SOCHI, RUSSIA (NBC) -
In a city like St. Petersburg, there's no shortage of sightseeing opportunities. It's Russia's culture capital and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But sometimes the best sights are off the beaten path.
It may not technically be one of the Seven Wonders of the World but it comes close.
The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg houses more than three million works of art, and stands as a powerful symbol of this country's imperial past. Russia's royal families lived here, and watched the revolution that would sweep them from power unfold on the square outside.
Far from the priceless paintings and public halls, there are other resident royals - of the feline variety.
While people are upstairs looking at the artwork, down here in the catacombs are the true trustees, the cats who live here. Some say, the true treasures of the hermitage.
Cats have roamed the vast cellars here for centuries, providing a crucial service - keeping the rats at bay. About 80 of them occupy a nest of rooms, looked after by devoted caretakers.
Irina Popovets knows every one of her charges by name.
“With such a large number of cats, they need a lot of food and care,” Popovets said.
The staff here provides veterinary services and lots of love and attention. The Hermitage also serves as a safe haven from the sometimes mean streets of St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage cats are all celebrities in their own right with their own website, pet food sponsor, and even their own holiday in March every year.
“They are not just part of a beautiful tradition, they are doing an important job,” Popovets said.
While outside the Russian winter may mean subzero temperatures, inside there's no shortage of cozy spots to patrol, to size up visitors, or just watch the day go by.
The Romanov Dynasty, whose members roamed the halls of the Hermitage for 150 years, was toppled almost a century ago. Their last living legacy at the Hermitage are those cats.