The Floors at the Hermitage

The thing about a palace is that it is designed to be overwhelming. It’s a thing. If you want my opinion, building an art gallery beats the heck out of building an army…but there it is.  Today, I’m going to talk about a couple of floor details.

In the room below, there is one of the highlights of the collection – an enormous gold peacock clock. On the other side of that room, as you can see below, are some pretty impressive chandeliers (6 of them, in fact) a beautiful roof top garden, and a floor.  The floor is what caught my eye.  Let’s have a look. 

The room with a floor, a peacock, and a view


The floor has 8 panels, and each one has a garland of fruit and flowers… 

…and each of the flowers has a lot of petals that are miraculously cut by some kind of angel-magician.  

Below the garlands  are scenes of sea creatures (did I mention that I have a thing about water?)…   

Apparently the same angel-magician was at work here. While you are at it – check out the shading in the border detail. Seriously impressive.

The Hermitage is so big that they have to number the rooms so you don’t get lost. There are hundreds of rooms. At least half of them have some kind of magic like this going on.

I added some of the hardwood floors to prove I am not making this up – and a doorknob at the end for good measure. Remember. Hundreds of rooms.  Plus the paintings. 

You see why my feet are sore?  It’s like a great book. Very hard to put down!



What is it about Art Galleries?

The first time I was blown away by a visit to an art gallery I was 20. A mentor and good friend sent us to the National Portrait Gallery on our first trip to London. Suddenly, all of the pictures from all of my school history books came to life in front of me. Queen Elizabeth I was a living breathing human – and someone painted her – and that painting  was right-in-front-of-me-hundreds-of-years-old.

The second time was in Amsterdam – about a year later.  Something about seeing a large body of Rembrandt’s work and a large body of Van Gogh’s work in one day changes both your heart and your brain. I recommend it.

Many years later, and many marvelous exhibits later, I have my own modest collection of art, and I still seek out great galleries anywhere I can. Visting the Hermitage is an extraordinary opportunity, and it was remarkable.

The gallery is an astonishing super-position of the palace of Catherine the Great – who ruled Russia for (count them!) 30 years – and one of the great art galleries of the western world. We’ll get back to the palace later. By “Great Art Gallery” I mean something very simple: even if you know nothing about art, you will be able to walk through and recognize paintings you have seen many many times. Most of us are surprised by either how small (the Tiffany stained glass windows at the Met) or how large (Nightwatch by Rembrandt!) favorite works of art are in person…and by how richly alive the truly famous ones seem to be. A well curated show puts paintings together so that the relationships between them become clear, and provides limited but strategic background information.

Thanks to a lovely and thoughtful curator I was left with a happy Aha! moment on Saturday…the kind where many mysterious pieces of your life suddenly fall into place.

I’ve followed and loved Art Nouveau hints for many years…William Morris (wallpaper and other decorative arts)…Tiffany (stained glass)…Liberty (fabrics)…Klimt (fashion designer)…Gaudi (architect)…the Paris Metro signs…many bits of architectural detail in Prague…the Gibson Girls…the list goes on.  

Here is the gift from today’s curator, “The style’s trademark feature is fluid supple lines shaped like waves…often interwoven with the female figure…it arose from the Industrial Revolution and from new technological tools for design”  

Well. No wonder I am so consistently enchanted and mesmerized by this good friend! The photo above is a door handle to a book store. I took the photo before I knew why I was taking it – I just had to have that door to take home with me. For fun, I’ve added a couple more below – just so you get the idea of how persistently this feature catches my eye and makes me smile.

That is why I love to go to great art installations – anywhere they pop up. They have the capacity to change the way I think and feel and they add to what I know about myself and the world around me. A great day.

Drainpipe decoration, Bakery, St Petersburg


Porte -Fleurs, The Hermitage

I Remember Traveling with Children…

I ran into a couple in the Frankfurt airport traveling with two small sisters. The girls were dressed in matching outfits. I laughed, and told them that I used to do the same and am now accused of “completely mortifying” my youngest. She is probably right – AND – so was I. She could disappear in a nanosecond with no warning. May she have children every bit as wonderful herself one day!

Tonight, I landed back in the hotel with feet so tired and sore I could not imagine how to get up again and find a restaurant. Everything is so beautiful here that it is hard to stop – and they don’t seem to believe in benches with a view…they want us to keep moving. It works.

Around 8pm I decided that something had to be done. Lunch was one of those perfect European ice cream cones that is 50g big and 3 days of flavor…raspberry strawberry…exquisite…but it was really time for a MEAL.

Then I asked for help at the desk. The lovely girls who work here seem pleased that I think their English is just fine, so they are very kind. Just as we were speaking a young couple came in and they all had a conference on where to send me for a “good, solid Russian meal.”

The solution involved taking the bus or the street car. I was startled to understand the number 22 in Russian from my days of trying to learn Czech…but there it was!…dva cet byet! The street car conductor and driver were adept in stupid-tourist-hand-signals — which I now read fluently. It cost me a whole dollar to save my feet another hour of walking – and I finally finally found the street signs and numbers! Not one wrong turn!

The restaurant objected that I had no reservation – I begged charmingly and said I would sit anywhere and be happy to wait if necessary – and again – Aladdin’s cave magically opened….

…why, oh why, did restaurants with chess sets and playgrounds and blankets outside not exist 15 years ago?  I could not stop smiling.  The lovely people also rent bicycles. Then I went to the bathroom (we ALWAYS had to check out the bathroom!) and look what I found!!!


Not just one little stool, but two – and stickers on the soap dispenser!

I confess…I also bought toys today. This was one of my favorite parts of traveling alone when the girls were little. I’ve decided that all of the grown ups I love also love toys, and some of them even have children, so I am back to the toy section. It is GREAT!

I bet you thought I was going to talk about the Hermitage or the great food I had for dinner or the Art Nouveau architecture…well…those things were great – but the thing that keeps blowing my mind lately is that we are actually getting better at treating families like great human beings…and that makes me really, really happy.

By the way, on your way out, there is a photobooth for happy memories, and a couple of huge blackboards for some happy graffiti…the Restaurant’s name is Tesla – their sign says it in English – and the food was terrific – fried pumpkin with sage and fishcakes for dinner, masala chai, smoked salmon on potato pancakes, beetroot and apple salad with a very mild creamy goats cheese, and Russian beer. 

I wrote a bunch of postcards while waiting for my food so I had very good company to chat with – and there will be bundles of happiness arriving by mail in due course. Now I know tomorrow’s quest…postage stamps! …and back to being a grown up for a few days at the conference which brought me here.

It will be my great pleasure and privilege to do so.

 (but you have got to love those stickers….)


Welcome to Russia…

What I love about travel is the unexpected.

I am writing from St. Petersburg, during the time of the White Nights, where the sun sets at midnight. It is beautiful here. The city is full of canals, cosmopolitain food, and kind people. There were two roller blading guys moving down the sidewalk and through the crowds today at NHL speed – and with NHL strength and skill. I smiled with pleasure. The cab driver sped me to my hotel yesterday at 100 kph – on city streets – and stopped for crosswalks. I was amused, and noted that I will not rent a car here. I don’t jay walk. I find a cross walk and wait for the light.

Those of you who do not travel for a living – that was a warm up for a small story.

For this trip I booked a lovely hotel close to the Hermitage – the small private kind that I like best  – and allowed myself a few days to rest and enjoy the city before my meetings.

The cab driver dropped me off jet lagged (+9 hours) and I happily tumbled out with my bags at the reassuring logo of the hotel.  Then I was puzzled.

Instead of a door, I found a buzzer and a gate.


 Well, the only thing to do with a buzzer is to push it. So I did. There was a noise, so I push/pulled on the gate. It opened. I went through. I did not find a hotel. I found this: and then I found this:

If you look very closely above the graffiti, you will find the signs for two hotels. Go to the right they advise. So I did.

Then I found a door with another buzzer. I will tell you now that you are seeing Tolstoy’s courtyard.  You do not have to believe me. I am probably confused, because I definitely do not speak Russian…but the hotel binder definitely says Tolstoy…! When I went inside, the lobby left even me a bit speechless.

It took a few deep breaths (this is not a James Bond movie…this is not a James Bond movie…I am NOT in a James Bond movie!) to figure out that I should go up the stairs to the next landing.  Sure enough, I found  a third buzzer there, and that final buzzer opened Aladdin’s cave.

The hotel is lovely. They make us crepes for breakfast, and leave out cookies for bedtime tea. It is spotless, very very quiet, and the rooms are modern and spacious. I am delighted. They are very patient with my English, which is good, because my Russian is really really non-existent!

The beauty of this tiny adventure – and why I had to share it with my arm chair followers – is that it reminded me to trust and to stay curious and calm. Things are not always what they appear to be – they are frequently hiding something delightful…just waiting to be discovered…