Sunday in Russia is like a romantic Seurat painting:
everyone is out in the parks and by the canals and the rivers, enjoying the warm sunny weather on their one day liberated from work. Families eating ice cream, and couples, the men smartly dressed, the women with their lipstick just so, walking or sitting on park benches holding hands, some drinking beer, others possibly some cold vodka. Several are picnicking, some are playing volleyball, all seem to be enjoying the fact that summer has arrived, for today at least.
40 Minutes to Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo
We too are having a Sunday in the Park and just like the famous Seurat painting our train is crowded with day-trippers heading from St. Petersburg to the same spot we are. We are all taking the 40-minute train ride south to Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo, the palaces of Paul I and Catherine the Great and the magnificent Seurat-like parks and woodlands that surround them. The citizens of St. Petersburg seem to take great advantage of their many public parks and the vast expanses of palace gardens and green space available to them both in and outside of the city. Today seems to be no exception. We arrive in the town of Pavlovsk and enter the palace grounds through the back entrance. We walk through beautiful old-growth forests, on long-abandoned horse and carriage roads heading toward the palace, passing formal ponds and beautiful, slightly overgrown vistas. It isn’t hard to picture the sylvan landscapes painted by artists over two hundred and twenty-five years ago.
Suffering Some Sharp Russian Elbows
The Pavlovsk, the reconstructed palace of Paul I, the first son of Catherine the Great and his bride Maria, is more humble and ultimately less touristy than Peterhof, but we still suffer the sharp elbows of some Russian tourists vying for viewing time in this more intimate palace. We walk through and are reminded of the destruction that the Germans left behind as they retreated after their failed siege of Leningrad during WWII through the many photographs displayed throughout. (In fact, all of the palaces on the outskirts of St. Petersburg that we see were in territory occupied by the Germans and were left in similar shape, and Peterhof, Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo have been to a large extent, and continue to be, completely restored to their original splendour.) The palace has a grand but still intimate feel; like visiting your very wealthy relatives in their home. We have brought our lunch with us and grab a shady bench and are amused at the Russian tourists enthralled with a seemingly never-before-seen squirrel doing his squirrel thing. We watch as the locals squeal and chase the squirrel, imagining him some exotic wild animal, trying to get him to pose for pictures. We cringe as the squirrel runs all over them, stopping to eat what they offer.
On the Steps of the Catherine Palace
We jump on one of the local mini-buses and it drops us at the lower gates of the Tsarskoe Selo: the Catherine Palace. Created by Empress Elizabeth and significantly expanded by Catherine the Great, it is one of the largest and grandest of them all. We spend some time walking around the extensive grounds viewing the many buildings that were built and designed for sometimes a single task: breakfast for the Royals in the morning house or tea in the afternoon across the Grand Pond in a smaller pavilion. The day is sunny and actually quite hot and we are enjoying being out in t-shirts again. We continue our promenade up to the main “house” and approach by the Cameron Gallery and immediately spot a line up to enter the palace. We are faced with the same dilemma we faced at Peterhof – long lines and no access to the main house. Nico has an idea about trying to get us into the palace as part of a tour group but we will have to make our way all the way around the building and negotiate with a tour operator. Needless to say, this proves to be unsuccessful and as we wind our way back to the main line up, I opt to stand in line while John and Nico continue to explore the beautiful grounds. Individuals are only allowed to purchase entrance tickets to the Catherine Palace between 4 and 6 pm and the palace closes at 7 pm. There is a large crowd waiting to get into the palace and after an hour and a half of standing in the sun and moving perhaps 5 feet towards the main entrance, at 5:30 we decide to leave the line and head for home.
While we are disappointed that we have not been able to see the glorious interiors of the Catherine Palace, we are happy to have had a wonderfully warm and sunny day to enjoy the parks and the Russian people. Sunday in the Park with Paul I, Catherine and Seurat!