Amber is the translucent fossilized sap of ancient trees. They are regularly coughed up by the Baltic on the shores of countries ringing it: Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark. It is not a particularly precious gem, but in the hands of skilled jewellers and craftsmen, objets d'árt made of amber have commanded prices in the thousands of dollars. Plus, there is always the possibility that a mosquito trapped in amber could contain the DNA of a dinosaur that could then be cloned and put in an island in Costa Rica. Great idea for a movie, don't you think?
Imagine, then, an entire room whose walls are inlaid with nothing but the purest amber of every shade : lemon, honey, canary-yellow, gold Such a room was built and decorated for Russia's Peter the Great, expanded and transferred later to Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It was the wonder of Europe in its time.
Then World War II came, and with it the invading Germans who promptly dismantled the Amber Room and shipped it back to Germany where it remains hidden and presumably lost to this day.
To make amends, present-day Germany financed the reconstruction of the Amber Room at the behest of Vladimir Putin, then mayor of St. Petersburg. Once again, the Amber Room gleams within the confines of Catherine the Great's lavish palace. I was determined to see it.
Normally, if you work on a cruise ship, you can avail of free tours by acting as a so-called "escort". This consists of presenting yourself to the tour guide and offering any sort of assistance he or she may require. The only time that my assistance was needed during the times when I was an escort was to search for a woman who was lost in the Rijkmusem in Amsterdam. Not even her husband could find her. She turned out to be in the museum store happily examining the wares and oblivious to the fact that she had been keeping us waiting for thirty minutes.
This tour however to Catherine's palace and the amber room was so popular and competition for spots so fierce among crew that I decided to go on my own.
After my passport was stamped by the usual mousy Russian immigration officer, a protracted business as anyone who has been through it can attest, I walked from the ship's dock all the way to Nevsky Prospekt. There I intended to join a bus tour to Catherine’s Palace. The palace was located in the town of Pushkina (originally Tsarskoye Selo), a town named after the great poet Pushkin. When I turned into Nevsky Prospekt , I saw a dirty cloud hanging over the street beside the Church of Kazan, a church modelled after St. Peter's Basilica. My first thought was: fire! Actually it was not. An armada of bulldozers was compacting freshly-laid asphalt in the middle of the road on a busy day! The black cloud came from the noxious diesel fumes the machines were belching out.
I managed to locate the tour buses in a section of Nevsky Prospekt behind a department store. Normally there would be a bus tour for English-speaking tourists but on this particular day, none was immediately available. So, without pausing to worry about it, I bought a ticket on a Russian-only tour. It was just as well, because the bus left at 11 am and would be back at 4 in the afternoon, plenty of time for me to get back to the Royal Princess, which was sailing at 9 PM. The ticket cost 1700 rubles (or, at 23.30 rubles to the dollar, roughly $70, cheaper by half than what the ship charged.) Our guide was a big-bossomed grandmotherly woman of around 50, sweaty and looking harried. She was infinitely solicitous towards me, and seemed worried for me. I assured her that I was all right. Thus, regaled by the sounds of Russian conversations and tour pronouncements of which the only words I understood were "da"and nyet", I went my merry way to Catherine's Palace and the Amber Room.
Catherine’s Palace is 25 km inland from St, Petersburg. It is located on a low plateau. St. Petersburg’s suburban skyscrapers are quite visible from the road going to Pushkina. The highway was free of traffic, something I found refreshing if a bit odd in normally traffic-crazy St. Petersburg. At the entrance to the palace, I bought an illustrated guidebook in English so I could understand what happened where by whom, because the tour within the palace was going to be conducted in Russian.
Catherine’s Palace is a confection by the Italian architect Rastrelli. It is similar to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but in white and blue and gold and just as extravagant. We went in and donned obligatory shoe-wraps to avoid damaging the parquet flooring. A different tour guide took over our group. She was a handsome, tall and slender woman with an aristocratic nose. Her hair was swept back tightly, like a flamenco dancer's. She spoke Russian with what seemed a little more finesse than my friendly bus guide.
After a procession through the usual gilded receiving rooms, ballrooms, and a large ceremonial room that was modelled after the one in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the guide ceremoniously ushered us into the Amber Room.
A hush fell on the group.
A red velvet rope cordoned off the walls to prevent people touching them. The room was, indeed, magnificent in its own right.
And yet, for me, it was something of a letdown.
Yes, the walls of the room had all this amber stuck on them. Pictures made of Florentine pietra dura (stone mosaic) were the centerpieces of all these AMBER. But, in the dim light of the room, kept that way to protect the panels, the amber looked so much like ordinary yellow plastic. Maybe if they had allowed us to peer closer, then we would be able to appreciate the preciousness of it all. No such luck. The babushka who guarded the room was fierce as a hawk. Perhaps it would have been better to leave this room bare, like those empty spaces in the Isabella Stewart-Gardiner museum in Boston where the stolen paintings used to hang, to remind us of what was lost and thus tantalize us with their absence. Here all I saw were a quantity of amber in a high-ceilinged medium sized room that did not hear or witness palace intrigues of yore. Only one piece from the original ensemble was ever recovered, a pietra dura picture entitled “The Senses of Touch, Taste and Smell.” The Amber Room, for all its opulence, had a faux feel to it, like the Las Vegas Venetian.
The Palace grounds were a different matter.
They were beautifully laid out. In the middle of the park was a large artificial lake with an artificial island in the middle on which was a Palladian-style folly and a tall column raised to commemorate some Russian victory or other. Everywhere there were statues, bronze copies of Graeco-Roman masterpieces now patinated green with age and the elements. Various splendid buildings rose here and there . One looked like a Greek temple: Cameron’s Gallery. Another was called Petite Hermitage, because the queen liked to sit here and write her correspondence. The Chinese pavilion was wrapped Christo-like: it was being restored. There were various garden ensembles and tree alleés,. Catherine the Great certainly knew how to live.
I could stay in this place for a week or two, just ambling around or painting, I thought.
Waiting in the park outside for the bus back to St. Petersburg, out by the statue of of Pushkin, I saw some people from my tour sitting on benches.
A woman was cutting a paper silhouette of the girl beside her.
A teenager sat on a bench staring at the ground, completely lost in his own thoughts.
One bench was occupied by a man making and selling portraits engraved on small buttons, a Russian verison of the Chinese guy who etched portraits on grains of rice.
Ordinary Russian folks in an extraordinary Russian landscape.
More precious, I guess, than any room made of amber.