Sankt Pyetyerburg

Sleep deprived, thirsty, hungry and ignorant was how I made my arrival into Russia. One night of dozing and battling plastic bags on a train, followed by staying awake all night at the airport, does not make for a refreshed and alert person.
In theory I should have been able to fit in some sightseeing in the afternoon, but instead I spent five hours changing money, trying to find a Russian phrase book for the native English speaker, and buying a train ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk. That last task was hilarious, the young chap at the train station – who had only a little more English than I have Russian – thought I was quite insane, wandering in with all my information painstakingly written in the Cyrillic alphabet on a piece of paper, “I’d like that train pazhalsta, da the one on the piece of paper. Yes, da, I know I am in in St Petersburg, I’d like the ticket from Moscow please.” Eventually we get through it, me smiling gratefully and saying “ochyen xharasho” at every opportunity, him laughing at me with a note of hysteria, clearly thinking “OK crazy lady, if this what you want…” and despairing of my inability to say anything other than “very fine”.
Eventually it was done, and I wound my way back to my lovely little hotel, under 40$ and I had my own room with a blistering hot shower, and a view – if I stood on tippy toe – of the statue of Nike on top of the Hermitage. That’d be the goddess of victory, not the deity of running shoes.
I have discovered by the way that I have bought a crappy phrase book. Berlitz Russian phrase book, don’t buy it. Fork out more money for a different one that has the glossary of words at the back in English to Russian AND in Russian to English. It has been a nightmare not being able to look up what words people are saying to me. Currently I am sharing a train compartment with a lovely chatty gentlemen who talks at me all day in Russian, staring deep into my eyes as if he can psychically put the concepts in my head, and all I can do is stare helplessly at him and say I don’t understand. It was quite good fun for the first two hours, but now I am exhausted by trying to concentrate and make sense of obscure hand gestures, and I have another two and a half days of this, and I can’t figure out how to let him know that it’s okay for him to talk and me not to understand as long as he doesn’t mind me sleeping or reading or staring out the window whilst he does it.
Anyway back to St Petersburg. The next morning –afternoon if I’m honest, I really did need sleep – I decided to do the most important thing first, I went to the Hermitage. The Hermitage is the name for the whole museum, but the museum is housed in a couple of different buildings. There is the Winter Palace with its imposing walls of green and white trim, the German Staff Building decked out in peach, the new Hermitage, which seems to be an extension of the Winter Palace in a delicate pale yellow, all of which form the border of the grand Palace Square, people crisscrossing it at a leisurely pace, pausing to take photos of Alexander column in the centre. The recorded city bus tour guide will tell you this is the largest column in the world, and also that St Isaac’s Cathedral is the tallest into the world. I’m not so sure these claims are true. I was in Rome a few months ago, they’ve got some pretty lofty columns and cathedrals going on there. I shall reserve judgment until I’ve had the chance to whip out my tape measure.
The Hermitage, both the building and the collection, met and exceeded expectations. Just the structure of the Winter palace is an exhibition in itself, one gilded room and intricate parquet floor follows another until you become immune to its beauty. The exhibitions themselves range from ancient civilisation relics, to costume halls, to Dutch and French masters with whole rooms will be dedicated to just one painter. Amongst all these priceless works of art, it is the peacock clock which takes centre stage. It lives in a room that is full of mosaics, not just on the floor, but hanging on the walls – and featuring as table tops – are mosaics that look like fine oil paintings until on closer inspection you see that they have been painstakingly constructed from miniscule types no more than a millimetre wide and three millimetres long. Just making the tiles would be a feat in itself, they’re such fragile splinters of rock. The golden clock features life size animals: peacock, rooster, owl and dragonfly; on a grassy bed adorned with mushrooms. Each of the animals has a different function, the dragon fly for example marks the seconds with its movement whilst the peacock signals the hour by spreading its tail and raising its head. Just a tad genius.
Like most foreigners though, what I really wanted to see was the contemporary art wing which has recently been rehoused in the general staff building. This is a recent move and is not yet reflected on the museum maps… ahem. The docents are very patient though, and don’t show even a hint of annoyance when 200 times a day they are asked in terrible Russian , or desperate English, “Impressionists? Picasso?”
The general staff building has been refurbished to function as an art gallery in the last few years, and it’s sleekness provides some visual relief after the general opulence of St Petersburg scenery (seriously, everyone and his dog had a palace, you can’t move for curlicues and gewgaws). The inside foyer has been designed to look like the outside of a building, dove grey walls with white trim is soothing rather than grim, and are enhanced by wide sweeping beech staircases inlaid with green glass pathways. The effect is really very peaceful, spaces have been designated for a walkway of trees to be planted and people are already enjoying the opportunity to sit and relax in the warmth, on the steps.
The fourth floor is dedicated to recent legends, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Krassinsky (some dodgy spelling there), and one of the wonderful things about the Hermitage is that they have pieces by famous artists you never knew had even been created. Or at least you don’t know provided you don’t really know that much about art, like me.
So it was on an art high that I left the Hermitage, got on the wrong line on the metro (damn it they’ve got two stations with exactly the same name, it’s like having two station in completely different parts of London both called Leicester Square. How are you supposed to know until you get there and the map doesn’t look right?) and ended up being 20 minutes late for the Wales – South Africa game which we lost in the last five minutes. We will speak no more of this tragedy.
The following day was devoted to a hop on/hop off bus tour of the city which I ended up going around three times just because I could and 5 degrees Celsius out on the street felt a bit chilly actually. I would highly recommend doing this with any city tour, after hearing it three times, the automated tour guide’s speech really begins to sink in. Did you know for example that the four stallions on the Anchovich (again pardon dodgy spelling) bridge were actually two stallions and two mares? Or that the ten Atlantes -7 metre high, polished granite, examples of the perfect male body – are actually hermaphrodites? Completely smooth under the granite loincloth apparently. See, you learn all sorts of important stuff on the bus tours.
Truth be told my favourite memory in all of this is of the Summer Gardens, which were looking distinctly Autumnal. Parents with young children had taken the opportunity of a sunny day to go to the park – the young children in Russia all look adorable, even if they are acting like the spawn of the devil as children can sometimes do, dressed in puffy snow suits and warm hats, like the Michelin man in gloves and a bobble hat – kids everywhere were playing with giant piles of leaves, wearing them as crowns, making leaf necklaces for the classical statues, throwing them at each other, and throwing their bodies down into piles of leaves, safe in the knowledge that even if there were broken glass underneath they wouldn’t feel a thing through the 83 layers of padding.
I didn’t really do that a lot as a kid, drizzle being a regular feature in my childhood, our leaves were normally wet and soggy.


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