Welcome to Russia! Welcome to St. Petersburg!

Our first morning in St. Petes – and it’s lovely – cool and crisp – but clear. Our hostel – The Suricata – is located in the back of a courtyard and we feel far removed from the hustle of the city. It turns out that this is a typical construction design for buildings near the city center. There is a gateway off the road – that leads under one side of the building into a center courtyard. Then all the rest of the building faces this courtyard. Even the flats that have windows facing the street have their entrance doors off the courtyard!

The yard doubles as a children’s play ground and a car park for the apartments, flats and condos that fill the buildings. Each section has it’s own entrance off the courtyard – generally there are only 2 flats to a floor – and the max height appears to be 4 stories – that limit related to the distinct lack of elevators!

Our hostel is located on the 2nd floor – one flight up from the ground. This is the primo level because on the ground level are generally stores and shops – and as you go higher – you have more stairs to climb.

But back to elevators – We noticed it first in the metro – but as we’ve visited places around the city – it’s become even more obvious. There are very few elevators in St. Petersburg – even in the museums. Handicap friendly – Nope.

Anyway – the door to the stairwell that leads to our hostel is directly across from the gate – so we are quite far from any traffic noises. There are windows on only one side of the flat – because there is another building that abuts ours – but it is entered from the street behind us. In buildings like the Hermitage or Winter Palace – the same building design is repeated – just on a grander scale. And of course – there’s no building backing up on a palace – so they have windows on 2 sides in many rooms. One side overlooks the street (or the river in the case of one entire side of the Winter Palace) – the other side of the room overlooks that omnipresent courtyard.

The owner of the Suricata is on hand to greet us – he wants to be sure that our dates will work out – and I guess he’d like to be paid. But since he insists on cash – this is a very cash oriented society – he’s going to have to wait. We need to find an ATM.

Unlike the Cat’s Pajamas – there is no option to buy breakfast at the hostel. They do provide (for free) Tea, Instant Coffee, and some basic cooking supplies like oil, salt and sugar. One day they even offered us Oranges. But generally this is a fend for yourself food situation – so we will have to find a local grocery store – and soon. For today – we make do with breakfast from the local food shop – and head out to the Hermitage.

Following the advice on the internet – we bought 2 day tickets on line – and we want to see what the fine print has to say about what we can and can’t do. We are easy walking distance from the Winter Palace – so we amble over and check things out.

Even being pre-warned about the crowds doesn’t do the mob scene at the Hermitage justice. It’s pretty unbelievable. But there are people who speak English, although it takes us visits to several different desks to find them. Certainly buying tickets ahead was brilliant – that makes things a lot easier.

Some important notes about tickets bought ahead. They are for 2 consecutive days. No options. So you do want to be sure to pick your first day carefully. We decide to wait till Tuesday to start our Hermitage tour – that will give us Tuesday and Wednesday – Wednesday being the day the Hermitage stays open late. Since today is Saturday – we leave the crowds behind – and head out to walk the city.

Suffering from a severe lack of breakfast – we go back to that wonderful pastry shop and check out their lunch options. I have the Russian version of dumplings, IT had Stronganof, and MP enjoyed a Borcht. All 3 – delicious. For dessert we had, of course, more of their yummy pie. I had a Latte. Then MP had a latte. Then we both had another. Poor IT – she only drinks tea.

Next job – find a larger grocery store – and we do. It’s quite close to our hostel – prices are reasonable – they even offer meal options to go – roast chicken and various sausages. And a fairly decent wine selection with about 20 different Russian wines. There is also a huge selection of different Vodkas. We’re in Russia after all!

We decide to brave the metro again – it should be easier without suitcases – and travel to Dostoevsky’s Flat. On the way we visit a cathedral, a local food market (It’s going to be bread, cheese, sausage, cucumbers, tomatos, strawberres, and wine for dinner tonight), and of course get just a bit lost. I think getting lost is going to happen a lot. The good news – there are always people around to point you in the right direction – even if they don’t speak a word of English!

Dostoevsky’s Flat is really interesting only to fans of Russian Literature – but it does rather forceably remind one of how lucky we in North America to live in our fancy homes. Despite his fame, and probably because of his gambling problem, Dostoevsky’s flat is remarkably small and simply furnished. Interesting stuff. There’s an audio-tour in English, and across the hall from the flat is a collection of images of places mentioned in his books.

After our visit – and of course a mandatory break for tea and Russian pastries – We then move on to what turns out to be the highlight of the day – Russian Orthodox Services at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Savior.

We arrive shortly before services begin. The bells are ringing – summoning the faithful to church – and the lights of the Cathedral are on – making the mosaics and gilded twirls and whirls of the decorations glow. Icons are strategically located around the nave – covered with silver and gold beaten panels to enhance their beauty. The faithful – mostly women – are all standing around quietly, waiting for services to begin. All women have their heads covered – all men are bare headed. And there are no chairs and no pews. Not for the congregation, not for the priests.

Fortunately – this Cathedral is quite large, very famous – and is aware that it draws faithful from other lands. Thus it does provide a small rack of those small folding chairs that you sometimes see in Museums. We get one each – I don’t think even MP – the youngest of us – can stand for the entire 2 hour service – and surely neither I nor the Intrepid Traveller is up for that!

The altar in a Russian Orthodox Church is ‘hidden’ behind a Iconostasis – an elaborate carved dividing screen that holds at least one if not more icons. There is a gateway in the Iconostasis that can be opened to show the altar to the congregation. When the gateway is opened – the lights above the Iconostasis are turned on to show that G-d’s light shines on the world. And this is how the service starts.

The lights above the Iconostasis are turned on – and the female choir in the choir loft behind our heads begins to sing. The altar doors open to reveal one priest with two helpers praying at the altar – his back to us. He begins to sing – and swings an incense burner.

Eventually he is joined by 18 other priests and helpers – who take turns swinging the incense burners (there are 2), singing in the most magnificent voices imaginable, and marching around the church in loops so that everyone can see them and so that they can bless all the icons on display.

At certain points during the service, Church lay people roll out carpets for the priests to stand on while they read the bible and do the sacraments in the center of the church – right in the middle of the congregation.

Throughout this entire time – a total of 2 hours – the congregants remain standing. At the end of the service – as if on some mystical cue – the congregants move to one side of the church and line up for blessing. One by one the main priest paints the cross on their forehead with holy oil, and they kiss a cross on his sleeve. Since there are at least 500 particpants – this takes a while. Next to the main priest stands an altar boy holding a bowl full of pieces of bread. Each person takes one after they are blessed.

About 1/3 of the congregation now moves to the other side of the church, and lines up again – this time for confession. It’s done in the open – although many times the priest puts a cloth over the head of the person confessing to give them both privacy.

Amazing experience. The singing of the priests and the choir are outstanding – the emotional commitment wonderful to behold. I’m privileged to have been permitted to take part.

We walk home slowly – past the Church of Spilled Blood – glorious in the glow of a late setting sun at just after 9:00 PM. Days start early and end late in St. Petersburg during the White Nights.

What a wonderful way to be welcomed to Russia.

Signing off – MR, The Intrepid Traveler, and of course – The Soup Lady.

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