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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

St Petes

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 24 November 2010 | Views [447]


St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St Petersburg again.  Whichever name you prefer, it's still the city built on bones.  It's still the home of the October Revolution, perhaps the defining event of the 20th century.  It's still brass monkeys cold.  It may be European, it may be Russian, but in many ways it transcends both and belongs to neither in the way that Big Important Cities so often do.  The city is cultured, friendly and fun, as comfortable gazing at a Rembrandt as knocking back vodka under busts of Lenin.  It's a pity to leave so quickly, as we remarked to the passport officials, but our papers were in order so sadly they let us go.

The food has been marvellous.  Prices are Western European, but the quality is outstanding.  Not since Japan have we eaten so consistently well.  Pies, soups, creamy sauces - everything is good.  The food is rich - lots of cream and butter in almost everything.  Favourites included a perfect stroganoff and a superb broccoli soup.  We can certainly see how some Russians balloon up, it's hard to avoid ordering seconds or even thirds.

St Peters' has one particular cultural highlight - the world-famous Hermitage museum and gallery.  The place is enormous, about 400 or so rooms, and replete with European art and Asian artifacts from Egypt to Japan.  Of course, the actual building itself is a highlight, being the legendary Winter Palace of the Tsars.  Looking at everything would take a week, so we skipped through in a day and got a good overview.  Given that we have several fine European collections in London we focused on the Asian artifacts and were rewarded with quiet rooms and displays the like of which we've never seen.  Gorgeous Kyrzyk wall paintings, sumptuous Siberian statues and splendidifirous Armenian icons - what treats they have!  Everything is laid out sympathetically and well presented.  It would be easy to suffer from overload with this number of exhibits but they avoid that. 
Some halls are left in state, showing how they would've looked in Tsarist times and it's easy to see how hatred of the bourgeosie would've gained traction.  The gallery layout is infuriating - all toilets and the only cafe are all on the ground floor, which cannot be fully walked around, leading to much trailing up grand staircases and back down again.  It's somewhat like a maze to get around, further compounded by the fact that some rooms are closed, not where they should be on the map or moved.  The closing is a pain - no Rodin, Faberge or most of the North Asian art is on display.  There are little Samsung machines though that plot and then print a route to whichever highlights you select, which is supercool.

Having given only a day to the Hermitage, we have plenty more time to spend in this charming city.  Walking through the old town throws up another cathedral or seven, the magnificent Peter and Paul fortress stretching up to the heavens from the banks of the Neva, and more museums.  Further out and we visit the incredibly moving memorial to the 900 day siege of Leningrad.  Hitler's boys were kept at bay thanks to some quite incredible Soviet sacrifices, a million dead soldiers and even more civilians.  The building is sombre and dark, the main bulk being underground and featuring a brilliantly iridescent matching pair of mosaics - one with dark fear and one glittering with the break of freedom.  For what feels like the millionth time on this trip we wonder how this insanity can happen.  The other museums complement the Hermitge well rather than being lost in it's mighty shadow.  Political History feels like a game, chasing through closed halls and searching for wings of the building that appear to have ceased to exist.  Some halls must be entered backwards and nothing is in the right order.  English comes and goes but the bulk of the museum seems to be in roughly the right place and is well presented.  The political cartoons are especially good.  The Kunst Kamera is a dubiously named but very enjoyable romp through Asian cultures - perfect for the day we sail to the EU!  We delightfully recap all that we've seen, from Japan to Indochina and India to Central Asia, then sidle off to the curiosities to marvel at monsters.  It's all very strange and ghoulish - cut up babies stuck in some jars; siamese twins; cyclopses etc.

The needle has been dropping the whole time.  We arrived in the station at 6am to find daybreak depressingly far away.  Then we could walk without gloves - on our final day a walk across the Neva left us so cold we couldn't hold the camera or do anything more than huddle and shiver for a few minutes when we finally got inside.  It's very inhospitable - though returning from the rock bar at 2am was OK.  One can see why so many Russians drink - it's so cold that a beer jacket is essential and the bars are good.  Our favourite was probably Zov Ilyicha, filled with Lenins and general Commie memorabilia.  Most places are friendly though the cavernous environs make the atmosphere a bit flat sometimes.  Anyway, having stomped through the snow to get to our boat, it's time to wave bye bye to Russia and return to the land of freedom...EU here we come!

If you're going:

Zov Ilycha is a wonderful place to eat, drink or best of all both.

Zoom Bar is aimed at travellers with wifi, English speaking staff and wonderful food

Apricot Hostel is centraly located and cheap for St Petes. The price doesn't reflect the service, unfailingly helpful, wifi, tea and coffee and a washing machine all freely available for use.


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