St. Petersburg: Let them eat caviar

Story and photos by Barbara Penny Angelakis Senior Travel Features Editor,

St. Petersburg is a city awash in color. Pastel buildings gleam under a clear blue sky peppered with billowing clouds, a scene replicated on the ceilings of palaces, dramatized by heroic, angelic, religious or political figures. The city was designed by Peter the Great (circa 1713) to be his imperial capital. Peter’s determination to raise the country out of its cultural isolation and into the light of the modern world was the driving force behind his reign and set the stage for the flowering of St. Petersburg under Empress Elizabeth I, Peter’s ebullient daughter.

The Winter Palace was visualized by Elizabeth as her crowning glory; unfortunately, she did not live to occupy the glorious building and it fell to Catherine the Great to be the first monarch to occupy the aqua palace at the river's edge. Catherine’s 34-year reign was St. Petersburg's golden age of art and science.

Catherine built The Little Hermitage next to the Winter Palace to accommodate her purchase of 225 Dutch and Flemish paintings. As Catherine’s wealth and power grew so did her art collection. She sent emissaries to scour Europe for paintings and decorative arts. The New Hermitage was added to house her extensive collection, which had grown to 4,000 paintings by the time of her death in 1796.

The collection was seen only by the aristocracy until the 1917 revolution opened the museum to the public. The Hermitage’s four connecting buildings make the museum one of the largest and most celebrated in the world. Paintings by Rembrandt, de Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, and Rubens grace the walls of the second floor, while the third floor houses one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist art.

Throne room of Peter the Great.

Galleries on the first floor contain art from the ancient worlds of Europe and Asia. The buildings themselves along with their decorative arts and furnishings are as impressive as the paintings they hold. Don’t miss the throne room of Peter the Great. The throne is solid silver with the royal crest, a double-headed eagle, embroidered on its back.

Nor far from the Hermitage is the Church of the Savior on the Blood. The 17th century church, built in the style of medieval Russian churches, is located at the far end of the Griboyedov Canal directly over the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The location affords a perfect photo op to capture the colorful onion-shaped domes.

The striking blue and white St. Nicholas Marine Cathedral sports the traditional Russian five domes covered in gold leaf. The church is on two levels, both festooned with precious items. We were fortunate to arrive just as services began on the upper gallery. An a cappella choir resonated in perfect harmony, while the priest in full regalia led the parishioners in sacred liturgy. It was a stirring experience which sadly we had to depart for the Mariinsky Concert Hall in time for the opera Aida. In striking contrast to the opulence of the church and the soaring voices of the choir, the avant-garde performance coldly echoed the ultra-modern building’s architecture and décor.

Church of the Savior on the Blood.

At the opposite end of the square from the Marine Cathedral is the spellbinding Yusupov Palace, whose basement served as the assassination spot for Grigori Rasputin in December 1916. The Yusupov family history is fascinating. The first Yusupov, a 16th century Muslim Prince, was sent as tribute to Ivan the Terrible by his Tarter father. He remained and prospered and by the second generation had converted to Christianity. As the story goes, after the switch, perhaps as punishment from Allah, only one child per family survived to adulthood.

Whether it was God's will or primogeniture (firstborn inherits entire estate) the family became incredibly wealthy, rivaling the ruling Romanovs in wealth and power. Perhaps that was why Felix, the last Prince Yusupov, survived his murderous conspiracy or maybe it was because he was married to Irina, the niece of Czar Nicholas II. At any rate, Felix and a few loyal friends lured Rasputin (who was very much a ladies man) to his palace on the pretense of socializing with the beautiful Irina, who was coveted by Rasputin (of course Irina was not there).

Re-creation of Rasputin's assassination in the Yusupov basement.

Rasputin was fed cyanide-laced cakes which to Felix’s horror had absolutely no effect. Next Felix tried shooting Rasputin in the head, but Rasputin responded by trying to strangle Felix. Terrified, the conspirators shot him three more times. While Rasputin was still alive and kicking, they savagely beat him, then tied him up and dumped him in the icy river. Three days later he floated to the surface and an autopsy certified he had water in his lungs, meaning that after poisoning, shooting and beating, he was still alive and died of drowning. The actual room where Rasputin was poisoned is open to the public by special request.

The ultimate church experience is St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It took over 40 years to create this masterpiece with no expense spared on its construction. Its massive dome alone took over 220 pounds of pure gold to gild, making it visible as far as 25 miles away. The cathedral holds up to 14,000 people, with each person standing on one square marble floor tile for the Russian Orthodox standing service.

Forty-three types of stone and marble grace the interior including massive columns of malachite and lapis lazuli mined in Russia’s own Ural Mountains. But for pure artistic mastery look to the walls. Originally painted, the walls suffered damage from dampness, and were replaced by mosaics. A method was devised for heating different chemicals to achieve variations in color in each tiny piece of glass, and the resulting images are difficult to differentiate from painting until you get up close. Closed as a church in 1931, it remained a Museum of Mosaics and still is considered more a museum then a church, although services are held on religious holidays.

St. Isaac's Cathedral.

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