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Churches, bridges and men in tights.

Saint Petersburg, Russia


Saturday 24th October
Up at 5 and left the cottage at 6. Surprisingly heavy traffic, light rain but reached T2 for 7:15. Although we had checked in online, KLM have made the mistake of leaving the airport check in robots at the entry to the queues for the baggage drop, so people that hadn't already checked in were obstructing the flow of pre-booked boarding card holders. Once at the baggage drop, though all was very swift. The usually dreary queueing to get through security was remarkably swift and the whole operation very efficiently completed. We found a restaurant and ordered our full English; although we had to wait a bit, when it arrived it was very good but we had to get on with it as by then our flight was starting to board. Fortunately, our gate wasn't far away and we were in the lounge in good time.

We were waiting on the apron for a few minutes as some woman took it into her head to go to the loo as soon as she boarded and we couldn't do the safety demo in her absence which meant in turn that we couldn't start taxiing. Memories of Bangkok sprang to mind! She was duly prised out and off we went, arriving in Amsterdam about 15 minutes late. I was a little concerned about the connection but I needn't have been. The departure gate for our flight to St Petersburg was only a couple of gates further down the pod and had its own security checks, so we were in good time for our flight.

We arrived in St Petersburg, having completed our immigration and customs declarations while on board; I am sure that the lovely lady customs official smirked as she looked at my passport photo – clearly thinking that it didn't bear much resemblance! We went through the red channel but were told that for what we had, we should proceed through the green – fair enough; at least we had volunteered the information and been officially told we didn't need to bother.

Out in the main concourse we found our taxi driver and he helped us with our bags to his car; I had a feeling we were in for an interesting ride as it was a Nissan V6. This proved to be the case and he swiftly carved a way though the traffic into the heart of St Petersburg while making various arrangements on his mobile phone, clamped firmly to his right ear. Of course, being an automatic with power steering (and probably autopilot too) his right hand was strictly speaking not needed although once or twice, I would quite have liked all his brain power being devoted to managing the traffic. I am aware of fairly normal speed limits (60kph in town) being expected in town but it was quite clear that this expectation was not shared by the majority of drivers. We had evidence of a certain disparity of expectation when we came upon a disagreement that had occurred between two drivers now being mediated by police.

Once at the hotel, we checked in and tried to get some cash out of each of the two ATMs in the hotel; the bellhop who accompanied us to the tills went for help but was assured that occasionally the machines ran out of cash – not to worry, our card would not have been debited. We couldn't help being a little concerned – not only had we entered two lots of cash without any return but we were still without any Russian rubles. We couldn't pay for anything in cash.

After depositing our bags and settling in, we went for a walk and stopped off at the first hotel asking to use their ATM fortunately this time it worked! We had a nice walk in the fresh air (4°C) around the block past the St Isaac's Cathedral, up to Nevsky Prospekt, getting a glimpse of the Hermitage all lit up, down Admiralty and much surprised to see a fountain playing before heading back to the hotel.

We decided to eat in the first night. I had Borscht followed by stroganoff, which was truly excellent while Sue had pickled vegetables followed by Salmon en croute with hard boiled egg, which was also very good. Drinks appear to be quite expensive unless you go for local stuff – local wine is about £8 a bottle while others start at around £20 per bottle!! Beer, at the hotel is not cheap either with the local ale at around £4 per pint. Anyway the wine we had was quite good fruity stuff with a bit of punch and some character, unpretentious, rustic and very drinkable.

Having taken our watches forward an hour for Amsterdam and two more for St Petersburg, we had to turn them back an hour before bed as daylight saving comes to an end here as well as at home.

Sunday 25th October
The room being very warm didn't help with a good nights sleep but managed enough. Up reasonably early and had a continental breakfast in the hotel. Once out made our way to Nevsky Prospekt then across to get a good view of the Hermitage. We retraced our steps back to Nevsky Prospekt and towards the Griboedova Canal, just before which was Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. There was a service on and the choir produced the most extraordinarily beautiful sound which seemed to go over the heads in every sense of the many people who were visiting visiting, thronging the cathedral. Most people were obviously believers making the sign of the cross several times before solemnly bowing. Leaving aside the level of bling that would make the most insensitive of wags blush, you had to admire the craftsmanship at work and the sheer decorative impact. Llewellyn Bowen eat your heart out!! The other thing that struck us is that churches here have discovered how to heat themselves, which is different to back home.

We followed the Griboedeva Canal to Sennaya Ploshchad, passing some lovely footbridges on the way. The Bank Bridge is the narrowest and rather charming, flanked by 4 griffins. The Lion Bridge is surprisingly flanked by 4 lions. Depending on your point of view, Sennaya Ploshchad is lively or rather seedy. We didn't spend much time there as it seemed a bit lively, carrying on along the canal until we reached St Nicholas Cathedral. It is undergoing considerable restoration at the moment, being covered in fabric. The bits that you can see look as though Wedgewood had a hand in its design with white reliefs against a blue background. The massive golden globes on top are very eastern. Inside once again, nice and warm and full of iconography.

On leaving we decided it was time for lunch and made our way to Christopher Columbus restaurant, where it is kitted out as a ship inside. We had a splendid meal of thick chicken and turnip soup followed by Pork loin with sauteed potato wedges.

Before returning to the hotel, we had a look in Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa

for 13, where Tchaikovski died, 17 where Gogol lived and 23 where Dostoyevski lived; then crossed the road to the hotel. After a rest, we went to the Mariinski for a performance of Swan Lake.

I am a complete philistine when it comes to ballet; I just don't get why blokes equipped on their lower half with simply a codpiece and spray-on tights (so that you don't have to work out who is who, white for the goodies and black for the baddies); who walk with their toes stuck to the floor then prance about as though they have been stung by a bee while showing a degree of cleavage that a builder wouldn't dream of, should appear so fascinating. Having said that , you have to admire the stamina, athletic prowess, control and sheer physical strength of all the dancers; the leading lady was very tall and stick thin but she must have weighed 8.5 stones and the blokes were lifting her with no apparent effort at all. Very impressive. The leading man appeared to be a bit simple; he was given a loaded crossbow and started prancing around with it; I suppose I should credit him with working out which is the sharp end but I was always taught not to wave a loaded weapon about. Continuity had a bad evening too; in a solo dance with music provided by a trumpet solo the dancer was waving a stringless lute about – I couldn't work out where that was coming from. Another thing I didn't get was after every dance, the dancers would stop and milk applause and after each act, larger and larger bouquets were delivered to the leading players. The final bouquet for the leading lady required two men to bring it on, so I imagine it must have been about 17 stones. The applause after the final curtain went on for some time I have often wondered the etymology of the expression 'clapped out' – now I know! The theatre oozes a sense of history with every fibre of its existence and is so intimate that you can't help but be involved. The royal box is suitably aloof and appropriate filled with the power of the future; a number of Chinese. The stage is absolutely huge, necessary for some of the routines but not intimidating. Despite the lack of apparent appreciation, I did enjoy the spectacle and would not have missed it for the world; Sue thoroughly enjoyed it.

We clocked up 8.13 Kilometres today!

Monday 26th October
Had a better night having worked out how the air conditioning works – you switch off the fan, turn off the radiator and open the window for half an hour. This cooled the room enough for it to be comfortable to sleep in! We were not in too much of a hurry to go out as it had been raining steadily for some hours and no immediate likelihood of stopping.

But up reasonably early and down to breakfast at 9:30. We had a very good, healthy breakfast that left us replete and ready to face the day – and we needed to be. We got ready for the day with full waterproofs and sallied forth – to find that the rain had just about stopped. We found the siege plaque in Nevski Prospekt and I don't know why we found it so unremarkable bearing in mind its message – 'citizens, this side of the street is more dangerous during an artillery bombardment' was simply a reminder put up during the siege of Leningrad during the 2nd World war. We made for the Church built on spilled blood, erected on the spot Alexander II was murdered in 1881. It had apparently been allowed to fall into disrepair but has been restored in the last 20 years or so. They have certainly done a good job; both interior and exterior are simply stunning and at least to western eyes so unusual architecturally and vibrant.

Having filled our eyes and minds there we walked across the Field of Mars, where we saw the eternal flame burning brightly before crossing over the Neva by Trinity Bridge and turning right to walk along the waterfront to see Peter The Great's Hut (which was closed, but we hope to see it tomorrow), guarded by the Manchurian Lions, then on to the Cruiser Aurora which fired the signal that started the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. The Aurora is now a museum but we decided instead to go on to the Peter & Paul Fortress and look around there. The fortress was the first set of buildings in the Tsar's new capital and although originally designed for defence against the Swedes, was never used for that purpose – instead it served as a prison and torture chamber and had several notable people incarcerated within its walls; the Tsar's own rebellious son Alexei! Dostoyevski and Trotsky were among other notable inmates.

The Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral is in the centre of the fortress and is yet another exquisitely beautiful building, inside and out. The interior decoration is much more restrained and at least to my eye, rather more beautiful than many of the other blingy interiors we have seen.

Our legs were beginning to feel the effects of the distance we had travelled by now but we steeled ourselves for the walk back to the hotel past the Rostral Columns on Vasilevskiy Island. While peering along the vast width of the Neva at this point we noticed a huge streeeeetch limo pull up and a bride and groom got out. Immediately afterwards, a bus pulled up with a load of guests who piled out. Quite a number were holding glasses of bubbly.

Photos were to be taken around the column and a couple of white doves released by the couple. Everyone was in a good mood, fuelled by quite a number of bottles of bubbly that someone had thoughtfully provided. It was a privilege to be a bystander at this and I managed to capture the release of the doves. We wish them every happiness. Onward and across the Dvortsovy Bridge back to the mainland, through the Admiralty Gardens and to our hotel. An exhausting an exhilarating day.

10.24 kilometres today.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on October 26, 2009 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Venice of the North - St Petersburg
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What an amazing place! Good to hear that you're having a wonderful time. Especially pleased to hear that you enoyed the men in tights pops, it could start a while new trend, you'll be watching Strictly next!!!
Luv the Bristol contingent xxx


permalink written by  Zoe Manley on October 28, 2009

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