Monday, August 17, 2015

Monday in Pushkin

Tsarskoe Selo: the tsar's village. This is where you go if you want to see a royal estate -- palace, park, the works -- that really blows your mind away in terms of sumptuousness, splendor and brilliance.

Tsarskoe Selo lies just 25 kilometers south of St. Petersburg, but it's not easy to get to.  For me, it is the place that brings forth the most vivid memories from my childhood visit here.

The village that abuts the compound was renamed "Pushkin" in 1937 (100 years after the great writer's death). This is where we're heading today.

But first, breakfast. Some of us are tempted by the blini offered in the morning.

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Others (me today) just like to heap the plate with a potpourri of (Russian) foods.

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It's a lovely meal of course, made all the better by the fact that no one is in a rush. We don't need to be anywhere at all. We take the morning hours very slowly.

But the planned day trip outside of St. Petersburg does set some parameters for us. We want to get there more or less when Catherine's Palace opens (at noon). Who's Catherine and what palace?

A brief intro for those who want the historical background: you remember -- Peter established the capital of Russia in St. Petersburg (after beating the Swedes the heck out of here, ending the Swedish rule in these parts with a treaty signed in 1721). When he died in 1725, his wife, Catherine I, took to the throne. But she died two years later. Pity the poor short lived tsar families! Ah, but a few years later, in 1745, the teen plotter and conniver Sophie Augusta of Prussia married a royal Peter who would become Tsar Peter III, then eventually she pushed her husband aside, took over the throne and ruled for 34 years under her acquired name of Catherine the Great. (The Poles hate her since she also took it upon herself to carve up Poland and do away with that country. Or so she thought.)

Tsarskoe Selo was created just before Catherine the Great ascended to the throne. You could say that it was then her baby (though she had a real baby too, but I think she hated that one). It is a stunning palace, built on a grand scale in lavish surroundings.

And it is stunningly popular. My guide book (Lonely Planet) did not warn of this. The book gives small and large bits of advice on how best to navigate crowds in other places, but it stays silent on the problem with trying to visit Tsarskoe Selo.

For us, the easy part is getting there. A cab costs about $20 for the nearly hour-long ride. As a shared expense, it's definitely worth it, given the difficulties with public transportation links to Pushkin village.

We're dropped off at our destination 30 minutes before the palace gates open.

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The lines to the ticket booth are loooooooooooooooooooooong! Four windows, queues the length of a city block, moving at a snail's pace. They let in just a few hundred visitors (plus tour groups), at twenty minute intervals. By the time it is our turn to purchase tickets (after a 90 minute wait), ALL early entry times are sold out and we're lucky to get one of the last ones of the day -- at 6 p.m.

That means we have to wait five hours to enter the palace.

Never mind, there are the gardens!

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And there is an extensive park.

It's an okay park. We part ways here for our stroll through it, agreeing to meet up at another small palace on the grounds -- the Alexander Palace. We may as well try to see that one in the interim. See you there at two! -- my famous last words.

 I stroll, I take pictures of the gazillion Russians here for a summer outing...

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(a favorite pose for a photo by the flower beds)

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(lots of tablet photos)

... noting that Russian girls are in love with complicated braids.

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As we get closer to two, I make my way in the direction of Alexander Palace. But the map is misleading. The parks sprawl in all directions and it appears you can't connect from Catherine's to Alexander's. You have to go out of the compound. Yes, but I have our ticket stub. If my friends go out, they wont be able to come back in. Where do I look for them? The parks are large, very large...

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I walk every which way, trying to second guess how they might proceed and where they might be.  And I think -- if we don't connect, what happens then? How can they call a cab? (I have our hotel information, do they?) They speak no Russian. They wont easily find the various buses and trains that link us back to the city. Hmmm. Stuck in Tsarskoe Selo for a day? A night? Do I go back to St Petersburg without them? Do I stay and keep on searching, hoping that the needle that is them will emerge from the haystack of the parks?

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(the back of Catherine's Palace from behind the gates; believe me, I circle it many many times)

It is absolutely by chance that in our meanderings and searches, we run into each other again, outside the parks, on the busy street that runs parallel to them.

It's a great relief. We decide that now is the time to sit down and get something to eat.

There is this sweet little eatery in Pushkin (which, BTW, has its own splendid church)...

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The restaurant is called the White Rabbit (or Bielyj Krolik) -- a play on the images and story lines from Alice in Wonderland.

We order three Aperol Spritzs...

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(Ernest is admiring photos of their grandson who is just a month younger than Snowdrop)

...and that's just the beginning. A beautifully presented carrot/tomato/zucchini salad...

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...asparagus soup...

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...and fish to round things off.

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We are so satiated that for a minute we contemplate heading back to the city and taking a nap, but common sense prevails: we have these prize tickets for 6 pm after all.

More strolling, more waiting. I cajole some nice person to let me use her cell phone so that I can call and coordinate a cab for the return. And finally, boom! The clock strikes the magic hour and we enter! (At least Diane and I enter. Ernest does nap, or at least rest on a park bench outside.)

We put on plastic "slippers" (to protect the parquet floors inside)...

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And in we go.

A few photos from the interior...

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The light at this time of day is magnificent!

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(lots of mirrors here!)

One out the window, in the beauty of the evening...

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And we are done. I believe the term is fried. Without oomph, just with new sores on old feet and stiff limbs from all that back and forth hustling in search of each other.

But it was a regal day. And the sun was bright and the skies were blue and the birds sang and the people strolled and gawked and we were part of it all, in that small village of Pushkin, beneath the towering domes of the palace chapel.

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