For the early spring bank holiday I thought I'd visit the second city and former capital of Russia - Peter the Great's "Window to the West", St. Petersburg.
FridayIt took all day to get out there and esconsed in my hotel. Once I landed at the airport I could not help noticing the gorgeous boy-soldiers at the airport. It looked like being a pleasant stay from the start!
The day was a beautiful 19 degrees, leading me to keep wearing my shorts. I had been expecting cooler weather! In fact, the next day was even hotter.
The trip to the hotel was fast and easy. They have lovely wide roads there (unfortunately not always in the best of repair) and a well designed transport system. Of course if car ownership rockets with renewed prosperity there might be capacity problems, but this is certainly not the case at the moment.
Before breakfast, I had a look around the area. The Victory Monument is right next to the hotel. Up the road a bit is a statue of Lenin hailing a taxi. Behind the bold shopping facades lies a residential area, with a communal garden. I tried to think of the singular form of the word graffiti, as a solitary "Sex Pistols" was scrawled on the brickwork. I'm sure they'll get the idea soon enough ;-)
In the morning we had a city tour - going round the city centre in a bus and seeing the main sights. At some of these we were accosted by street vendors keen for our dollars, for postcards, stamps, soviet coins, matroushka (nested) dolls and T-shirts. Not being one to resist a pretty face, I bought a fair few postcards.
We went past Smoleny Monastery. In the olden days this was used as a rather posh school for girls. The city has a lot of nice pastel-shaded buildings.
The Church of Spilled Blood is very Russian in style, but was built quite recently, to mark the assassination of Tsar Alexander. Outside it are painters selling their watercolours.
Afterwards, we had free time. So I looked around Palace Square, and chatted to a souvenir seller.
Later I walked across to the beach in front of the Peter and Paul fortress. The piccie shows how people there are enjoying the sun despite the ice floes in the river. There I joined in a game of netless volleyball with some gorgeous boys (not shown) who I thought looked like Olympic Gymnasts. They turned out to be Space Cadets - training at the Academie Cosmo. So I was fraternising with future Cosmonauts! One of them invited me back to his house, where we had a meal of bread, honey and weak tea. After which, we went out to a disco. He was very friendly, but I cannot speak Russian and he could not speak English so communication was sometimes time-consuming.
The morning was taken up by a trip to the Hermitage which is housed partly in the Winter Palace. What can I say? It is big. About 3 million exhibits, and rapidly walking for three hours didn't even take us around the perimeter of one floor. The state rooms are fab, especially the Malichite room, and every artist of note has a room or so of his paintings there.
After lunch, we viewed St. Isaacs Cathedral (with its 100kg of gold spread over the roof). It has columns inside covered with Malichite (green) and Lapis Lazuli (blue), not to mention Jasper and Marble. The foundations had to be quite deep (7 metres of solid stone on top of 6 metre long wooden piles) since St. Petersburg was originally a swamp!
Later, we toured the Peter and Paul fortress. This is the nucleus of the city, as it was build by Peter the Great to defend the area from Sweden. He and his descendants are buried in the church in the middle. He was a great reformer, tried to bring European ideas into Russia nearly 300 years ago.
In the evening, we saw a performance at the Mariinski (formerly Kirov) ballet. The sets, acoustics and dancing were all great. The view was not helped by the stalls being quite flat (leading to tall people being the recipients of much mental dislike!) Near the theatre is St. Nicholas cathedral.
We visited Pushkin, the summer palace of Catherine the Great. It's a bit big! The inside is very nice, especially considering that it's a replica - the original was burned down by the Nazis. The soviet state rebuilt, redecorated (in the original style) and regilded the entire palace (there are still a few unfinished bits).
For afternoon tea I tried (without much success) to find some gay cafe life, and tried Caviar for the first time. It tastes very fishy indeed, like a fish shop smells but more salty. Definitely an acquired taste.
Finally some shopping saw me get a lacquered box, lace shawl, and some Russian music. After looking wistfully again at the cuties at the airport it was time to come back to cold old Britain with its junk food, acne and soft toilet paper.
Unfortunately this trip was marred before I'd even started! My penpal Sergay has been drafted into the Russian army :-( Previously his ill-health had stopped him from being chosen. Now they have changed the rules and are (according to him) enlisting invalids and pensioners, to help fight the Chechen war. This is not something he has any enthusiasm for, being a pacifist. Also the length of service has been increased from 18 months to 2 years. So I have no chance of meeting him now.
I have heard that more soldiers in the Russian army got killed from bullying that by the enemy in the Afghanistan war. Apparently the army would cover such things up. I hope this situation will improve.
I now count my blessings that I was born in a country where they do not have compulsory incarceration and murder lessons (military service) like so many countries in Europe. I dread to think of being forced to travel to distant countries and murder the locals. I can usually think of more pleasant things to do with them ;-)
I was not planning on meeting him on this trip, although if he had come I would have been delighted. But now it looks as if serendipity has had its chance smothered. I was treating this trip as a reconnoitre of Russia before I go on my real trip up north.
I did not have any problems with the Russian Mafia (although I did sometimes see them in the distance) or the dubious drinking water (I drank bottled (Israeli !?!) water).
Guide books are all out-of-date! If you read a book about Russia now, by the time you get there it will have all changed. For example now everyone accepts roubles only by default. Before, you were doing them a favour by paying in dollars (they could buy imported goods with them). Now, they are doing you a favour (they could get into trouble with the new law). So now Russians can buy whatever Tourists can. If they have the money (that's a big if!)
However, some advice still holds - for example, bring some toilet paper with you, as the loos in the museums can be stingy on providing any.
I saw very few beggars, unlike my expectations. Those who were begging seemed quite good at it, like in Italy. Our London beggars seem amateurish by comparison. Perhaps that's as it should be.
Overall, I had a great time - I saw the main sights, which lived up to expectations, had a pleasant time wandering around in the nice weather, didn't have anything bad happen to me, and even sort of scored! What more could a boy ask for?