Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jason and Cristen Arrive

June 22nd finally arrived--the beginning of a new adventure for my son, Jason and his wife, Cristen. Jason has taken a 2 year assignment with his firm to work here in London, and so their adventure now begins! They are living with us for now, so we're all working on finding extra storage space in nooks and crannies that we have never used before today.

Their first day here, they were determined to stay awake and keep moving after an overnight flight, but.... they sat down for a few minutes and the next time I peeked on them, they were out like a light. They're up and going today though. We made a trek to Chiswick to pick up a chest of drawers that they purchased from an outgoing American expat, went for lunch at Chipotle (they needed a Mexican food fix, after all, they had been away from Houston 24 hours) and headed to the bank to discuss ££££'s. They rounded out the afternoon at the local pub watching England beat Slovenia to go forward in the World Cup rounds.  Welcome to the London life, kids!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fine Dining in Russia

What did we eat in Russia, you ask? We tried the traditional and the new. For lunch, we really liked the pirozhki, which are stuffed pies, both savory and sweet.

We chose the chicken stuffing and then lemon for dessert, but there were many more options, including salmon, beef, cheese and a variety of fruits.

The next day we had lunch in the countryside at a typical family restaurant.

There were stuffed tomatoes, and stewed tomatoes and onions for starters,  

along with mushroom broth

and borscht with beets for a soup.

Our main course was cabbage wrapped pork stuffing.

Topping it off was blini filled with cranberries and vanilla ice cream. Truly a feast.

In a hurry one night before the ballet, a group of us decided to try the ultimate cross-over experience--

It took 5 people to figure out how to order from the menu. It's not a quarter-pounder here, folks! I must say the fries were as tasty as ever!

And there was some green drink concoction that Shrek was promoting. I don't think it had vodka in it, but vodka was on every other table where we dined.

And the most ironic experience of all, was the pub just steps from our hotel doorway called Ye Olde Chelsea Arms, where we grabbed quick bites for dinner one evening. Too coincidental to be believed, but it was about the only sign we could read in the whole city. Yum yum--that's вкусная конфетка in Russian!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Real men like Russian ballet

The evening after our arrival in St. Petersburg, our group was given the option of attending a production of Swan Lake ballet. A vote was taken, and even though the men were all eyeing each other to see how the others were voting, no one decided to opt out. I daresay peer pressure was at hand, because I know there were some doubts in the minds of the men, at least.

So after a packed day of touring, no time for anything but a quick bite of dinner, and the effects of a 3 hour time difference still hovering over our heads, we were off to the Palace Theatre's production of Swan Lake.

The Palace Theatre was quite extravagant, and we were quite pleased to find that our group was given the tsar's box. We felt quite sure the rest of the audience was watching us and wondering who those "famous" people must be, so we put on our best royal behavior. I must report to you that we were enchanted by the performance, even the men, and that no one, not one, even nodded during the production.

As you may or may not know, Swan Lake is a ballet written by Tchaikovsky in 1876. The story, taken from Russian folk tales, centers around Odette, a princess turned into a swan by the curse of an evil sorcerer. There have been several different endings performed through the years, but if you watch the clip below you will see that in the Russian performance, the sorcerer dies after the prince breaks one of his wings. Odette becomes human once again and is reunited happily with her prince.  Hope you enjoy a small piece of the finale that I was able to record. Click twice to see it full screen on YouTube.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Russian Palaces

Outside the city of St. Petersburg lie numerous palaces which have served throughout history as the get-away, or summer palaces of the tsars. Such is the case of Catherine's Palace, named after Catherine I, but  really shaped by Empress Elizabeth and later by Catherine the Great. Built in a lavish rococo style with elaborate gilding throughout, the interiors are exceptional.

The Church of the Resurrection with its gilded cupolas greets you on the east end as you arrive.

Every room is like a wedding cake

with flourishes and swirls of gold.

The Empress Elizabeth's inaugural gown graced one of the rooms. Without a doubt, the most famous room, which could not be photographed, is the Amber Room, which is a complete room of panels made of over 6 tons of amber, and backed with gold leaf and mirrors. So remarkable was the room that it was often called the "Eighth Wonder of the World." At the onset of  World War II, docents tried to remove the panels to preserve them, but they were so brittle by that point, that they feared destroying them, and chose instead to try to camouflage the panels by covering them with wall paper. The Germans were not duped however, and removed the entire room when they looted the palace. The mystery of where the original pieces of the Amber Room ended up remains today, and is an intriguing and ongoing search. The room was restored to its original appearance and reopened in 2003 at the cost of $12 million dollars,  taking 20 years to finish.

A short drive from Catherine's Palace is the palace of Pavlosk, the home of Catherine the Great's son, Paul. Definitely a more classical facade, one might be fooled by what lies inside. I know I was, when given the option of buying a photographer's pass to take pictures, I opted not to spend the money and regretted it as soon as we entered the first room. My sneaky husband did manage a few quick photos in one of the bedrooms when he saw my jaw drop.

Can you imagine this opulence?

Reminded me of Marie Antoinette's bedroom at Versailles.

Cupids whispering, "Sweet dreams...."

The day we left St.Petersburg, we had glorious weather, and it was the perfect day to visit the gardens of Peterhof, the favorite residence of Peter I.

Ofter referred to as the Russian Versailles, the Grand Cascade fountain featured above was based on Louis XIV's Chateau de Marly. The gardens are interspersed with statues and some 120 fountains.

The interesting thing is that none of the fountains on the property are driven by pumps. The Grand Palace sits high on a bluff overlooking the cascading fountains which lead to the Gulf of Finland. Water is supplied by natural springs and collected in reservoirs. The difference in elevation drives the numerous fountains between the palace and the gulf.

The gardens are laid out in the style of a French garden

of the 17th century.

No wonder this location has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Truly a playground of beauty.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's World Cup Time!

World Cup Fever is upon us. England is pumped--how about the US? England vs. US game is televised on ABC at 12:30 Central time today.

England has the spirit! Catch it, USA!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Hermitage

Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. The Winter Palace, the former residence of the tsars, was the first of 6 buildings which today make up The Hermitage and were built to hold a growing art collection which today includes more than 3 million pieces. No other museum in the world has as many paintings.

As might be expected, the interiors are fabulous, so you have to balance your visit with viewing spectacular design along with some of the most famous paintings in the world. All while trying to keep your jaws from dropping in wonder.

The Great Throne Room for an example with its white marble columns and bronze chandeliers.

As well as the Peter the Great Room with a gilded silver throne as its centerpiece.

Statuary, as well as paintings, were on display

including The Three Graces by Canova.

Every doorway brought new delights

The ceilings were amazing.

Pavillon Hall

Can't get too "baroque" for me!

With the quality of the artwork and the permission to take photos, it was hard to choose which ones to share, but I decided to show you four Madonnas. The first ones are two of the museum's highlights. Out of the 10 or 12 paintings in the world left to us by Leonardo da Vinci, there are two in The Hermitage. The Benois Madonna 

and The Madonna Litta.

Almost as famous are two Madonnas by Raphael. This one is The Conestabile Madonna

and above, The Holy Family

These took on special significance to me after reading The Madonnas of Leningrad before my trip, which tells the story of the siege of St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War II and the desperate attempt of Marina, along with the other docents of The Hermitage to save the artwork from potential destruction. A very moving book, and if a trip to St. Petersburg is not in your immediate future, this book might be just what you'd enjoy to make the museum come alive.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

St. Petersburg

For many years, I had dreamed of a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, and last month, we finally had the opportunity to go, along with 15 other couples from the American Women's Club in London. The trip revealed so many treasures which I hope to share with you in the next few blogs. Situated at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, it was founded by Peter I in 1703, and served as the capital of the Russian empire for over 200 years.  As the most western Russian city, it is reminiscent of many other European cities, with the beautiful architecture and embankments of Paris, the canals of Amsterdam, the waterways and the proximity to the sea of Venice, and a history that is as exciting as any other European city. 
The churches are uniquely Russian Orthodox as seen here in the Church on the Spilled Blood,

which commemorates the murder of Emperor Alexander II, and is filled with mosaic covered walls.

At every turn, we were fascinated by the ornate architecture and the beautiful colors of the buildings, such as seen here in the St. Nicholas Cathedral

 and the home for the Russian Navy.

One of the most impressive structures is St. Isaac's Cathedral which was built over a period of 40 years to be the greatest church in the Russian Empire.

It is the third largest domed cathedral in the world, just behind St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. This photo was taken around 10:30 at night while we were on a cruise on the Neva River.

And this photo of the Gulf of Finland was taken just before 11PM to show you a bit of the magic of the "White Nights" which take place in late May-early July. Due to its very northerly geographical location, the sun doesn't ever completely fall below the horizon during this time, so the city celebrates its hours of twilight.

Also from the boat, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Peter and Paul Fortress,

and then again after 11PM with the beautiful spire of the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and the dome of the St. Isaacs Cathedral in the silhouette of the skyline.

Cruising along the river we had a close up view of the Winter Palace, the home of the Russian Emperors between 1763 and 1917, 

which along with 4 other buildings make up the ensemble of the world renowned Hermitage Museum, the largest art museum in the world. Whole books could and have been written about the Hermitage, but I'll save my comments and photos until my next blog. If I promise not to show you every room and every picture would you take a stroll with me through its grand halls? Coming soon....