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Visiting Russia’s Amsterdam

Luc Pols
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Luc Pols
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about local Luc Pols’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Before we left the U.S., we had to secure our Russian visa, and this involves getting “an invitation” from a reputable Russian travel agency or hotel. Then upon arrival in the first hotel, you have to register, and in most places, the hotel will do this for you. Make sure that when you travel to Russia that you do this, because if you don’t, we have heard horror stories about bribes and expenses running literally in the hundreds of dollars.

Our companions in the train, which are young Russian women from St. Petersburg, are extremely helpful and negotiate a taxi for us at, according to them, half the price that non Russian speaking tourists like us would pay. The hotel, once you are in it, is very comfortable, and the people are nice. Finding the place, however, is another story.

It is on the fourth-floor (no elevator) of an old apartment building, and even the taxi driver has no idea where it is. There isn’t even a plaque to indicate that the hotel is there, The location turns out to be fine and within walking distance of the most important places for us to visit, but for a moment we are worried.

In the next couple of days, we visit the famed Hermitage Museum, the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, the Spilt Blood Cathedral, and we stroll along the canals of this beautiful city. Few people are aware that the founder of this city, Czar Peter the Great, based the plans for St. Petersburg on the city of Amsterdam, which he had visited, and that is the reason that there are the canals here.

The Spilt Blood Cathedral is absolutely magnificent and almost as well known around the world as the St. Basil Basilica in Moscow. The Fortress of St. Peter and Paul is where the original city started, and the old walls are still there.

Just outside the walls is another tourist attraction: the sun bathers of St. Petersburg. There is still ice in the River Neva (it is the end of April), and while we are walking around with our coats on, the sunbathers are out in force. Not only do they stand and lay against the city walls to catch the rays, dressed in bikinis and other skimpy outfits, they are even dipping and swimming in the Neva River. Quite brave.

Then there is the marvelous Hermitage Museum. The collection here is just stunning, and it was not acquired illegally (such as during the wars), at least not the 19th and 20th century art we saw.

Reputedly, in the early part of the last century, a Russian, whose name escapes me, went to Paris every year and bought large amounts of paintings, later donating them to the museum. Having said this, while the collection is magnificent, the museum, in my opinion, doesn’t deserve to have these paintings. There is no climate control (windows are open), no light control, one can take pictures of the paintings with flash, some people even touch the paintings and I saw a famous Blue Period Picasso (the last one sold in auction for about $120 million) hanging on the wall with the canvas about 3 inches out of the frame at the bottom.

Absolutely incredible and, once again in my opinion at least, bordering on the criminal. They say that they have no money to do the right things to preserve the paintings and to do the necessary renovations, but the Hermitage just opened up a “subsidiary” museum in Amsterdam, where they, I was told, bought beautiful premises in the center of the city. Believe me, not a cheap proposition. Additionally, the admission fee is relatively high.

Well, it is off to Moscow and the Kremlin. We will be taking our first overnight train, and stay tuned next week for the results.


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