St Petersburg surprises
As I travelled on the bus from Tallinn in Estonia, ominously, the closer to Russia we got, the more grey and overcast the sky became. By the time we got to the border, the sky matched the grey buildings and the cliche grey border post with stern uniformed women passport control officers. My Canberra-issued visa caused a little extra hassle. It was the only word I understood her say as she disappeared for a few minutes. The whole thing was done in less than an hour, and the bus and its passengers continued on its way.
I'd wondered why the bus schedule took so long for the distance, but when I felt the potholed roads, I knew why.
There are some amazing long bus trips between countries - this is not one of them.
The flat featureless landscape was mainly fields and generic forests. As we travelled closer to St Petersburg the greens and yellows of dandelion fields added a contrast of colour to the grey factories and other crumbling infrastructure.
I felt up for a challenge, so on arriving at the train station in St Petersburg, I decided to take the metro and walk, rather than take a cab. If only I'd known.....
Built on a swamp, St Petersburg has the worlds deepest underground metro, but I tackled the underground without too much hassle. Not bad considering it was all in cyrylic. One stop that way, then change lines and go two more stops. The problems began when I was pointed in the wrong direction down the main road Nevsky Prospekt. Knowing I was staying right next to it, I asked for the Hermitage. i find it hard to believe anyone here doesn't know where it is. I walked quite a distance, before realising something wasn't right. I jumped on a tram, this one didn't crash into a car, but it took me not where I wanted. I jumped off and continued back to Nevsky Prospekt. I got on a bus and this took me to the Hermitage. Woo! Hoo! I then proceed to walk nearly all 4 sides of the sprawling palaces looking for my hostel. The St Petersburg architechture had me in awe, but I just wanted to dump my backpack first, BEFORE wandering. I did find my room - 2 HOURS AFTER ARRIVING AT THE TRAIN STATION.
Okay, so sometimes I do wander and get lost!
Dinner tonight was an entre of "Cold meat served with toast." Literally two slices of salami on a piece of toast. Beef Stroganov followed.
I have 4 nights here in St Petersburg, but only 3 days. I planned to spend days 1 & 3 exploring, and day 2 at the Hermitage. The rain on Day 1 made the decision easy and I spent the WHOLE of today at the Hermitage. Location location! I can't throw stones far, but my room is literally a stone's throw from the big arch that opens onto the square in front of the palace/hermitage. I got there when it opened and did not leave until it closed at 6pm.
300 years in the making to visit what is probably the world's best art collection is my reason for coming to St Petersburg. I was naive when I described 'heaven' in an earlier blog. Today I did die and go to heaven.
Manet and Monet, Pissaro and Picasso, Rembrant and Renoir.
There's a reason their work is much admired.
A whole room of Monet's??!! WOW. I wish my favourite painter was not out of my price range. I love the way he captured colour when others saw none as in Bridge in London fog, or the subtleties light on landscapes in any of his many haystack paintings.
I had an amazing and very memorable day at the Hermitage. It's not just the paintings, the palaces themseves are awesome and the grandness of the venue contribute to a sense of place. Perhaps a one-word description will suffice. EXQUISITE.
I finished the day back in the Monet room. A print or photo is just not the same. As we were herded out of the building I had a chuckle at the way the guards didn't just have batons on their beltd they had them in their hands! It made me think twice about walking out with a Monet under my arm.
By the time I'd paid the entrance, photography fee (extra) and an audio tour (On your handset, dial in the number next to a painting or over a doorway and get a description in English. Very worthwhile in Russia.) it was not cheap, but then again, I spent the day feeling the experience was priceless.
Back at the hostel, as is the norm, I was invited to join a newly acquainted a group of travellers for "few drinks". Walking amongst the ancient streets of this city, crossing canals on little bridges, we arrived at the bar we'd been recommended.
I should have known better than to mix vodka and beer, but tell me you've never done something you knew you shouldn't. They haven't discovered 'responsible serving of alcohol' here in Russia and we weren't responsible. What's a trip to Russia without a night of vodka silliness? Late appearances the next day and sore heads all round.
On the drinking thing. I think Russians must all be alcoholics. Any walk down any street at any time of the day will show people with a beer in their hand. Not just men, you will see women, girls and boys all drinking. Hey! When you have 10 months of winter, maybe that does it to you?
Everyone seems to smoke here. They are a bit behind the West as you will see cigarette adverts on billboards everywhere. It does make me laugh the way that none of the adverts show people smoking, rather doing some other 'fun' thing that has nothing to do with smoking.
As I mentioned, my second day here began late, but that's okay when it is light almost all night. They are celebrating the White Nights at the moment. That time of the year when the street lights aren't needed.
The city of St Petersburg is 300 years old and in some places looks it. There are many buildings covered in scaffolding undergoing restoration, some completed and others waiting their turn. Canals lined with buildings. Often the fascade of the building is just that and behind it lies an ancient crumbling interior.
The Wandera wandered. I crossed bridges over the main river looked back to the river frontage of the Hermitage, wandered up and down the full length of the main street, Nevsky Prospekt and generally just went where my curiosity took me.
I've been to Russia before, having visited Moscow with my brother in December of 1999. It seems some things haven't changed and a bit of police corruption and bribery is one of them. I watched several times as a policeman with a speed gun pulled motorists over without having actually pointed it at them, show them the speed that they were being accused of, be slipped some money and go on their way.
Dinner tonight was crepes, a Russian specialty apparently. They weren't special, but the pickled herring and beetroot salad was.
Thursday 8th June - up and out to explore, all day. I went first to the Church on Spilled Blood. Sounds macabre, but the building is fanstastic, reminding me of St Basil's Cathederal in Moscow. On the exterior are ornately decorated 'onions' topped towers of tile mosaics. Inside are 7000 square metres of tile mosaics, fearuring many stories from the New Testament. It is an incredible artistic achievement.
For the first time since getting here, the sun has come out. A canal tour, seemingly available and touted with megaphones at every one of the 300 bridges in the city, was the only other thing on my list of 'must do today'. I enjoyed an hour out in the sun on the back of a boat as we travelled narrow canals under low bridges flanked by high buildings and out onto the wide river with palaces and fortresses on its banks. I suffered digital diahorrea and I think I took too many photos.
I am carrying, two cameras, three lenses covering 12-300mm, and 6 gig of memory cards. Sure it all weighs a bit, but travel photography is the thing I get most pleasure out of while travelling. (That, and eating lots of different foods.) It's not just the different subjects, but also the inclination and time to go out and find them. I could do it at home, but get busy doing other things than wandering around with a camera around my neck.
I continued exploring and found many more interesting buildings. The high point for me, literally, was climbing the golden dome of St Isaacs Cathedral. This seemed to be the only place in a very flat waterside city that offered a view. I could see many buildings and landmarks.
Later tonight, the sun came out and bathed the city in a beautiful golden light. I was 'forced' to get my camera and rephotograph many of the pictures I had taken previously with worse light. Fortunately I am staying right in the heart of the Historic District with many of the most spectacular buildings. The sun seemed to take forever to set, but eventually did, close to 11pm.
The locals started smiling too, so maybe the weather does have something to do with it.
Wandering the city, I often noticed the smell of fresh dill, but can't find a source. They cook with it a lot here, so perhaps it's wafting from kitchens. Over the days here I've noticed it often.
Could be worse - today has the "Worst toilet so far." award and I hope it is not beaten. It was a port-a-loo that needed emptying. Everything that had gone in there was on display for all. Yikes! I closed my eyes and my nose. They were charging people too!
Russian cuisine? If you come to Russia for the food, think again.
I do enjoy borscht the classic beetroot soup, but other than that, there's really not much. Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganov perhaps?
I wondered if the local McDonalds sells St Petersburgers?
As I travelled to the station for my early morning train to Helsinki, the streets were clean and quiet and the sun was rising but still low in a cloudless sky. The city was different, and I realised that there's more to this city than all that I have squeezed into a few days, fun as they were.
It was great first getting on the train and then getting my passport stamped at the border. Like when I visited in 1999, leaving Russia comes with a sense of relief that's a bit like feeling you have 'escaped'. Despite the appearance of being modern there's a feeling of menace, with uniformed people everywhere, endemic corruption it's not like you can trust them. You must always carry your passport and the beauracracy is, well, Russian.
I had a great short time in St Petersburg and I am glad I made the effort.