If you’re Rhinebeck bound, we would love to see you at Jill Draper’s studio in Kingston on Saturday night. Details here.

St. Petersburg: Land of So Many Contrasts That It All Blurred Together

Dear Kay,
Top down, bottom up. Top down, bottom up. That’s the phrase that came to my mind, over and over, as we toured St. Petersburg. The push of dictators, the push back from the people below them. The revolutionaries become the oppressors, up goes down, down goes up.
Our steady American democracy, however balky it sometimes feels, has nothing in it to match the sort of ferocious upheaval that Russia has experienced. Our watery borders give us such an advantage–when I heard that it takes maybe four hours to drive across Estonia, I realized how vulnerable some of these European countries were. Four hours from Nashville puts me in Memphis. I haven’t even left the STATE. I have my bone to pick with Memphis, but I don’t especially feel like INVADING it.
I couldn’t wait to see St. Petersburg, even if at a trot. I had lined up three days of wandering around with a guide and a driver. The driver was clearly a spy: sunglasses the whole time. I’m sure he was a spy.
We had just come off a day of stories about Estonian heroism in the face of Russian tyranny, of Latvians and Lithuanians and Estonians holding hands, across 400 miles, across their countries to protest for freedom. It was a perfect time to tour the palaces of the tsars, because I was pretty much ready to pass out torches and pitchforks for a revolution. Never mind that all the palaces are now museums, and the government views palaces as a lure for tourists–I was ready for some outrage!
I’d been trying in fits and starts to bone up on Russian history all summer–Robert Massie’s Peter the Great had taken me through the reign of the Big Guy who founded the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. He was the one who pushed to introduce the ideas and styles of western Europe to eastern, smoky old Russia. He was six foot seven, he was an avid amateur dentist, and he loved above all things boats, shipbuilding, and the sea. Russia didn’t have a port city in the West, so he built a hut on the shore of the swampy low land at the mouth of the Neva, and got busy.
Palaces: The Things They Think You Want to See
We decided to forego a visit to see Peter the Great’s collection of teeth that he gleefully extracted from his courtiers. That museum also contained the pickled privates of the mysterious Rasputin, and I was not going to risk even a chance encounter with that thing, so we headed out of town to see some tsarist lifestyle.
We saw several billion dollars’ worth of palaces, and I can honestly tell you that you need to see only one palace in St. Petersburg, not four. You start hating everybody around you, and you begin to feel a lot of scorn for herdlike movement through room after room–until you look across the ballroom and see yourself in the mirror, chewing your cud and mooing right in there with them. This was not my idea of a good time.
Astonishingly conspicuous consumption is actually a pretty straightforward thing.
If you have a wall, embellish it.
If you have a ceiling, put stuff on it.
If you have a floor, cover it in parquet.
If you have a canal, put a charming pavilion over it.
As I gazed at this particular folly (it’s at the Tsarskoe Selo, at the Catherine Palace if you’re keeping track), I looked down and noticed a railing.
How spectacular! How genuinely delightful! I realized that I’d been looking at all this stuff the wrong way: it was the details that were going to be beautiful, not the numbing scale of these palaces. Suddenly, everything was lovely, once I thought about the craftspeople who had done all this work. The Hermitage museum is full of Titian and Rembrandt, but it’s those nameless scaffold-climbing painters and railing makers that I wish I could know.
And the sculptor who managed to make fabric flow through a piece of marble.
Speaking of Modest . . .
At Peter the Great’s summer palace, Peterhof, there’s a little minipalace, Monplaisir, away from the big house. Peter preferred this place, apparently–a few rooms in the Dutch style that he liked because he had spent time in Holland learning shipbuilding. Monplaisir was at least halfway human in scale.
The ceiling is so LOW. They almost didn’t need a scaffold.
Such a modest amount of lacquerwork here. Just a daily dose.
My favorite room of all turned out to be this charming room. When I asked, it turned out that this was Peter the Great’s PANTRY.
I’ll leave you today with the thing we all loved the most. Peter the Great engineered an insane park of fountains, all run by gravity.
It wasn’t the grand ones, like these:
It was these that we liked:
Some of them have mysterious features.

Yes, I tried it, and yes, my dry children were smug at how bad I was at navigating the stones.
(And if you know the secret of the stepping-stone fountains, I FORBID you from revealing it here! I’ll yank your teeth!)
Back on the Hyatt Regency of the Seas
Just when I thought my head would snap off from all the visual clutter we had absorbed, St. Petersburg saved the day by providing us with this:
A rainfall so absent of wind that you could actually hear the sound of a million raindrops falling on the water.
Next up: Chowhounding and a Product Endorsement




  1. Another marvelous re-creation, and I love the sound of the laughter at the fountains.

  2. Oh Ann, thank you so much for bringing all of us along on your summer vaca. I have loved EVERY minute of it. And you’re right about the details – try to ignore the excess, just love the beauty of the work. Thanks

  3. Now, of course, I am wondering, “What is the *&^%^& secret of crossing stepping stones?” Since you’ve forbidden the answer I am doomed to never know……

  4. How wrong is it that when I read parquet I hear the 1970’s margarine commercial? Par-KAY!

  5. This reminds me of the time my husband and I went on a tour of Breakers in Newport, RI. Overome by the grand/gaudy scale of the place, I foolishly asked the docent if the family had some private rooms where they could kick back and relax – the whole thing was just so gosh-darn formal. In a voice drippig with condescension, she replied, “My deah, this is how they LIVED!”
    Personally, I preferred the servants’ quarters…my Irish washerwoman heritage shining through, I guess.

  6. I actually GET the stone fountain!!! It’s based on ancient Roman garden designs, that had follies like this to “surprise and delight” guests. Emporers must like empires past. Frances Mayes talks about them in one of her books.

  7. Wow. St. Petersburg looks fantastic. I’ve always had my mind stuck with the images in novels like Crime and Punishment (ignoring for some of the novels where in Russia they occurred).
    It sounds like you are having a marvelous vacation, and thank you for taking us along for the ride.

  8. The railing with the water behind it makes a glorious photo. (Does it inspire Fair Isle musings in anyone else?) All your pix are terrific, btw. Love the shoe-covers, or clean-room booties as they’re known in these parts.

  9. I am so enjoying *your* vacation. You show just enough of the most interesting things. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I am loving your trip…thanks for sharing it with us.

  11. Peter the Great is one of our historical figures here in Deptford in London because he spent time here learning ship building. There is a statue of him by the river which is honestly one of the ugliest statues i’ve ever seen!
    St Petersburg looks great – enjoy the rest of your holiday.

  12. lol, great blog entry. Made me think of days crusing through the mansions of newport. (i did discover if you chat a bit with the security guards there they let you in for free…. smile, hubby so laughed when we met up at the end of the day and i had seen all the mansions for free! lol, i just really wanted to take pictures not the tours.

  13. I am loving this recap of your trip. Keep up the good work!

  14. Ok, I’m sorry, but did you actually say that Peter the Great kept other people’s TEETH in a JAR? Teeth he, himself yanked out?! EW.
    Also, I LOVE hearing about this trip! It is bringing back all those cold war novels I used to read. Let us know if you took a tour of Lubyenka (or are they still keeping their political prisoners there?). Or ran across John LeCarré. Or wandered around in endless snowstorms humming Lara’s Theme. (Dr.Zhivago = Worst Movie EVER)

  15. sometimes you jst have to set your mind on hold
    and wonder at the minds of the artists
    whose minds eyes and hands created these images
    i will be back often just to look and read

  16. Thanks again for sharing this with us. I for one am having a lot of fun on your vacation!

  17. My little niece was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in St. Petersburg. It’s quite a fairytale place (a fairytale with all the bad bits included — not the Disney version), and her story (only weak tea and a bit of formula every day, rickets, cribbound 22 hours/day to life on the beach in California) is quite a fairytale itself. Russia is an amazing country of deprivation and opulence.

  18. For your studying-Russian-history pleasure:
    One of my knitting group compares this to reading “War and Peace” in three minutes. Amazing, evocative, humbling…

  19. I want to go somewhere where people do not speak English.
    Thanks for helping me live the vicarious life.

  20. wow what a fabulous trip ! thanks so much for all the photos and the description – i am vicariously enjoying it with you.

  21. Thanks, am traveling for a change of pace so am catching up on a few days from both of you. Kay, that dishcloth is one of my favourite Barbara Walker squares too and Ann I loved this post, I felt this way in Vienna at the palaces, all too much–but I wasn’t in such a crafty phase then, so I obviously missed the best stuff!!!

  22. Please invade. Seriously. Run for mayor. A knitter would round out the field of pro wrestler, prince of Zambodia, et al. with elan.
    Oh, and, Go Tigers! *sigh*

  23. Oh, so sad you didn’t go for Rapsputin’s pickled parts! What a picture that would have made. I can see Somebody (who shall remain nameless, but she lives in NY and writes on this blog from time to time) making a dishrag pattern out of that parquet floor picture. In fact, there’s a book in that – ‘Dishrags Inspired by the World of Parquet Flooring’ – we’ve had the Lobby Dishrag, here is the St Petersburg one – readers, send in your parquet floor pictures from around the world! x x x

  24. When’s the garage sale?

  25. The pantry would be my favorite room too! Conspicuous consumption while their people go hungry. Love, love, love the pic of raindrops on water with the sun’s rays beaming from the heavens. Thanks for sharing your vacation with us.
    ~~~ ~~ ~ Wavin’ from the Shore ~~~ ~~ ~

  26. OMG! ANN! That was you on the ship. I kept seeing you and saying to my husband, “That looks like the gal from Mason-Dixon.” He had no idea what I was talking about and I never saw you with any knitting, so I didn’t speak to you. Wasn’t it a fabulous trip?!

  27. OMG! ANN! That was you on the ship. I kept seeing you and saying to my husband, “That looks like the gal from Mason-Dixon.” He had no idea what I was talking about and I never saw you with any knitting, so I didn’t speak to you. Wasn’t it a fabulous trip?!

  28. I guess I was really excited that it was you. I posted three times! Sorry.

  29. Great photos- you make a fabulous tour guide!

  30. Oh, my! I’m ready to sign up for this trip! I love the last photo. So peaceful.

  31. Ah Imperial Russia. Serfs and peasants in turf huts while the gentry dances on agate and lapislazuli floors… The modern oligarchs aren’t that much better. I’ve heard a real estate broker complain about a Russian customer who turned down an appartment because there wasn’t enough gold leaf everywhere…

  32. what fun!!! I want to go there too!
    Now you’ve just got to rent the strangest movie ever: The Scarlet Empress! It’s about Catherine the Great, and stars Marlene Dietrich, and it’s TOTALLY over the top in some weird sexy 1930s sort of way.

  33. My husband studies former Soviet-bloc countries, so we’ve spent some time in St. Petersburg. The first time I went to the Hermitage, all I could look at were the floors–they’re so beautiful! What a great vacation you all had!

  34. I am breathless and speechless! Thank you for the moment!

  35. I’m actually reading Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. What an interesting vacation!

  36. I’m actually reading Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. What an interesting vacation!
    (In a good way!)

  37. If you look at my e-mail address and blog address, you will notice we have an affinity for Western Russia. Nearly 5 years ago we toured these same places, while waiting to meet our children. We adopted 2 non-related children who are now the lights of our lives. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your lovely blog post and beautiful pictures…and for sparking my memories of St Petersburg. (We saw the ‘more human’ parts of the city…staying there for a few days before going on to Kaliningrad to meet the kids.)


A bit of news from us, every now and again.

(Your email is safe with us.)