When I think about hermitages I imagine a skinny little guy in rustic robes living in a cave high up in the mountains or a tumble-down cottage deep in the forest. Somehow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg doesn’t fit the mould.
For a start, it’s huge. It comprises six buildings, one of which is our friend Catherine’s winter palace on the banks of the Neva River. She sure liked building palaces. It seems the museum has over three million items, although around a million of them are in the stamp collection. Even so, that’s a lot of stuff, only a fraction of which is on display.
While our guide, Irina, went off to get tickets Pete and I hung around the entrance where we were approached by touts flogging picture books of the Hermitage and Catherine’s Palace. Pete had some fun haggling, then bought a couple to take home. Irina returned and took us inside. We were told we could take photos but please, no flash. I could understand that and set up my camera accordingly. But an awful lot of tourists can be just plain ignorant. Flashes were going off everywhere, despite the guards’ attempts at preventing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t allow photography anymore.
The building was covered in gold decoration. The main staircase is just the beginning. The Winter Palace is every bit as opulent as the Summer Palace with fantastic decoration on the ceilings and walls. The parquetry flooring is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine how much painstaking work went into creating them.
And then there’s the art. The works of every painter you’ve ever heard of is in the collection. I’ve included just a sample of European artists. There’s oriental art, Islamic art – everybody’s art. There are sculptures, porcelain ware, jewellery. There’s an Egyptian section with hieroglyphs and statues. We were supposed to be at the Hermitage just for the morning before moving on to shopping in Nevsky Prospekt but Irina was quite happy to skip the shopping trip and stay at the Hermitage. Even a day is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the British Museum, you could spend a week in here and then you’ve only just begun.
The Malevich is to my mind one of those pretentious pieces where art critics look down at us plebs because we don’t recognise its worth. It’s called ‘black square’ and I seem to recall a figure like $1 million. Apparently he did four variations… don’t ask me. I’m just a pleb. Read all about it here. Give me Rembrandt any day. Look at the detail in the old man’s hands. I love the way he used light, too.
With just three of us in our little party, we took the chance to talk about politics. Irina told us that Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, is not popular in Russia. Maybe that’s why he lives in New York. Putin, on the other hand, is well liked. She also told us that when it came to changing the name of the city, many people wanted to keep the name Leningrad because of the nine-hundred-day siege during the war. A vote was taken and in the end a small majority preferred the old name – St Petersburg.
Wandering around inside a building is actually quite tiring. We were quite happy to head back to the ship for our 2pm curfew.
The Norwegian Sun sailed just before sunset, heading past the naval facility on Kronstadt. Rusting ships and submarines were tied up in holding pens, a monument to the Soviet days.
We sailed out through the barriers into the Baltic Sea. We were on our way to Helsinki.