersburg in High Season

There are certain cultural institutions that simply must be experienced during a visit to St Petersburg. The first is the State Hermitage, an enormous art museum housed in the spectacular Winter Palace and the equally impressive Little Hermitage and Large Hermitage buildings. The prized collection of over three million paintings was started by Catherine the Great and covers, amongst other things, the complete history of Western European Art.

The Winter Palace is an eye catching St Petersburg landmark in memorable mint green

We had been surprised to see that most tourists on the streets of St Petersburg seemed to be Russian. Then we entered the Hermitage after a predictably painful queuing experience to discover that most foreigners evidently didn't bother walking around town and just came straight here.

The lobby was chaotic and claustrophobic with keen patrons. We were all herded up the famous Jordan Staircase, a gaudy glass and gold gateway to the Hermitage. Getting beyond the staircase and into the gallery felt more like jostling for position at a Rolling Stones concert than entering a museum. Everyone around us had parted with three hundred roubles ($12) for this, so expectations and feelings of entitlement were running high.

The Jordan Staircase. This photo was taken at the end of the day when all the groups had already left for their beef stroganoff dinners.

As we worked our way around the galleries, I wondered when viewing art became such a free for all. Surely there was a time when walking directly in front of a person admiring a painting was considered rude. Those days are clearly gone, since pushing, chatting and even farting in the space between painting and viewer now seem to be the norm. Paying money for a cultural activity seems to afford people the right to view (or perhaps 'consume') without responsibility or respect. I wondered what Rembrandt, Goya, Rubens and Van Gogh would have made of the messy scramble.

The paintings provide the icing on the cake in a Palace that's already adorned with gorgeous floors, elaborate ceilings and fancy chandeliers.

The majority of Hermitage visitors come in groups, arriving on the enormous fleet of tour buses parked in front of the museum. Each group had a 'no nonsense' leader, who would summon their culture-thirsty disciples with a brisk wave of an umbrella, newspaper, laminated sign, flag or (rather creatively, we thought) a bouquet of fake flowers. Most group participants were over the age of 60, we noticed, and represented more nations than the UN General Assembly. Regardless of nationality, group members seemed to be on a clear two fold mission: Firstly, stay with group at all costs. Secondly, 'do' the Hermitage. Ironically, 'doing' the Hermitage didn't seem to involve spending much time looking at paintings. Many group members seemed to be more focused on their group leader's polished commentary and clipped instructions than on the art. Non-group members were inconsequential, unless they needed to be elbowed out of the way. The groups did a particularly fine job of blocking hallways and access to paintings, as well as taking unauthorized flash photos. It seemed like a strange approach to art appreciation to me, but at least they will all be able to say they 'did' the Hermitage. And presumably they all made it out of there with the same group they came in with. Perhaps our behavior was equally self serving, though hopefully our group of two caused less disruption than the mega groups.

A whole room in the Hermitage is dedicated to Russian & allied military leaders who defended the motherland during the Napoleonic wars

In spite of the crowds, we did enjoy the Hermitage. The stunning buildings alone were worth the price of admission, with their opulent, intricate interiors. Memorable paintings included Van Gogh's 'Portrait of Madame Trabuc', and 'Morning Going Out to Work' (featuring an endearing donkey). Renoir's 'Roses in a Vase' and 'Lucie and her Dance Partner' by Kees Van Dongen also left quite an impression.

I savored an intimate moment with Alexander I, ruler of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars

Our next highly anticipated cultural treat was the ballet. We managed to get first row box seats at the acclaimed Alexandriisky Theater to see Swan Lake. Content in the knowledge that we'd be free of elbowing, jostling and group leaders waving things for the evening, we arrived early to a virtually empty theater. Gradually the festive, gold leafed theater filled with wide-eyed tourists.

The striking facade of the Alexandriisky Theater, where Chekhov's play "The Sea Gull" premiered in 1895, and left it's audience famously disappointed.

As the curtain rose, we were surprised at the chattering, fidgeting and photography around us. Even more surprisingly, some of it continued through all three acts. Several audience members were reprimanded multiple times by theater staff for taking flash photos and chattering, but amazingly continued to do it. We wondered if they would be so rude in their home countries. Once again, buying a ticket seemed to afford one the right to disregard both audience and performers.

The Alexandriisky Theater was the perfect venue for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's classic ballet.

However, the dancing was graceful, the music rousing and familiar, and we thoroughly enjoyed our Russian ballet experience. If it weren't for the rule breaking, fidgeting, chattering punters, there probably wouldn't be any ballet to see, since performers need to make a living too.

A pre-performance pose in our plush box seats.

Russia's tremendous wealth of culture should not be missed, and St Petersburg is a great place to indulge in it. Next time, we'll come in February when it's 30 degrees below, when we'll probably have the Hermitage and Alexandriisky to ourselves!

We have no idea how this flashless photo made it onto our camera, but we hope Donkey Crossing fans will enjoy it.

Next on Donkey Crossing: Our peaceful retreat on the Volga River, gearing up for the madness of Moscow


Anonymous rich neville said...

This was a wonderful report bringing back memories of our trip to the Hermitage and St. Petersburg. The observations of the tourist buses and crowds that we missed when we were there on a cold April day, with no crowds,(there was still ice blocking the inlet to the palace) reminds me that travel is better in bad weather. Great trip, you make me want to go back.

Richard Neville

8:55 AM  
Blogger Donkey Crossing said...

Richard, Thanks for your comment. We have more 'high season' madness to come in China, where the crowds promise to be bigger than ever. You are making me long for ice and snow!

3:39 AM  

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