A Window to the West

5

View of the cascade fountains from the palace.

Leaving Nikolai behind (I know, you’ll miss him too), my solo adventure in St. Petersburg begins. My tour group doesn’t meet for two more days so make yourself comfortable, dear Reader, and prepare for some serious quality time with me – and only me.

Today I am taking a boat 20 miles west of the city to Peterhof, St. Petersburg’s version of Versailles. Peter the Great commissioned the palace in the early 18th century and, although overwhelming you with history is not my intent, we need to spend a moment discussing this interesting man (I’ll be brief).

Peter the Great was a badass for several reasons. As a young man he traveled throughout Western Europe absorbing the culture and learning new skills. Meanwhile, everyone running Russia was stuck in a major sociopolitical slump. The monarchy had been plagued by murder and conspiracy for years but when Peter assumed power he modernized Russia in a major way – and pissed off a lot of boyars (nobles) in the process. During his reign Russia became a maritime power, he issued a beard tax after noting beards were out of fashion in the west, and he put an end to arranged marriages. The very city of St. Petersburg exists because Peter the Great wanted a “Window to the West.” In short, the man made moves.

I want to pause here because this notion of Russia struggling to keep pace with the western world is one I think about quite a bit in my travels. In many ways, Russia seems to be only half-heartedly striving to emulate our western ideals and I often feel it is a country neither here nor there.

Princess for a Day
Forty minutes later the hydrofoil completes its journey across the Gulf. I walk hurriedly along the dock because it is a decidedly gloomy day, the wind howling and the clouds hanging low. Overhead the Russian flag snaps in the breeze and I feel far from home. I approach a small ticket booth and a set of turnstiles at the entrance to the estate. An old man emerges and, as I move to hand him my ticket, he starts talking excitedly about… something (I really should have studied more Russian before my trip).

The man is gesturing with his arms and exclaiming things and smiling. I smile too – what else can I do? He motions for me to wait and disappears into his ticket booth. He re-emerges still chatting happily, takes my hand, and places something in it. It is a small candy with the Disney princess from Tangled on the wrapper. The man stops talking and smiles at me, looking satisfied. I arch my eyebrows quizzically.

He graciously begins to explain (still in Russian) and points to the candy. Then he points at me. To the candy. To me. He holds up the candy next to my face and I realize: this little old Russian man thinks I look like Disney’s Rapunzel. “Ahhhh!” I say, finally comprehending. He places the candy back in my hand and pats my shoulder. He extends his arm in the direction of the cascade fountains and just like that, I was off to the palace… a regular Disney princess.

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Aside from the ornately wood-paneled study of Peter the Great, the palace itself is your run of the mill imperial fare turned museum. Visitors are required to wear paper booties over their shoes to protect the flooring so I make my way from room to room, crinkling as I go. Several times I pause to look at a painting only to have the female docents hurry me along. One actually said “shoo!” as she waved me out of the room. Through the window I see the sun has finally made an appearance. You can see a palace any time but a perfect fall day is a tiny miracle – I ditch the booties and hit the grounds.

The crunch of the gravel beneath my feet, the ribbons of sunlight streaming through the trees, the slow spiral descent of leaves as they fall to earth… the Peterhof grounds are beautiful, and I have them almost all to myself. The footpaths open into wide promenades with impressive fountains. The spaces are grand, but they leave me feeling exposed somehow. I find myself following the quiet paths to the outskirts of the estate, stopping occasionally whenever I see a bench that looks especially inviting.

When it is time to head back I peek into the ticket booth to bid farewell to my new friend. He is sitting in a chair with his head slightly bowed – I realize he is napping and leave him to his slumber.


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