Tsars and the Yusupovs

After yet another scrumptious breakfast (mini syrniki (farmer’s cheese pancakes) as the main course) we turned our steps toward the most visited place in St. Petersburg, The Hermitage and The Winter Palace of the tsars. We skipped the long line in the courtyard and bought our way in by joining an English-language guided tour. Sadly, the guide’s English was halting, to say the least. “She is missing a lot of words”- commented a fellow tour-goer form Germany. Alas, very little information was provided to us owing to the guide’s limited vocabulary, but she knew her way around and took us through the main halls without getting lost.
Personally, I prefer to go to the parts of the Hermitage, where tourists don’t get to go. The “secondary” artists, the sculpture, the decorative pieces, the china, that is where I’d rather be. But a first-time visitor gotta take in all the highlights first.
So we had another brief tour of another great museum and then we decided to visit the palace of the Yusupovs – the richest aristocrats in Russia whose name became known to the world thank to one Felix Yusupov, the main conspirator in the plot to dispose of Rasputin. Lisa led the way to the palace, unfortunately, as it turned out, to another site named after the Yusupovs. When we finally realized that, we were so far away that we could not make it there by foot anymore, so we hitched another ride – this time with a lovely young lady driving a decent car. For 250 rubles (roughly $8) she dropped us off a few blocks away from the Yusupov’s former residence.
We were led on a tour of the palace and of the exhibit depicting Rasputin’s murder by a stern, Soviet-type former teacher, no doubt. She kept us in line, severely scolded some passer-bys, quizzed us relentlessly on the role of Rasputin at the tsar’s court, and shamed us for not remembering which dance it was that caused the fateful duel between Onegin and Lensky.
The ballroom of the palace brought out of my viscera the memories of myself as a little girl complete with a nylon bow in my hair, coming here to the New Year holiday parties. During Soviet times, the palace was turned into The House of Teachers, and during winter vacations it hosted children’s New Year parties. My mother, a teacher, was a member of the Teachers Union and thus secured the coveted tickets to the parties where the kiddies met the Russian Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter, the Snowgirl. The ballroom was outfitted with a huge New Year Tree, there were games and a show culminating in the arrival of Grandfather Frost who, with the help of the Snowgirl (Snegurochka), distributed New Year gift packages, mostly of sweets, to the wide-eyed little children. Those parties were some of the most memorable highlights of my bleak Soviet childhood.
Back to Russia circa June 2011, we left the palace and walked along the Fontanka and to the Griboedov Canal to cross the bridge guarded by four griffons (two of them covered with scaffolds for repair), braved a crowd of other tourists trying to take photos with the remaining two winged creatures, and back to the b&b with the sun still shining over our heads at 11:30 PM.


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