City of Saint Petersburg: history and heritage (2/4)

St. Petersburg was therefore born there, on this "Island of the Hare" now entirely occupied by the massive Peter and Paul Fortress. In a plan typical of its time, it forms an irregular hexagon, at the corners of which protrude bastions, each with a name. Two half-moons (kinds of forward positions) cover the east and west ends and above all, the two main entrances. The high walls of pink granite, pierced with loopholes and bristling with cannons, were intended both to repel an assault from land and to prevent an enemy fleet from forcing the course of the Neva. The opportunity never arose, and by the end of the 18th century the building had essentially lost its original defensive function.

On the beach...

The visitor arriving from Vasily Island has several possible choices if he wants to enter the fortress. It can go as close as possible and enter it directly, but it is more interesting to go around it along the banks of the Neva. An unusual spectacle in the heart of a city of this size, once you have passed the Troubetskoy bastion, there is ... a beach. The space under the ramparts is often used to erect marquees and stands, and in summer the beach is transformed into a popular recreation spot for Petersburgers.

One likes to bathe there, despite the uninviting aspect of the brownish and notoriously polluted waters of the river. In winter too, by the way: this is where the "Walruses", as they are called, strip themselves before briefly diving through a hole previously made in the ice. It would seem that the hardest part would be getting out of the water, since the air temperature is generally lower than that of water in winter. Regardless, most people who venture out to the frozen Neva to dig a hole are content to fish there - a popular hobby in Russia, regardless of the season.

The beach ends at the foot of the Naryshkin Bastion, which faces the Winter Palace. The bastion is surmounted by a small tower, which made it possible to observe navigation on the Neva, and a boat mast on top of which flies the flag of the governor of the fortress - which is also the other standard of the navy. Russian, in addition to that with the blue cross of St. Andrew. The tourist who would be there around noon, if he was not warned, would have struck the twelfth stroke of the clock in Peter and Paul Basilica as soon as he was surprised to have his eardrums torn by the explosion of a huge firecracker, of surprising intensity for anyone who had not had, until then, the opportunity to hear a field cannon up close.

It is indeed one of two 10.5 cm guns - cannons taken from the Germans during World War II - installed on the Naryshkin stronghold, which rings at noon every day in its own way. A few seconds later, the visitor still stunned by the penetrating explosion receives its echo, reflected by the facade of the palaces on the other side. In winter, the effect is striking because, being relatively far from the incessant traffic of the city center, the place is quite quiet.

The necropolis of the tsars

We pass the Naryshkin bastion to reach the Neva gate: in addition to the two main entrances, this allowed access to the fortress by river. The massive gray stones that constitute it contrast with the rest of the ramparts. Let us now enter the fortress proper. On the left, a staircase leads up to the Naryshkin Bastion, one of the few places in the city from which it is possible to have a wide panorama. Access, however, is chargeable, as with the rest of what can be found inside the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Indeed, the fortified island is filled to the brim with museums. The ticket office, located in a small pavilion facing the basilica, offers an interesting and economical formula: a "pass" giving access to the five main sites of the fortress, photos included - a rare thing. A little anecdote, the ticket office also houses a reproduction of the botik of Peter the Great, in which it seems customary to throw small coins. In all sincerity, the author of his lines does not know if this custom has a very specific vocation, or if it is just a way for the Russians to get rid of their more bulky 1 and 5 kopeck coins. than anything else, given their extremely low face value: they would be worth more at the price of scrap metal.

If the primary use of the Peter and Paul Fortress was military, it was also intended to become a sanctuary. What would become the eponymous basilica was one of the very first things to be built, after the foundation stone was laid, to become the necropolis of the Russian imperial family. Under the immense golden spire, surmounted by an emblematic figure of an archangel, lie several dozen grand dukes and grand duchesses - all related to the tsars - and above all, almost all the sovereigns who reigned over Russia between 1689 and 1917, with the exception of the ephemeral and little known Peter II and Ivan VI, dead and buried elsewhere.

Catherine II, Pierre III, Anne Ière. In the foreground, from left to right: Elisabeth I, Catherine I, Peter the Great. "Src =" / images / articles / tourism / St-Petersburg / SPB2 / tombeaux.jpg "alt =" tombs "width =" 300 " height = "225" /> The place is splendid, in absolute terms. But the splendor is such in the palaces and churches of St. Petersburg that you get used to it very quickly, and if you have visited the Hermitage museum the day before, the basilica would seem almost sober. Everything is relative: we are talking about colored marbles, crystalline chandeliers and omnipresent gilding. Below, the tombs seem almost humble: white marble surmounted by a cross Orthodox gilded, a plaque of the same quality recalling the identity of the illustrious deceased buried there.The only ones who escape this rule are Alexander II and his wife, who rest in large porphyry sarcophagi, red for the Tsar, black for the tsarina.

Given the tumultuous history of the Romanov dynasty, fate has at times reserved ironic fate to say the least for the remains of the sovereign fires of all the Russias. We can thus see Catherine II resting alongside her husband Pierre III, overthrown in 1763 by a coup d'etat orchestrated by her and killed shortly after; or Alexander I lie alongside his father Paul I, assassinated in 1801 following a plot of which Alexander knew everything, but revealed nothing. Guilt was to haunt him until his own death in 1825.

The last tsar is found elsewhere. A small chapel located away from the main nave hosts the remains of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their son Alexis and their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, as well as the four people in their suite who were brutally murdered. with them on the night of July 17-18, 1918. First burned and abandoned in a disused mine shaft in the Yekaterinburg region in the far Urals, their bodies were transferred there 80 years later; or at least nine of them, as the remains of Alexis and Maria were not found until 2007 at another site. The Tsar’s family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Chapel of the “Saints Romanovs” cannot be visited: it can only be photographed through the door.

Silent Peter and Paul Fortress

It is by meditating on this tragic and sordid end that we emerge from the basilica. The frieze struck with the sickle and the hammer which decorates the Hôtel des Monnaies (Monetny dvor), located opposite the basilica and where collectibles are still minted, recalls the deadly clash between the old regime and the new. On the other side of the religious building is another cemetery, that of the governors of the fortress. In June the place is almost charming, with its greenery and blooming lilacs; it would be easier to forget these dark thoughts.

But in February the atmosphere is quite different: the tombstones are covered with sheet metal shelters to protect them from the action of the frost, and the basilica's chime, which sounds its haunting music every half hour, thickens even further. an almost gloomy atmosphere. Even the recently created statue of Peter the Great is disturbing: the Czar is depicted sitting there, old and bald, looking stern, his body disproportionate, his fingers skeletal. All that is missing from this grim and unreal picture is a few crows, which in St. Petersburg are more gray than black, moreover.

Not far away, the fortress history museum can be visited quite quickly. The one devoted to the history of the city proper, housed in the former residence of the governor of the fortress, is much more extensive and worth a visit. Both present a recently refurbished museography, with modern, educational and well-enhanced exhibitions. The rooms devoted to the various objects of daily life are of certain interest.

By virtue of its closed and insular nature, the Peter and Paul Fortress was ideal for accommodating "important" prisoners who were desired to be kept in secret. This habit was formalized in the first half of the 19th century, when the Troubetskoy bastion was converted into a state prison. He thus received, under very difficult conditions, the political enemies of the Tsarist regime, and some distinguished prisoners, such as the writer Fédor (first name which, in Russian, is actually pronounced "Fyodor" - in other words Theodore) Dostoevsky during his "rebellious" youth, or even Leon Trotsky, for a short period in 1907.

During the Revolution, the prison was naturally used to house opponents of the Bolsheviks, before being abandoned in the 1920s and transformed into a museum. The layout is a bit monotonous - a suite of cells with brief biographies of their main occupants - but give a glimpse of the very harsh conditions of their imprisonment, from the spartan comfort of the plank beds to the sound insulation system, supposed to prevent detainees from communicating with each other by knocking on the walls.

Before going out again, there is still the museum of the space conquest to see. It is a bit of the poor relation of the fortress: slightly out of the way, it has not benefited from recent developments in other museums. It is still interesting to visit, between the bust of Constantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of the theory of space travel), the scale 1 model of the Sputnik, or the food provided to the station's cosmonauts Mir. The opportunity to see that even in space, the Russians carried (in a tube) their tvorog, sweet cream made from slightly sour curdled milk which - at least on Earth - is the basis for excellent desserts.

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