Bathed in mid-morning sunlight that accents its colorful mint-green, white and gilded facade, the impressive Winter Palace takes center stage in the heart of historic St. Petersburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once upon a time the official residence of the all-powerful Romanov Tsars, stretching from the banks of the Neva River across to Palace Square, the Winter Palace houses the city’s most popular tourist attraction: the State Hermitage Museum.
Together with 22 other like-minded travelers and Gulya, our effervescent local guide, I, a guest photojournalists invited by Insight Vacations to sample its Easy Pace Russia journey, weather a very long queue — despite pre-booked tickets with an assigned entry time — and finally cross over the threshold and enter into one of the most impressive collections of priceless art, culture and interior design found anywhere on the planet.
“When asked about its status,” intones Gulya, “the current director of the Hermitage replied: ‘I can’t say it is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not number two.’”
Up the imperial Jordan Staircase we go, elbow-to-elbow with the masses, to take in as much of the history, beauty and riches that adorn the hallways, rooms, walls and ceilings in the short amount of time we’re allotted.
One of the oldest museums in the world, the Hermitage was founded in 1754 by Catherine the Great. A true patron of the arts, the Empress of Russia relentlessly acquired artwork en masse from European aristocrats, and the museum continued to grow under the watchful eyes and deep pockets of her successors, and was massively enriched by Bolshevik confiscations during the Revolution and Red Army seizures from a defeated Germany during World War II.
With over three-million pieces of art at its disposal, of which only a small portion is on permanent display to the public, the Hermitage collection, incredibly varied, spans the history books. Bookended by artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia and post-impressionist masterpieces by Matisse and Picasso, there’s a venerable “Who’s Who” from the annals of the art world — Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Velasquez, to name but a few — sandwiched in between.
Spread throughout 360 rooms located inside five connecting buildings — The Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Small Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre — the State Hermitage Museum dazzles the eyes with its lavishly decorated state rooms and spacious halls, all testaments to the incredible wealth, extravagant tastes and lifestyle of the Romanov Tsars.
As we near the end of our three-hour, whirlwind tour, Gulya remarks, “One estimate has it that you would need eleven years to view each exhibit on display for just one minute.” Well, that leaves me with just 10 years, 11 months, 30 days and 21 hours to fully appreciate the State Hermitage Museum.
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It took three empresses to build a village, Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Join me tomorrow morning and we’ll view it together.