Saturday, 10 August 2013

On Russian soil at last (4)

The Princess Anastasia
Our disembarkation at St Petersburg was delayed after the immigration area had to be closed off due to overcrowding. But after waiting on board for over an hour, and retrieving my potentially lethal, yet beloved water heater, we found a fairly quick way through the queues and breezed through passport control. Our driver was waiting for us and took us through the city to the Vesta Hotel where we were to spend the next couple of nights.

As much as one wants to appreciate the local culture, and one does want to appreciate the local culture, it was pleasing to find that the chap at hotel reception spoke decent English. We were offered coffee whilst our passports were taken for registration, and then allowed up to the room which was more than satisfactory.

The hotel was situated just off Nevskiy Prospekt, one of the main roads of the city. In fact when our driver brought us to the place an hour or so earlier it seemed as if no sooner had we driven off the main road and passed between two buildings that we were in what appeared to be the relatively poorer neighbourhood in which the hotel was situated. So heading out to explore the city was no problem and we soon found ourselves a place to eat - a little more local culture with one savoury pancake, and one sweet.

Standing outside the Winter Palace at the Hermitage
Following these culinary delights we made our way to the Hermitage, one of St Petersburg's absolutely-must-see sites, and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring some of its many and varied treasures.

The building itself is a real joy to behold and is essentially made up of a number of 'smaller' buildings: the Winter Palace; Small Hermitage; New Hermitage and Large Hermitage. Though formerly functioning as various palaces in pre-revolutionary days, it now serves as one of the world's leading museums with an impressive 365 rooms of displays. The Egyptian display was of interest, as were those of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the galleries themselves were most impressive works of art. Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) was delightful, as was his Benois Madonna, despite the intrusive and unauthorised Japanese flash bombardment. There are some beautiful works by Rubens and so many others, one would need several days to begin to truly appreciate the collection.
The library of Nicholas II
The late 18th century Peacock Clock was impressive. Made in England, as one might expect, it is a most intriguing piece of mechanical art acquired by Catherine II in 1792. I rather enjoyed the occasional views through the windows of small gardens to the south east and of the River Neva to the north west, but among the many rooms displaying the furniture of various periods my favourite was the library of Nicholas II. It forms part of the last Emperor's living quarters in the Winter Palace, preserved in its original decor. With its beautifully carved bookcases and quarter turn staircase leading to a balcony gallery, it would suit me perfectly.

Trying to navigate one's way through the Hermitage is no mean feat, not least for the almost complete lack of signage in any language other than Russian, but once closing time came we found ourselves back on the streets, exploring more sights in the evening sunshine. Perhaps the most impressive building is the multi-domed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Built between 1883 and 1907, on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, its canal-side setting is more attractive than that of St Basil's in Moscow on which is it partly modelled. So we took lots of pictures and waved at a few of the canal-farers who passed by.

Detail of the Church on Spilled Blood
I am somewhat disinclined to purchase souvenirs from merchants who thrust calculators bearing prices in one's face. It may appeal to some, but I'm not one of them. In contrast, the charming young lady at a nearby stall got my business and the first of all too few Russian bits were bought. She might actually have been the first smiling Russian we had encountered - certainly the sweetest! We were swiftly coming to the realisation that smiling is simply something that the Russians are yet to master - maybe one day.

Feeling a little peckish, we came upon a restaurant that looked enticing but its prices were not. The proprietor came out and suggested we should eat next door. "Cheaper'" he said "same kitchen." So we had a deal, and we sat down in a railway carriage styled (well, it seemed appropriate - even had a small loco front outside), rather dimly lit establishment and I tucked into a plate of goulash on mashed potatoes - delish!

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