June 25, 2010

Well, despite my two international incidents with respect to photos at McDonald's, I decided to risk it again and snapped a quick shot of this shop in St. Petersburg:

I felt fairly safe, since I was in a bus at the time and was able to make a quick getaway.

This does not mean, however, that I have not been in trouble.  Today we toured the Catherine Palace and by the end of our tour, I had really hit the wall and simply could not keep up the pace.  I watched the group get farther and farther away from us, our tour guide always telling us to hurry up.  Throughout our time with her, so far, she has never moved too far without counting heads to make sure we were all there, but as she turned and turned and turned and I could hear her say "Group 25, come up to me. I'm here at the right," I couldn't see her and didn't know where she had turned right or left.  (We have these neat little earpieces where we can be far from her, but still hear her when she talks. I don't know how in the world you do tours like this without them.  It is literally wall to all people in many rooms, guides speaking all sorts of different languages.)

There were many groups following their leaders that passed Walt and me by, and we just totally lost Marina.  Walt ran on ahead to find her so I didn't have to backtrack, especially since I had very few "steps" left in me.  When we finally caught up with the group, they were all on the bus, and the motor was running.  She came up and apologized to me for not waiting for me, but when we got on the bus, she told everybody that this was why she had asked us not to stop anywhere to shop because we were on such a tight schedule.  When I protested that I hadn't stopped anywhere, but that I just simply couldn't keep up with her pace, she quietly said, under her breath, that she knew that but she was using it as a lesson for the group.

When we traveled through France and Italy with Energizer Bunny Ian last year, he was so good and understanding about my inability to keep up his pace.  I knew I frustrated the hell out of him, but the group was with me in support and sometimes even applauded when I finally caught up.  When I apologized to people for slowing them down, they always said they didn't mind and told me what a good job I was doing.  I had the feeling today that the group thought I had been off lollygagging or shopping or something.  Made me feel like shit.

We had a city tour of St. Petersburg after lunch today and I opted out of it, but sent Walt on by himself.  I just didn't have it in me to deal with that issue again.  I am probably the better for it.  I had a lovely 2 hour nap and a nice chat with Jay, who served me tea and cookies in the Panorama Bar.

But the tour of the Catherine Palace was great.  I ended up buying a small booklet about the Romanoff family, just so I could keep straight who was who.  Now see, Peter I (Peter the Great) sent his wife to a nunnery so he could marry the washer woman, who became Catherine I.  Catherine I built the Catherine Palace in Pushkin as her little place to go when she wanted to get out of the bad weather in St. Petersburg.

(be it ever so humble, there's no place like home)

But Catherine I was not Catherine the Great.  Catherine the Great was, in fact, German, and married into the family to Peter III, who was not so great, but apparently such a jerk that nobody minded when she killed him, took over as leader of Russia and became "great" for all she did.  I think.  The pamphlet says that her husband, Peter III ruled for 186 days before he was killed.  Catherine ruled for 34 years.  I'm sure there is a message in there!  There were other Catherines and Peters and an Elizabeth and Alexei or two thrown in there too.  We Americans, who come from a country with elected officials, have difficultly keeping all these royal lines straight.

However, one thing about Catherine, whether washerwoman Catherine or Great Catherine, who lived there after her, these babes liked gold!

Room after room after room after room was all decorated in gold gilt paint.  And the inlaid floors are so beloved that the caretakers of the palace make you put on shoe coverings before you can walk on them.

It is opulence in the extreme and my favorite room was one where cameras were not allowed:  The Amber Room.  Tons of amber line all the walls in amazing mosaics. [Read the link--the back story is fascinating, and the picture is better than the one I just took of the postcard we bought.]

I loved the room for its beauty, but even more when I was tapped on the shoulder by Lynn Terry, Marta's sister's mother-in-law.  We had been playing tag with Lynn and Dan ever since we got here, since they are on the sister ship of the Kirov, the Surkov, which is moored right next to us.  As it turned out, the Surkov group was supposed to visit the palace yesterday, but because there was a big celebration for the 300th anniversary of Pushkin's birth, their tour had to be rescheduled.  I had been looking at all the Surkov groups we passed in the palace to see if I could see them...and they found us first.

By the time we were halfway through the tour, I was very glad we had come as early as we did.  The line outside had stretched a long way--and it had started raining.  Pouring, in fact.

We ran into Lynn and Dan again at the end of our tour and made arrangements to meet for lunch.  I invited them to join us on the Kirov, which they did.  We enjoyed comparing notes and probably spent more time talking to each other over lunch than we have in total ever since we met them, since we are often at gatherings together, but rarely talking to each other, so it was nice to begin to get to know each other.

By the time we left the palace, the rain had come and gone, so we did some walking on the grounds.

We walked down to a Pavilion, where we were surprised by a quartet of gentlemen, there to sing for us (and sell us their CDs). I just love musical stuff like that and of course we bought a CD, which will eventually (I hope) be the background for a slide show about this trip.

I must admit that while the palace was gorgeous and there were many, many things to take your breath away, the things that most impressed me were some black and white photos on the wall in the basement, showing the palace following the German occupation and the work of dedicated volunteers who restored it to its original brilliance.  One man devoted his entire life to restoring The Amber Room after the German army moved out.  I wonder if anybody in the U.S. would care that much about, say, the Oval Office...

After dinner there was what was billed as a "cossack show," in a tent on the side of the pier here.  All we had to do was show up at the tent, cameras in hand and check our names off on the list where we had signed up before.  As with Swan Lake last night, I just love this stuff!  When we arrived at the tent, it was closed, and suddenly all these beat up old cars came roaring into the parking lot, a bunch of young adults got out and ran into the tent with suitcases.  They they started letting us in and the show began.  What great fun.

At intermission, the crew of the ship served us all vodka shots..

(you can tell how much Walt  and Mike are enjoying it!)

At some point during the show it started storming outside.  I mean thunder and wind rattling the lights which were hung directly over our heads (I took a video of the wind!), and then what sounded like torrential rain.  It kept up to the end of the show and I wondered how I was going to get back and keep the cameras dry.  Fortunately I had a camera bag, but no coat, no umbrella, no poncho--because there had been no threat of rain when we left the ship.  Fortunately, it wasn't raining as hard as it had been by the time we left.  Oh, I managed to get good and wet, but the camera stayed dry, fortunately.

Tomorrow is our 45th anniversary.  We are celebrating by having Walt go off on a tour alone to the Peterhof Palace and me staying here doing laundry because I am not up for another opulent palace, no matter how beautiful it is.  In the afternoon, we will have a 2 hour canal boat ride, which will be nice.



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